In his new book, The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Where They Are, and Their Politics, historian Christopher Catherwood provides a fascinating overview of the what, the who, and the where of evangelical Christianity in our world today. The grandson of the late Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Catherwood writes as an evangelical not only for those who would so identify themselves but also for those who decidedly wouldn’t.
The layout of the book is straightforward: chapter 1 considers core evangelical beliefs, chapter 2 looks at a typical evangelical church’s vision statement, chapter 3 surveys evangelical presence around the globe, chapter 4 centers on the history of evangelicalism, chapter 5 discusses evangelical differences, and chapter 6 tackles the issue of evangelical politics. Catherwood concludes with a brief Afterword examining the contemporary resurgence of Reformed theology, often called “New Calvinism.”
Evangelicalism Is United
Despite appearances to the contrary, Catherwood demonstrates that evangelicals are an essentially unified bunch who agree on far more than they don’t. What unites evangelicals is neither age nor geography nor ethnicity nor socioeconomic status, but belief. There are a cluster of central, “first-order” beliefs that all evangelicals without exception hold in common-such as the Trinity, the authority of Scripture, justification by faith alone, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, his bodily resurrection, and his future return.
Catherwood also helpfully distinguishes between essential and nonessential beliefs. While doctrines such as those noted above would fall in the former category, doctrines such as eschatology, charismatic gifts, and baptism would land in the latter. Evangelical unity transcends and outshines denominational distinctives, though these, too, are important.
Evangelicalism Is Global
Chapter 3 was one of the most encouraging things I’ve read in some time. Catherwood unleashes a swath of research to demonstrate how rapidly Christianity is expanding outside the Western world. In fact, it’s now clear that “the overwhelming majority of evangelical Christians today do not live in the West at all but in what most commentators refer to as the Global South, or the Two-thirds World, since most of the world live there” (72).
It warmed my heart to read that the brand of Christianity that’s exploding worldwide is the kind that actually believes stuff. Robustly biblical orthodoxy is being embraced while cotton-candy counterfeits are being exposed for the fluff that they are. Catherwood notes the irony that “modern people” around the world are eschewing the very de-supernaturalized drivel they were supposed to find appealing. “What sounds fine in Harvard or Cambridge is rejected as totally unrealistic and white in the parts of the world where the vast bulk of twenty-first century people now live” (80).
Evangelicalism’s international explosion is as exciting as the stats are staggering. Here’s just a sampling: Uganda sees roughly 13,000 converts per year, and more than 40 percent of their people will soon be professing evangelicals. In Africa as a whole there’s been an 800 percent increase in evangelical Anglicanism over the past four decades. Both Guatemala and Chile are 40 percent evangelical. Korea, though never under European rule, may become a majority Christian country. In China there are more evangelicals than Communist Party members. The country’s Christian population “probably exceeds the total population of even the biggest countries of Western Europe, such as Germany, France, or Britain” (89). In fact, China may soon boast the world’s greatest number of evangelicals.
Such global growth rates have eclipsed even the most generous of predictions. For instance, Catherwood notes, “Around 1993 the [strongly evangelical] Anglican Church in Nigeria was predicted to go from just under 400,000 at independence in 1960 to just under 8 million by 2010. In fact there are over 18 million Anglicans in Nigeria today, more than double the prediction” (86-87). And yes, friends, there are more Nigerian Anglicans than American Southern Baptists.
While we ought to be cautious about placing too much weight on survey-driven research, I think we can safely say that the heartland of global evangelicalism is not Texas.
Evangelicalism Is Nonpartisan
Additionally, Catherwood shows how deeply mistaken it is to picture evangelicals only as the sort who sit around making scrapbooks of George W. Bush. Such a caricature is dangerous, for it “confuses evangelicalism as a whole, which is a worldwide, global movement, with just a tiny segment of it, and gives it a political coloring that is utterly atypical of evangelicals in most countries today” (71).
Exposing naïve notions of “American exceptionalism” and “manifest destiny” as theologically wrong and historically inaccurate, Catherwood makes plain that America was never a “Christian” nation, and that efforts to reclaim it as such are misguided from the start. God has never sought to establish a “semitheocracy” on American soil, and Americans are not his chosen people. Instead, Catherwood contends, “God’s people on earth are his church, and neither location nor genes count for admission” (136). Therefore, far from being some cultural hand-me-down inherited from one’s parents, biblical Christianity is grounded in the necessity of personal repentance and faith in King Jesus.
Further, Christ’s kingdom will not be ushered in by political prowess, and to suggest otherwise dangerously distorts the message of the Bible. The kingdom expands and moral change occurs with the conversion of sinners, not the legislation of laws. Indeed, we ought neither trust “in secular election victories to bring godliness to the United States” (135), nor “expect politicians to deliver what they need the Holy Spirit to grant” (143).
Practically speaking, this means that churches should strive to maintain what Catherwood calls the “political neutrality of the pulpit” (128), for preaching politics from the pulpit obscures, among other things, the international nature of God’s people. Well-meaning attempts to marry the Christian gospel with a political agenda are almost always biblically unjustified. What God has kept apart, let no church join together.
The Evangelicals provides an informative and intriguing sweep of the evangelical landscape in our world today. My hunch is believers will find it encouraging, unbelievers will find it concerning, and all will find it illuminating. If nothing else, the book verifies Catherwood’s proposal in the Preface that “evangelicalism is truly a multinational, multicultural, interdenominational body of every race, social class, and political persuasion that one can imagine, and not the white, Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking, and politically far-to-the-right-of-center body that the press often describes it as being” (10).
Most importantly, Catherwood demonstrates that for all their diversity, evangelicals across the globe are allied around what lies at the heart of Scripture, the good news of what God has done in Christ to save sinners-that is, the evangel.