Andrew Walls: An exciting period in Christian history

The rise of non-Western Christianity is part of the ebb and flow of the church, says the influential expert on the global movement.

Andrew Walls has been described as “the most important person you’ve never heard of.” Although the incredible growth of the non-Western church is now a recognized phenomenon, Walls was one of the first to realize, while working in Africa in the 1960s, that the global church was not just an inferior imitation of the “standard” Christian church but rather a vital community of its own and indeed a new center of vitality.

After teaching in West Africa in the late 1950s and 1960s, he returned to Scotland to teach at the University of Aberdeen and later the University of Edinburgh, where he founded the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World (now the Centre for the Study of World Christianity) in the School of Divinity.

He has been influential in his view of Christianity as inherently missionary, renewing itself on the edges and then drawing new cultures into its orbit, at the same time treasuring parts of and transforming the whole of those cultures.

He spoke to Faith & Leadership about the changes in Christianity during his lifetime and how the transformation of the global church fits into historical patterns of the faith. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.

Q: What keeps you up at night worrying and, conversely, what gives you hope?

I think my “3 o’clock in the morning” fear of my own country and my own church is not that we will disappear -- I don’t think that’s likely. I think the fear is that we could get rid of all our difficulties caused by financial overstretch, remove the economic liabilities that come from trying to keep going -- so many churches devote themselves to keeping open -- and that having closed all the nonviable ones, we’ll simply settle down to enjoy ourselves and become a caste within a plural society in which we do no good or harm to anybody.

Where we simply become -- yes -- become a caste, an accepted group within a plural society that goes according to its own mores and that doesn’t have any vital interaction with the society, any sense of mission, any hearing of the Lord’s word to his disciples -- “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Entering into God’s mission, into Christ’s mission -- which is the Father’s mission -- which is a mission not just to teach and to preach, though it includes that. A mission to heal. A mission to combat demons that destroy and spoil life. A mission to suffer. A mission to be and to do.

The hope? The hope that we have is of God summing up all things in Christ. That in fact the Christian story is a single story, as the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it -- Abraham and the other Old Testament saints haven’t received their full promise -- yet God having provided, the writer says, some better thing for us, for Christians.

The Christian story isn’t complete yet. But when it is, all the generations of the Christian story belong together -- all the generations of the people of God, Abraham and all his successors -- as the people of faith.

What that consummation will be like, we can’t guess. But we’ve seen in Christian history how this does move on across the world, across the ages. I think we’ve reached a very exciting period in Christian history now, and we have every justification to hope for greater things in the time to come.

Q: How has the church changed in recent decades?

Well, of course the great thing that’s happened, at least during my lifetime, is the complete transformation of the cultural and demographic composition witnessed in church.

I was born in 1928, when one would still have looked to Europe and North America as the center of the Christian church, its heartlands. It was only in my time in West Africa in the ’60s, then coming back after a decade or so away, that I realized that the center of the Christian church had moved. [I realized] that by coming back to Britain, I was moving from the center to the margins of the church. And that this was in fact -- was a transformation that had occurred really within my lifetime.

And I think ever since we’ve been dealing with the implications of that -- tracing the story and looking for the implications for the life of the church and all its various aspects.

Q: Are there cases where Christian churches have done ministry with the diaspora communities coming from Africa or Latin America in ways that others might emulate?

It’s not easy to give a single answer to that question. Many of the important initiatives, I think, are coming and will come more from the diaspora churches themselves. In the first instance, they’re very naturally looking after their own people. Their existence comes out of migration itself. Bit by bit, I think the churches are realizing a mission to the host community.

In my own city, Aberdeen, in Scotland, we’ve had a steady movement of closure of churches which nobody needs anymore. Churches which often become drinking spots or nightclubs.

An old college which once was devoted to the training of the ministry is now a smart restaurant. And we have another nightclub called Ministry in a church. Yet one big church in the middle of this which became vacant a few years ago is now labeled City of God. This is a very full, very active church that is almost entirely African. Gradually, I think we’re seeing that church turning, realizing a local mission. And I’m sure that we’ll see more and more of this sort of process as time goes by.

Q: Your work has a kind of wide lens to it -- it seems that you see these movements as a larger divine economy.

Well, certainly it seems in line with previous Christian history. Christian expansion has always been serial rather than progressive. We haven’t a story such as Muslims can tell, after a fashion, of steady expansion outward from a single center. We don’t have a single center. There are no birthright churches. There are no permanent churches. There are no permanent centers of Christian civilization. There’s no single Christian civilization. It’s never worked that way. Our new Jerusalem comes down ready-made out of heaven at the last time. We have no equivalent of Mecca.

The first church, the church of Jerusalem founded by the apostles, people specially trained by the Lord, the church that sent out the inspectors for the first new movements in Samaria and in Antioch that were the foundation of the later churches -- how long did it last? A couple of generations. God could do without even the church of the apostles. Its task was over.

