Crossing the Globe in Search of Authentic ​Evangelicalism

05/15/2015 01:53 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016

I went to a great baseball game on Sunday -- in Seoul, South Korea. As my son Luke had told me, baseball is getting bigger and bigger in Korea, and several Korean players have now come to play in Major League Baseball here in the U.S. The Doosan Bears are the best team in South Korea, and they do play very good baseball, but what I most enjoyed was the amazing singing in the stands, with fans harmonizing to beautiful team songs. I've never heard that at an MLB game.

But the number of fans on hand, 26,000, was smaller than the membership of the Myungsung Church, where I'd preached that Sunday morning; it has 100,000 members! And the singing was powerful there too.

What had brought me to Korea was a unique "Global Forum for the Future of World Christianity." Held on Jeju Island, off the coast of South Korea, the conference was hosted by three of the largest megachurches in South Korea (and the world), including Myungsung Church. That means this Korean conference of evangelical and Pentecostal leaders from around the world was financially independent from American evangelicalism's money and political ideology. Wes Granberg-Michaelson, who attended and wrote about the gathering for Sojourners, pointed out that for the first time in 1,000 years, more Christians are found in the global South than in the North. The center of Christianity has dramatically shifted, and that means the agenda was very different from the Northern and Western agendas of the older white evangelicals in America and the issues they think most important. Korea could play a particular and convening role as a bridge between the churches of the global North and South.

In sharp and grateful contrast to the old ideologies of global North evangelicals, these global South evangelicals spent their time together wrestling with issues of global economic inequality, the realities of climate change, the imperatives of racial justice, and the need for Christians to wage peace instead of war. Since these are the issues that global evangelical and Pentecostal constituencies are facing in their own lives -- and of course, the Bible addresses all of them as central issues Christians need to confront -- the narrow, white American evangelical agenda had no interest in this global evangelical and Pentecostal forum. The fact is that they represent a different evangelical world.

Phillippe Ouédraogo, a pastor in the African nation Burkina Faso, has pioneered an intensive educational program that reaches children ages 9 to 12, two thirds of whom are girls, which is now transforming his whole country's educational system. He was there in Korea. So was young Bishop Joshua Banda, whose HIV/AIDS initiative in Zambia is transforming his nation's healthcare systems. They and the many other evangelical and Pentecostal leaders I met in Korea are putting their personal faith into practice.

I was asked to keynote the gathering by answering the question: How do we take personal faith into the public arena? Their passion is for public discipleship. And the 40-plus years of Sojourners' mission for an evanglically rooted public discipleship is very appealing to them. Time and time again they said, "You're an evangelical committed to social justice, and that's what we want to be too." They were clearly not interested in the political identity of white American evangelical leadership that has yet to seriously address issues of justice as central to Christian faith -- issues like global economic inequality, climate change, racial justice, and moving away from more and more American-led wars.

Many of us feel politically homeless in America but are committed in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in the global South whose political agenda is defined by the needs of "the least of these" around the world.

I preached from Luke 4 and Jesus' first sermon at Nazareth, announcing bringing the good news to the poor as central to his mission and therefore to ours. When I said, "Any gospel that is not good news to the poor is not the gospel of Jesus Christ," the congregations responded, "Amen!"

Rev. Young Hoon Lee, pastor of the world's largest congregation, Yoido Full Gospel Church, named the growing gap between the haves and have-nots as a central gospel issue and called out the rich, saying they should "die to themselves," reject the "idol" of wealth, and serve others, as the epistles call Christians to do.

How refreshing it was to be in the presence of leaders of faith -- heads of these huge churches that represent millions -- who are more interested in the needs of the poor and the call of Christ than in being "conformed to this world" and its shallow interests or reducing gospel concerns to a few hot-button social and sexual issues. Their wider global evangelical agenda rings true with black and brown evangelicals in America and a new generation of even white evangelicals emerging in America.

Both globally and here in America, these emerging leaders give me hope. They are leaders like Hana Kim, son of megachurch pastor Rev. Kim Sam Whan, who contrasts the "lifeboat ethics" of American evangelicals with the "presence of God" in the global public square -- and who, incidentally, did his Ph.D. on the social ethics of Sojourners. They offer wonderful examples that young leaders here should note.

Thanks be to God for a new generation of global evangelical leaders -- and for the chance to watch such good baseball on the other side of the world!

Jim Wallis is the president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God's Side, is available now.