Being Evangelical

It seems that the topic of evangelicalism and its somewhat fluid demarcations have struck a cord with many of our visitors, so I wanted to re-address the issue from a different perspective. James’ post asked questions concerning the lowest common denominator of evangelicalism, and from that, we’ve had several interesting issues raised. He decided to remove it since the responses forced him to realize that one could see revivalism as more essential to evangelicalism than the two convictions he proffered. And revivalism’s importance for the evangelical identity is precisely what I want to explore here.

It seems that many see a genetic link between evangelicals and revivalism, in some form or another, and that it is a necessary (albeit not sufficient) attribute of being evangelical. My question for us here is whether or not this could explain some of the friction within the camp at large? Not to be overly reductionistic, but wouldn’t one way of seeing the conservative/liberal debates of the last century be in terms of the centrality and denial of revivalism respectively? Likewise, I can’t help but wonder if those of us who bemoan the evangelical (stereotypically speaking of conservative American evangelicalism) obsession with staying “relevant,” and constantly lowering Christian practice, worship and living to the lowest common denominator are really just hitting the wall of revivalism? Could we understand the missional, emergent and spiritual formation discussions in light of this issue – as those who, in trying to be biblically responsible, have in the end denied a central tenent of the movement they wish to breath new life into?

In other words, does being evangelical neccessitate preaching a revival-oriented gospel, leaving every other non-revivalist gospel outside the moniker “evangelical” (even though it be considered roughly “Christian” but no doubt disconcerting nonetheless)? If this is the case, could we see revivalism as the subconscious and cultural reality that actually orients the other main features of the movement so that the theological distinctives are really “theological distinctives in light of the revival-gospel?”

What are your thoughts? Is this too reductionistic to be helpful, or can this be used to talk about the nature of evangelicalism and the movements that have never found a true home in the conversation?


17 thoughts on “Being Evangelical

  1. Kyle and James,

    James, you already know how I feel about the removal of the previous thread on this topic—I was very glad to see well-thought out responses to what I believe was a very important question by a number of people with a big stake in the issue, even if evangelicalism was initially framed in terms of a sine qua non (and ?rigid) adherence to the doctrines of inerrancy and soteriological exclusivism. I feel we’ve lost all the momentum we had on that thread without re-establishing the logical connections that we made in the give-and-take that took place.

    Kyle, yes it is reductionistic to impose your terminology (“revivalism”) to continue a conversation begun by James that had drawn in at least three evangelical “players” on the last thread who were using different terminology and trying to come to some understanding of where we are as “evangelicals.” I’m not sure we have an adequate theological vocabulary in discussing these things to really be on the same semantic page at this point; we may have to spend some time defining terms more carefully before we “evangelicals” can really respond well.

    I don’t know if David G. is still following the discussion, but I’d be very interested in hearing his thoughts.

  2. Jim, thank you for your thoughts. This post is not really a continuation of James’ post, other than the fact that I am picking up on some comments made there. I, unlike James, am not concerned with defining evangelicalism. There seems to be a consensus concerning revivalism, either genetically or just in theory, that makes up an essential aspect of the evangelical consciousness.

    My question is whether or not this can be put to work to explain some of the rifts within the movement. If revivalism is really that central, and yet the average evangelical would never be able to voice that about their faith or “group”, then it could be that inherent in a rejection of revivalism would be seen as a rejection of evangelicalism (once again, not voiced in those words, but “felt”).

    So, for instance, the spiritual formation conversation could be seen as suspect because of a soteriology that was allergic to a revival-kind-of-gospel, even though the suspicion would very well be stated much more esoterically (usually with some classic rejection – gnostic, works righteousness, etc.).

  3. Its certainly an interesting question Kyle, and one that I am glad you raised (if anyone is interested, we discussed evangelicalism’s revivalist heritage in a post a while back: “Probing Evangelicalism’s Revivalist Heritage”).

    Related to certain issues, you are likely right that evangelicals have distanced themselves from other movements based on a perceived devaluing of the gospel – importantly – when the gospel is solely equated with a revivalist-style conversion. The conservative/liberal divide of the 20th century in North America certainly includes this as one of its many aspects. I remember years ago in seminary that when the word ‘liberal’ was batted around it normally referred to those who put more weight on social activism than gospel proclamation leading to conversion (as if the former doesn’t include the later in some real sense). These issues are complex and many-sided, so I am afraid to say this was the only issue at stake, but it was certainly one of them.

