Reading Between The Lines

BOOK REVIEW

Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches. Robert Wuthnow. California: University of California Press, 2012. 360 pp.

            The study of Christian mission trends and patterns is typically an adherent of those who classify themselves within the scholarly domain of missiology, but Robert Wuthnow a social scientist in his book Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches addresses’ key issues and topics in mission studies. While Wuthnow is careful to note that his treatise on the global outreach of American churches is not to be considered as a contribution to the field of missiology, I would argue that Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches would be a an important addition to the library of anyone keenly interested in the study of foreign missions and the American church.

            Wuthnow’s central argument is that “American Christianity has been significantly influenced in recent years by globalization and is, in turn, playing a much larger role in other countries and in U.S. policies and programs abroad.”[1] Wuthnow substantiates his argument by using both quantitative and qualitative data elements such as a Nationally representative survey of 2, 231 members of local churches, key databases and files, and interviews of pastors and church leaders with transnational ministry experience. By utilizing these tools Wuthnow states that his goal is “both to illuminate the relatively neglected global aspect of American Christianity and to broaden the framework in which we customarily think about the successes, failures, and variations among faith communities.”[2]

            Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches begins with the notion that American churches have a predisposition towards local community engagement. Wuthnow declares this to be a product of American cultural practices, which according to Wuthnow are not unique to our contemporary period.  In putting forth this notion, Wuthnow urges the reader to have this concept as a backdrop to his future considerations of the global activities of the American church. This is an important factor according to Wuthnow because as one contemplates the global activities of the American church one must understand that these activities are in relationship to the home ministries of the local American congregation. In addition to this characteristic element of American churches Wuthnow argues that American churches do have a historical record of involvement in overseas ministries. According to Wuthnow this is based on both American churches conformity to New Testament teachings and the emergence of mission societies in the nineteenth century. In seeking to understand the particularities of the involvement of American churches in overseas ministries, Wuthnow is compelled to give an exposition on both the contemporary global Christianity paradigm popularized by Philip Jenkins in his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, and a detailed assessment of the effects of globalization in general. This above collection of data and commentary embody the first three chapters of Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches, these chapters serve as an enriching backdrop from which to begin a comprehensive study of the activities and or involvement of American churches in overseas ministry within the era of globalization.

            Chapters four, five, and six of Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches mark the point where Wuthnow builds upon the previous segments of his book by offering a focused inspection of the global outreach of American churches. Throughout chapter four Wuthnow expounds upon the major organizational structures that have been a critical component in the mobilization of American churches in overseas ministry. It is within this chapter that one will find a brief but substantial history of the rise of denominational mission boards, the emergence of independent mission agencies commonly referenced as parachurch organizations, and faith based non-governmental organization’s (NGO’s). Wuthnow follows these histories with a deeper investigation of the global role of American congregations in chapter five. Here, Wuthnow segments his discourse by explicating the global efforts of American churches by looking at American churches involvement in international hunger and relief efforts, the sponsoring of missionaries, American churches role in peacemaking and concerns about war, issues of religious freedom and human rights, the act of sending people abroad, the participation of persons at home through logistical support, and the impact these activities have on the heart and minds of individuals. As a secondary but important issue in chapter six Wuthnow details the role and or impact of American churches on U.S. foreign policy.

            Wuthnow in the concluding chapter of Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches based on the presented evidence of previous chapters argues against what he calls widely held assumptions about American Christianity. This is followed by Wuthnow’s assessment of the challenges ahead for ordinary citizens, pastors, and the nation as American Christianity continues to be influenced and or impacted by globalization. As indicated above, while this book is not an assessment or treatise on the theological or biblical basis for Christian mission in the United States it does offer insight into many key factors or issues that are of interest to contemporary missiologist and church leaders that are seeking to understand how globalization intersects with the American Christian mission enterprise.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicole Swinson


[1] Robert Wuthnow, Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches (1st ed.; University of California Press, 2010), viii.

[2] Ibid., 11.

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