Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Thomas Kuhn, Missiology, and World Christianity, Part I

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

I had the pleasure to attend both the American Society of Missiology and (virtually) the Yale-Edinburgh Conference last month. Not only were both events good chances to reconnect with colleagues and learn more about topics in the field, they were also chances to reflect on the fields of missiology and World Christianity as a whole. Indeed, the theme for the Yale-Edinburgh Conference was “World Christianity: Legacy and State of the Field.”

Both conferences helped confirm for me the sense I have that these intertwined academic fields may be on the precipice of a paradigm shift.

The term paradigm shift comes from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In the book, Kuhn argues that scientific knowledge alternates between periods of paradigm shifts, where new insights significantly reconfigure how people think about an area of human knowledge, and periods of normal science, where researchers work to extend the insights that have been established in the most recent paradigm shift. Most of the time, scientific work occurs under conditions of normal science.

Kuhn’s work has been endlessly debated and discussed, and his application of these insights to the hard sciences has been critiqued, but Kuhn’s arguments have had staying power as a helpful description of how knowledge production in many fields occurs.

In order to think about whether the fields of missiology and/or World Christianity may be on the precipice of a paradigm shift, it will be helpful to briefly review the history of those fields and recent developments within them.

For the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Christian mission was firmly grounded in what might be called the colonial paradigm. The colonial paradigm had its roots in the patronato/padroado system for Catholics and in the system of voluntary missionary societies for Protestants, most notably as proclaimed by William Carey.

In this colonial paradigm, the spread of Christianity, the propagation of European civilization, and the extension of European political influence or control were seen as mutually supportive developments. While individual missionaries held a variety of attitudes towards colonialism and civilizing mission, and while there were certainly tensions among these three strands, in general, the three coincided more often than not.

There were also other, minority paradigms that existed alongside the colonial paradigm (one might talk of the Riccian paradigm of cultural accommodation, perhaps), but the colonial paradigm was the dominant one for Christian mission for centuries.

When missiology as the study of mission emerged, the mission it was studying was largely this colonial model of mission. Thus, while many missiologists were more critical of colonial and civilizing forces than missionaries were, because the mission they were studying was colonial mission, early missiology may fairly be thought of as colonial missiology.

By the middle of the twentieth century, though, the colonial paradigm of mission and missiology had run into the same problems as colonialism as a whole: increasing pushback from the Majority World and increasing critique from within North Atlantic societies. The colonial paradigm of mission also faced the additional challenge of declining support from increasingly less religious home bases, though this was more a challenge in Europe than in the United States.

These challenges were particularly acute for mainline Protestants and Catholics, among whom missiology as a whole faced the prospects of a full-on collapse. For a variety of reasons, these challenges were less a threat to evangelical Protestants. Evangelical Protestants were less vulnerable to critiques not only because they were less receptive but also because some evangelicals’ practices of mission differed from mainline Protestants and Catholics in ways that made postcolonial critiques of the paradigm less applicable.

By the early 1970s, though, there was an emerging alternative to the colonial paradigm of missiology: the inculturation model of missiology. This model of missiology rejects the notion that conversion to Christian necessarily entailed adopting European cultural habits and instead affirms the value of non-European cultures as homes for the gospel. This model of missiology is very interested in questions surrounding the relationship between the Christian message and various human cultures. Moreover, it acknowledges the contributions to the spread and development of Christianity by non-Western Christians. It also acknowledges that Western cultures are not fully Christian and is open to seeing the West as a mission field. This model values evangelism, especially cross-cultural evangelism, as a significant form of mission, but also largely understands mission in holistic terms as involving aspects beyond direct verbal proclamation.

For most of the 1970s and 80s, those putting forward this model were a small group that had to resist both those who were still committed to the colonial model of mission and those who thought that mission necessarily implied the colonial model and therefore should die completely. Yet groups like the American Society of Missiology and the International Association of Mission Studies and nodes like the Overseas Ministry Study Center fostered the growth of this new paradigm.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, this paradigm of missiology was the established model in academic missiology circles and among many mission practitioners. It was embraced ecumenically across mainline or conciliar Protestants, Catholics, and evangelical or independent Protestants. The American Society of Missiology was characterized by careful balancing of these three groups, all of whom bought into the model. Given other theological disagreements among these groups, the level of agreement around missiology is a significant testament to the power of this new paradigm.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, scholars working within this inculturation paradigm of missiology helped give birth to the field of World Christianity. The affirmation of various cultures as proper homes of Christianity that was fundamental to this paradigm led to an increasing awareness of the significance of various forms of Christian expression around the world. World (or Global) Christianity emerged as a field of enquiry directed at studying Christianity in various contexts around the world, not just in terms of its spread to that context or other forms of mission, but in terms of the totality of the Christian life and experience in that context.

The birth of World Christianity as a field energized missiology, which served as midwife to the new field. Developing and extending the field of World Christianity because a major concern for those operating within missiology. There was significant overlap in terms of scholars and networks. While World Christianity has since encompassed scholars who do not consider themselves missiologists, almost all missiologists in the past generation would also say that they have an interest in World Christianity.

Not only were there obvious intellectual connections between the inculturation paradigm of mission and the field of World Christianity, the emergence of World Christianity re-injected legitimacy, funds, and academic positions into the field of missiology and allowed it to recover from the crash of the colonial paradigm. New opportunities for research, publication, and academic careers made World Christianity a growth field, and missiology rode World Christianity’s coattails towards renewed legitimacy and academic vibrancy.

Much of the last thirty years of scholarship within the fields of missiology and world Christianity have involved working out the fundamental questions and insights of this new inculturation paradigm about the relationships between human contexts and expressions of Christianity, including its spread across contexts, and the roles of Christians from all backgrounds in the development of the faith.

Having reviewed the development of the current paradigm of missiology and the field of World Christianity, in my next post, I’ll look at some of the reasons why there may be fault lines forming in the paradigmatic structures of these areas.

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