By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
updated 6/9/2005 2:11:07 PM ET 2005-06-09T18:11:07

Evangelical Christians face a strong challenge to traditional ideas of the movement as evangelicalism takes root in the developing world and foreign worshipers export their indigenous customs back to North America.

Evangelicalism in North America, and especially in the United States, is a largely insular movement, and it is increasingly out of step with developments in the Third World, where the white, English-speaking missionaries of the 20th century are rapidly being succeeded by local pastors who are able and willing to marry traditional evangelical theology with native practices.

“They have become increasingly indigenized over the last 50 years, so that the leadership in Latin America, in Africa, in much of Asia is indigenous leadership that has only marginal connections to North American institutions,” said Nancy T. Ammerman, a professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University.

“Liberal evangelicals are going to be very uncomfortable with the relative moral conservatism of many evangelicals in the Southern Hemisphere,” she said. “Conservative evangelicals are going to be very uncomfortable with the range of worship practices that are present in evangelical churches in the Southern Hemisphere. So yeah, everybody is going to be uncomfortable, and the domain is really going to get redefined.”

An equal opportunity challenge
That means that if America’s squabbling evangelicals are to maintain their influence in the worldwide movement, conservatives and liberals alike will have to set aside their differences and deal with the change, leading figures in progressive American evangelicalism contend.

In 25 years — especially if you include Pentecostalism as part of the evangelical world — “my hunch is that there will be a sizable contingent of non-native North American evangelicals that will be a part of the religious scene,” Ammerman said. “For both mainline white Protestants and evangelical white Protestants, that changes the overall dynamic in terms of what constitutes ‘we.’

“When American Protestants think about who ‘we’  are, not only will they be thinking about the fact that they are but a small portion of the larger world, but they will also be recognizing that the U.S. Protestant reality is one in which there are people from all over the world who bring an immensely variegated experience of evangelicalism into the picture.”

But even as “the center of the evangelical movement — the energy, the passion — is coming from the south,” said the Rev. Daniel Vestal, coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, evangelicals in North America stubbornly continue to obsess over abortion and gay rights.

By contrast, the engines driving the rise of evangelicalism in the Southern Hemisphere, which scholars say is home to as many as two-thirds of the world’s evangelical Christians, are poverty and the environment.

“The evangelicals in the developing world are really challenging some of the presuppositions and some of the perspectives of North American evangelicalism. They are acting as something of a prophetic challenge to us, because they are dealing with the issues of social justice, particularly as it has to do with the poor,” Vestal said.

An uncomfortable change for everyone
Vestal, a leader of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s split from the Southern Baptist Convention in 1991, saw the coming transformation as a blessing as much as a challenge. The new evangelicals of the “global south” are more centered on the Bible, he said, and they could spark a revival of evangelism in evangelicalism.

Vestal said he saw encouraging signs that American evangelicals were beginning to recognize their “integral mission ... a ministry that unapologetically combines evangelism and proclamation with social concerns and advocacy for the poor.”

But evangelicalism in North America still “has a harshness, a narrowness, an exclusionary kind of a feel to it,” he said. “When you get in a global scale, evangelicalism has much more of a welcoming, much more of an inviting [tone]. There’s more emphasis on the good news of Jesus Christ and the need for not only conversion but social transformation.”

Vestal still has scars from the Baptist break of 15 years ago, and he knows the transition will be a contentious one.

“I wouldn’t go so far” as to say he was optimistic, Vestal said. Rather, “I’m hopeful.”

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