[Piece of faith]
It will take some time for me to get into the rhythms of blogging. Getting words to the point where I can confidently click “Publish” is a slow process for me. On a larger scale, I think I run about ten years late on everything–getting married, becoming a writer, adopting new technologies. Ten years after I discovered blogs I’m finally trying to make one work.
And that (awkward segue alert) brings me to Evangelicalism. I’m 64 and just now trying to reconcile what that word means to me with what the word has come to mean in culture. It is used in so many ways by so many groups that one wonders if it means anything to anyone anymore. Inigo Montoya’s words from The Princess Bride come to mind: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” I have always called myself an “evangelical,” but I do not think others mean what I think it means.
When I became a believer in 1974 through Campus Crusade for Christ, evangelical simply meant a conservative Christian who believed in the gospel of Christ, the Word of God, and the Great Commission. It got more complicated in seminary. In my Church History class, we were given the assignment to draw a graphic on paper to summarize the flow of Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism in the US. The other students did theirs on a single sheet; mine was ten Scotch-taped pages of rivers, streams, and tributaries.
Historically, Fundamentalism has emphasized separation from culture, and Evangelicalism engagement with culture. Two very different streams of Christian tradition. But in the last thirty years they flowed together to fight “culture wars” and mobilize the “Christian right.” Evangelicalism got co-opted by Republican party politics, and media has hijacked the once-noble term as shorthand for everything that resembles conservative Christianity. I started feeling I was on a different river altogether when I rejected the “Christian America” rhetoric and its “us against them” mentality. Super-evangelical Dr. James Dobson vilified Cal Thomas’ book Blinded by Might in 1999, but I found it convincing and convicting. I felt like Evangelicalism was leaving me.
Beyond politics, Evangelicalism, as far as it has ecclesiological overtones, has also been redefined against its will by the rapidly expanding mega influence of megachurch, pop-consumer Christianity over the past few decades. Culturally attuned evangelical churches popularized a new worship experience–thirty minutes of concert quality praise music, broadcast quality video announcements, and a conference quality inspirational or motivational message. The problem was not what they were doing, but what they weren’t doing. Historical Christian worship traditions valued and practiced for centuries by the church–public reading of Scripture, prayers of the people, confession of sins, congregational expressions of faith, historical liturgies, the weekly Eucharist–seemed to be carelessly laid aside in a rush to be culturally relevant rather than biblically consistent.
Most conservative American Christians still identify themselves as evangelical, but over the last generation there has been a splintering of Evangelicalism as a movement. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center poll, about 25% of us are “Evangelical Protestant,” a percentage essentially unchanged since 2007. However, Evangelicalism now has many subgroups: Post evangelicals, Progressive evangelicals, Revivalist and Charismatic evangelicals, Confessional (Reformed) evangelicals, and Post-Conservative evangelicals. It’s confusing.
Evangelical should mean something to all of us, or it will eventually mean nothing at all to us. I have tried to identify the core beliefs that make Evangelicalism evangelical, at least for me. If I were smarter, I would examine Evangelicalism’s revivalist roots, and talk about Marsden, Bebbington, Dochuk, and others who have done the hard work of research and analysis. But I’m not an academic. I am a seminary trained American Christian, a student of the Word in full time ministry, who simply wants to identify the biblical (not cultural) watermarks, the sine qua non, of Evangelicalism. Here are five evangelical watermarks that work for me:
The Gospel — Evangelicalism begins with the evangel, the “good news” of the kingdom and salvation. The Gospel is God’s grace for the whole world (John 3:16). Everything we teach and do comes back to the offer of new life in Christ that is available to all by faith alone because of what was accomplished on the cross.
The Word of God — Evangelicalism believes that God has revealed Himself, as the eternal Word, in His written Word. We trust the Bible–the Old and New Testaments–because “all Scripture” is inspired by God to accomplish His purposes in and for us (2 Timothy 3:14-17). The Bible is authoritative and true because God is.
The Body of Christ — Evangelicalism affirms that every believer, by virtue of being “in Christ,” should be united with the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-16). The local church is God’s eternal design for the mutual edification of believers through teaching the Word of God, fellowship, corporate worship, and the sacraments.
The Fruit of the Spirit — Evangelicalism affirms the ongoing and efficacious work of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25). He is the source of conviction, regeneration, and sanctification that make us Christian. Without the power of the Spirit, we are powerless to become like Christ or to live a fruitful Christian life.
The Mission — Evangelicalism is driven by Christ’s Great Commission to the church to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:18-20). We are sent out to bring Christ the King and the kingdom of God to the world by preaching the gospel, baptizing believers, and teaching them to follow and obey Christ.
Could there be more? Should there be less? Maybe, but these five are core for me. There are numerous issues that often get added, such as sanctity of life, gender and sexuality, eschatology, social action, the nature of election and the atonement, and other doctrines and traditions. But the evangelical core must be about universal, doctrinal essentials. If Evangelicalism as an expression and movement of Christianity is to survive, there need to be boundary markers that define the biblical ground on which to stand that is worthy of defending and protecting. For me, for now, the five markers above define Evangelicalism in a way that makes sense to me. If the markers still hold, then I’m still evangelical.
Putting the Pieces Together: What about you? Are you an evangelical? If you are, what does the word mean to you? What else would you add to my list of “evangelical watermarks.” If you’re not, what stream of Christianity do you find yourself in? What are the core beliefs of the Christianity that you most closely identify with? Or, are you among the rapidly growing stream of “Nones” who choose to be unaffiliated with any particular stream of Christianity?