Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Mutual Influence: Evangelicalism and Middle East Culture

Written by: on February 4, 2022

British historian David W. Bebbington, specializing in the history of modern Britain, provides a thorough analysis of evangelicalism’s development in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s.[1] Uniquely, he examines both the influence of evangelicalism on society and the influence of society on evangelicalism.[2] Classified as a history book, Bebbington carefully utilizes both primary and secondary sources to explore through nine chapters, end notes and an excellent index the contours of evangelical thought and practice, broad values that hold the diverse evangelical community together,[3] and deep exegetical and praxis differences that have led to conservative and liberal branches on the same tree[4]. At the same time, he also explores the impact of the enlightenment, romanticism, German philosophy, modernity, the role of science and other cultural developments on evangelicalism in both its conservative and liberal manifestations.

Jason Paul Clark, in his dissertation, Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship,[5] dialogues with Bebbington, among others, concerning the specific ways in which evangelicalism and capitalism have influenced and interacted with each other. Specifically, he explores the interaction between the development of capitalistic markets and the characteristics of evangelicalism. He elucidates how this interaction informed theological movement from the doctrine of assurance to the doctrine of providence and the damaging impact this has had on evangelicalism. He intends his analysis and findings to provide catalytic impetus so that evangelicalism may respond to these damaging impacts with its own internal resources.[6]

In Chapter Two,[7] our focus for this week’s reading, Clark first defines how he is using the terms evangelicalism and capitalism.[8] He then explores and analyzes Bebbington’s description of evangelicalism’s four key characteristics in conversation with other scholars and how this same community of scholars view evangelicalism’s movement from the doctrine of assurance to the doctrine of providence.[9] He concludes this chapter by analyzing the interaction effects of new economic markets, migration, and the complex dynamics of individualism, the need for community (or “islands of social care”), the growth of leisure time, and the rise of volunteerism.[10]

Though Clark as a narrower focus than Bebbington, their core focus on the mutual influence of evangelicalism and culture on each other, particularly drew my interest. Having now lived in the Middle East for nearly nine years and worked primarily with the Middle Eastern evangelical communities of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, I have been fascinated with how evangelicalism in this part of the world has been influencing culture since the early 1800s. It has also been very interesting to observe the ways in which their host culture has influenced their evangelicalism in contrast to how my own culture has influenced evangelicalism in the United States. Another dynamic at play is the interaction between the western cultures (USA, Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and others) from whence the first evangelical mission workers came in the early 1800s and the local cultures to which they came in the Near East.

Here are a few examples: The first Western evangelical mission workers arrived about a century after the Catholic counter-reformation initiative had sent Jesuit priests to the Levant. Embodying Bebbington’s descriptive value of activism and the entrepreneurial (and I would add competitive) spirit noted by Clark as an influence of being in growing capitalistic market areas, these early Western mission workers were determined to start two schools and two hospitals in every town across what was then Greater Syria. When asked why two in every town, they replied along the lines of “Well, if we start one of each, the Catholics will start the second just to not be outdone by us.” This commitment to activism and the influence of capitalism laid the foundation for what would become activist indigenous evangelical communities across the Levant (current day Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Jordan), Mesopotamia (current day Iraq), Asia Minor (present day Turkey), Persia (present day Iran), and Egypt.

The very first school in the then Ottoman Empire dedicated to educating girls was started in 1835 by Sarah Smith in Beirut, a young Presbyterian Connecticut woman. She died within a year of starting that school, but it became the seed for what today is a high-ranking K-12 school in the Beirut area (one of seven in the country) overseen by the local Synod of Syria and Lebanon. These schools serve over 7,000 students and employ more than 900 teachers. Many of today’s moderate Muslim political and business leaders in the region have an evangelical school background.

That early effort of Sarah Smith also led to the development of the first college for women in the area, which is now known as the Lebanese American University—a co-ed vibrant undergraduate and graduate educational institution with two campuses and two training hospitals. The indigenous evangelical communities in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Palestine/Israel, Jordan, and Egypt also all have developed local schools, universities, and seminaries.

