Today the number of people below the equator who claim allegiance to Christ far outweighs those in the U.S. and Europe who identify with Christianity. That’s due to an explosive growth of evangelical Protestantism in the Global South. One of the first major books to highlight this shift was by scholar Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, published by Oxford in 2002.
Why are these changes occurring and what are the consequences? Stephen Offutt (twitter @offuttStephen) of Asbury Theological Seminary takes an academic approach to finding answers based on his studies of the strong evangelical presence in El Salvador and South Africa. In his New Centers of Global Evangelicalism in Latin America and Africa published by Cambridge University Press he shows how faith is being shaped by transnational social networks, large entrepreneurial organizations, stark economic inequality and changing political realities. He argues that local and global religious social forces are primarily responsible for these changes–as opposed to other social, economic or political forces.
It will come as no surprise to leaders of large North American churches at how Offutt documents that religious forces from the West—megachurches, mission groups, parachurch groups like child sponsorship programs, television/radio ministries, and the like—greatly influence the new centers of evangelicalism that he identifies. In fact, he says that local religious entrepreneurs in the Global South are driving growth, but are doing so using religious forces from the West. As he describes these Western influences (page 157): “They are tremendously influential: they have large budgets, they are well connected locally and internationally, and they provide desperately needed services to the poor.” Augmented by the presence of short- and long-term missionaries, Christian tourists and businesspeople, friends and family, “Western hymns are sung in the worship services, Western curriculum is used in Sunday schools, and Western degrees confer legitimacy on local evangelical leaders who have had the chance to study abroad” (page 157).
Offutt argues that local religious entrepreneurs are at the center of this explosive growth. They grab transnational resources, which are newly at their disposal, and put them together in new ways. By doing so they create ever larger churches, media corporations, and other types of businesses. These organizations in turn empower local evangelicals in the Global South to send missionaries to other countries, combat poverty, and become more socially and politically engaged. In short, local religious entrepreneurs provide faith communities with the institutional strength they need to transform their communities and the world for Christ.
This West-South exchange is both significant and likely to continue for many years to come.