    Are the spiritual formation conversation and the emergent thing further instances of this? Maybe for some. If a revival-style conversion narrative is the only narrative you know, then certainly anything that runs counter to it will be a ready enemy.

    I am interested to hear from some others on this.

  4. Again, I’m not so sure the rifts can be reduced primarily to this concern. My own increasing conviction is that the main issue within evangelicalism is far more a crisis of ecclesiological identity than of soteriology.

    I do appreciate your example of the spiritual formation movement as a kind of “test case” here. I agree that rifts have formed over what kind of posture various evangelical strands have taken toward the movement, but I still don’t have a well-formed sense for the relative contributions of different strands of evolving doctrine, whether stated or implicit. I only have a sense for the unprecedented and widespread level of “rethinking” that seems to be going on among different evangelical “camps.”

  5. Do I have permission to repost various responses to that issue from James’ prior deleted thread, “Why Be an Evangelical?”

    This would go at cross-purposes to Kyle’s intent for this thread. James intends to continue the conversation on Bovell’s book; perhaps that will be a better forum.

  6. You definitely have permission (I don’t think Kyle will mind). If you can boil your prior thoughts down to the essential meaning of ‘ecclesiological crisis of identity’ that would be great.

  7. This is in response to Kent.

    I went to retrieve my comments but find that WordPress only sends other people’s comments back to you when you subscribe to the post by e-mail. I’m used to Blogspot practice on this, so I never bothered to “store” my blog comments, thinking they would still be in my archived e-mail.

    My thoughts are primarily along two lines:

    1. When the Bible Church Movement began after the rise of fundamentalism around the turn of the 20th century, the ecclesially rallying or uniting issues seemed to be much more clearcut. Now that we are in many ways “beyond foundationalism” with regard to the doctrine of inerrancy and soteriological exclusivism as “defining characteristics,” this has led to increasingly prevalent “existential angst” among evangelicals in the 21st century, with a growing collective ecclesiological “identity crisis” with record rates of church-hopping.

    2. Given the extant denominationalism and strikingly parochial and individualistic flavor that has largely characterized the “local church” in America—even apart from doctrinal distinctives, the effect of postmodern deconstruction on ecclesial structure, mission, and vision has only served to further erode this already weak ecclesiology with which the Bible Church movement was imbued and which provided much of the foundation for the rapid growth of evangelicalism in the 20th century.

    I believe we are being called to a more “apostolic” flavor with respect to ecclesial structure and “strategy,” and this will challenge both the more loosely structured heirs of the Bible Church movement and stronger, traditional, more denominational churches.

    Thus, James’ call for evangelicals to just “defect” (patently oversimplified, I know) to the more traditional, established denominational churches just seemed to me to ring hollow.

  8. After thinking about this on my way to the library, I had a thought: what degree has the question over abortion had on Evangelical thinking? Don’t read this in simplistic ways. Please. Hear me out.

    What I mean may sound rather crude and strange, but growing up I was taught that there was an “age of accountability.” What this meant in regards to abortion was that more people were going to heaven now than ever before! I found this to be quite odd.

    According to this reasoning abortion should not be seen as bad. In fact, aught we not to consider it a very great thing?

    I think it was when those of us who grew up/are growing up within this context are realizing that we need to fight against abortion because God has willed us to LIVE ON THIS EARTH.

    In sum, I think the abortion issue, no matter how much it has united conservatives politically, has actually caused a great stir within the theological thinking of those of us growing up during the controversy.

    Just some thoughts.

  9. Jim, as I read your analysis I can’t help but wonder if, again, the idea of revivalism is not lurking beneath the surface of these issues. Bible Church evangelicals, as far as I can tell, don’t actually have an ecclesiology, but are instead an attempt at institutionalizing revivals (stemming of course from my own Jonathan Edwards).

    Likewise, thanks to Whitfield and crew, evangelicalism was forged in the ethos of individualism, offering the laity the opportunity to critique and criticise the church from their point of view, and giving them the power to judge religion for themselves (it was out of the revival era that we have “We the people…”). Whitfield, we must remember, empowered the people by suggesting (or downright saying) that many of their clergy were not actually regenerate. Also, people would, for the first time in their lives probably, choose to go to hear a sermon on their own terms, rather than a set sermon in their town at a set time with their set pastor. The freedom of choice here is interesting in light of the church hopping phenemon in evangelicalism. Could it be that an ecclesiology whose foundation stands on revivals actually undermines itself?