I have found interesting that all these early evangelical communities, started by different western mission workers, all use the name “evangelical,” irregardless of the specific denomination from whence the mission workers came (except for the Lutherans and Anglicans in the region). This has a lot to do with their cultural context at the time of developing under the rule of the Ottoman Empire and the dynamics of what was called the millet system.[11] Put simply, the Sultan only wanted to relate to one authority figure from each religious community. Christians posed a challenge since we seem often more committed to division than unity. But the Sultan’s will prevailed, so there was only one millet (like a US census category) allowed for this newly emerging Christian evangelical entity.

To this day, though the Ottoman Empire ended with the conclusion of WWI, the fingerprints of the millet system remain embedded in the life of the evangelical community (and all religious communities across the region). Various government offices today still will only relate to one authority figure from each religious community. Imagine what a challenge that presents to newly planted evangelical churches in a Middle Eastern context who are not in relationship with existing evangelical churches in that same context. When it comes to establishing a bank account or renting or buying a space or settling legal issues or any number of other things, one must interact with government offices, and to do so, one needs to go through that single authority figure appointed to be the liaison.

Bebbington’s and Clark’s respective works have much more for me to ponder and relate to my own evangelical journey and the evangelical context in which I live and work in the Middle East. There is also more for me to explore regarding the conservative/liberal breech. These additional reflections will have to await a future blog!

[1] Bebbington, David. 2005. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. Transferred to digital printing. London: Routledge.

[2] Ibid., ix.

[3] Ibid., 1-19 describes the four key values that define evangelicalism.

[4] Ibid., 181-228 especially explores the development of conservative and liberal branches of evangelicalism.

[5] Clark, Jason Paul, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship” (2018). Faculty Publications – Portland Seminary. 132. https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/gfes/132

[6] Ibid., ii.

[7] Ibid., 49-76.

[8] Ibid., 50-52.

[9] Ibid., 52-67.

[10] Ibid., 67-76.

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millet_(Ottoman_Empire)

About the Author

Elmarie Parker

10 responses to “Mutual Influence: Evangelicalism and Middle East Culture”

  1. mm Eric Basye says:

    What an interesting perspective you have in light of your work and ministry the past number of years. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    In light of what you wrote, what do you see as a pathway forward in the Middle East to see a movement of the gospel? Additionally, how do you see this playing with the Church as to what form, model, or denomination?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Eric. Thank you for this question about a movement of the Gospel in the ME. I’d love to hear more from you of how you understand that phrase—‘movement of the Gospel.’ I’ll share how I understand it and have experienced it.

      One of our Iranian colleagues noted over ten years ago, “Jesus is running wild in the Middle East!” That is our experience. There is an amazing movement of the Gospel already underway. It does look different in each country, and the approach of the evangelical community looks different in each country (and there are varying approaches across those communities as well). Where I have personally witnessed the most profound visible manifestation of this is in Iraq. It’s from this context that I have best come to understand the holistic movement of the Gospel (integrating the four broad values described by Bebbington—cross, scripture, conversion, and activism). I’ll share a few stories:

      In 2014, as ISIS took over broad swaths of north/central Iraq, over 2 million Iraqis were internally displaced within a couple of weeks. It was a massive humanitarian crisis to put it mildly. One of the small evangelical (reformed heritage) churches we have the immense privilege of knowing and learning from immediately went into action. They served as a bridge between isolated orthodox, evangelical, and catholic communities across N. Iraq who were receiving thousands of people into their villages almost overnight (often doubling or tripling their town populations). At a practical level, through this communication bridge, they helped distribute truckloads of relief supplies. They also converted their church building into living quarters for 70+ people. These families ended up staying at the church for over four years. These families were either orthodox or catholic. They were invited to worship and pray with the evangelical church, but always encouraged to remain a part of their church homes. This wasn’t about growing their church numerical out of the suffering and displacement of other church communities. It was about loving and discipling these traumatized families so that they could heal and join in shared ministry together both in the present and in the future when it became possible to return to their hometowns/cities.

