What is this thing called Evangelicalism?
In the 1970s, when I became a Christian, people were already asking the question, “What is an Evangelical?” In the context in which I lived at the time, Europe, the answer was really quite simple. It meant “Protestant.” But that did not solve the matter. I did have to come back to my native land.
Arriving in the USA and heading off to a seminary (known to some as “saint school”), I found the same question being asked. The answers given at the time were historical or theological in nature. They were also inconclusive.
I still ask the question. Why? Because there are so many people who want to crawl under this umbrella with whom I discern very little commonality of belief or practice. Wheaton College defines the modern term this way:
There are three senses in which the term "evangelical" is used today as we enter the 21st-century. The first is to see as "evangelical" all Christians who affirm a few key doctrines and practical emphases. British historian David Bebbington approaches evangelicalism from this direction and notes four specific hallmarks of evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. A second sense is to look at evangelicalism as an organic group of movements and religious tradition. Within this context "evangelical" denotes a style as much as a set of beliefs. As a result, groups as disparate as black Baptists and Dutch Reformed Churches, Mennonites and Pentecostals, Catholic charismatics and Southern Baptists all come under the evangelical umbrella-demonstrating just how diverse the movement really is. A third sense of the term is as the self-ascribed label for a coalition that arose during the Second World War. This group came into being as a reaction against the perceived anti-intellectual, separatist, belligerent nature of the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Importantly, its core personalities (like Harold John Ockenga and Billy Graham), institutions (for instance, Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College), and organizations (such as the National Association of Evangelicals and Youth for Christ) have played a pivotal role in giving the wider movement a sense of cohesion that extends beyond these "card-carrying" evangelicals.
(To read the entire article, click here).
There really isn’t a lot of help there, is there? Maybe we can understand this a little better if we recognize that the word often has an adverb attached to it. Very often people (in the USA) refer to something they call “broadly evangelical.” Now we’re getting somewhere – I think. Why do I think that? Because I can look at the wide array of theological systems (and non-systems!), and the worship and lifestyle practices of those claiming to be “broadly evangelical” and note that, in fact, very little is meant by the term. Mormons lay claim to the mantle as easily as do Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, various Church or Christ groups, and myriad other groups. The “Emerging Church” claims what is left after evangelicalism and mainstream denominationalism finish off our spiritual sensibilities. I have no problem at all confusing broadly evangelical groups with liberals, heretics, and generally mixed-up folk.
So, what to do? You can call me a Christian, or a Protestant, or a Calvinist (that’s a definition waiting for another essay). Those are just a few of the many names I have been called! I would prefer it, however, if you didn’t refer to me as either evangelical or broadly evangelical.
How about you?