—An updated post from the 2015 archives—
I have called myself an evangelical since 1974. Back then, we knew what the word meant. Now, it’s a challenge 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.”
Being evangelical in the 1970s was relatively uncomplicated. It typically meant you were a conservative Christian who believed in the gospel of Christ, the Word of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the Great Commission. The history of classic evangelicalism traces back to the early 19th century and is filled with names of Christian giants, so it was a simple call. Until, for me anyway, complexity entered with an assignment in my seminary Church History class in the 1980s. We were instructed to draw a graphic to summarize the flow of Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism in the US. The other students did their visuals on a single sheet of paper; mine was ten sheets, taped edge-to-edge, of rivers, streams, and tributaries of history. Not so simple.
Historically, the fundamentalist movement has emphasized separation from mainstream culture, and evangelicalism engagement with it—two very different streams of Christian tradition. But in recent decades those streams flowed together in order to fight “culture wars” and to mobilize the “moral majority” and the “Christian right” for political influence and power. In the process, evangelicalism got politicized, the mainstream news media hijacked the word, and “evangelical” became convenient journalistic shorthand for anyone or anything to do with conservative Christianity. As a result, “evangelicalism” has come to refer to a kind of syncretized Christianity with no identifiable core historical doctrinal beliefs or mission distinctives. As a Frankenfaith movement it could be called “fundagelicalism.” It’s no wonder that Evangelicalism has lost influence and adherents.
Politics aside, Evangelicalism has also been redefined by the influence of megachurches, consumerist values, and pop-Christianity trends over the past few decades. The new evangelical “praise and worship” experience is an expression of those trends—thirty minutes of concert quality music led by a high profile worship leader, some large-screen broadcast quality video announcements, and a conference quality inspirational or motivational message by a celebrity pastor. Historical Christian worship traditions that have been valued, practiced, and preserved 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—have too often been carelessly abandoned by modern “evangelical” churches in a rush to be culturally relevant rather than biblically sound.
Most conservative American Christians would likely still identify themselves as evangelical, but the words of Inigo Montoya still echo in the air. Over the last generation there has been a splintering of Evangelicalism as a movement into various factions—post-evangelicals, progressive evangelicals, revivalist and charismatic evangelicals, confessional (Reformed) evangelicals, post-conservative evangelicals, Trump evangelicals, and others. It’s confusing, but even more it’s depressing. An evangelicalism that divides rather than unites cannot flourish. Without unifying leadership, shared beliefs, and a common mission, evangelicalism will slowly die. It will go away, just like the new generation that is rejecting the Jesus they see, and don’t see, there now.
Evangelical should mean something to all of us, or it will eventually mean nothing at all to us. My thoughts here don’t reflect an academic perspective on American Evangelicalism, but only my own personal experience—a piece of my mind and heart. I’m a seminary-trained American Christian, a student of the Word, and a full-time minister for nearly forty years. I want to recover what has been lost—to identify the biblical (not cultural) and irreducible watermarks of historical evangelicalism. Perhaps if we can get back to basics, we can rediscover the common core of beliefs and mission that could form a new evangelicalism for the generations ahead of us. It’s not too late to try. 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 God, the eternal Word, revealed himself in his written Word. We trust the Bible—the Old and New Testaments—because “all Scripture” is inspired by God for 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 who is “in Christ” should be united with a local body of believers (Ephesians 4:12-16). Church, Christ’s body, is God’s design for the mutual edification of believers through teaching the Word, fellowship, corporate worship, and the sacraments.
The Fruit of the Spirit — Evangelicalism affirms the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in every believer (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 defined by Christ’s Great Commission to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:18-20). We are sent out to bring Christ and his kingdom to the world by proclaiming the gospel, baptizing believers, and teaching them to follow and obey Christ as Lord and King.
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 we can 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 those markers still hold, then I’m still an 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?