The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism, Brian Stanley

The short version: an excellent and accessible overview of evangelicalism in the second half of the twentieth century. This is perhaps less ‘Global Church’ than you might expect as Stanley is following the direction of the series which this book completes. Evaluations of key moments and movements (like evangelistic crusades, the so-called battle for the Bible, and Lausanne 1974) are very helpful. This is an outstanding starting point for getting a sense of where the english-speaking evangelical movement is coming from.

“The battle for the integrity of the gospel in the opening years of the twenty-first century is being fought not primarily in the lecture rooms North American seminaries but in the shanty towns, urban slums and villages of Africa, Asia and Latin America.” (p. 247)

These lines are Brian Stanley’s concluding evaluation of where evangelicalism stands today and this book is the story of how we got from WWII to here. Stanley is wonderful writer and an important voice in helping us understand the modern missionary movement and Global Christianity. He has just published the hefty Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History, but this review is focused on this much shorter book which is the fifth and final book in IVP’s History of Evangelicalism series.

Stanley’s book is informative and accessible. After setting the historical stage and laying out the groupings which made up post-WWII evangelicalism in the first two chapters, he focuses each successive chapter on a particular movement or issue. He covers the growth of global networks, scholarship, apologetics, missions, Pentecostalism, and hermeneutics before a concluding chapter for retrospect and prospect.

The book is relatively short, less than 300 pages long, and so readers should expect the bird’s eye view rather than in-depth analysis. This may leave some wanting more, but the benefit is that this book remains really quite approachable. I found it helpful to see the constellation of individuals and movements which had a formative influence on my development drawn together.

It is important to acknowledge the limits of the territory that Stanley covers. This book is focused on the second half of the twentieth century which has been christened “the Age of Billy Graham and John Stott” in the subtitle. That fact should tip us off to the fact that the focus of this book (and series) is the English speaking world. After all, the subtitle could just as easily have been: the age of René Padilla, Festo Kivengere, and Wang Mingdao! This means that this is more the history of the evangelicalism which was ‘diffused’ than it is the story of that diffusion itself. Readers who skip the series and come for the ‘global’ story will likely not find what they hoped for.

Besides being an accessible entry point and overview of this period, there are two further points which recommend Stanley’s book. First, his evaluations of the movements and moments which shaped English speaking evangelicalism are quite helpful. His conclusions about Billy Graham and the crusade movement are penetrating and yet charitable. I also appreciated Stanley’s take on the Pentecostal movement: “The global evangelical family gained much-needed spiritual vitality as a result, but also found its cohesion weakening as evangelicals disagreed on where to stake the balance between Word and Spirit” (p. 210).

Second, the section on the Lausanne Congress of 1974 was the highlight of the book for me as Stanley has significantly widened our understanding of the Congress and its implications. Scanning through his footnotes in this chapter, you will notice that a high proportion of them are to personal correspondence. Stanley has mined the archives and given us an inside look at a movement-shaping event. His concluding remarks on the result of Lausanne should be well noted: “…it can be fairly concluded that after the Lausanne Congress world evangelicalism would never quite be the same again…. Lausanne revealed the first clear signs of a radical decanting of the geographical and cultural identity of evangelicalism that has since become unmistakeable: evangelicals on either side of the North Atlantic can no longer assume that they can in isolation either define the content of the gospel or determine appropriate strategies for Christian mission” (p. 179).

We should also pause to consider the concept of ‘diffusion’ used in the subtitle. I am hesitant about the idea that evangelicalism was diffused from the North Atlantic and the suggestion definitely warrants further thought. It would be a shame to discount the natural, indigenous growth and progression of evangelicalism anywhere that it was present. The diffusion image seems to easily confirm much of our own ‘West-to-the-rest’ bias, so great caution is necessary.

For readers interested in the Global Church (in the non-Western world sense), this one can probably slide down your reading list at least a few slots. Stanley has done excellent work but the focus of the book is a bit off to the side. But if you are looking for a fuller understanding of English-speaking evangelicalism, or even how it relates to evangelicalism in the Majority World, this is a great place to start.

You can purchase the book from the publisher here.

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