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.
In my last post, I described the emergence of the current dominant paradigm within missiology, which I called the inculturation paradigm, and the ways in which it has been tied to the rise of World Christianity as a field of studies, with inculturation paradigm missiology serving as both midwife and beneficiary of the rise of World Christianity.
In this post, I would like to explore four reasons why change may be welling up within missiology and World Christianity. I will reflect on the significance of these four reasons in a future post.
It has now been a half century since the emergence of the inculturation paradigm within missiology and a third of a century since the emergence of World Christianity as a field of study. Academics often have long work lives, but given the amount of time that has passed, it is perhaps not surprising that many of the founding figures in these movements have died or retired, several within just the last few years.
This year’s Yale-Edinburgh Conference made special note of the recent deaths of Lamin Sanneh and Andrew Walls, founders of that conference. It felt tragically significant that the president of ASM this past year, Sister Madge Karecki, passed away just a couple weeks after the annual conference.
Looking to publications, the volume Landmark Essays in Mission and World Christianity came out in 2009, and a quarter of the authors included had already died at that time. In the 13 years since, all but a couple of the authors included have retired and/or died, several of them hitting those milestones in just the past two years.
Generational change does not necessarily mean a paradigm shift. Normal science can continue with members of younger generations and often does. Still, each new generation poses new questions. New generations of scholars will not have had the same intellectual and life experiences that shaped the perspectives of previous scholars. And younger scholars have the luxury of taking for granted insights that had to be hard won by previous generations. All these factors can set the ground for a paradigm shift.
Change in global social context
If there have been changes in personnel, there have also been changes in the broader historical contexts in which missiological and World Christianity scholarship proceeds. The inculturation paradigm of missiology was deeply shaped by the rise of postcolonialism in the 1960s. World Christianity burst onto the scene at a time when secular interest in globalization and connections across difference was high. Both these scholarly paradigms bear the mark of the era in which they were born.
While the world is still shaped by the legacies of colonialism and still operates in many ways on the infrastructure of globalization, the global context has also changed. It is hard to say where exactly the world is heading, but the rise of nationalism and authoritarianism in many contexts over the past decade, the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ever-growing existential threat of climate disaster make this historical moment unique from that of 30 or 60 years ago.
I do not pretend to have insight into how exactly these developments will shape the future of World Christianity studies or missiology, but it would be surprising if they did not do so in significant ways.
Evolutions within World Christianity
When World Christianity first arose as a field, available information was limited on Christianity in non-Western contexts. This made it relatively easy for early scholars in the field to compile surveys of Christianity around the world or to work across contexts, since the amount of available information to do so could be digested by a single person.
As World Christianity has grown as a field, however, the amount of available information on Christianity in specific contexts has increased significantly to the point where it is quite difficult for a single scholar to be well-versed in even the major scholarly works on Christianity in multiple contexts. Robert Frykenberg has opined that the histories of Christianity just in India alone are too complex and varied to address comprehensively in one book.
In light of this profusion of scholarship, the tendency in recent years has been for World Christianity to function increasingly as a collection of Christian area studies. Chinese Christianity studies is one such significant example, as noted at the Yale-Edinburgh conference this year. The study of Chinese Christianity is both connected to World Christianity and also an increasingly distinct field in its own right.
This trend towards area studies creates a tension, though. World Christianity has always had a comparative element do it. The scholars originating the field were committed to the notion that there are commonalities of the Christian tradition across contexts worth investigating and speaking of, that there is still such a thing as Christianity and not just discrete Christianities.
As scholarship on individual contexts proliferates, what is the coherence of World Christianity as a discipline that operates across contexts? This question was raised more than once at the Yale-Edinburgh Conference this year.
While such questions get at fundamental commitments within the field of World Christianity, I think they represent the normal development and maturing of an academic field, though that process of maturation may give rise to new paradigms of thinking about the study of World Christianity.
Yet as the field seeks to understand itself anew, it raises the question: Does World Christianity need missiology anymore? World Christianity got its start through the commitments of missiologists to both Christian universality and cultural particularity. If those two commitments are balanced in new configurations in the field of World Christianity, what implications will that have for missiology? And what is missiology if it is no longer midwife to and beneficiary of World Christianity?
Challenges in the organizational ecology of missiology
Academic fields and paradigms within those fields flourish when they have the resources (including positions, funds, and publication opportunities) to produce a vibrant amount of scholarship. They decline in tandem with a decline in such resources.
In this regard, the general decline of Christianity in North American portends poorly for the future of North American missiology as an academic field rooted in the church. Fewer North American Christians means fewer resources for the study of missiology, whether that’s because there are fewer seminary positions decided to missiology, fewer persons working in mission and also conducting academic research, or a smaller audience for missiological work.
Academic publishing across the board has become more difficult in many ways, but that applies also to publishing within missiology. There are expanded publication opportunities with newer presses such as Wipf and Stock or William Carey, but some established presses such as Orbis are not doing nearly the number of books related to missiology they were 20 years ago. While the total number of books across publishers might be the same, there are implications for the prestige of the field and therefore the ability of scholars working within it to get tenure.
Examining the American Society of Missiology’s membership gives another perspective on this trend. While the total membership of ASM is up relative to what it was a decade ago, that masks shifts within its membership. The number of independent Protestant (e.g., evangelical) members is up, but the number of Catholic participants has dwindled significantly, and the number of conciliar (e.g., mainline) Protestants is flat at best. Catholic and mainline missiology did not collapse in the 1970s and 80s, but that collapse may only have been delayed.
Even within the world of evangelicalism, there are signs of a reduced organizational ecology to support missiology. There are declining enrollments, even in some evangelical seminaries, or at least in their programs related to missiology. Programs, even at flagship schools, have been renamed or reshuffled, some of which reflects the ever-changing nature of higher education administration, and some of which represents declining or at least shifting interest among students.
The question of student interest hearkens back to the first point about generational change: Are new generations continuing to find the current paradigm and discipline of missiology a fruitful approach to satisfy their questions about the world?