Tribute to Andrew F. Walls

Professor Andrew Walls (1928-2021) was my “doctor father” which means he was one of my mentors in my doctoral program at the University of Edinburgh.  I had the privilege of studying under him from 1995-1998 in Scotland.  He passed away this week and I am mourning his loss.  Those who have been in my office will know that for over twenty years I have kept a picture of him in my office to remind me of him.  He was one of the most influential missiologists of our time and his passing is being mourned all over the world.  The impact of his life must be measured both by his insightful and landmark writings in missiology and world Christianity, but also the personal impact he had on those of us who knew him, studied with him and were mentored by him.  At the first word of his passing, text messages and emails seemed to explode all over the world expressing the sadness of his departure and the amazing personal connection so many of us had with Professor Walls.

On the academic side, he is really the ‘father’ of world Christianity studies.  He was among the first to point out the dramatic changes taking place in Christian demography and, in particular, the special place of Africa in the future of the world Christian movement.  Decades before bestselling books like The Next Christendom (Philip Jenkins) or The New Shape of World Christianity (Mark Knoll) began to penetrate the wider Christian consciousness about the global church, Andrew Walls was quietly writing, teaching and publishing articles which would lay the foundation for an entirely new understanding of the world Christian movement.  Heretofore the study of the church in the Majority World was considered either exotic or marginal, or both.  Walls helped us to see that it was actually the heartland of what is increasingly “normative” Christianity which will shape the future of the church for decades to come.  Notions from Walls about the “serial, not progressive” growth of the church, the shifting “center of gravity,” the difference between “church history and Christian history,” “translatability,” and the ongoing tension between the “universal and the particular” in shaping Christianity which he called the “pilgrim” and “indigenizing” principle have now become normal features of Christian mission discourse.  He is responsible for a large part of the very vocabulary we use to talk about the church today.

It was no surprise to any of us who had the privilege of studying under Andrew Walls that when his articles were published as two books, The Missionary Movement in Christian History and The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History they quickly became best-sellers and introduced his wit and wisdom to hundreds of thousands around the world.  What is less known about his academic studies is that he was a patristic scholar.  He had a powerful capacity to look at Christian history both historically and theologically at the same time.  It was his profound knowledge of the history of the church which helped him to evaluate and reflect on even the most contemporary emerging movements.  One of my fondest memories of studying under Andrew Walls was a course I took from him on the History of World Christian Mission.  It was designed to cover the entire history of Christian missions from Pentecost to the Present.   By the end of the year when the course was concluded we had only made it to the seventh century.  One of the students sheepishly asked Professor Walls, “wasn’t this course supposed to cover the entire history of the church?”  Professor Walls smiled with that signature twinkle in his eye and said, “yes, but all the really good stuff happened early on!”

Perhaps the most important insight which undergirded all of his writings was his statement, “theological scholarship needs a renaissance of mission studies.” For many of us, this seemed like a backward statement.  We thought that mission studies needed better theological grounding.  Andrew Walls would have agreed with that, too, but he profoundly understood that the project was much bigger than making sure that Christian mission had proper theological footing.  The greater project was to understand that the entire theological enterprise itself makes no sense unless it is on proper missiological footing.  This was the genius of Andrew Walls.

It was on the personal side, however, that I think his deepest impact will be felt for many generations.  He taught for six years at the Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone and several years after that in Nigeria before he accepted a position at the University of Aberdeen, eventually as the head of the religious studies department.  However, Walls longed to expand “religious studies” to fully embrace world Christianity which eventually led him to the University of Edinburgh where in 1986 he founded what was then known as the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World (now known as the Centre for the Study of World Christianity).  It is here that he mentored hundreds of emerging missiologists like myself. He regularly brought into our weekly PhD seminars seminal thinkers from Africa like Lamin Sanneh and Kwame Bediako.  It was exhilarating and transforming beyond description.

Andrew Walls’ link to North American missiology is also important to note.  In 1995 he founded the journal, Studies in World Christianity which began to spread his ideas more broadly.  His co-founding of the annual Yale-Edinburgh Conference also introduced hundreds more in North America to his insights. North American missiology, long nurtured by many helpful insights from the social sciences, was further enriched by the deep historical/theological work of Professor Walls.  The result is that scholarship all over the world was transformed by his writing and teaching and all of our academic work in one way or the other is a reflection of, and a tribute to, his mentoring and the infectious way he opened our hearts and eyes to what was happening around the world.  Walls once wrote that “the true matrix of theology is not the study or the library.  Theology arises from situations – social situations – intellectual situations – where one must make Christian choices.”  This is why Andrew Walls spent so much time with students.  He understood that formation, even theological and missiological, happens in real social contexts.   He made the “Christian choice” to pour his life into the lives of his students.  For that, we are all profoundly thankful.  Professor Walls opened doors and widened eyes and we feasted at his table.  He has now gone on to that higher feast at which we will too will someday sit with men and women form every tribe, tongue and nation, with Christ as our Host.


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