And the baton was handed on to the Gentile churches. A generation away from the writing of 1 Corinthians, you’ve got those Gentile churches exercising leadership. You’ve got Syria and Egypt and Iraq becoming major Christian centers. You don’t look for the major Christian centers there now. Those moved on to other places.

They moved on for a considerable time to Western Europe and its offshoots in America. In our own time, they began to move to Africa or Latin America. It’s fully in line with the previous history of the Christian church. Where it goes from here -- who knows?

Q: I’m struck by your own biography of coming to some of these insights as a young professor in West Africa trying to interest students in the early church and realizing you were in the early church. Can you speak of that parallel?

In those days we talked about the “younger churches.” And I had this idea that the church had all these lessons to pass on to the younger churches and that this was my responsibility as a theological teacher.

Certainly, it was salutary to realize that I, who was so interested in second-century Christianity, was actually living in a second-century church. And if I was really interested in second-century Christianity, I ought to be looking around me more, understanding what’s happening, looking at the developments actually taking place.

And I suppose I’ve been trying to do that ever since, looking at all the “second centuries” that have come in Christian history. And an extraordinary story it is, with plenty to keep historians, academic or otherwise, busy for a long time to come.

Q: Is there any way in which your own formation as a Methodist preacher gave you the eyes to see these things?

The principal experience is the realization that you are still part of the same family, that the Christian community across the world is one.

You’re dealing with the same sources. You’re dealing with the same Scripture. You’re pointing to the same Lord, and you realize more and more about that as you become involved in the work of the church.

As I move back and forth to West Africa, I am conscious of these new dimensions of the church that I’ve come to know and value: the sheer joyousness of the African Christianity, the fervency of the prayer life -- and so often, I find myself saying, “I wish I could pray like that.”

Certainly, I find that valuable when I go back to my home.

Q: What have you seen about the nature of institutions across these places?

The part that I see most often, of course, is theological education. I’m particularly struck with some of the places I go to. The one that I know best is in Ghana, the Akrofi-Christaller Institute for Theology, Mission, and Culture.  This was founded by a very significant African theologian, the late Kwame Bediako, who had begun as a lecturer in French in the University of Ghana. He had a doctorate in French literature. During this time in France, when he himself had become a sort of French existentialist atheist, he was very radically converted.

He moved his discipline to theology, went back and took a very distinguished theological degree in London, took a second doctorate in theology in Aberdeen. Then, when he could easily have moved in either of these disciplines back to the university, when the church would’ve loved him to go to seminary, he didn’t do either.

In neither place did he think the most important forms of theology were likely to be studied. The seminary was too closely wedded to Western models, and the university, again, was not dealing with the sorts of theological issues that arise out of the interaction of Christian faith with African culture.

He persuaded the church to let him have an old academic center, which in the 19th century had been the seminary of the battle mission. This in a very traditional town, the capital of a traditional kingdom that still followed very much old tradition.

This center grew up to deal with issues arising from African theology. It has grown into a postgraduate, degree-granting institution, a research center recognized by the Ghana government as a specialist center in its own area dealing -- attempting to produce indigenous scholarship, cooperative scholarship growing out of a worshipping community.

A community that’s not just a college chapel atmosphere, but a worshipping community. It’s the kitchen staff and the garden staff and the office staff, as well as the academic staff and the academic community, that it’s reaching. All will be taking part in the worship, and for a long time it was the head gardener that was in charge of the general direction of worship.

Students and faculty come from all over Africa; I’m the only one that goes from outside Africa. We do feel that theological scholarship is moving into another dimension with places like that.

Q: Is there a way in which you see that Christian use of power ends up being tamed by something like servanthood?

Certainly, servanthood is crucial in any form of ministry, isn’t it? I think the fact that Christian faith always has to be embodied faith. Our faith is incarnational, and incarnation must always involve cultural specificity.

When the Word became flesh, he didn’t become generic flesh. We never meet generalized humanity; we only meet humanity under the specific conditions of a particular time and space. And so the Christ became a Jew of first-century Palestine.

I think it follows that those who receive him by faith are called to actualize his presence, so that the Word becomes flesh again under the conditions of our time and place. And yes, that’s a sort of translation in the incarnation -- divinity as translated into humanity. In the particular settings in which Christians appear, that presence of Christ has to be translated into local terms. And I think, as you’re implying, that can’t be done by a dominating or certainly not a domineering form of response, because a translation isn’t like that.

You have to be sensitive to meaning. You also have to be sensitive to the conditions of the receptor language, which put new constraints on you. I hadn’t thought of it in these terms before, but yes, that makes the translator, with the two sets of constraints -- put on by the source language and the receptor language -- a servant in a very literal form.