Last week I was in Atlanta, Georgia, USA to discuss precisely that question. Invited by Jehu Hanciles and hosted by faculty and students of Emory University, 25 scholars grappled with the slippery entity we call ‘World Christianity’. Is it a field, or a lens or even a discipline? Who studies it and why? How did it emerge? Why is it found mainly in Europe and North America? Has it a Protestant bias? What is the relationship between the study of World Christianity and the Christians across the globe who are studied? How do our studies connect with other academic studies like missiology, area studies, demography and anthropology of Christianity? These questions have been asked many times before but I welcomed the opportunity to ruminate collectively with scholars who had carefully prepared and shared papers beforehand. Individual contributions were influenced by the primary discipline of contributors, the areas of the world with which they were most familiar, and how far their institution, post or programme deployed the term ‘World Christianity.’
The team at Emory will distil our papers and conversation for public consumption. In the meantime, I have attempted to articulate my description of the present state of World Christianity. I think that because we deliberately cross boundaries of other disciplines when we study World Christianity, it is similar to other emerging foci of study—Global History, intercultural theology etc. However, perhaps the combination of all the following elements does give World Christianity some distinctiveness beyond a useful ‘hold all’ term:
The study of World Christianity is a synthetic and collective approach to studying Christian peoples, practices, thought and environment across the globe. It attends to diversity and interconnectedness. It often prioritises marginality (in its various forms). It uses a variety of methods and works across disciplines (drawing particularly, but not exclusively, upon history, theology and ethnography). It is committed to engage with Christians worldwide. It is informed by scholarship in other parts of the globe and is based primarily in the North Atlantic as a corrective to western-centric scholarship.
After the consultation, I had a brief encounter with one form of American Christianity. I attended Sunday worship at the Ebenezer Baptist church associated with the ministries of Martin Luther King Senior and Junior. I was blown away by the heavenly male voice choir and the fiery jeremiad of Michael Dyson, Georgetown professor and public intellectual. As I return to Edinburgh, ringing in my ears is his powerful call to a prophetic imagination that overcomes the toxic imagination of white supremacy stalking the corridors of power. A biblical hermeneutic that prompts social and political action, it is born of a specific history of oppression in the American South but one whose identification of marginality and injustice has comparisons and resonances across the globe, including in the United Kingdom. Here was one glimpse of the particularity, marginality and interconnectedness that we had discussed.
My thanks to our hosts for a stimulating consultation and for allowing me a glimpse into one expression of World Christianity. My thanks also to the participants for generous conversation.