Evangelicalism and wealth, unveiled
Donald Lewis and Richard Pierard have compiled a book with the help of authors from various continents to review the globalizing pathway that evangelicalism has taken in the past two hundred years. My area of interest is focused on the intersection of wealth and faith, and those of you reading my posts know I can’t help paying attention whenever money is raised as a topic. One’s economic state often greatly influences faith development and practice, and if we read carefully we can also find threads of the economy weaving their way through the emergence of evangelicalism in the world.
Richard Pierard’s essay on globalization and evangelicalism zeros in on the linkage. He states, “[T]here is historically a close link between the rise of modern capitalism and Calvinistic forms of Protestantism…. Calvinism (in Weber’s view) reinforced and ignited capitalism as an expensive, international force… Calvinism produced both character and anxiety – it produced sober, serious, and disciplined people who worked hard and, anxious to demonstrate to themselves that they were among God’s chosen people, they accumulated wealth as a sign that reassured them that they were among the elect.”
We’ve been over this ground before in reading Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The traditionally Protestant nations of northern Europe (Germany, Holland, England, Scandinavia, etc.) advance distinctly and more rapidly towards capitalistic economies than do the Catholic southern European nations (Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, etc.). Even today the southern European nations are the poorer cousins in the European Union.
As wealth accumulates, philanthropy emerges. Sarah Williams, in her essay on “Evangelicals and Gender” in the same book, reveals how philanthropy begins to shape evangelical action in the world during the Victorian Age. “[P]hilanthropic involvement itself changed both women and men, making them aware of middle-class selfishness, stimulating them to question their value system and that of their family, and prompting heart search as to how one could in fact justify staying at home when there was so much evil in the world and so much healing and caring to be given.” She cites the emergence of evangelical social betterment agencies as a key fruit of evangelical piety.
Her research is supported by D.W. Bebbington, who demonstrates how evangelicals of this and subsequent generations did not shy away from social engagement – Hannah More and her tracts obligating action for the poor, John Wesley’s generosity toward those in need, education and literacy efforts by the National Society of the Church of England, and prison reform by Elizabeth Fry are only a few examples of how evangelicals impacted society.
As a missionary in Colombia in the early 90s, I saw how evangelical churches began to thrive along with movements in Latin American societies towards neoliberal economies integrated into the global order. Both happened simultaneously with Catholics abandoning their traditions, and Latin American governments (largely) abandoning socialism – Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba excepted. Now, charismatic health-and-wealth megachurches are the norm in most Latin American cities, and pastors regularly run for government office supported by their flocks.
What is lacking in Lewis and Pierard’s work is analysis on the outcome of faith that is so tightly linked with an economic system. It seems strangely coincidental to me that we are witnessing the downside of this integration with both capitalism and evangelicalism seeming to flounder in the West. Movements of nationalism and popular revolt against globalization, from Brexit to les gilets jaunes to MAGA, and at the same time evangelicals discredited through political allegiances and young people abandoning church attendance in droves.
These global trends also bring a critique to evangelical philanthropy which has often leans into becoming a transactional interchange rather than a coming together in love and service. Daniel Bell in The Economy of Desire states how this postmodern reality impacts giving: “[P]hilanthropy severs giving from mutuality. While it may meet some needs – of the giver first and foremost but, hopefully, of the recipients as well – it does not build community. It does not create, extend, or renew human relations beyond the capitalist form.”
Lewis and Pierard’s book, while it provides an interesting overview of evangelicalism’s rise throughout the world often seems more concerned with demonstrating how it has expanded into many cultures worldwide. It fails to reveal how the focus on individuality and rationalization (“the immanent frame”) within both capitalism and evangelical faith contribute to its inherent weaknesses. We are missing coming together in community and rooted in Christ’s love of mutual surrender, service and love.
 Donald M. Lewis, “Globalization, Religion and Evangelicalism”, in Donald M. Lewis and Richard V. Pierard, eds. Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History and Culture in Regional Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 69.
 Sarah Williams, “Evangelicals and Gender”, in Donald M. Lewis and Richard V. Pierard, eds. Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History and Culture in Regional Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 293.
 Bebbington, David W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. (London: Routledge, 2002), 70.
 Ibid., 70.
 Ibid., 124.
 Ibid., 120.
 Bell, Daniel M. The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World. (Grand Rapids, MI : Baker Academic, 2012), 203.
9 responses to “Evangelicalism and wealth, unveiled”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Week after week we read the same things and view the world from different perspectives. Seeing evangelicals from the direction of their wallets does help see the journey they have been on. You have a way of seeing the global impacts in ways that I don’t always recognize. I was struck by this quote, “[P]hilanthropy severs giving from mutuality….” Every couple of years I am back in the states speaking, raising awareness as well as funds. I often say to organizations that I would love to find a way to build a relationship….to which many respond and say that they agree. The result has been places that want me to come and share stories so they can give one time and then find another person with stories. I have struggled with finding places that truly desire relationship. Do you find this a difficulty as well?
Greg – yes. I feel the whole fundraising system is broken, and I don’t have much hope. I lament with you that “[they] want me to come and share stories so they can give one time and then find another person with stories.” We are so fragmented… and it makes your home assignment work extremely tiresome and not healthy, flying all over the country raising support. My dream would be to see one church or a local group of churches band together to support a family working overseas.
Love how you connected your topic to this week’s reading. Keep it up. We do not tire of your writing or your topic!
I think you nailed it here with your critical thinking skills, “What is lacking in Lewis and Pierard’s work is analysis on the outcome of faith that is so tightly linked with an economic system.”
Then you hit a home run with this, “These global trends also bring a critique to evangelical philanthropy which has often leans into becoming a transactional interchange rather than a coming together in love and service.”
Right on my Brother. Keep it coming…
Mark, you have so many interesting points, but my favorite is your conclusion: “It fails to reveal how the focus on individuality and rationalization (“the immanent frame”) within both capitalism and evangelical faith contribute to its inherent weaknesses. We are missing coming together in community and rooted in Christ’s love of mutual surrender, service and love.”
The idea of “mutual surrender” is anoth place where your work and mine are converging. In terms of ministry, I’m proposing a model of missions WITH the other rather than missions TO or FOR.
Yes Jenn. I agree and love the idea of mutual surrender, and working together WITH. That’s where ministry should head, whether the ministry of giving or the ministry of faithful presence.
It was your conclusion that most resonated with me. Yes, our faith and even our giving is almost universally individualistic and lacks the communal philosophy so apparent in the early church found in the book of Acts.
In your work with donors how do you help them to be more than simply financial do-gooders and have their generosity become part of the overall ‘renewal of human relations’ you suggest it is meant to be?
Honestly, I’m only beginning this work and have come to these conclusions only recently. It will be a long road ahead. My goal is to ignore the more mature givers, and to focus in on millennial and Gen Z givers by giving them experiential opportunities for giving/being in transformational settings.
You always have a great perspective! I thought your final thought “It fails to reveal how the focus on individuality and rationalization (“the immanent frame”) within both capitalism and evangelical faith contribute to its inherent weaknesses.” was excellent. Yes, I agree! Because it’s uncomfortable to us “westerners” we fail to recognize it or acknowledge it!
This is brilliant, Mark. Well documented and researched, and a sharp connection to your work. I love how relationally-focused you are in your grant writing. My daughter Hannah and I leave for Kenya in three days to visit our longtime mission partners and dear friends, Stephen and Rosemary Mbogo. We are going for this very reason – to share in community together!