      In 2017, when Mosul and the Nineveh Plain were liberated from ISIS, another several hundred thousand people were internally displaced. This time, they were mostly Sunni families who had been living under ISIS, so there was no way to know if they were in sympathy with ISI or in disagreement with ISIS, but just trying to survive. In any case, they also arrived to the city where this evangelical church is based—with nothing. They too needed humanitarian aid. This time it was not only the church pastor and elders, but also those families who had been initially displaced by ISIS who went to the stores to buy what was needed by the newly displaced families. Every store owner, Christian and Muslim alike, asked, “What are you doing? Why are you helping these people? They are with those who have caused all of us so much harm.” The reply of this band of Jesus followers still convicts me: “We are followers of Jesus. And Jesus chose to come to humanity when we were all yet enemies of God. How can we do anything less than what Jesus has done? We must go to these who may be our enemy and show them God’s love through helping them to live with dignity during their time of need.”

      The women of that same church have a ministry to incarcerated women. Since 2017, most of the incarcerated women are the wives of ISIS fighters. When one is in jail in Iraq, if your family doesn’t provide clothing or a mattress or for your young children (yes, young children are incarcerated with their mothers) or hygiene items, life is pretty miserable. The inmates could not believe it was Christian women who were coming to their aid. And not only bringing them what they needed to have a bit of dignity and to help their children, but actually sitting with them, asking them about their situations, praying with them. “You are showing us the love of God when no one else will talk to us with kindness in their voice.”

      We have met many Muslims coming to worship services in these Iraqi evangelical churches. Many of them have encountered Jesus (‘Issa in Arabic) through dreams and visions. And Jesus directs them to these churches where they can learn more about following him. Their experience of conversion are across a spectrum. Some of them follow the path of the early Jewish community who remained culturally Jewish and continued to worship at Synagogue. In a similar way, these new followers of Jesus remain culturally Muslim and still attend prayers at the Mosque. Others take on a new name and move to a new location and become members of existing churches. Some suffer awful beatings from family members. Others do not.

      There are many challenges facing existing congregations as they welcome in these new followers of Jesus. Some have to do with trust between new followers of Jesus and long-time followers of Jesus (especially given the many political realities that have been a part of Iraqi life for decades where spying on Christians by various Islamist groups has happened, to the detriment of the Christian community). Some have to do with government, legal, and personal status challenges (like not being able to change one’s religion on one’s ID card, which means one’s children will be born into the religious practices on one’s ID card). But there is a commitment to persevere through these challenges. What we hear from long-time Iraqi evangelical Christians: we have no idea for how long we will exist in this land, but God will remain faithful to his church in Iraq, and these new followers of Jesus will be the future leaders of this church.”

      One of the seminaries I’ve come to know (based in Beirut) is doing an amazing job of equipping new followers of Jesus from a Muslim background with discipleship and ministry skills. Their pedagogy helps these new followers of Jesus mature in faith and practice. Their students come from across the Arabic-speaking world (not only the ME, but also Africa and Asia). They are exploring a variety of forms/models for discipleship and leadership development. My sense is that there is already a vital movement of the Gospel underway in the Middle East, and our best teachers for the way in which the church can participate in this movement of the Holy Spirit are Jesus following-Middle Easterners.
      There’s so much more I could share about what we see God up to in Lebanon, Syria, Israel/Palestine, Jordon, Egypt, Iran, and other places, but these stories are a start .

