What’s Driving Christianity’s Global Growth? | Influence Podcast


In this episode, I talk to Brian Stiller about five drivers behind Christianity’s explosive growth worldwide.

Stiller is a global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance, an ordained minister in the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, and author of From Jerusalem to Timbuktu: A World Tour of the Spread of Christianity, recently published by IVP Books.

To learn more about Brian Stiller, visit BrianStiller.com.


Episode Notes

  • 00:00 Introduction of podcast
  • 00:45 TruFire Sunday school curriculum sponsor ad
  • 01:08 Introduction of Brian Stiller
  • 01:18 What From Jerusalem to Timbuktu is about
  • 03:30 Evangelicalism’s explosive growth over the last century
  • 05:46 An overview of the five drivers behind this growth
  • 07:28 Driver #1: The Holy Spirit
  • 11:57 Drivers #2 and 3: Bible translation and indigeneity
  • 19:19 Drivers #4 and 5: Engaging the public square and holistic ministry
  • 24:29 Hopeful or fearful about Christianity’s future?
  • 27:39 How to follow Brian Stiller or the World Evangelical Alliance online
  • 28:20 Conclusion
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Basic Christianity | Book Review


What does it mean to be evangelical? Derived from the Greek euaggelion — “gospel” or “good news” — the word describes things that are related to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Since the Reformation, it has been used as shorthand for Protestants generally. With the Great Awakening, it began to be used of a specific type of Protestant: Bible-based, Cross-centered, conversion-required and action-oriented.

Now in the United States, the word more often than not is used to describe a brand of partisan politics, at least in the popular press. This is unfortunate, because the gospel itself cannot be reduced to partisan politics. It is bigger and more fundamental than that. John Stott’s Basic Christianity helps readers remember this by outlining a truly evangelical understanding of Christianity.

Stott writes: “Christianity is a rescue religion. It declares that God has taken the initiative in Jesus Christ to rescue us from our sins. This is the main theme of the Bible.”

Over the course of 11 short chapters, Stott covers who Christ is, the nature and consequences of sin, the atoning work of the Cross, and the necessity of responding to Christ personally.

In the Preface, Stott pens this brief description of basic Christianity:

We must commit ourselves, heart and mind, soul and will, home and life, personally and unreservedly, to Jesus Christ. We must humble ourselves before him. We must trust in him as our Savior and submit to him as our Lord; and then go on to take our place as loyal members of the church and responsible citizens in the community.

Over the course of its nearly 60 years in print, Stott’s little book has found a remarkably broad audience — internationally and ecumenically — and for good reason. It is biblical, orthodox and evangelical in the best sense of the word. I recommend it highly. An individual can read it profitably, but I think the best way to read it is with a group. The third edition helpfully includes group discussion questions at the end of the book.

Stott first wrote Basic Christianity in 1958 for a British audience. It has been revised twice, in 1971 and 2008. As far as I can tell, this 2017 Eerdmans reissue is nearly identical to the third edition. Changes include a new cover and minor reformatting of the text. The biggest change is that all Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the 2011 edition of the New International Version.

 

Book Reviewed:
John Stott, Basic Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

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Review of ‘George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father’ by Thomas S. Kidd


George-Whitefield Thomas S. Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

George Whitefield is not well known by Americans today, including American evangelical Christians, his spiritual heirs. In the eighteenth century, however, Whitefield was well known not only in America, but also in his native England—well known, well loved, and widely criticized. Thomas S. Kidd outlines the life of this influential evangelist in George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father.

Whitefield was born in a Gloucester inn on December 16, 1714, to hardworking though not particularly religious parents. He secured a work-scholarship to Oxford University, where he fell under the spiritual influence of John and Charles Wesley and entered ministry in the Church of England. Together with the Wesley brothers, Whitefield led the trans-Atlantic evangelical revival that came to be known as the Great Awakening through ceaseless itinerant evangelism, innovative use of print media, and development of personal and institutional relationships across denominations.

“[Whitefield’s] colleague and frequent rival John Wesley left a greater organizational legacy,” Kidd writes, “and his ally Jonathan Edwards made a more significant theological contribution. But Whitefield was the key figure in the first generation of evangelical Christianity.” Kidd concludes: “Whitefield was the first great preacher in a modern evangelical movement that has seen many. Perhaps he was the greatest evangelical preacher the world has ever seen.”

