The Competing Narratives of Global Christianity
Written by: Stephen Offutt
Stephen Offutt, the author of New Centers of Global Evangelicalism in Latin America and Africa, explores how the Christian evangelical movement has influenced communities from Beijing to Cape Town to Mexico City.
It is by now common knowledge that an evangelical, Pentecostal form of Christianity is booming in the Global South. From Brazil to Kenya to China, this religious movement continues to plant churches and intrude into national public spheres. Many scholars have puzzled over how and why this has happened. Three plausible schools of thought have emerged.
When the global evangelical movement first emerged in the 1960s -1980s, several of its highest growth areas coincided with the hottest theatres of the Cold War. Scholars such as David Stoll noticed connections between U.S. agencies pursuing military and political interests and the activities of America’s religious right in Latin America. Steve Brouwer further argued that America was exporting a brand of religious fundamentalism across the globe, and worried that it could be more dangerous than Islamic Fundamentalism. Such sentiments dominated intellectual thought on global evangelicalism in the 1990s; they still hold considerable sway today.
New Faces of Christianity
A competing interpretation emerged around the turn of the century. Andrew Walls, Philip Jenkins, and others argued that Christianity’s growth in the Global South is generated by local trends and actors, not the West. In fact, Christianity is not, and never has been, an exclusively Western religion. They grounded their argument on two important premises. First, against all expectations, Christianity began to boom in Africa and Asia just as colonial powers were receding. Christianity had been crippled by the colonial presence instead of being dependent on it. Second, the upsurge in religious vitality continues in the Global South even as the West grows ever more secular and irreligious. These countervailing trends are re-centering global Christianity away from the West. The impact that this account has had on scholarly and general audiences has been significant; Jenkins’ The Next Christendom particularly resonated with readers who were sensing a shift in their global faith community.
More recently, Robert Wuthnow and Mark Noll have offered a third way to think about Global Christianity. Critiquing Jenkins, they argue that he greatly underplays the effect of globalization on contemporary religious communities. The post-colonial era has not severed ties between Global South Christians and the West. On the contrary, never before have Christians in the Global South been as transnationally and globally connected as they are today. Global connectedness scholars also point to the demise of the secularization theory; it is now the minority position within the sociology of religion. Indeed, the death of Christianity in the West has been greatly exaggerated. Rather, a robust North American Christian community generates ever increasing numbers of full time missionaries, short term mission trips, faith based NGOs, and congregations eager for overseas partnerships. In the global connectedness account, Christianity might not be exclusively Western, but its Western actors remain active and influential across the globe.
Introducing the Religious Social Forces Framework
Each of these accounts have deficiencies. The American Imperialism school was forged when the lens of political ideology seemed the most useful in understanding all aspects of the world, even religion. The New Faces scholars overlooked the transnational orientation of contemporary society. And although there is much to like about the Global Connectedness argument, little research has been done outside the West to support it. Each approach reflects part of Global Christianity, but their weaknesses also create distortions to the fuller picture.
In my book, New Centers of Global Evangelicalism in Latin America and Africa, I offer a fourth approach. In addition to seeking the cause of growth, I also identify the drivers and trajectories of change within the movement. The central image in my account is that of the local entrepreneur who draws on newly available transnational religious resources to build organizations and institutions. Such resources include ideas and strategies as well as money, people and networks. Local actors are not overwhelmed by these global resources in their environments; rather, they use them to achieve their own ends and to mold their own religious communities.
Having identified the interaction of local and global religious social forces as the drivers of growth and change, I outline six resulting trends within global evangelicalism. They are: 1) ever larger megachurches and other organizations; 2) the increasing ability of countries in Latin America and Africa to export religion; 3) greater social stratification and inequality within the movement; 4) more and different kinds of political engagement; 5) increasing social engagement, especially around poverty related issues; and 6) shifting evangelical beliefs.