Your View of Evangelicals

<Note: this is a longer post than usual due to the importance of this topic.>


Over the past decade or so, the primary segment of growth in churches in North America has been among, so-called, evangelical churches. While this is not to say some churches outside of the evangelical tradition (read: segment) aren’t growing, by and large their denominations and networks are not seeing growth. This means that evangelicals are a focal group in America.

So who are evangelicals?

Well, that is a complicated answer. There plenty of theories about the nature of evangelicals, where they came from, who they are…and those theories have been around for about 100 years. (Seriously, look back historically 100 years and we’re having the same discussions…but I’ll move on.) Evangelicalism arose in the late 1800s out of a revivalist Protestantism that was a response to the growing secularization of Christianity.1 (Obviously there is much more to be said here.)

Since its inception, evangelicalism has always struggled with its own identity.2 After the turn of the 20th century, more conservative elements of evangelicalism began their own offshoot that would be called fundamentalism. In many ways the first third of the 20th century saw a culture war between fundamentalists and modernists3 (what we might call…wait for it…liberals.) Also during this time evangelicalism continued to grow. Yet the movement still lacked a coherent identity, defined leadership, and uniform doctrine.4 The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 is seen as the tipping point where evangelicalism (and fundamentalism) lost their place in the culture and moved on. Over the next five decades they separated and started a sub-culture that grew and thrived. The results of this, kind of, cultural hibernation was a continent wide movement that manifested itself in the 1970s through the 1990s in any number of movements and cultural forms. Yet two distinct streams emerged: evangelicals and fundamentalists.

All of that history is important, because we still face challenges today. Other than the obvious issues, evangelicals are a rather large segment of American society that is transdenominational, accepts basic orthodoxy of the Christian faith, is often expressed in free church forms (though not exclusively), and enjoys rapid adaptation for ecclesial forms and models. If you were to look at the 100 largest churches in America today, it would be almost a list of evangelical churches. Evangelicalism’s numerical and movement success has given it a kind of cultural credibility that is not found in many forms.

However, the challenge remains: Who are evangelicals?

Traditionally in Christianity a group, or movement, is identified by their beliefs, leader(s), and method worship. Evangelicals are an amebic form. Many scholars, usually historians, have developed some helpful definitions of who, or what, makes an evangelical. You can check the books listed above and find their definitions.

One other truth for evangelicals is that too often we forget that fundamentalist wander back in and through our networks, churches, and conversations. Make no mistake, fundamentalists are different evangelicals in degree and definition.5 This doesn’t make fundamentalists bad people, I have some very good friends who are very convinced fundamentalists. However, we need to remember that their views are different and the vociferousness with which they defend their views is extremely different. Fundamentalists can be part of evangelicalism, so long as we patiently remind them that our unity is found in some basic principles and that we should welcome those who affirm them and proclaim the same Gospel that we proclaim.

For evangelicalism, in its history, has struggled with this question. However, in general, evangelicalism has been able to accommodate disparate groups once the foundations of belief are established. These foundational beliefs are what is generally accepted as orthodox Chrisitanity. Now this doesn’t make one evangelical or not (you can be a mainline Episcopalian and hold these.) What makes one evangelical often is about their view of: Scripture, mission, salvation, Jesus, and a few other issues.6

Historically, in evangelicalism we can find room for:

  • egalitarians with complementarians and even patriarchialists
  • young earth creationists with old earthers and even theistic evolutionists
  • creation care advocates with global warming naysayers
  • democrats with republicans and even libertarians
  • dispensationalists with covenant theologians and even progressive dispensationalists
  • premillennialists with postmillennialists and even amillennialists
  • high church with low church and even no church
  • eternal punishment with annihilationists
  • progressive worship with liturgists and even rappers

 

and even those who view

  • dynamic theory with verbal plenary inspiration and even dictation theory

 

I can go on and on about this. Too often we are pushed to extremes of these positions by people who earnestly hold the extreme position and don’t realize that, for evangelicalism, it has historically been a big tent held up by several key poles of belief and action. When those with extreme positions attempt to push out others who have a legitimately evangelical view we must say, “stop.”

Too often our desire to remove someone from the larger evangelical conversation has to do with our own misunderstanding of historical evangelical belief than it does with a shortcoming of someone’s position. Now, there are some positions that evangelicals have been nearly unanimous on (universal salvation, denial of miracles, denial of Christ’s divinity, etc.) We can and should say there are things that are outside the realm of evangelical belief. Our tent is not so large that it covers those who blaspheme Christ.

As we confront an increasingly (if not totally) post-Christian America we need to look around and assess our options. Do we really want to spar with Gospel driven, Jesus affirming evangelical Christians over issues which have never defined who is and isn’t evangelical? Or do we want to move the poles in closer and leave many more out of the tent?

For my life and ministry (and perhaps I am too generous) I simply believe that once we staked out the appropriate boundaries, centered on Jesus, and begin becoming more and more devoted to Him, we are stronger together than we are apart.

Because the reality of our situation is that we agree on far more than we disagree on. We are closer theologically than we are apart. We worship the same Jesus Christ who is risen and will come again. As a lost and dying world looks for hope in the midst of the growing darkness we need the light of Christ that will bring them in and not running around blowing out each other’s candles.

Just some thoughts. Apologies for the length.

One more note: On Monday I’ll post up a discussion about views of inspiration to round out the conversation.


  1. 1. See George Marsden Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, James Davison Hunter Evangelicalism, and David Bebbington The Dominance of Evangelicalism for background info that is far better than I can provide here. 

  2. 2. Marsden, Understanding 64-65 

  3. 3. George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture 2nd Ed. 171-175 

  4. 4. Joel Carptener Revive Us Again 13-32 

  5. 5. Marsden, Fundamentalism 4, “Fundamentalists were evangelical Christians, close to the traditions of the dominant American revivalist estbalsihemtn of the nineteenth century, who in the twentieth century militantly opposed both
    modernism in theology and the cultural changes that modernism endorsed‚ĶFundamentalism was a “movement” in the sense of a tendency or development in Christian thought that gradually took on its own identity as a patchwork coalition of representatives or other movements.” Marsden has been criticized for this view, perhaps rightly so for aspects. A larger discussion to have is whether fundamentalism persists today, I believe it does, and how it has changed in the past twenty years. 

  6. 6.¬†George Barna has a helpful list that reflects evangelical attitudes, often better than historians.