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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Global Evangelicalism: Incomplete Stories under a Big Umbrella

Written by: on February 1, 2018

As I read through these essays curated by Donald Lewis and Richard Pierard, I grappled with mixed feelings. Each of the ten essays approached the topic of evangelicalism in their context differently. In following the work of a dozen authors, I offer some reflections, though primarily focusing on the late Ogbu Kalu’s essay on Africa, as one who has lived on that continent.

  • I got the sense that this is simply a re-writing of mission history, like Stephen Neill’s A History of Christian Mission, rather than an exploration of liberation theology (Latin American), womanist or prosperity theology (African), or water buffalo or third-eye theology (Asia). It was heavy on the history and light on the theology and current cultural issues facing the various regions.
  • Only one female contributor![1] That’s like asking “the woman” to preach once a year… on Mother’s Day, a token. On the other hand, the reality is that there was only one African contributor, one Latin American, etc. And the contributor for Asia is Anglo, not Asian! On the third hand, why not invite Mercy Amba Oduyoye to contribute?
  • To explore Europe and North America as a single “region” perpetuates the myth that North America is primarily of European origin. The longer we maintain this narrative, the harder it is to recognize the global heritage of North American residents and citizens. I recognize that Europe and North America were dominant senders of missionaries, but evangelicalism is so much more than “just” mission work. I’m ready for a creative and thoughtful re-telling of the North American evangelical story that encompasses more of the diversity of the nation in the primary thread rather than as afterthoughts.
  • Attempting to paint any region in broad sweeps like this is an inclination towards simple stereotyping. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wisely recounts in a TED Talk I discovered (only) this week, the “problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” For example, any time someone suggests “In Africa…” and follows with a contextually specific phrase (“In Africa, these groups are sometimes known as ‘aladura’ churches, from a Yorouba word meaning ‘owners of prayer’”), it perpetuates a homogenous stereotype of a large and varied landmass. This would be comparable to someone saying, “In North America, ‘Tomar el pelo’ refers to teasing people;” it’s a limited perspective.[2]
  • Likewise, I grow weary of hearing only destructive stories coming out of Africa. Even Kalu laments, “African leaders hold out great hope for Africa, but actually achieving these goals in the short term seems an unlikely prospect.”[3] Again, a flat rendering of the “troubles” of Africa—war, poverty, and disease, highlighted by Kalu, leave us with the impression that it is a dark place. So much more though! For instance, a fictional Botswanan woman reflects on her land and people:

“Mma Ramotswe wondered whether the world which this girl…would inherit would be better than the world in which she…grown up. [She’d] grown happier because [she] had seen Africa become independent and take its own steps in the world. But what a troubled adolescence the continent had experienced, with its vainglorious dictators and their corrupt bureaucracies. And all the time, African people were simply trying to lead decent lives in the midst of all the turmoil and disappointment. Did the people who made all the decisions in this world, the powerful people in places like Washington and London, know about people like Motholeli and Puso? Or care? She was sure that they would care, if only they knew. Sometimes she thought that people overseas had no room in their heart for Africa, because nobody had ever told them that African people were just the same as they were. They simply did not know about people like her Daddy, Obed Ramotswe, who stood, proudly attired in his shiny suit, in the photograph in her living room.”[4]

Please, let’s take the time to discover some of what Sarah C. Williams calls “history ‘from below.’”[5]

  • I struggled with the distinctions of “evangelical” throughout the essays. The foundational definition was Bebbington’s classic: Christians who stress conversion, find ultimate authority in the Bible, are moved to action “because of their own experience of God,” and stress the death and resurrection of Jesus as central to their faith.[6] Noll recognizes that “part of the genius of evangelicalism is its ability to adapt to local cultures, but this adaptability makes clear-cut definitions more difficult to maintain.”[7] The problem with this attempt to define and explore evangelicalism in this manner is that I began to wonder what type of Christianity wasn’t included in the definition. Who isn’t under the evangelical umbrella in Africa (or Asia, Oceana, etc.)? Kalu’s mention of the missionary “moratorium” in the 1970s and the World Council of Churches (WCC) is a case in point.[8] The WCC is primarily composed of “mainline” denominations and African theologians in those mainline denominations initiated the moratorium. Just who isn’t an evangelical in these authors’ minds?
  • Finally, it was helpful to be reminded by Kalu of the paradigm differences between North America and Africa. Unlike the North American shift identified by Taylor in A Secular Age, with the loss of transcendence in the immanent frame, Kalu observes that “since Africans recognized the role of the transcendental in the daily lives of individuals and communities, the struggle against demonic forces and spiritual evil easily occupied a central role.”[9] If there is a disconnect in understanding one another’s context, this contrast identifies it.

As Williams suggests, Christianity is complex and “to deploy one singular Christian discourse about gender [or Africa, Asia, etc.] as encompassing and typical is at best to simplify and at worst to gravely misrepresent the diverse spectrum of ideas about gender [or place].”[10] While texts like this support a big picture, perhaps even these contextual approaches are too broad.

 

[1] That being said, I greatly appreciated the assumption she challenged that “gender and evangelicalism” was all about women (Sarah C. Williams, “Evangelicals and Gender,” in Global Evangelicalism, eds. Donald M. Lewis and Richard V. Pierard (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2014), 277ff). It must be a conversation on both genders.

