This Saturday morning, I will spend 4 hours with a group of “Inquirers” at our church. These are people who are new in our community and are learning more as they become “New Members” of our congregation.
My favorite part of the class is when people go around the circle and share their stories. It is always a wide-ranging and diverse set of circumstances that have led all these people to our door. It is a mix of faith and doubt, seeking and finding, idealism and realism.
Inevitably, some of the New Members are “cradle Presbyterians” and speak boldly about how important that tradition is to them as the main driver for why they have come. Others are the usual mix of modern American mutts: Episcopalians and Methodists, lapsed Catholics, burnt out Baptists, some Lutherans and non-denominational types. The list goes on.
Increasingly and consistently we have people who come to us from around the world. There are Anglicans from India and Uganda, Roman Catholics from Peru and Mexico, people who came from a mega-church in Nigeria, Methodists from Singapore, and yes, plenty of Korean Presbyterians.
What is striking about the faith and outlook of many from the “Global South”, whether they come from high church or low church backgrounds, is that there is an essential evangelicalism that runs through their experience. In an essay in the book Global Evangelism: Theology History and Culture in Regional Perspective,Mark Noll reminds us of the “Bebbington Quadrilateral”, where this loaded term “evangelical” includes four key components: a focus on conversion, the Bible (or “Biblicism”), Activism, and the Cross (or cruci-centrism).
In my use of the term “evangelicalism”, I am careful not to conflate it with the contemporary politicized version of the word “Evangelical” which is in use in the United States. What I mean by this term when it comes to people I meet from around the world in the context of my church, is that they are gospel-centered people where a tie to the historic faith in Jesus Christ is very important in their lives. Many have adapted their expectations to the United States (which is probably why they feel comfortable in an “American” church), but their experiences are also distinct from many of those who grew up in our country. They are more ready to pray, to praise God for healing, to share their faith, to speak out on social issues from a Christian perceptive.
In his essay in the book, Mark Noll writes that, “Providing a workable definition for a book with a worldwide perspective, however, is surprisingly complicated. Much of the complexity arises from the necessity to define evangelical alongside a number of other terms like Pentecostal, charismatic, fundamentalist, apostolic and indigenous that are often used in conjunction with the term.” These are overlapping categories and terms, which makes it hard to pinpoint exactly who is included.
This is the state of the world today. Where historical boundaries and typologies are not as neat or clear as they once seemed to be. People move, they mix, they adapt their faith and lives to fit into the places where they find themselves. Another way to think about global evangelicalism is that it is a by-product of the larger story of globalization.
Anthony Giddens reminds us, “Globalization can thus be defined as the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa.” For evangelicalism to flourish on a global scale as it has, it seems clear that its development has been tied up with a more general globalism.
What is surprising in this conversation about the worldwide expansion of evangelicalism and globalism, is that the US/American church has seemingly been so insulated from its effects. While we are constantly connected in business, technology, popular culture, the products we use, and more, the reality for many North American local churches is that Sunday morning is often wholly separate from the rest of the world. Other than the usual mission projects or interactions, Sunday morning at church can seem like the least globalized hour of the week.
Here is the connection that this book lifts up. It makes clear that evangelicalism (even loosely defined) is a global phenomenon, and what we know about globalism is that it impacts locally through things that happen around the world.
Indeed, Lewis in his essay in the book writes that globalization involves “the diminishing of the importance of barriers of distance and geography; the dis-embedding of people from their received traditions—people tend to move beyond their tribal allegiances in a globalized world.”
The implications for local churches in the United States is immense. The forces of globalization and the worldwide spread of evangelicalism are tied up together, because it means people can move more freely, and are more prepared to interact beyond their own tribe, tradition or natural borders.
Local churches in the United States are surprisingly well-positioned to receive those globalized, evangelized Christians from around the world, however, local churches are also surprisingly un-prepared and perhaps unwilling to welcome and receive these newcomers well.
What I have heard in one form or another many times in our New Members classes is, “We are looking for a church where Christ is proclaimed and the Spirit is alive, but we don’t really care about labels or denominations.” For American Christians who are used to a kind of “settled” spiritual life, this is a challenge and opportunity. The challenge is to make room for the Spirit and for the witness of global Christians with a different perspective. But the opportunity is also apparent.
When somebody says, “We are looking for a church home, new friends and community since we just moved into the area”, the shared good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes alive again. It enlivens, awakens, and stirs those who hear it, and calls on the church and its people to make a faithful response.
Mark Noll, “Defining 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), 20.
Mark Noll, “Defining 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), 18.
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), 65.