What Evangelicalism is: Part II

I have a disclaimer to make, I’ve been working on these posts for the past week, and as of last night I’ve had to rewrite and change course for this discussion. This is largely due to a conversation that I had with two good friends James Pitts and Kent Davis Sensenig. Because of this conversation, I’ve reframed my initial intent.

Who is Evangelical?

Big ‘E’ evangelicalism is as elusive a term as there can be. Many churches and church organizations have it in their titles but if you asked the people of those church communities few would be able to tell you want it means. Most independent non-denominational churches are Evangelical, but many denominational churches are as well. It is a large category that encompasses people from the super large “purpose driven??? mega-churches to the small “Independent, Fundamentalist, KJV only??? churches. It also contains within its walls Christians as conservative as Pat Robertson and as socially conscious as Jim Wallis.

 Images Pat Robertson Is The Devil  Law Images Jim Wallis

I am not sure where I fall, nor do think it matters all that much, in the Evangelical rubric, but I can affectionately repeat what Brian McLaren says about Evangelicalism in his book A Generous Orthodoxy,

“Big E Evangelical refers to a segment of the church that I love and from which I hail, but which I don’t thin I understand so much anymore, and in which I may no actually be wanted anymore (116).???

I must confess I personally have grown weary from the many constraints of theological assumptions that make up much of the Evangelical movement, and I agree with a number of scholars that many of those presuppositions and its core values have limited the work of the Church. But still I recognize that I am within the Evangelical umbrella of the church and have chosen to remain there for the time being. And because of this its important to be able to constructively critique what lays before us.

There are a couple of ways to come at defining this elusive group, one way would be to view it as a cultural movement and to look at its adherents in a sociological way. I am not totally prepared to carry that task all the way out, but I can make a couple claims. The other way is to view the movement as a set of beliefs or core values, this part I feel more comfortable with.

First as a cultural movement, Evangelicalism has been a revival of Protestant Christianity. It might be understood, as Aaron Weldon suggests, as an adjective about a church community. There are Evangelical Methodists, Evangelical Mennonites, Evangelical Friends (even Evangelical Catholics) – in other words these groups can be described in similar ways even though their traditions may be very different. Evangelicalism in this way is a ecumenical movement that is no respecter of denomination or heritage. Today its been suggested that Evangelicalism also tends to represent middle to upper class, white, educated people, who tend to vote conservatively, and tend to live in the Suburbs; of course this is not true across the table and there are many people that break this stereotype. I do think this generalization does have validity to it, and may offer us a look into the question “to whose purpose does this movement work????

As an aside, Chris Spinks is correct to suggest that there are no groups that have gone unscathed by the powers of Evangelicalism, and that there are many groups of every tradition that would fall under its influence (I indeed do use a fairly broad definition of understanding the movement). What I’m simply suggesting is that these movements, Quaker, Catholic, Mennonite, and Episcopalian did not start out as Evangelical.

The second way to define this movement is to do so by taking a look at the whole of the movement and compile a list of core values that can be said about the whole group. In other words, you are an Evangelical if you..., or you are a Quaker if you... (see the more comedic version on Common Grounds). There are commonalities that make Evangelicals evangelical, just as there are certain set things that make a Cleveland Browns fan, a Browns fan (if you like disappointment would be one thing).

There are at least five main things that make up the core values for Evangelicals. George Marsden states that the essential beliefs are:

“(1) The Reformation doctrine of the final authority of the Bible, (2) the real historical character of God’s saving work recorded in Scripture (3) salvation to eternal life based on the redemptive work of Christ, (4) the importance of evangelism and missions and (5) the importance of a spiritually transformed life.(Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, 4)

Even among evangelical scholars there is some disagreement as to the essentials, as Mark Noll points out Scotland’s David Bebbington’s four main beliefs that make up the core of evangelicalism:

???Biblicism (reliance on the Bible as the ultimate religious authority), conversionism (or an emphasis on the new birth), activism (or energetic, individualistic engagement in personal and social duties), and crucicentrism (or focus on Christ’s redeeming work as the heart of true religion). (America’s God, 5)“

Bebbington’s core beliefs seemed not only more succinct but more focused on the critical aspects of evangelicalism individualism and religious dogmatism whereas Marsden rightly points out evangelicalism is one of the children of the Protestant Reformation (This is taken from my recent Master’s Project, Re-narrating Quakerism).

