Professor Andrew Walls (1928–2021) was among the most influential missiologists of our time, and his death is being mourned all over the world. The legacy of his life must be measured both by his insightful and landmark writings in missiology and world Christianity, but also the personal influence 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 come from all over the world, expressing the sadness of his departure and the amazing personal connection so many of us enjoyed 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 Noll) began to penetrate the wider Christian consciousness about the global church, Walls was quietly writing, teaching, and publishing articles that would lay the foundation for an entirely new understanding of the world Christian movement.
Up until this point, the study of the church in the Majority World was considered either exotic or marginal, or both. Walls helped us 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 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 even responsible for a large part of the vocabulary we use to talk about the church today.
It was no surprise to any of us who had the privilege of studying under 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 bestsellers 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.
The study of the church in the Majority World was considered either exotic or marginal, or both. Walls helped us 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.
Walls’s profound knowledge of church history helped him to evaluate and reflect on even the most contemporary emerging movements. One of my fondest memories was a course I took from him on the history of world Christian mission. It was designed to cover the whole history of Christian missions from Pentecost to today. By the end of the course, we had only made it to the seventh century. One of the students sheepishly asked Walls, “Wasn’t this course supposed to cover the whole history of the church?” 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 undergirding Wells’s writings was that “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. Walls would’ve 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 his genius.
It was on the personal side, however, that I think his deepest influence 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 (including me). 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.
[Walls] understood that formation, even theological and missiological, happens in real social contexts.
Walls’s link to North American missiology is also noteworthy. In 1995 he founded the journal Studies in World Christianity, which began to spread his ideas more broadly. His cofounding 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 his deep historical/theological work.
The result is that scholarship all over the world was transformed by his writing and teaching. Much 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 he 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.