Andrew Walls - The American Dimension of the Missionary Movement

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Key quote:

Americans must in order to see Religion count religion or show its value…. To them big churches are successful churches…. To win the greatest number of converts with the least expense is their constant endeavour. Statistics is their way of showing success or failure in their religion as in their commerce and politics. Numbers, numbers, oh, how they value numbers!…Americans are essentially children of this world; that they serve as teachers of religion…is an anomaly…. Indeed, religion is the last thing average Americans can teach…. Americans are the least religious among all civilized peoples…. Mankind goes down to America to learn how to live the earthly life; but to live the heavenly life, they go to some other people. – Citing Kanzo, p. 162

In this chapter1, Walls provides a broad overview of how particular American cultural, social, historic and even geographic conditions led to the emergence of a particularly American form of Christianity, Church and mission, which have been broadly exported through the dominant sending role to missions held by North American in the last centuries. The chapter gives very interesting insight into the developments of the missions paradigms we see today.

Walls begins with a quote by Japanese Christian leader Kanzo Uchimura who, in 1926, lauded the Americans in all things production, industrial, and financial, but asks, “Can Americans Teach Religion?” Walls goes on to demonstrate the link between an American imaginary – shaped by exceptionalism (without using the term), by Frontier revivals, by Voluntary Associations and their mutation on the Church, by industrial/financial concerns, by the political doctrine of separation of church and state, and by a Scottish “Common Sense” thinking – and the form of church and mission that arose in the United States.

American Exceptionalism is seen in the polemics of missions leaders (nods to Pierson, Mott, Winter) such as Andersen who believes the Great Commission will be fulfilled in this, the “fulness of time”, which has been brought about by the ultimate Christian political form, which is American government, and “by means of what he calls the Protestant form of association, that is, the voluntary society”. Certainly modern technology and logistics are a part of what will bring about the imminent evangelization of the world, but also necessary are the political, economic and ecclesiological developments of the United States. The cited thinkers advocate for a specifically activity-directed (evenementiel) type of mission. But the mission of overseas voluntary associations “implies the existence of cash surpluses and freedom to move them about (164)” that flows from the business mindset of many American missionaries, and their ability to mobilise wealthy donors to finance their work – indeed, as Kanzo said, “Needless to say, they are great in money…. They first make money before they undertake any serious work…. To start and carry on any work without money is in the eyes of the Americans madness… (162)”

The Frontier situation of 19th c. American home missions were determinant for the formation of American Christianity and missions. Versus the European need of “preservation of a Christian society” (165), American Christians faced the missionary challenge of Christianizing new cities; they largely did this with means such as tent revivals, to which Christians in England, even Methodists “reacted with horror” (166, and endnote). From the beginning, expansion was the name of the game.

It was through this missionary task that the voluntary association became the model of the Church in the USA. These organisations, as a type, exist as a solution to a problem: “identify the task to be done; find appropriate mans of carrying it out; unite and organize a group of like-minded people for the purpose (166)”. This recomposition would touch both congregations whole denominations, but if a task is all that holds them together, adherence becomes lax and churches become atomised: “In strife or disagreement”, or we could add, after a change of personal preference, “one could always leave and join – or even start – another (166).”

Read through the lens of an institutional paradigm, we can understand this change as a radical restructuring of the church institution. There is a paradox here; the instrumentalisation of institutions weakens them, but it recomposes institutionality around a different guiding light, that of “The Mission”, in the sense of the organisation’s goal or task. No longer is the church an independent, ultimate (or penultimate) good, but one of any number of parallel organisations working towards some goal or other. Agile and, in a certain non-monetary sense, “cheap”, voluntary organisations “outflanked or subverted(164)” the Christendom churches in the mission fields, including evangelical institutional churches.

The business/industrial/entrepreneurial repertory also shows up in the American missions’ movement’s attitudes towards money: “In the period in which the new American missions were coming to life it is plain that a whole aspect of American culture—the association of business methods, efficient organization, and financial reward—was unquestioningly accepted not only as a fact of life but as something that could be consecrated to God and employed in Christian activity (167).” This contrasted with a more critical view in European missions, who tended to decry Mammon, stress sacrifice in mission and concentrate more on the Spirit than on organization (these are ideal-typical descriptions of course, not absolutes).

Contrary to European equivalents, who would draw from patristic or reformation formulae, American revival movements have shown a level of credal creativity, and drawing up statements of belief “often set out as catalogs of unconditioned facts [… building] a progressive definition of the Christian faith in these terms has followed until the range of succinctly defined topics runs from the mode of creation to the relation of the Lord’s return to the other ’last things.’(168)” Walls believes, following Mark Noll, that these simplistic and bilicist belief statements, grow from the “Common sense” Scottish way of thinking, and they came to be used as litmus tests for association and fellowship with others. The institutional church is cut up according to on-the-fly doctrinal developments.

The combination of these factors, as we have seen, led to the emergence of a particularly American Christianity, which Walls describes like so:

Among the features that mark it out from other such Christian expressions are vigorous expansionism; readiness of invention; a willingness to make the fullest use of contemporary technology; finance, organization, and business methods; a mental separation of the spiritual and the political realms combined with a conviction of the superlative excellence, if not the universal relevance, of the historic constitution and values of the nation; and an approach to theology, evangelism, and church life in terms of addressing problems and finding solutions. (p. 169)

Still, while this all may seem quite critical of the whole American Christian project, Walls is more nuanced. “There is nothing wrong,” he insists, “with having local forms of Christianity-provided that we remember that they are local (169).” And however we evaluate the history, despite the assertion that “American missions are thus both products and purveyors of American culture (165)”, must be balanced with the great good that has been done by American missions. And, given the available cultural goods and situatins, “the sole contemporary alternative would ahve been the British ‘old boy’ network (169)”.

But the world that gave rise to the American Missions Movement is no longer. This was a Christendom movement, in a world where technology was in the hands of the Christan nations. Today, the most Christian nations are poor and lacking in technical prowess. This was a world that threw out the traditional value of mission as sacrifice, allying mission with potential for financial success. The value of a missionary’s work was judged by its presence in a highly visible society. The Missionary Movement was “a specificaly American form” – a sort of “last flourish” of Christendom (170). The conditions that created this local form have now changed, and “[t]he principal dangers […] come when one party insists that its own local features have universal validity. (171)”

  1. Chapter 17 of Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith, Maryknoll, N.Y., Orbis Books, 1996. ↩︎

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