Reading Kidd’s biography of Whitefield—which will be the standard work for years to come—I was struck by several similarities with contemporary American evangelicalism that are worth noting, both positive and negative.

The first is Whitefield’s blend of principle and pragmatism. Whitefield was an ordained priest in the Church of England and a convinced Calvinist. This did not prevent him from working with English Dissenters and Arminians (at least of the Wesleyan variety), Scottish Presbyterians, or American Congregationalists, however. Rather, with them, he emphasized the experience of the “new birth”—that is, being born again—and the doctrine of justification by faith. These expressed the essence of the gospel.

To proclaim that gospel, Whitefield pragmatically utilized a variety of innovative techniques. These included itinerant evangelism, field preaching, personal discipleship (the hallmark of Methodism), and the use of newspapers to promote the ministry. The result was a trans-Atlantic revival united by a powerful spiritual encounter and a theology that explained it, far more than by ecclesiology or denominational distinctives.

The second is Whitefield’s emphasis on the ministry of the Holy Spirit, both as the One who brings about regeneration (the technical term for the new birth) and the One who empowers ministers to proclaim the gospel. Wesley’s journals are filled with descriptions of people experiencing the throes of spiritual conviction, not to mention the experience of breaking through to the peace of conversion. He also routinely speaks of the Spirit prompting his actions and words. Kidd even notes a handful of occasions where Whitefield, his colleagues, or his followers may have spoken in tongues. Ironically, in light of the cessationist theology that characterized evangelical Calvinism in the early twentieth century, Kidd points out that the revivalists believed in the contemporary work of the Holy Spirit—though not as Pentecostals do today—while their non-evangelical critics were the ones who were cessationists, believing that the gifts of the Holy Spirit had ceased in the Apostolic Era.

This emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit was often a help to the emerging evangelical movement, rooting God’s work in the heart and not merely the head, but it was also occasionally a hindrance. Critics routinely accused Whitefield and his followers of “enthusiasm,” a mindless religious ecstasy detached from good theology, good taste, and good sense. Sometimes, they were right. In turn, under what Whitefield assumed to be the prompting of the Spirit, he often criticized non-evangelical ministers for being “unconverted,” that is, not even Christian. This won him few friends among that group. As Whitefield and his followers matured, they learned to distinguish the fire of genuine revival from “wild-fire.”

The third is the paradoxical combination of unity and division. As noted above, the Anglican Whitefield partnered with ministers of other Protestant denominations to promote revival. This is true of evangelicalism to the present day. But just as there are sharp theological disputes today between Calvinist and Arminian evangelicals, there were sharp theological disputes between the same two groups in the eighteenth century. Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist, as was the Welsh evangelist Howell Harris. The Wesley brothers, on the other hand, were equally staunch Arminians. The theological debates between those four individuals, and their respective followers, were intense and often nasty. Nevertheless, throughout his ministry, Whitefield found his way toward cooperation with the Wesley’s in gospel ministry.

The fourth is the confusion of the gospel and patriotism. Whitefield came to prominence during Protestant England’s seemingly endless wars with Catholic powers. Like other Protestants in his age, he viewed the Reformation dispute with Rome as both theological (How are we saved?) and political (Who will rule us?) in nature. During the War of Jenkins’ Ear with Spain and the Seven Years War with France, Whitefield preached pro-English, anti-Spanish, anti-French, and anti-Catholic sermons that are embarrassing to read today. My guess is that in two hundred years, the patriotic sermons of today’s evangelicals will cause readers to blush too.

It has been said that the past is a foreign country. Reading Whitefield’s biography reminds us that his age was vastly different from our own. Like many in America in the eighteenth century, Whitefield owned slaves, a fact for which he can (and should) be criticized. (His marriage was also nothing to write home about.)

On the other hand, the past is not so foreign that it is unable to teach us lessons about our own time. This is especially true of contemporary American evangelicalism. The trans-Atlantic evangelical revival of the eighteenth century initiated patterns of spiritual experience, theological doctrine, and ministry methodology that are still recognizable among American and British evangelicals today, for better and for worse.

As evangelicals move forward in the twenty-first century, it is thus reasonable to ask: Who will be our Edwards, to teach us in this postmodern intellectual milieu? Who will be our Wesley, to organize, network, and disciple us? And who will be our Whitefield—the evangelist whose preaching of the gospel will draw men and women, boys and girls to Christ? Kidd notes that Whitefield was perhaps “the greatest evangelical preacher the world has ever seen.” I would add only five words: though hopefully not the last.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Review of ‘Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics’ by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel


3997 Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel, eds., Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics: A Guide for Evangelicals (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013). $24.00, 336 pages.

