The Soapboxer

Yikes, it’s going global

It’s Sunday morning in Chilenje, on the outskirts of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. The streets and minibuses are filled with well-dressed churchgoers on their way to worship and I try not to stand out too much as I leave home to enter the throng. I’m feeling adventurous on this day, so I decide to pay a visit to a local Pentecostal church and slip into the back row. I’ve been in Zambia long enough for it to feel somewhat familiar, but I never quite know what to expect.

There are givens, mind you. Like the rousing music. And no matter how foreign the idea of dancing in church is to this defiantly-staid Mennonite, it’s impossible not to rock back and forth in response to the flurry of movement around me. This is an African service, for sure. But I can’t help but notice elements I assume are borrowed from American evangelicals – after all, there’s a big image of a pasty-white Jesus on the wall behind the pulpit.

The posturing of the Bible-thumping – literally – preacher. The cadence of the seemingly endless prayers. The arms raised to the sky. I feel like I might be in a studio for the taping of a televangelist show. But the scene that tops it off comes when a group of young people standing at the front of the sanctuary begin speaking in tongues and falling over. If they’re lucky, their friends will catch them. The unlucky ones crash uncontrollably to the ground. After more than three hours – allowing an hour for the sermon – the service finishes with an altar call, and parishioners of all ages stream forward to accept Jesus as their personal saviour.

The evangelical movement originated in the UK and came into its own in the US, but today its locus is shifting to the global South. According to Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Europeans and North Americans represent only 45 percent of the global church – a drop from 80 percent a century ago. And evangelicals are leading the charge.

My experience in Zambia – officially designated as a “Christian Nation” in the country’s constitution – is indicative of what’s going on in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Further north in Nigeria, Lagos is arguably the most Pentecostal city in the world, with an abundance of all-night prayer meetings, and preachers everywhere – on street corners, in bus stations, in stadiums. A continent away, Seoul, South Korea is home to over 7,000 churches, including the world’s largest, Yoido Full Gospel Church, with 800,000 members. On Sunday mornings, Yoido ushers have to link arms together in a row outside the church in order to keep the thousands of worshippers from entering too early. In Latin America, a famously Catholic region for the past five centuries, evangelicals have grown from approximately 19 million at the beginning of the 1980s, to 60 million today. The Latin American Catholic Bishops’ Conference claims that 8,000 Latin Americans convert to evangelicalism every day. In countries like Guatemala, Brazil and Nicaragua, they outnumber practicing Catholics.

This global evangelical movement borrows considerably…

This is an excerpt of a longer article that appers in Geez magazine, Winter 2006. Nicholas Klassen is a former senior editor at Adbusters magazine and co-director of

Issue 4

This article first appeared in Geez magazine Issue 4, Winter 2006, Let's Get Evangelical.

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