Entrepreneurship and the Rise of Global South Christianity


Various explanations have been offered about how the booming, evangelical Pentecostal movement in the Global South came to be. These range from:

  • Political explanations: in the 1990s, some scholars argued that the evangelical right was in league with the CIA during the Cold War to fight the common enemies of communism and liberation theology.
  • Anti-colonial arguments: in the early 2000s, other scholars noticed that Christianity began to boom in Africa and Asia just as colonial powers were receding. To explain this, they argued that Western missionaries and other actors were actually holding Christian growth in these regions back, and it was not until the West got out of the way that local Christian communities could blossom.
  • Global connectedness perspectives: By the end of the last decade, a new group of scholars noted that because of globalization, Christians in the West and the Global South have never been more connected than they are today. They cast doubt on the anti-colonial arguments, suggesting that Western actors might be helping to facilitate the growth of Christianity in the Global South after all, although not in the ways that the political explanations of the 1990s claimed.

Some of these arguments are better than others, but they all share a fatal flaw: they do not sufficiently take into account the role of the local entrepreneur.

In New Centers of Global Evangelicalism in Latin America and Africa, (Cambridge 2015), I argue that local religious entrepreneurs are at the center of this explosive growth. Religious entrepreneurs are those who start new faith infused organizations. These are often church plants, but they can also be ministries and businesses that are committed to Kingdom values. Evangelical entrepreneurs in the Global South have access to ever increasing volumes of transnational resources and relationships because of the processes of globalization. Entrepreneurs grab these items and combine them with resources and other elements of their own culture. The result: ever larger churches, ministries, media corporations, and other types of businesses. The organizations they build in turn empower these religious entrepreneurs to send missionaries to other countries, combat poverty, and become more socially and politically engaged. In short, local entrepreneurs provide faith communities with the institutional strength they need to transform their communities and the world for Christ.

The creative work done by entrepreneurs requires three types of resources: physical, symbolic, and ideational. First, entrepreneurs use money (or course), but they also use transnational people flows. Many short term mission teams show up and help local entrepreneurs build churches, homeless shelters, and orphanages. Second, entrepreneurs draw on symbols that are important to their faith community. Some entrepreneurs, for example, rallied diverse denominations together through the use of the symbol of unity to create a national missionary movement. Finally, entrepreneurs draw on organizational strategies. The founders and early leaders of the Elim church in El Salvador visited South Korea to learn about the growth strategies of the Yoido Full Gospel Church. Upon returning home they created a new model that was based on what they learned in South Korea, advice they received from American church growth specialists, and what they knew to be true of their own environment. Elim is now one of the ten largest churches in the world.

The entrepreneurs who are able to successfully integrate local and transnational resources are those who end up with the healthiest, most vibrant organizations.  When a critical mass of healthy organizations exists, the entire faith community begins to grow and change. It is these dynamics that most directly explain the emergence of, and ongoing changes within, the Global South’s new centers of global evangelicalism.

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Dr. Stephen Offutt’s research interests include issues of global Christianity, global poverty, and international development. Offutt is currently conducting research in Latin America on the intersection of faith, global poverty, and international development. In addition to his scholarly activities, Offutt has worked for more than five years in Christian development and missions organizations in Central America and Southern Africa. He continues to be involved in Christian development initiatives. He and his wife, Amy, have three daughters; Addy, Emily, and Gabriella.