In contemporary America, many people describe themselves as “spiritual, not religious.” They are interested in God, prayer, and spiritual disciplines, but not in dogma or denomination. They are critical of religious people who, to them, seem concerned only with the finer points of doctrine and weekly attendance at a specific type of Christian church.

Evangelical Christians—including Pentecostals—need to listen to this critique, even as they disagree with it. The disagreement part is easy: Spirituality and religion cannot be separated so easily because what we believe and how we live are inseparable. The listening part is harder, however, because it involves recognition that many American churches—including, too often, our own—are spiritually dead. This deadness, which often manifests as persnickety dogmatism and denominational pride, in turn feeds the desire for a spirituality decoupled from organized religion.

Authentic renewal requires us to recouple religion and spirituality, faith and life, and doctrine, ecclesial communion, and vibrant experience. The 1978 publication of Richard J. Foster’s The Celebration of Discipline signaled the desire of many evangelicals to do precisely that. But given how Foster drew on spiritual classics from across Christian history, it also signaled the need for evangelicals to pay ecumenical attention to the best of what Christians have said and written about spirituality across the ages.

This poses a dilemma for evangelicals, however. As a movement, we are part of the “Great Tradition” of Christianity, which affirms the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement, among a host of doctrines held in common. Within that tradition, however, we are critical of some of the doctrinal emphases and spiritual practices of our fellow traditioners. As Western Christians, aspects of our doctrine and spirituality are distinct from and stand in tension with those of Eastern, i.e., Orthodox, Christians. As Protestants, we are critical of aspects of Catholicism: e.g., papal authority, soteriology, Mariology, sacramentalism. As evangelical Protestants, we have our own disagreements with mainline Protestants. And within evangelicalism, we have running disagreements too: Arminianism vs. Calvinism, credobaptism vs. paedobaptism, Pentecostalism vs. cessationism.

How, then, can evangelical Christians appropriate the riches of the Christian tradition without compromising our own contributions to and critique of it?

Answering that question is the agenda of Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics: A Guide for Evangelicals, edited by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel. As the editors note in their Introduction, they have organized authors’ contributions around four themes: “why should spiritual classics be read, how should spiritual classics be read, what are these spiritual classics and who are the people behind them” (p. 11).

I will not review each of the chapters in the book, lest I simply recapitulate the book’s contents and make this review too long to be useful. However, by way of evaluation, I will say that I learned something from each chapter, found the book as a whole to be quite excellent, and was motivated—by reading it—not merely to read further in the spiritual classics but also to love God more, which is the ultimate and unifying point of all Christian spiritual classics.

Having said that, however, I will focus on Fred Sanders’s contribution, “Reading Spiritual Classics as Evangelical Protestants” (pp. 149–166), which directly addresses the dilemma I raised above. Sanders counsels evangelicals to read Christian spiritual classics with an “open but cautious” attitude (p. 149), what he later terms “principled eclecticism” (p. 160). This is nothing new, for as Sanders notes, “The evangelical book-recommending network is as old as evangelicalism itself; the evangelical movement seems to have been born in a flurry of literary recommendations” (pp. 151–152). This included not only Protestant, Puritan, and Pietist spiritual classics, but also classics from other Christian communions, such as the Puritans’ recommendation of Bernard of Clairvaux’s works on the Song of Songs, or John Wesley’s recommendation of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis.

Sanders summarizes a specifically evangelical reading of Christian spiritual classics as being “for the gospel” (p. 150). Here’s his longer description:

We read widely in the classics, presupposing the gospel in the sense that we know what it is before we start reading, and we will recognize it when we come across it in a spiritual classic. We are guided by the gospel, so that we will immediately know when it is missing from what we are reading. We seek out the gospel, meaning that we read in such a way that can find the good news even when it is present in a fragmentary, disguised or distorted way. And we are jealous for the gospel, meaning that we cannot be satisfied by any disguised, distorted or otherwise deficient presentation of the gospel. If we are to go shopping in the spiritual classics with this kind of attitude of freedom and potential criticism, we had better be appropriately humble about how much we have to learn, but also appropriately bold about confessing that we know what an evangelical reading of the classics would look like (p. 160).

