Esteemed missions historian Andrew Walls concluded his earthly journey earlier this month at the age of 93. Among the many treasures Walls bequeathed to the global church through his decades of missions scholarship was his concept of the pilgrim principle.
Walls observed that, as the Christian faith has moved from culture to culture, it has progressively taken root and, over time, has transformed the culture. Yet in each major phase of the gospel’s expansion, it has ultimately been rejected and almost snuffed out, only to be, in Walls’s words, “translated” into yet another culture. In fact, it is this process of cross-cultural transmission that has served to preserve Christianity as a distinct faith.
Journalist Tim Stafford summarized the process in his 2007 profile of Walls:
The spread of the gospel is often presented as inexorable progress outward, like an inkblot, but Walls saw that time and again the real story was of ebb and flow. The loss of Christian territory happened not just on the periphery but at the heartland. Jerusalem was the first heartland until the Romans leveled it, and the Jewish church all but ceased to exist. Then came Rome, until the northern Vandals sacked it; Constantinople, until Islam overran it; northern Europe, before Enlightenment skepticism cut its heart out. At each turning point, the gospel made a great escape, crossing over into an unknown culture just before disaster struck. History suggested that Christianity lives by this pilgrim principle.
While the gospel is able to indigenize, or find a home, in any culture, the Christian community cannot be fully at home in any culture, for the claims of Christ will always challenge cultural norms.
Walls’s expansive view of the spread of Christianity over the past 2,000 years, along with his prescient observation of the church’s southward shift during the past century, introduced a new vocabulary for talking about the global church as “polycentric.” As K.C. Wendell Tan of the Biblical Graduate School of Theology in Singapore noted, this understanding “has set scores of Christians free, to confidently walk in the indigenizing-pilgrim dialects of their translated faith,” and has empowered millions of believers in the non-Western world “to reclaim our heritage and Christian identity.”
While Walls identified strongly with the church in Africa, where he served as a missionary from 1957 to 1966, his scope was global. His reframing of Christian history brings a much-needed perspective to the stories we often tell about God’s mission in the world, including in China.
The dominant contemporary evangelical narratives about China and its church have long carried with them the assumption that, as China becomes more “Christian,” it will increasingly come to resemble the Christian West in its institutions, cultural behaviors, church practices, and even its politics. Yet, as the pilgrim principle tells us, there is no single Christian culture. The predominant expressions of faith among believers in China cannot, and should not, be expected to mirror those of Christians in the West. As Walls reminds us, “All too often those who have been the means whereby the Christian faith has spread across cultural frontiers have wanted new Christians to regard as important all the things that have been important to themselves.”1
Another implication of the pilgrim principle is that the theological questions pertinent to one culture do not necessarily address the most pressing concerns in another culture. Well-meaning efforts to assist China’s church have included the wholesale exportation of Western theological concepts and denominational structures. These may satisfy an immediate need and may eventually, in some form, become part of the Chinese church’s identity. Yet such efforts could also short-circuit the indigenizing process required for the pilgrim church to fully live out its unique expression of Christ within the culture.
In this regard Walls’s cautions regarding the African context apply equally as well to China:
It is therefore important, when thinking of African theology, to remember that it will act on an African agenda. It is useless for us to determine what we think an African theology ought to be doing; it will concern itself with questions that worry Africans, and will leave blandly alone all sorts of questions which we think absolutely vital.2
Walls’s observations on the steps and missteps of those throughout history who have carried the gospel between cultures are a helpful reminder that we all wear our own cultural blinders. Our views of China and our stories about China’s church will always be limited by our assumptions of how God works in the world. But Walls also leaves us with a hopeful vision of the myriad diverse expressions of the incarnate Christ around the globe coming together in our day:
But since none of us can read the Scriptures without cultural blinkers of some sort, the great advantage, the crowning excitement which our own era of Church history has over all others, is the possibility that we may be able to read them together. Never before has the Church looked so much like the great multitude whom no man can number out of every nation and tribe and people and tongue. Never before, therefore, has there been so much potential for mutual enrichment and self-criticism, as God causes yet more light and truth to break forth from his word.3
- Andrew F. Walls, “Culture and Conversion in Christian History,” in Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 51.
- Andrew F. Walls, “The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture,” in Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 11.
- Ibid., 15.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio
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