My 'Conversation' with Lamin Sanneh

I have inhabited two different “lands” over the last twenty years.  I served as a pastor to a congregation I “grew up” with, fell in love with and found very difficult to part with.  I still mourn—though I am beginning to heal. Slowly. I have also inhabited the land of academia— scholarship, teaching, research and writing. I was trying to resurrect the old eighteenth-century ideal of the pastor-scholar, or what was called in the eighteenth century, “the learned gentlemen.”  The day when the pastor was called the parson, meaning “the person” to whom the community looked to for theological guidance and Biblical shepherding. But in our modern world, where pastors have to be good at a lot of different things—I just found it difficult (if not impossible) to do. I was always better at studying and teaching God’s word than I was at management and administrative work. I was able to do the latter, but it left me completely exhausted. Networks like the Center for Pastor-Theologians are trying to reclaim the ancient tradition of pastors who devote most of their time to teaching and scholarship (i.g., Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, et al), but in my experience very few churches understand the need for this unique calling.

So, when I share things in this blog that are somewhat new to the people I served as a pastor, it is because I seldom talked about my scholarly labors. Nearly everyone who knew me was most certainly aware that there was something about old books, old ideas, old libraries and old universities that always excited me. They knew I spent time in that land of cloistered walkways and ivory towers and dusty archives—indeed I often referenced this ‘land’ in my sermons. However, much of what I did in the archives remained a mystery to people. I talked very little about my actual research, my affiliation with academic societies, the intellectual mentors I was working with, or the work I was actually doing as a scholar. In fact, I was once reproved for using the word “scholar”—but it was from someone who did not understand that this word is not considered a compliment or even a title in academia. It is merely a ‘noun’—a reference to what people in the world of ideas do—even undergrad students are referred to as scholars because they study. As I excelled in my academic work I felt increasingly misunderstood by some people, which made me want to talk about my work even less. There are other reasons for my opacity that I will not go into now; reasons I have had to explore only more recently in my own life. But more on this personal narrative later. Now to the other ‘land’ I love…

I first met Laming Sanneh (1942-2019) when I was in my mid-thirties.  I had just finished my second grad degree (Master of Theology) this time in the History of Christian Thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  A Master of Divinity (a 92 hour professional degree) prepares pastors for teaching and shepherding (heavy in Biblical languages, theology and history) while a Master of Theology (a four-year masters or an additional year of work for those with a M.Div.) allows someone to specialize in a particular field (mine was historical theology). My research coalesced around the history of American fundamentalism (ca. 1910-1990) and the emergence of a reawakened American Evangelicalism (ca. 1940s-present) as well as the watershed event that separated the over-lapping movements. (The event that effected the schism was Graham’s 1957 New York City Crusade, which thrust the young evangelist onto the world stage, though he was publicly slandered by his friends, John R. Rice and Bob Jones Sr.)  My grad work at Trinity was (in part) an effort to understand the history of my own tradition, and it changed me in some fairly significant ways. I became more rooted in the Christian past, and I felt that I was a member of something much older and much bigger—something that emerged during the sixteenth-century evangelisch movement led by Martin Luther. 

And then there was Lamin Sanneh who represented an even larger world. I had studied under some of the finest evangelical scholars at Trinity: Douglas Sweeney, a first-rate Edwardsian scholar who taught at Yale, and John Woodbridge who did his doctoral work at the Sorbonne (University of Paris, and alma mater of John Calvin!) and was well-versed in the history of American Christianity and its relationship with its old world immigrants.  While these scholars were no less impressive than Sanneh (indeed, they are among the best in the world in their field), he represented a rather different world.  He was born in West Africa, grew up Muslim, converted to Christianity, became Roman Catholic, and had devoted his life to exploring the rapid expansion of Christianity in Africa and the non-Western world.  And he was sharing the lectern with evangelical scholars I had admired for years—Mark Noll, Brian Stanley and David W. Bebbington (under whom I later did my doctoral work).

My worldview had already been altered by my study of the history of Western Protestantism and Evangelicalism. Now I was being introduced to an older and larger history.  The church was not established in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the church doors at Wittenberg.  Of course I knew this tacitly, but had I really embraced it? No. The ecclesia was 3,000 years old, if Abraham is included in the narrative—and I think he must be!  The church was comprised of Jew and Gentile, of Catholic, Eastern (Nestorian), Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical—and yes—Pentecostal! And it was very, very big.  In fact, during the twentieth century, Christianity became a global religion, with a mere five per cent of the faithful now living in the United States of America. As the laity are only now learning, of the 2.3 billion Christians in the world, only a handful are Caucasian evangelicals.  In fact, there are now more Christians in Africa than there are people in all of North America!  The church in Africa is growing by 23,000 converts every single day, while the church in Europe is in steep decline, and the church in North America is holding its own, but slowing in growth. The church in the non-Western world, where 70 per cent of Christians now live, is what Lamin Sanneh, Mark Noll, Brian Stanley, David Bebbingon, Dana Robert (and others) were calling the majority church.  Just after I had finished my ThM at Trinity, I was being introduced to the study of World Christianity, a cross-discipline that is being led by historians and aided by sociologists and statisticians (who are engaged in the study of the demographic shift of the world—religious and secular). 