This humble-and-bold approach should characterize an evangelical reading not merely of Christian spiritual classics, but also our life as Christians more generally. We know what we know, but there is much that we don’t know and need to learn. Therefore we engage the Christian tradition—an the world more generally—in conversation, both listening and speaking, learning and teaching, so that the gospel may be experienced and lived out in ever-increasing measure.

Given the anti-historical stance of many of my fellow Pentecostals, who sometimes give the impression that the Spirit jumped over the centuries from the Day of Pentecost directly to Azusa Street, this humble boldness is a necessary lesson, even if hard to admit. But it must be learned if we are to affirm the truth of Scripture itself: “[the Father] will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth (John 14:16–17). As Pentecostals, to deny that we can learn from Christian spiritual classics is tantamount to denying that God kept his promise.

I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend Reading the Spiritual Classics: A Guide for Evangelicals. In addition to 14 topical essays, it includes an extensive list of suggested readings, both primary readings of spiritual classics and secondary readings about them. My only complaint is that the two-page subject and author index is too short and woefully incomplete.

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The World Wide (Religious) Web for Tuesday, May 3, 2011


“Welcome to hell, bin Laden.” So said Gov. Mike Huckabee in the opening statement of his Huckabee Report. It’s a common sentiment, but is it a Christian one? James Martin SJ, asks, “What is a Christian Response to Bin Laden’s Death?”  Jennifer Fulwiler writes about “The Shocking Truth That God Loves [loved?] Bin Laden Too.” Jim Wallis argues that “it is never a Christian response to celebrate the death of any human being, even one so given over to the face of evil.” Joe Carter reminds us that “our relief at his death must be tempered by a Christian view of humanity. We must never forget that the evil comes not from the actions of “subhuman vermin” but from the heart of a fallen, sacred yet degraded, human being. If we are to preserve our own humanity we must not forget that our enemy differs from us in degree, not in kind. Like us, they are human, all too human.” Me? I think justice was served by bin Laden’s death. But in the back of my mind, I keep thinking of the scene in Unforgiven where the young man says, “I guess he had it coming.” And Clint Eastwood responds, “We all have it coming, kid.”

Perhaps you’ve seen the following quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on the internet: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” The first sentence of that quote is fake. The rest is authentic, however, taken from a 1963 book of King’s sermons called Strength to Love.

In re Rob Bell, James K. A. Smith asks, “Can hope be wrong?” Sample: “The “I-can’t-imagine” strategy is fundamentally Feuerbachian: it is a hermeneutic of projection which begins from what I can conceive and then projects “upwards,” as it were, to a conception of God. While this “imagining” might have absorbed some biblical themes of love and mercy, this absorption seems selective. More importantly, the “I-can’t-imagine” argument seems inattentive to how much my imagination is shaped and limited by all kinds of cultural factors and sensibilities–including how I “imagine” the nature of love, etc. The “I-can’t-imagine” argument makes man the measure of God, or at least seems to let the limits and constraints of “my” imagination trump the authority of Scripture and interpretation. I take it that discipleship means submitting even my imagination to the discipline of Scripture. (Indeed, could anything be more countercultural right now than Jonathan Edwards’ radical theocentrism, with all its attendant scandals for our modern sensibilities?)”

“Do Your Political Views Affect Your Religious Beliefs?” Uh, shouldn’t that be the other way around?

Make sure to read David Weiss’s article, “God of the Schizophrenic.” I liked this passage: “My faith in God has always been an important part of my life. I am not a saint. I have prejudices and flaws. But as a Christian, I wish fellow churchgoers would refrain from passing judgment and recommending a fix after two minutes of conversation.” Yep.

Anthony Bradley raises some interesting questions in his article, “Evangelicalism’s Narcissism Epidemic.” Here’s the penultimate sentence: “I hate to sound overly simplistic, but I am beginning to wonder if we undermine the mystery of the Christian life by adding extra tasks, missions, and principles that are not in the Bible and burn people out in the process, making Christianity a burden.”

J.E. Dyer argues, “Don’t Be Satisfied with Tolerance.” Personally, I never was.

Over at Patheos.com, John Fea is writing a four-part series on the Civil War as a war between two “Christian nations.” Part 1: “One Nation, Under God, Indivisible.” Part 2: “God’s Judgment upon the South.” Part 3: “The Confederacy’s Christian Nation.” If this series doesn’t sharpen your sense of the irony of history, then your irony-o-meter is broken.