  2. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Thank you for sharing from the context of the Middle East, Elmarie. I am struck by “It has also been very interesting to observe the ways in which their host culture has influenced their evangelicalism in contrast to how my own culture has influenced evangelicalism in the United States.” With how much you interact and travel between the US and Middle East, I’d love to hear more about any distinguishers which cause you have to code switch between Evangelicals in both locations.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Kayli. Thank you for this question about potentially needing to code-switch between evangelical contexts. It’s a great question with a lot of nuances, since the evangelical community in the USA is quite diverse (conservative to progressive), and even within the older evangelical community in the Middle East (which is the part I most relate to) there is a spectrum from more conservative to liberal, though not as wide or polarized spectrum as in the USA.

      When I’m relating to the more conservative evangelical community in the USA, I tend to receive more questions along the lines of: “how many Muslims have you converted?” That’s probably the largest code-switch I make because conversion isn’t the focus of my work. But it does give me the opportunity to share what I have experienced as a more holistic ministry approach (what comes across as a more balanced integration of Bebbington’s four values rather than skewing so far to one end of the spectrum or the other) by the older evangelical communities in the Middle East (where they do have the privilege of welcoming and discipling new followers of Jesus, but it is the Holy Spirit who ‘converts’ (as is the reality in the USA too, but that is not always acknowledged)).

      It also allows me the opportunity to share our approach of accompanying partners in their work; our partners on the ground are the ‘front-line’ workers as they are of the culture and understand the nuances of the local language, etc. We are in a support/communication/interpretation to the USA role.

      When I’m with more progressive USA based evangelicals, I also need to adapt how I talk about work in the ME. The conversation with these communities also focuses on the holistic approach of older ME ecumenical bodies, but my starting point is on their activism work and then how they integrate cross/scripture/conversion.

      The issue of politics is also part of this code-switching work in both contexts and the spectrums represented in both contexts (as are issues of nationalism)…that’s a whole other dynamic and I can share more if you have an interest in this aspect of things .

  3. mm Jonathan Lee says:

    Thank you for sharing your insights into the story of Sarah Smith in Beirut. I am inspired by missionaries like Sarah Smith because my mother’s side of family faith was rooted and impacted because of a missionary couple who came to Korea in the 1900’s. I believe every corner of this world has been influenced by Evangelicalism of its own. What is one major influence of Evangelicalism that is taking place in modern Syria?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Jonathan, thank you for sharing some of your family’s mission history story. Yes, the reach of evangelicalism has been global, for sure. How do you see the influence of Korean culture on the evangelicalism that came through Western missionaries to Korea in the 1900s? How did/has evangelicalism influenced Korean culture?

      You ask a good question about the influence of evangelicalism in present-day Syria. The evangelical influence that is founded on the work of the early 1800s continues its influence in Syria today through an ecumenical spirit that draws together different parts of the Christian community to work for the good of the whole community. This is one of their hallmarks. They are known as relational bridge-builders and people of peace—often being asked to broker local peace agreements between the Syrian government and rebel militia groups, between different Christian entities, and between Muslim and Christian entities. So, in this sense, the value of activism lives on and the value of Christ’s cross—sacrificial love. This is, of course, also a part of their witness to the wider community and their way of expressing the conversion value Bebbington describes. Their work is fueled out of a deep study and engagement with scripture, the fourth value emphasized by Bebbington. All the long-time evangelical churches have vibrant Sunday School ministries that draw in children from all religious communities in Syria, along with three Nursery-12th grade schools where the majority of the students are Muslim (the curriculum is grounded in Biblical values, though proselytizing is not their focus). They also provide on-going relief aid to families of all religious backgrounds to help the wider community survive the crippling impacts of international sanctions on their country—another aspect of their activism work. This work upholds the dignity and hope of the wider community. I suppose, in the categories of Bebbington, this would put these older evangelical churches more on the liberal side of the evangelical spectrum.
      Unfortunately, some (not all) of the younger evangelical communities are less ecumenical (or not ecumenical at all) in their approach (and are more dependent on Western sponsors). Their focus is almost always on conversion, and they use relief aid as their ‘lure.’ They also tend to take a more fundamentalist approach to scripture and/or focus on spiritual phenomena. In Lebanon, there is freedom for them to hold these postures; in Syria and Iraq their approach tends to lead to their leadership being told to leave the country. They tend to reach out to the longer-term evangelical churches only when they need help navigating governmental, legal, or financial dynamics that require the communal network embedded in local culture. The local people easily recognize the difference between these two approaches. Some are drawn to the future spiritual promise these churches tend to emphasize, since life right now is miserable. Others feel manipulated.