I met Lamin Sanneh at a conference I attended with my good friend who did his PhD under Brian Stanley at Cambridge. We were together at a symposium on Global Christianity at Baylor University.  Dr. Sanneh’s lecture was a discussion around the “moving center” of Christianity in the modern world (as well as more interesting topics like the relationship of Christianity to Islam). The “moving center” is a term scholars use to refer to the demographic center of the Christian world.  In short, it is a way to conceptualize the efforts of scholars in tracing the growth and spread of the faith over a 2,000 year period of time around the globe.  In short, the center was Jerusalem in 33 AD, though by the beginning of the second century the center had moved to Rome. Eventually it moved further into Western Europe, though up until the rise of Islam in the high middle ages, there were as many Christians in Baghdad as in Iberia. The center hovered somewhere over the Atlantic during the nineteenth century with the growth of the old faith in the New World (North America and Latin America). Then during the twentieth century, due in part to the work of Western missionaries going East, it began a shift back to the east and then further south. The center is now, believe it or not, somewhere over North Africa near Timbuktu in Mail!  Christianity is a world religion—with no real capital except the city of God we are all longing to enter!  

When I first heard Lamin Sanneh lecture at Baylor University I was preparing to leave for Kenya for a sabbatical where I would teach and conduct research on the history of evangelical Christianity in Africa. Of course I wanted to meet Dr. Sanneh; it’s like a high school basketball player wanting to talk to “Dr J” (or Micheal Jordan if you prefer). So after his lecture I pushed through the crowded room of bearded scholars in their tweed jackets hoping to have a conversation with Lamin Sanneh. He was still sitting on his modern-day ambo (a stool for lecturing) gathering his papers and other effects and stuffing them into his well-travelled satchel. I was immediately struck by how approachable he was. There was no air of importance about him. He looked up, smiled and gave me a warm greeting. I introduced myself—a pastor—leaving for Kenya—and preparing to do research on the attitude of African church leaders toward the continued presence of Western missionaries in the majority church. (The research was later published by the International Bulletin of Missionary Research under the title “A New Breed of Missionaries.”) I simply wanted the good doctor’s advice. He listened to me with such undivided attention that I felt almost uncomfortable by the fact he wasn’t at all distracted by the well-known scholars milling about in the room. He asked me a few questions and then said, “Go, and become friends with your African brothers and sisters.”  He then wished me well on my journey and after exchanging a few pleasantries I left to ponder his words. And I never forget his advice.

Of course I had expected something more helpful from the “Dr. J” of World Christianity, but it was not until later that I understood the value of my short coaching experience with Dr. Sanneh.  Over the course of the twentieth century the attitudes of Africans toward the West have been complicated by colonialism, racism and paternalism—even within the mission community (as my subsequent doctoral research would reveal in ways that shocked me).  You will not hear this if you go on a one week missions trip, especially if you come promising to provide financial support to an impoverished African village!  But, if you become friends with non-Western Christians, you might just get the real story.  Friends are often more honest with you! So my African friends told me how thankful they were for the work of Western missionaries, and how hurt they were (and are) by the lingering attitudes of the Western church toward them.  And at the same time, they told me how they long to be equals in the gospel, to be accepted as brothers and sisters in Christ in a new world where the church is no longer dominated by powerful Western nations.  Christianity is not a Western religion!  In fact, it never has been. Lamin Sanney continually pointed this out in his work. It began in Jerusalem, and God “translated the message” (an allusion to one of Sanneh’s works) into the languages of the world—not reversing Babel (as some older commentators have suggested), but transcending Babel—uniting people—not around one language—but around one faith, one Lord and one hope! The very first miracle the Holy Spirit performed for the church was not the destruction of culture, but the embrace of culture through the translation of the gospel into all languages. This was done to demonstrate that God so loves all the nations (all ethic groups). God so loves the world! Just wow! 

I am thankful for the life and wisdom of Lamin Sanneh, and for the many scholars that are leading us toward a better understanding of World Christianity.  I am grateful to be part of the scholarly community at Yale-Edinburgh Group and look forward to participating even more in furthering the church’s understanding of what God is doing in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  Let the nations be glad!  While my doctoral studies focused on East Africa and the transmission of transatlantic Evangelicalism in sub-Saharan Arica in the 19C-20C, I am fascinated by the entire story—more than 2,000 years old—with more than 2 billion living participants. I am still spending time in the land of academia, perhaps more fully immersed in it than ever before, but I’m also part of the church, part of what God is doing among the “communion of saints” throughout the world.  I believe that one of the reasons I am serving with Global Action today and the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide is because of Lamin Sanneh.  He is now among the great cloud of witnesses, encouraging the rest of us to continue the journey in faith.  He would want those of us who are engaging in mission (which should be all Christians) to go forth—not only to make disciples—but to “become friends”—with Africans, Asians, Latinos, and all of those to whom the Holy Spirit is “translating the message.”  (Below are a few of the many works by Sanneh that have shaped my thinking, including a more recent monograph about his life.)