Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, ‘Evangelicalism’ seems to have taken on a whole new meaning in the United States. Mainstream media often portray evangelicals as Trump-supporting conservatives who, in spite of their profession of faith in Jesus, seem to make dubious decisions that are often at odds with their faith.
But that’s in America. In Africa, a continent of some 500 million Christians, 182 million of them are Evangelicals according to Operation World. Personally, I did not grow up thinking of myself as an Evangelical, though I was actually one. I recall that the exposure I had to the term came from the Christian literature I had access to: the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s Decision magazine, Guideposts and Christianity Today. Yet within evangelical Christian circles in my native Cameroon, I never heard the term.
I did not grow up thinking of myself as an Evangelical, though I was actually one
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I looked up a definition of the word and understood it to mean a form of Christianity that emphasises an individual’s relationship with Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible. This means, Evangelicalism is not a denomination but cuts across denominations. I asked a group of friends in Cameroon what the term meant to them and their responses – as honest as they were – displayed a lack of understanding of what it means to identify as an Evangelical. Their answers included:
- The act of committing oneself to proclaiming the gospel
- To teach or preach the gospel
- The way of a particular religion
Let me give a bit of context here. I am a member of the Cameroon Baptist Convention (CBC) and was raised by a Baptist father and Presbyterian mother, of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon (PCC). Sunday services rotated between the local Baptist and Presbyterian churches, and I was comfortable in both circles. If anything, I noticed only slight differences in worship styles while both placed a strong emphasis on Scripture. Baptists didn’t (and still do not) baptise infants, unlike Presbyterians – something I didn’t personally agree with. So when I was of age and had to make a decision as to where I wanted to belong fully, I chose to be baptised in the Baptist church, but every now and then, I fellowshipped with the Presbyterians. Some people thought that was a strange thing to do but I was convinced that we had more in common than our differences suggested.
However, when I moved to South Africa earlier last year, I was a little concerned about being unable to find a local Baptist church in my part of Cape Town. I called a friend for advice and he encouraged me not to limit my search to Baptist churches, but to look for a church where Jesus is loved and the Word of God preached boldly, Sunday to Sunday. This helpful counsel eventually led me to Holy Trinity Gardens, an Anglican congregation of the Reformed Evangelical Church in South Africa (REACH-SA). This was my first time ever in an Anglican church but I felt so at home. The Bible was emphasised, and a Christ-centred gospel was preached. I had found a family of believers like me but from a different denomination. We were all Evangelicals!
I learnt then that Evangelicals can be found in Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican and Pentecostal churches. Evangelicalism is not a label. It is a set of affirmations or convictions. In a personal correspondence, Darrell Bock, professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary in the USA offered this fourfold definition of Evangelicalism, based on four key elements developed by David Babbington:
- Biblicism, a particular regard for and commitment to the Bible (in other words, all essential spiritual truth can be found in its pages)
- Crucicentrism, a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross
- Conversionism, the belief that human beings need to be converted, coming to personal faith in the finished work of Christ
- Activism, the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort, obedience to God
Where are the Evangelicals in Africa? Wherever there are men, women, churches and seminaries committed to proclaiming Christ’s finished work of salvation found on the pages of the Old and New Testaments.
While these four commitments above are generally agreed upon by Evangelicals, some disagreements remain. But Africa needs stronger bonds within her Evangelical circles. We must pray for a stronger sense of unity in the body of Christ as his people strive to proclaim his Word on our continent. Let us remember that behind titles and labels lie both consistent and inconsistent doctrine, methods and values. Where are the Evangelicals in Africa? Wherever there are men, women, churches and seminaries committed to proclaiming Christ’s finished work of salvation found on the pages of the Old and New Testaments.