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Photo: Chris Meehan
Nagel Institute photo of Joel Carpenter
Photo by Chris Meehan

Joel Carpenter was fascinated and pleased by the research contained in an article that appeared in the October 2017 International Bulletin of Mission Research.

Featuring research by four scholars from the University of Ilorin in Nigeria, the article provides a first-ever look at groups of Yoruba people in North Central Nigeria who make frequent pilgrimages to prayer mountains to encounter, express their needs to, and offer praises to God.

Carpenter, who will be retiring as director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College later this year, said this article reveals a rich indigenous spirituality called Ori-Oke that has sprung up among the Yoruba, including Christians, Muslims, and those practicing traditional religions.

“I had never seen anything written about this — about an African spirituality in which people make pilgrimages to these mountains for prayer and personal reflection,” said Carpenter.

Being a grassroots movement with prophets but few defined leaders, it is an expression of faith not necessarily connected to major denominations or groups, and, said Carpenter, “the established churches don’t like this.”

The article, “Scramble for Souls: Scrutinizing the Nature, Growth, and Competing Claims of Ori-Oke in Ilorin, Nigeria,” is one of several looking at spirituality in Africa that were funded through the John Templeton Foundation with the assistance of the Nagel Institute.

Including articles on other topics such as “Values Expressed through African Symbols: An Ethiopian Theological Reflection” and “From Fools for Christ to Fools for Politicians: A Critique of Zambian Pentecostal Theopolitical Imagination,” these research efforts may have never taken place without the assistance of the institute.

And this is what has given Carpenter, a professor of history at Calvin, a great deal of satisfaction while directing and growing the Nagel Institute over the past 12 years.

“I knew that God was out there ahead of us in the world. We [at the institute] have wanted to see what God was doing and how we could help,” said  Carpenter. “For me, these last few years have been a sheer delight.”

But it took a while for God to bring him along the path leading to an institute that today publishes books, administers millions of dollars in grants, brings in scholars to work at Calvin, and is considered by many to be a leading institution of its kind.

“The Nagel Institute under Joel Carpenter's leadership has done a fine job of increasing the awareness by American Christians of Christianity in other parts of the world and in supporting the study of global Christianity,” said Nicholas Wolterstorff, professor emeritus of philosophy at Yale University and author of several books, including of Journey toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South, for which Carpenter was the general editor.

“But what most impresses me about the work of the Institute under Carpenter's leadership,” said Wolterstorff, “is the extent to which it has gone beyond that [building awareness] to assist Christians in other countries in finding their own voice in scholarship, education, and the arts and to bring American scholars, educators, and artists into dialogue with their counterparts in other countries, especially in Africa and Asia.”

Carpenter began his career with the goal of being a full-time teacher and scholar, but one thing led to another, and he found himself working for a time at the Pew Charitable Trust, where he directed the program on religion. After that, he served as Calvin’s provost for a decade.

Along the way, however, he kept researching, writing, and publishing and became aware of something that seemed to be escaping the attention of other scholars.

“I began to realize that there was little available on Christianity outside the Northern Hemisphere, even though we were seeing an explosion of growth of Christianity in the global South,” said Carpenter.

Flying under the radar of most scholars, said Carpenter, was the reality that expressions of Christianity in Asia and Latin America had been booming while the vitality of Christianity was fading in North America and Europe.

Meanwhile in Africa, Christianity had grown from 9 million at the turn of the 20th century to nearly 520 million in 2010. One out of four Christians in the world presently is an African, and the Pew Trusts estimates that the number of African Christians will grow to 40 percent by 2030.

“We were seeing this dramatic shift and the creation of a large multicultural movement,” said Carpenter. No one should have been surprised, he added, since “it is part of the nature of Christianity to cross cultural boundaries, and so it was important for scholars to look at that.”

When he was at the Pew Charitable Trust and developed projects with scholars seeking to venture out into new areas, Carpenter had a strong sense of this movement bubbling up.

And while serving as Calvin’s provost, he saw a growing need for researchers, especially in North America, to turn their attention to the changing face of world Christianity.

Then, said Carpenter, “I felt the strongest call I had ever felt in my life” to play a more active role in getting the word out on how Christianity was being transformed globally.

He approached Galen Byker, then Calvin’s president, to tell him he needed to resign his post as provost because he wanted to do something else. But when Byker learned what that something else was, he suggested starting what became the Nagel Institute, which originated with financial assistance from Doug and Lois Nagel, longtime supporters of Calvin College.

The Nagel Institute started slow, said Carpenter, but “when the opportunities came our way that fit our mission, we jumped on them. One of our first activities was to facilitate an exchange of philosophers between the U.S. and China.”

Since then, the institute has set up databases for scholars; held seminars around the world; addressed the issue of caring for the environment; examined the connection between religion, society, and the rule of law; and cosponsored a video documentary series on African Christianity.

Global higher education with a Christian emphasis has also been a focus and is highlighted in the book Christian Higher Education: A Global Reconnaissance, edited by Carpenter and others.

Additionally the institute has been involved in sponsoring art projects and will hold “Matter and Spirit,” a seminar on contemporary Chinese art and society this summer in three cities in China. This project is being held in partnership with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and the Lilly Network of Church-Related Colleges and Universities.

In several other cases, the work of the institute has been funded by the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Religion Trust.

In the Templeton projects, said Carpenter, “We have looked at how theology attends to the rapidly urbanizing world. We look at how the gospel is attending to society and how people can come out from under suffering, poverty, and oppression.”

A promotion for Walking Together, a book about South Africa edited by Carpenter, helps to encapsulate the mission of the institute: “This insightful book features an international team of scholars encountering contemporary South Africa and rethinking how Christians can promote a more just and humane public life.”

Over the years, the Nagle Institute helped Christian Reformed World Missions, now Resonate Global Mission, connect with African leaders through events and other opportunities, said Gary Bekker, former director of CRWM and now director of the Timothy Leadership Institute.

“I do think that Joel has played major roles in strengthening churches and other Christian organizations in Africa, as well as in building or strengthening bridges between God's people here, in Africa and elsewhere,” said Bekker.

In October 2017, the Theological Book Network gave Carpenter the Equipping Global Leaders award for his work.

As part of the ceremony, historian and author Mark Noll said, “Joel Carpenter has pulled together a pathbreaking program to enable and encourage African theological education. . . . He has helped a whole segment of the Protestant world to think . . . differently in terms of world Christianity.”

Carpenter has often been the go-to person behind the scenes, orchestrating programs, recruiting researchers, and negotiating with partners to bring forth the latest work on world Christianity, said Noll.

When his turn came to make some remarks, Carpenter said he once wanted to be a great teacher and scholar. “I never set out to do what I’ve done. But the Lord has continually put me in touch with amazing saints and geniuses.”

It has been an honor, he added, “to see those who are on the front lines of the world out there doing the heavy lifting as agents of God’s love, peace, and full flourishing.”

Even after he retires, Carpenter will remain closely connected to the cause of world Christianity, especially as it matures and finds the need for additional education.

“We have to now ask, ‘What comes next?’” following the global explosion of the faith, he said.

“Growth in grace, we hope, like we hope for ourselves. But we also hope for the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, the one in whom all things hold together. . . . We have to keep asking, ‘What does the gospel demand in our time, in the various and very different places around the world?’”