Reclaiming and Re-re-defining “Evangelical”

The word “evangelical” has become fraught with all kinds of difficulties.  This is a sad state of affairs because it is a very good word.  Nonetheless, a significant number of Christians who by their beliefs fit the term have stopped using it as a self-reference, preferring “classical” or “orthodox” or even “traditional” or maybe the hip “Christ follower” or some derivative.  Every word, though, has problems because, as you know, a rose by any other name…

This post is an exercise in retrieval.

My source in this effort is a recent collection of essays edited by Candy Gunther Brown and Mark Silk, The Future of Evangelicalism in America. With an introduction and conclusion by Brown and five chapters by scholars from both private evangelical and public secular institutions, the book does a superb job of complicating the popular usage of “evangelical.”  Their work is based on the American Religious Identification Survey, supplemented by information from other organizations like Pew Research.

The definition of “evangelical” that the contributors share comes from historians David Bebbington and Mark Noll.  It has four parts coming from Bebbington and the fifth added by Noll:

  1. Conversionism – Evangelicals believe that people need to experience new birth through faith in Christ, typically thought of as a kind of crisis moment that reorients one’s life.
  2. Biblicism – the Bible is the sole and ultimate authority for Christian faith and practice.
  3. Crucicentrism – the death of Christ on the cross (inherently linked with his bodily resurrection) is the decisive atoning work that transforms all life.
  4. Activism – every Christian has a responsibility to share faith in Christ with others and to serve God by serving people through acts of ministry and service.
  5. (Added by Noll) Evangelicals use non-Christian cultural resources with the aim of transforming culture.

Though evangelicals differ on how to understand and enact aspects of each of these categories, they fit these major criteria.  It is an attempt to describe why disparate groups of people actually fit in the same category.  Each chapter does a good job of helping the reader to see the diversity of American evangelicalism, which may surprise some people.

Here’s a taste of the book:

Introduction (Candy Gunther Brown): Demographically, evangelicals pretty much match the American population. “What these numbers suggest is that evangelicals can be found across the American social landscape, and American Christianity as a whole is becoming more evangelical in outlook.”

1 (Michael Hamilton): While holding firmly to the markers listed above, evangelicals are quick to deploy worldly entrepreneurial techniques to build powerful networks (church and para-church) of activity.  This network is worldwide.  Since World War II, evangelicals have gotten increasingly involved in humanitarian aid around the world.  They also have dropped much anti-Catholic prejudice and their younger members are becoming more cosmopolitan in viewpoint.

2 (Chris R. Armstrong): Evangelical worship and spirituality, though varied in style, is deeply heartfelt and expressive/affective.  It’s about the heart, with a deep sense of communion with God and with other members of the community.  Even though rock bands and praise music have become the staple of most Protestant churches, there seems to be a trend toward “ancient-future” with a hunger for deeper spirituality and connection to the church’s historic roots.

3 (Roger E. Olson): There is such diversity in evangelical theology that it is better to think of an evangelical ethos rather than a standard set of doctrinal convictions.  Anyone who knows about the arguments over inerrancy or between Wesleyan/Arminians and Reformed/Calvinist (even these sets of terms can be pulled apart for a range of nuances) knows the tensions.  There are also “conservative” evangelicals and “progressive” evangelicals who agree that the Bible is our ultimate authority (biblicism), but read passages differently and come to sometimes opposite conclusions.

4 (Amy E. Black): This chapter may be of particular interest to readers because it deals with evangelicals and politics.  It shows in substantial detail the complexities of the term “evangelical.”  For example, “Black Protestants” easily fit the typology I summarized above, but most vote consistently for Democratic candidates and are considered “social liberals.”  A significant number of white evangelicals are bolting their older generation’s concerns and tactics for more irenic engagement and a broader range of concerns to include problems like trafficking and the environment.  But they remain evangelical.

5. (Timothy Tseng): This chapter shows how the demographic and cultural make-up of evangelicalism is changing in large part because of immigration and global missions (including missionaries coming from other countries to the USA).  Latino evangelicals and Pentecostals provide just one example of the changing demographic in the United States.  Even though evangelicals were slow to recognize the structural evils of racism, in recent years they are catching on and becoming increasingly open to  shared leadership among culturally, racially and ethnically diverse evangelicals.

Conclusion (Candy Gunther Brown): Evangelicalism, though filled with all kinds of tensions and turmoils, remains a strong, vibrant movement.  As Brown concludes, “Evangelicals may reinvent themselves in myriad ways, but evangelicalism is not about to disappear.  The future of American evangelicalism must unfold at its own pace, but it is a future that remains tied to the future of America.”

My survey is paltry and only barely suggestive, but reading this book pays real dividends.  (Wesleyans and Methodists, take great joy in the references to John and Charles Wesley and their weighty contributions to evangelicalism). Each chapter offers a succinct and helpful survey of the relevant historical developments for the chapter’s topic.  The reader who knows little of the history of American Protestant Christianity in the 20th century will find much of help.

And I hope, as people read works like this one, that we can start to feel good about using the word “evangelical” again.

 

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. Steve Schuller says:

    “Evangelical” is a word, as you acknowledge. How the word is used in other languages might also be instructive. In German, for example, the word (“Evangelisch”) is used to denote Protestants — Christians are “Katholisch” or “Evangelisch.” Others more knowledgeable in languages than I can offer other comparisons.

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