David Bebbington, a British historian, famously outlined four key characteristics of the evangelical movement: conversionism, biblicism, activism, and crucicentrism. These are what evangelicals, by and large, would consider the essentials.
Among evangelicals, however, there has historically been plenty of disagreement on all manner of “secondary issues.” Because of this, we evangelicals have been a tough bunch to pin down by those whose livelihoods depend upon pinning groups of people down. Those four characteristics, after all, don’t really align with the categories that are most of interest to these observers. They say nothing about political allegiances, after all. They don’t reveal what kinds of consumers we are. And they don’t prescribe the causes in which our activism will focus. Once again, there’s theoretically room for discernment and adaptation in each of these areas.
Yet in popular understanding, at least in the West, evangelicalism has often been understood to be roughly synonymous with a certain politically partisan agenda. I don’t just mean that this is one way evangelicals are understood. I mean that for many, it is the way evangelicals are understood.
That these understandings are problematic is fairly obvious. But the problems are compounded by the fact that evangelicalism is now a thoroughly global movement, rendering such caricatures even more inadequate than they’ve been in our own Western context. That’s why a book like Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History and Culture in Religious Perspective is so fascinating.
“At its core,” writes historian Mark Noll in his chapter, evangelicalism “is a faith with a global vision.” He goes on to say that evangelicals have “demonstrated an extraordinary ability to cross borders, to locate themselves in many places and within a wide variety of organizational forms, and yet, in adapting, to retain their essential character.” That “essential character,” we can assume, is more or less in alignment with the four characteristics.
The book features essays by evangelical scholars from around the world, and sandwiched by more theoretical and topical chapters, the heart of the book is section two: “Evangelicalism at Ground Level.” In this section we read case studies and analyses from scholars representing each of the major regions of the world. Being something of a Latin Americanist, I paid close attention to the chapter by René Padilla.
“The growth of evangelicalism in Latin America is an unprecedented phenomenon with social consequences,” Padilla writes. “It is changing not only the religious but also the sociopolitical landscape of Latin America.”
Despite the faithful witness of such figures as Bartolomé de las Casas and Archbishop Óscar Romero (the latter of whom is this very day being beatified in El Salvador) – as well as countless other ordinary priests, nuns, and laypeople – for many in Latin America the Roman Catholic Church was historically seen, as Padilla puts it, “as a political religion used to legitimize the colonial establishment.”
In more recent years, after decades of religious hegemony, economic hardship, and political instability, Padilla says that Latin America has “entered a period of history dominated by technocracy, the mass media and an openness to change in every dimension of life.”
These disruptions have led, among other things, to a crisis of authority – a crisis, as Padilla says, with “profound religious repercussions.” He observes:
Latin America has become a shopping mall of religious options! As Peter Berger observed, secularization brings about a demonopolization of religious traditions and leads to pluralism. This leads in turn to a “market situation” in which “the religious tradition, which previously could be authoritatively imposed, now has to be marketed.” Christianity has no future in Latin America if Christians do not take seriously this aspect of today’s religious context. The end of the Constantinian era, marked by “the death of Christendoms,” is the starting point for understanding the growth of evangelicalism in Latin America and the role of evangelical churches at the beginning of the third millennium.
As we read projections about the continued growth of evangelicalism, which in Latin America and elsewhere usually means Pentecostalism, we’d do well to keep some these broader trends and explanations in mind, without ignoring the fact that, as Padilla reminds us, these seismic shifts in religious practice are “a concrete result of convictions and insights pointing to spiritual realities that escape the analysis of social sciences.”
These observations should also prompt us to pray. Samuel Escobar, an evangelical from Peru who has devoted much of his life to serving the church in Latin America, laments some of the unintended fruits of the growth of the evangelical church:
It looks as if growth and our anxiety to have a new social role have transformed Evangelicals from a sacrificial and disciplined minority into a middle-class subculture in which ambition for power and social prestige have taken the place of discipleship. Eschatological hope and dynamics have been set aside.
I owe a lot to Christians from throughout Latin America who have in a number of ways shaped my own faith, and I am committed to continue to learn from the beliefs and examples of these brothers and sisters. In many ways, their challenges and struggles are not so different from our own. But whereas I’m inclined to puzzle over what it means to meet Jesus in the lives of the poor, so many of Latin America’s spiritual giants don’t need to. The majority of them still have no need to “opt for the poor” as a certain theological framework once put it. Rather, as Padilla writes, by and large “they are the poor.” And we need them. Desperately.
Header photo via Missão Aliança