I’ve been thinking about the Bishop of London’s homily at the royal wedding. I particularly liked this passage: “As the reality of God has faded from so many lives in the West, there has been a corresponding inflation of expectations that personal relations alone will supply meaning and happiness in life. This is to load our partner with too great a burden. We are all incomplete: we all need the love which is secure, rather than oppressive, we need mutual forgiveness, to thrive.” I wonder if he’d mind me borrowing that line every now and then.

Did you see the footage of the church verger cartwheeling down the aisle of Westminster Abbey after the royal wedding? Evidently, cartwheeling in a church after a wedding is a no-no in England, but I thought it rather appropriate. Shouldn’t we celebrate wedding with a little whimsy?

People of the Great Commission


Steve Wilkens and Don Thorsen, Everything You Know about Evangelicals Is Wrong (Well, Almost Everything): An Insider’s Look at Myths and Realities (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks, 2010). $16.99, 224 pages.

What is evangelical Christianity?

In Everything You Know about Evangelicals Is Wrong, Steve Wilkens and Don Thorsen set out to discover “an adequate and accurate definition” by identifying and critiquing several caricatures of the movement on the basis of “the empirical realities of evangelicalism’s history, its present composition, and its trajectories toward the future.”

The chapter titles identify the caricatures. Readers learn that “Evangelicals Are Not All…”

  • Mean, Stupid, and Dogmatic (ch. 2)
  • Waiting for the Rapture (ch. 3)
  • Anti-evolutionists (ch. 4)
  • Inerrantists (ch. 5)
  • Rich Americans (ch. 6)
  • Calvinists (ch. 7)
  • Republicans (ch. 8 )
  • Racist, Sexist, and Homophobic (ch. 9)

Wilkens and Thorsen don’t deny that some evangelicals are any—or all—of these things. Rather, they argue that “we should not confuse the social [or theological] agendas of particular evangelicals with evangelicalism’s agenda.”

Both outsiders and insiders to the evangelical movement contribute to this confusion, by the way. For example, the New Atheists caricature evangelicals as anti-evolutionist and anti-science. What to do, then, with Francis Collins, who is both an evangelical and an evolutionist? Some evangelical historiographers caricature the movement as Calvinist revivalism. What to do, then, with my denomination, the Assemblies of God, which is a founding member of the National Association of Evangelicals and not Calvinist?

Caricatures aside, evangelical Christianity encompasses a diversity of theological commitments, denominational loyalties, political affiliations, ethnic identities, and social classes. It always has. The leaders of the Great Awakening—Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John and Charles Wesley—exemplify this diversity. Edwards and Whitefield were Calvinists. The Wesley brothers were Arminians. Edwards was a Congregationalist. Whitefield and the Wesleys were Anglicans. Edwards died before the American Revolution, but his sons were Patriots. John Wesley publicly denounced the Revolution. He also published expurgated versions of Edwards’ writings on revival and preached Whitefield’s funeral sermon.

Does anything hold this diversity together? Evangelicals tend to be conservative doctrinally, although this conservatism is generic rather than specific. Remember, not all evangelicals subscribe to a pre-trip rapture of the church, young-earth creationism, biblical inerrancy (as opposed to biblical infallibility), or Calvinist soteriology. For evangelicals who subscribe to these specific beliefs, chapters 3, 4, 5, and 7 may be tough to read. Evangelicals tend to be conservative morally, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into political conservatism or allegiance to the Republican party. White evangelicals tend to be Republicans, but African-American and Hispanic evangelicals tend to be Democrats.

At the self-acknowledged risk of oversimplification, Wilkens and Thorsen settle on this definition of evangelical Christianity: “Evangelicals are people of the Great Commission.” In the Great Commission, Jesus commanded his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). This is “the basic impulse of evangelicalism,” which derives its very name from euaggelion, the Greek word for “gospel.”

Evangelicals are gospel people.

I heartily recommend Everything You Know about Evangelicals Is Wrong to anyone, whether an outsider or an insider, who struggles to understand the meaning and significance of the evangelical movement. The book debunks stereotypes, complexifies issues where needed, and simplifies definitions where possible. Most importantly, clarifies the nature of evangelical Christianity, which has tremendous influence in North America and growing influence worldwide.

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P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.