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Evangelicals Around the World: A Global Handbook for the 21st Century
Evangelicals Around the World: A Global Handbook for the 21st Century
Thomas Nelson
Thomas Nelson, 2015
432 pp., 34.99

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Mark Noll

Into All the World

A global handbook of evangelicalism.

To observe that evangelicalism underwent significant developments in the 1970s and '80s seems only to repeat the obvious. Readers of Books & Culture might think first of the politicization that attracted many evangelicals to the Republican Party or perhaps about the widely publicized controversies over terms like "inerrant" or "inspired" to describe the character of Scripture. We might also consider highly visible figures (Billy Graham, Bill Hybels, Jerry Falwell, et al.) who have received so much attention in the American media.

Evangelicals Around the World, a richly informative handbook commissioned by the World Evangelical Alliance, asks us to think again. While the volume includes much on matters that many of us in North America would instinctively consider the main developments of recent evangelical history, most of its pages open up subjects, spotlight individuals, and explore situations that are all but unknown in the United States.

There is for example the remarkable resurgence of evangelical Christianity in Cambodia—where churches begun by Christian and Missionary Alliance missionaries were all but wiped out in the genocide orchestrated by Pol Pot in the late 1970s. Remnants of those churches straggled into Thai refugee camps, where they hung on until allowed to return. Today more than 200,000 Cambodian evangelicals enjoy flourishing churches while also dispatching missionaries into unevangelized villages. Cambodian evangelicals also provide the main support for Ratanak International, an NGO founded by Brian McConaghy, a former member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Ratanak combats sex trafficking under the leadership of individuals like Reaksa Himm, whose family was killed by the Khmer Rouge; he obtained training as a psychologist in Canada before returning as a missionary to his own native people.

In an exaggerated variation of tensions also experienced in North America, South American evangelicals during the 1970s and '80s cultivated sharply contrasting attitudes toward theological education. In Chile, some of that country's thriving Pentecostal churches looked with deep suspicion on any of its laypeople or ministers who sought formal theological training. Across the Andes in Argentina, by contrast, serious theological education began with informal gatherings among Pentecostals during the dark days of a military dictatorship, which then later blossomed into regular instruction. For this expanding approach to theological training, key leadership came from figures like Norberto Saracco, one of the first Argentinean Pentecostals to earn a PhD, who happened also to participate in a Buenos Aires prayer circle that included the Catholic Bishop Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I.

The chronicle of evangelical developments in sub-Saharan Africa has become far too diverse for easy summary. Yet material in this book would support a strong case that for the Christian future, African developments are more significant than anything occurring in the old evangelical homelands. In East Africa, as an example, 53 organizations have joined to create the Tanzania Evangelical Fellowship. In Nairobi the African International University now offers—to be sure, with some faculty still from North America—doctoral training in Scripture, theology, missions, and Islamic studies. In Nigeria, the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA), an offshoot of earlier efforts by the Sudan Interior Mission, now includes over 5,000 congregations with six million adherents, while sponsoring two seminaries, eight Bible colleges, fifteen theological training centers, four hospitals, one hundred medical clinics, an HIV/Aids ministry team, and a school for nurses and mid-wives. And this is not even to mention the huge variety of rapidly expanding health-and-wealth, charismatic, and Pentecostal churches that promote a bewildering spectrum of theological views and day-to-day practices.

When using the term "evangelical," it is now imperative to consider the entire world.

Attention to Africa also underscores the social and economic challenges that many of the world's evangelicals now encounter: poverty instead of prosperity, rapid social transformation instead of social stability, perpetual confrontation with violence instead of only the fear of violence from far away—but also daily joy in the tangible presence of the Holy Spirit, existential reliance on God for the provision of daily needs, and the local congregation as a center of personal security.

Evangelicals Around the World is directed to a popular readership with the aim of expanding general awareness of what evangelical Christianity now means around the globe. Yet as it accomplishes that task, the book also raises important questions for deeper analysis.

One of these concerns the angle of vision from which this work has been produced. Two of the four editors are Canadians (Brian Stiller, Global Ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance; and Karen Stiller, who edits the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada's Faith Today magazine), as is Debra Feiguth, a writer who authored many of the book's vignettes highlighting specific evangelical churches, organizations, or individuals. The two other editors are an Australian (Mark Hutchinson, associated with the University of Western Sydney and the Scots College) and an American (Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary). From these positions the editors still can offer full treatment of what's going on in Britain and the US, long acknowledged as the centers of world evangelicalism, but now set within the context of a genuinely global story.

As an instance of the book's distinctive perspective, John Stott comes up regularly in its pages, but not for his ministry in England. Instead, it is for his leadership in writing the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, which recognized social service as an essential partner of evangelism, and for the foundation he established to provide advanced theological education for students from the Global South. In its early phases, that effort funded students who came to the West for their study, but now it supports more students who receive their advanced training at institutions in their own, non-Western locations.

Another issue raised in the book is the neuralgic but still pressing question of who counts as "evangelical." Rather than trying to adjudicate this always tricky problem, the book acts as an equal-opportunity-enumerator by using definitions supplied by both Gordon-Conwell's World Christian Database and Operation World, the country-by-country reference and prayer guide now published by InterVarsity Press. While the former classes as "evangelicals" the adherents of evangelical or partially evangelical denominations, the latter uses theological descriptors to estimate the number of evangelicals in whatever church they are found. With its approach, the Database presents a total of about 300 million, while Operation World counts about 550 million. By offering results from both of these valuable—and very careful—enumerations, the book gets on with its task of providing useful information rather than punching the tar baby of definitional precision.

The book also does good service in advertising the World Evangelical Alliance itself. Although the WEA coordinates the efforts of 150 member organizations in 129 countries, it remains under-appreciated in the US, where we luxuriate in countless evangelical, evangelical-like, and evangelical-derived organizations. An insightful essay on the history of the WEA by Ian Randall, who divides his time between Spurgeon's College in London and the Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, helpfully describes an organization rooted in 19th-century pan-evangelical efforts, but with a modern structure that emerged after World War II.

In typical evangelical fashion, the WEA is a voluntary organization supported only by the good will of its members and friends. It does not, in other words, represent all who might be considered evangelical in the way the Vatican functions as an icon of organization for Roman Catholics. Yet in its efforts to link the often strongly individualistic segments of world-wide evangelicalism, the WEA is worthy of more recognition and support than it usually receives.

Many other important questions emerge from the pages of Evangelicals Around the World. Among the most interesting is to consider the change of perspective when the roster of noteworthy evangelicals from the past includes, as this book does, Mojola Abegbi, founder of the first indigenous church in what is now Nigeria, and Peter Ambuofa, a Solomon Islander who led the South Seas Evangelical Mission, alongside William Carey, Jonathan Edwards, or D. L. Moody.

However such questions are answered, the message powerfully communicated in this book is entirely clear: when using the term "evangelical," it is now imperative to consider the entire world. Whatever system is used for counting, more evangelicals now live in Nigeria and Brazil, when taken together, than in the US. More evangelicals are now found in each of those two countries—and also in each of China, Kenya, South Korea, India, and Indonesia—than in any of the European homelands from which evangelicalism emerged. And today the most evangelical nations in the world, when measured by proportions of national population, are not the United States, England, Scotland, or Canada—but Vanuatu, Barbados, the Bahamas, Kenya, the Solomon Islands, South Korea, and the Central African Republic.

Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book is In the Beginning was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 (Oxford Univ. Press).

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