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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…Fundamentalism 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. 

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Book Review: To Change the World by James Davison Hunter

Title: To Change the WorldTo Change the World Cover

Author: James Davison Hunter

Publication Year: 2010

In one sentence: With the dismissal of Christianity from the public sector, faithful presence is the means by which Christians may regain their voice in the culture.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Review:

Anyone who has spent time working through the contemporary landscape of the challenges facing modern evangelicalism, and Christianity in general, will have had to interface with James Davison Hunter to be taken seriously. In his current position at the University of Virginia, Hunter has become a significant scholar on the shaping of evangelicalism (and fundamentalism) in modern America. This text has, as its purpose, providing an answer the challenge of Christianity in the late modern era, particularly its marginalization culturally. Hunter’s means of resolving the prevailing question is through three interconnected essays that work out and explain the problem and his solution.

The three essays are:

  • Christianity and World-Changing
  • Rethinking Power
  • Toward a New City Commons: Reflections on a Theology of Faithful Presence

 

In the first essay, Hunter lays out the terrain of what the common view of culture is and how Christians might go about a task of cultural engagement that leads to cultural change. Central to his work in this essay are eleven propositions which frame out his understanding of culture. Each of the propositions work together to show that culture is highly resistant to change from institutional methods of change. Culture change, for Hunter, comes from individuals or movements that penetrate the linguistic and mythical elements of culture. This is a truly grassroots kind of movement. Throughout the essay, Hunter keeps the contemporary plight of Christianity in the viewfinder with comparisons and discussions.

The second essay, Rethinking Power, steps into the political discussion in the extremes of evangelical activists. Hunter’s primary approach considers the historical parameters of the discussion and how things have worked themselves out in both the Christian right and Christian left. He then presents the example of the Neo-Anabaptists as the best example of historical and New Testament forms of engagement. His sixth chapter in this essay is his strongest, though without immediate resolution to its central questions. Hunter resolves some of this with a final discussion about the implications of power in a culture.

The final essay is where Hunter more formally presents and works out this notion of faithful presence from within the culture. The opening of this essay is one of the best parts of the text. He then points out that there are two challenges which encumber this project: that of difference, with a pluralistic west there is no dominant culture; and dissolution, with no underlying agreement on terms and conditions. He then works through how Christians in a post-Christian culture might go about this task of changing the world through faithful presence. Ultimately, faithful presence from within, is an incarnational effort that requires sacrifice of ourselves on behalf of our calling.

Interaction:

Hunter’s text is an important one for church leaders to work through. It is well written and carries a historically informed discussion to bear in the contemporary problem. As I encountered the text initially, it was after a conversation with several leading edge ministers who were raving about the text. I found it erudite and articulate in its arrangement of the issues and presentation of the author’s solution. 

Copious endnotes allow the motivated reader to dig a bit deeper into the text and research behind the author’s work. Hunter’s criticisms seem fair as they approach both wings of Christianity he is considering. I do have reservations about the neo-Anabaptist movement he puts forward as being more apostolic and biblical than the other alternatives. Perhaps this is because I don’t buy political solutions in the earliest Christian communities. When one is without power, appeals to corrupt leaders are moot.

This text is important young leaders to read through. I would caution against the employment only for political reform; culture changing should move beyond that limited horizon. Church leaders would do well to engage key laity with discussions about this book and others like Andy Crouch’s Culture Making and Gabe Lyon’s The Next Christians. (Of course that’s a lot of reading for a church staff.)

Finally, I simply disagree with Hunter’s idea of faithful presence from within. As I consider how the New Testament and the earliest Christian communities, even through the immediate post-apostolic age, interacted with culture it was the idea of faithful proclamation. My challenge is that, for all the stories of anabaptist type incarnational living, the examples given in the early communities find early Christians caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and clothing the naked while earnestly proclaiming the Gospel tradition handed down for all generations. Though I don’t wish to take more time to unpack this here, it seems that proclamation wasn’t about obtaining power for the early Christians but about being devoted to the apostolic teaching which is that message that can save. 

Hunter’s text is a fine one and it should be read by serious ministers who seek to engage the culture to transform it through the power of the Gospel. You simply won’t be disappointed in the text. For those who can manage a deeper discussion of its historical points, there is a rich mine of fortune in these words.

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