[2] There are 54 countries, and 1500+ languages spoken on the African continent (at least 6 language families), at least 68 in Kenya alone.

[3] Ogbu Kalu, “Africa,” in Global Evangelicalism, 163.

[4] Alexander McCall Smith, Tears of the Giraffe (Anchor Books, 2000), 204-205.

[5] Williams, 276.

[6] Mark Noll, “Defining Evangelicalism,” in Global Evangelicalism, 20. cf David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 1993), 2-17.

[7] Noll, 23.

[8] Kalu, 156-157.

[9] Kalu, 162.

[10] Williams, 285.

About the Author

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Katy Drage Lines

In God’s good Kingdom, some minister like trees, long-standing, rooted in a community. They embody words of Wendell Berry, “stay years if you would know the genius of the place.” Others, however, are called to go. Katy is one of those pilgrims. A global nomad, Katy grew up as a fifth generation Colorado native, attended college & seminary and was ordained in Tennessee, married a guy from Pennsylvania, ministered for ten years in Kenya, worked as a children’s pastor in a small church in Kentucky, and served college students in a university library in Orange County, California. She recently moved to the heart of America, Indianapolis, and has joined the Englewood Christian Church community, serving with them as Pastor of Spiritual Formation. She & her husband Kip, have two delightful boys, a college junior and high school junior.

9 responses to “Global Evangelicalism: Incomplete Stories under a Big Umbrella”

  1. Mary says:

    “Sometimes she thought that people overseas had no room in their heart for Africa, because nobody had ever told them that African people were just the same as they were.”
    Katy, I agree with your comments on the definition of evangelicalism. Does it leave something out? I think so and the part it leaves out is the part about though we are, as Mma Ramotswe says alike, we are also very different. That seems to be the challenge – We all need Jesus, but He respected each and every person right where they were.
    I’m really impressed with how you tied all of our recent books into this book, though it was an anthology. Perhaps Kalu’s essay was written a long time ago because he died in 2009. So, your observation that it seemed a little out of place was very astute.
    Overall though, I was excited to see how much is going on in the rest of the world!

    • mm Katy Drage Lines says:

      I think, in theory, that Bebbington’s definition is pretty widely accepted. Where the problem lies, however, is how it is applied in real life. The more I read in these essays, the more I sensed the authors encompassing nearly everything identified as “Christian” into the evangelical umbrella.

      I suppose some boundary could be drawn based on self-identification. Though even that can be distracting– for instance, I personally would resist the evangelical label based on the North American expression’s alignment with politics and capitalism (a la Lewis & Pierard’s intro), but in theory would affirm Bebbington’s definition.

  2. Lynda Gittens says:

    Thanks Katy for your review. I wrestled with how to relate the essays or connect them in my writing so I stuck with one.
    Thank you for your insight.

  3. Jim Sabella says:

    Katy, what an excellent point you make about North America and Europe begin treated as one region. True, they have many similarities, but they both very different and unique in their approach to almost everything! You’re right, I too think it is time to retell the story of North America Evangelicalism in a much more encompassing way. Thanks, Katy.

  4. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Katy- your perspective on the book was most enlightening. Thank you for bringing in the female voice more and acknowledging how poorly it was recognized in the book. I didn’t even notice that.
    Your perspective on the African section is most interesting as you can speak to this from your experience. The social scientist in me was emerging and I wonder why the African culture is often portrayed so negatively? What’s the gain? Maybe you can shed some light on this. It is a common theme in our readings and I found myself wondering why this is still subtly and not so subtly prevalent even in today’s writings.

    • mm Katy Drage Lines says:

      I think the short answer is post-colonial bias (with a dash of racism thrown in). The reality is that things ARE tough in much of Africa (though flourishing, too, in some ways). Much of Africa is still dealing with the trauma and structures of colonialism.

  5. Stu Cocanougher says:

    “…the ‘problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.'”

    There is so much “meat” in this statement. In some ways, stories, books, films, and newspaper/magazine articles help us learn about issues in places like Libya, Rwanda, Ivory Coast, or Zimbabwe. Yet, whatever we learn via media is simply two dimensional.

    I think that the starting point that we need to take is to admit that whatever knowledge we have about a culture because of media exposure is one small tile in a mosaic.

    Instead of making conclusions, we need to be content to NOT have a strong opinion about some things. At times, we need to just listen and learn…and no more.

  6. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Yes Katy I agree that it is odd for a book that discusses evangelicalism from a global perspective to only have one woman’s voice represented. I appreciate diversity of voices not to check the box but to gain a better understanding of different perspectives on similar topics. At times it can seem like “white male” is the voice of choice.

  7. Kristin Hamilton says:

    “To explore Europe and North America as a single “region” perpetuates the myth that North America is primarily of European origin. The longer we maintain this narrative, the harder it is to recognize the global heritage of North American residents and citizens.”
    YES! I kept thinking this about Europe/N.America, and wondering if the essays about Africa and Asia were also too general.
    I think you hit the heart of my frustration when you said that these essays are heavy on history and light on theology – or at least theological context, in my view. Since the book purported to include “Theology, History, and Culture” I really expect there to be more cogent ties from history to present, from historical theological issues to those of the present. Maybe I simply expected too much from one small book.

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