Monday, August 01, 2011

American Christianity

I got an invitation to teach a class this fall on church history at a school of missions in Ukraine, so I have been reading the book "From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya" by Ruth Tucker as part of my preparation.

Today I came across a quote I found very interesting. It was written in 1926 by a Japanese Christian leader named Kanzo Uchimura. One of his main goals was to establish a truly Japanese church and Christian movement rather than have a Christianity that was viewed as a western import.
Here's his critique of American Christianity:

Americans must count religion in order to see 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! … 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. It is no special fault of Americans to be this-worldly; it is their national characteristic;
Kanzo Uchimura, “Can Americans Teach Japanese in Religion?” Japan Christian Intelligencer 1 (1926): 357–61, cited in Walls, “The American Dimension,” 2., found in Tucker, Ruth A. (2010). From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions . Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

I like Uchimura's focus on establishing a truly indigenous Christian movement in his country - I believe that should be the goal of all mission work.
I think there is something to what he says about American Christianity, although I don't fully agree with his critique.
On one hand, what he says about how Americans tend to measure success in ministry similar to how they measure success in commerce is often true, and definitely deserves consideration.
On the other hand, Kanzo Uchimura himself came to faith in Christ through the efforts of American missionaries in Japan, and I think the focus he mentions of American Christians to make as many converts to Christianity as possible is a noble, and Biblical thing.

As one who is American but has lived outside of the US for many years now, I have gained a bit of perspective on American culture and mentality by being able to observe it from the outside. Despite all the critiques that could be (and are often) made, there are some very positive things that I see. For example: American people are generally very generous, and are quite willing to give of what they have to help people in need or to support causes that they believe in. That is a praiseworthy thing. Also, Americans tend to have an entrepreneurial spirit - which amongst believers can create a culture of being willing to step out in faith and attempt great things for God. The parting words of William Smith Clark, the American missionary who trained the local evangelists who led Kanzo Uchimura to the Lord were: "Boys, be ambitious!" I believe that culture of being willing to step out in faith and follow the Lord wherever he leads is something which is not American, but very much Biblical, and something which Jesus taught and demonstrated in his life and ministry.

What do you think?


  1. David9:56 PM

    Regarding the ambition thing, I don't think that ambition is bad, but I do think that some of the business type approaches can be problematic.

    As a non-US Christian I think that a big problem with US Christianity, which largely seems to come from the business world, is an obsession with method. There is always a new method of doing evangelism or of organising church, or whatever, that is being promoted by whichever author is currently fashionable and tends to be regarded as the key to success.

    The problem is that the focus on method takes away from the fact that church building is the work of God and makes it more the work of men.

    The Japanese quote you provide may be an example of this. After all a method which gives you a big numerically tangible congregation is likely to be regarded as successful. Unfortunately a lot of recent developments in method seem to involve talking down the idea of sin and damnation and talking up the idea of a "relationship with God". What use is a big congregation if they never have the Gospel presented to them clearly?

  2. Interesting insights. Thanks David. Interestingly, he topic of ministry by imitation vs. ministry by incarnation has come up a lot recently in our church - I talked about it in a teaching lately, and had some conversations about it with leaders. Blessings to you!