I am not going to suggest that any of these things are in and of themselves wrong things to hold onto, but I do think that there are things that should be added to the core values but there are certain tweaks and adjustments (some major, some minor) that need to be made.

The next post will involve some critiques of Evangelicalism as well as some suggestions for moving ahead.

Visit my “Series on Evangelicalism” under the Featured page for the rest of the posts on this topic.

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7 responses to “What Evangelicalism is: Part II”

  1. Hi Wess,

    I agree, it’s essential to constructively challenge and critique our assumptions about the labels we use. I came across this passage by Rufus Jones and thought that you would be interested in it:

    “…If we mean by “evangelicalism??? a body of doctrines, a system of theological conceptions, we shall find it difficult to maintain the position that these doctrines, and these alone, contain the eternal truth of Christianity. If we mean by it a spirit of living faith, a quickened, vivified religion, a first-hand experience of transformation and salvation by the power of Christ, we shall follow its movement with awe and reverence and we shall thank God for its prolific effects. In other words, there are in brief two main types of religion, however disguised under names and forms. There is (1) religion in its intensified, dynamic quality, and (2) there is a religion which consists of a deposit or survival of conceptions or of practice, carried along because they have become sacred habits, traditions and customs, or because they are believed to have a utilitarian value…” He then explores the subtleties of the 2 types further.

    Whilst I do not find any personal affinity with the term evangelicalism I understand that the challenge is to acknowledge the unique personal relativity of words and attempt to re-appropriate and salvage some meaning from them. This is what Rufus appears to be doing – seeing if he can use the word in an ‘enabling’ rather than a ‘constraining’ way. If these terms are robust enough to stand up to this then we will continue to use them.


  2. […] Part I – Reflections on Evangelicalism Part II – What Evangelicalism Is Part III – Critiques and Possibilities – Biblicism Part IV – Critiques and Possibilities – Spiritually Transformed Life Part V – Evangelicalism as a Subculture A critique on the movement as a subculture What I like so much about Quakerism and the Emerging Church (not necessarily both together) is that they both hold values that extend beyond the restrictions of Evangelicalism and modernity. What both Quakers and Emerging Churches hold in common is a desire to transform secular space (see Ryan Bolger’s conversation on this), and see that all is God’s, all is in his realm and that his fingerprints are over everything. This is where the larger Evangelical church loses me and many in our generation. There seems to be a lack of ability to create things new and authentic. I was having a conversation the other day where my friend and I were making fun of those old G.A.P. (God Answers Prayers) christian tees. Now maybe I take that stuff too seriously but we rarely as the church generate ideas worth duplicating, instead we take the ideas of the world and slap some kind of christianese on it. This is the effect of a dualistic disease that sees everything as either Christian or non-Christian. “Gap??? is not Christian but we can make it Christian by rephrasing what it stands for. Some things are not worth saving. The Evangelical church has become a sub-culture, a group of people out of touch with the larger world. It is this part of the church that has largely moved away from the urban centers of the world and into the Suburbs, it is largely representative of Anglo-Americans and has largely represented conservative views on politics and culture. Even if these are only generalizations and don’t fit the whole of the movement, these generalizations in my mind constitute a reason to “listen up??? and “consider thy ways.??? Many of us were told as teenagers to throw, burn, and smash anything that was not Christian. Growing up under this kind of anti-secular sentiment, Evangelicals try and think “what would a non-christian person like to do if he/she came to church??? or “what kinds of songs would they like to sing,??? or “what words can I use to change the way they think about Jesus.??? This is how we “engage??? with the culture. The reality is that there is little interaction from those “on the outside.??? A majority of church growth is transferring memberships from one Evangelical church to another (typically to “bigger??? and “better??? churches that offer more programs and services to me as a consumer). […]