  4. mm Denise Johnson says:

    I love the history lesson of Evangelism in your area. The Millet System sounds similar to what The Communists used in Poland and some of the other Iron Curtain countries. Today in my region, it continues to be difficult for new Christian works if they did not have roots in the countries prior to WWII. I look forward to hearing how your ponderings of these text will impact what you do moving forward.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Thank you for your comment. I’ll look forward to hearing more about the parallels between the Millet System and what Iron Curtain countries experienced and its continuing impacts on church work in that area. How have you experienced the dynamic of mutual influence between evangelicalism and culture in Poland?

  5. mm Andy Hale says:

    What an excellent new layer you have pealed back of the dynamic legacy of this diverse movement.

    The old and weird saying goes, do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. You’ve given greater insight into the excellent work done by Evangelicals.

    Do you think the primary influence as to why this movement in the Middle East took on a different tenor and tone was because it was not based on a Capitalistic-Anglo society?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Thank you, Andy, for your question. I do think that the evangelical community has developed with a different tone and tenor because it was embedded from the beginning in the diverse cultures, ethnicities, languages, and political dynamics of what is known now as the Middle East (or Western Asia depending on whom one is speaking). European and British Evangelicalism does have a very different feel from American Evangelicalism (I work with many colleagues from across the evangelical spectrum in Europe and Great Britain as well). But, of course, I know the American scene better. I think one of the largest differences between ME Evangelicalism and American Evangelism, in addition to the issue of capitalism and culture, is also the issue majority/minority. American culture has developed over the centuries with Protestants (and Evangelicals especially) holding a dominant/majority power role in shaping that culture. Part of the angst in the States these days is due to a perceived (and in some ways real) diminishing role of influence. But in the Middle East, evangelical followers of Jesus have always been a minority of a minority. Thus, the way they understand their identity and influencing power is very different from American Evangelicals. I experience their posture being much more innately/reflexively one of service. They ask a different set of questions as a starting point than I typically hear evangelical communities in the USA asking: how may we be of service to our Lord’s purposes in our country at this time (understood through a kingdom lens, not a nationalistic or one-issue lens; but also very aware of political dynamics—both local and global); how may we be of service to our neighbors—Christians from the ancient communities, newer evangelical communities that have strong western sponsors who do not understand ME culture or ways, Muslims of every sect and political persuasion, Jews of every sect and political persuasion, a growing number of agnostic/atheist adults, the most vulnerable in their societies, etc.

      These types of questions lead them to function in a much more ecumenical fashion than what is often the case in a USA setting. Geography also plays a role…in the USA we have a lot of space…we can easily break-off and go somewhere else when we disagree with each other. That is less possible in the Middle East (that doesn’t mean there aren’t fierce disagreements…there are. But at the end of the day, they still must find ways to work together. Makes for interesting communication/mediation patterns at times.

      I also find that they are not as enamored with numbers as American evangelicals tend to be. Sadly, what pushes them to fixate on numbers is western funding, which is obsessed with numbers, measurements based on numbers, benchmarks based on numbers, etc. This is exhausting for them. Their measures are more inclined to be focused on quality rather than quantity. I realize we are slowly making that shift in a US context, but our firm grounding in capitalism and competition make that a difficult challenge (that’s not to say that competition isn’t an issue; it is…but it has more to do with something called wasta—relational influence/status).

      Probably more than you wanted to hear. As you can tell, these dynamics fascinate me .

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