    Broadly (and again, stereotypically speaking), popular Christianity, most obviously the seeker movement, has sought to institutionalize revivals, often times utilizing the tried and true mechanics of altar calls, emotional manipulation, rhetorical savvy, etc.

    I just wonder if at the heart of what evangelicalism is we will find revivals – and if that is the case, evangelicalism will, it seems, necessarily be the group that funds entertainment venues (as church buildings) and a whole industry (if not industries) functioning to move people from one experience to another.

  10. James: re: “apostolic flavor,” see Reggie McNeal, The Present Future. His thesis is compelling, in my view.

    Kyle: Your characterization is too stuck in the history of the movement and fails to take into consideration the very potent influence of postmodernism. Further, it again reduces all evangelicalism to a caricature that does not reflect how much is in the process of changing at various levels within what is now a much more diverse collection of sub-movements than in the early 20th century.

    Regarding your comments on a “house-of-cards” ecclesiology based on revivals, I would go even further to say that this ecclesiology is now much more deeply rooted in American individualism and the high value of autonomy, as well as the related “consumer mentality” that comes with that culture.

    I speak from “within the camp” here, so I am simply calling for us to recognize the obvious and radically reorganize our approach to ecclesiology to take these factors into consideration and explore a more vital theory and praxis of “body life” to match our present circumstances at the level of both local church and the larger Body of Christ.

  11. Jim, admittedly, I am playing around with the idea of how revivals have impacted the present mindset and categorization of evangelicalism – but revivalism is not merely a series of historical events, but a way of looking at the gospel. I do find it interesting that when trying to define evangelicalism it is brought into the discussion, and yet, I assume, if you asked the average evangelical they would never mention it – I just think that is interesting.

    In terms of postmodernism, in what sense has it been influential in evangelical ecclesiology? I am, as an evangelical, very interested in ecclesiology, partially because we don’t seem to have one (or any for that matter). My worry is that the approach to ecclesiology by my generation has been short on theology and long on sociology.

    I also don’t think consumerism is just an adoption of culture – although it is that – but I think it is ingrained in evangelicalism and has been since the revivals. Wasn’t it Spurgeon who said that if it takes a circus to get them there it will take a circus to keep them? The revivals were, in a sense, that circus evangelicalism bought into with the belief that culture should and actually will care about the mission and teaching of the church, as long as it is packaged the right way. Our “packaging” continues to change, but at its core, that is what I think has been going on with popular evangelicalism, call it emergent, missional or whatever else.

  12. Kyle et al,

    Forgive the length of this missive in response to your comments, Kyle, but I think we still have some major differences that warrant deeper exploration. And how can you keep any discussion of “postmodern influence” down to a short “blurb”?

    I agree that revivalism is a “disposition” more than a series of historical events; I just don’t share your sentiment on the relative influence it still has on “the present mindset and categorization of evangelicalism.”

    I would agree that “packaging” has a lot to do with the mechanics of recent developments in evangelicalism, but I think it is rooted more in the wandering search for a solid ecclesiology, which we’ve never had, than in the ongoing influence of revivalism, though the latter does play a role, certainly. If we can successfully “package” something sexy, new, or different, then we legitimize maintaining the distinctions that keep us apart from other bodies and “stunted” in our ecclesiological development as a body, because the ecclesiology all too often collapses into the “packaging,” especially when busy Americans have so little time or emotional energy left to do “real church.”

    Regarding postmodernism, I see both positive and negative influences playing deeply significant roles. Positively, I think that shaking up our categories (“deconstructing”?) in the area of inerrancy, for example, has been a long overdue corrective for our excessively modernistic epistemology (hence, our impoverished hermeneutics), as James has picked up in his recent threads on Bovell and Sparks. I’m anxiously awaiting his continued exploration(s) in that area.

    However, this ongoing “deconstruction” has come with a high price in the erosion of the sense of “absolutes”—to say that “inerrancy (as classically defined) is a mischaracterization of biblical truth” is very different from saying “there is no absolute truth,” and younger evangelicals are now highly susceptible to this overcorrection. This epistemological erosion has increasingly alienated a whole generation (from twenty-somethings all the way to late thirty-somethings) from active participation in local evangelical bodies where some attempt is still made to maintain at least a semblance of explicit adherence to the notion of absolute truth.

    Beyond these epistemological concerns, two seemingly opposed “pillars” of postmodernism have made some serious inroads into modern evangelical ecclesiology; these are globalism and tribalism. The disposition of “tribalism” has fit very well into historical evangelicalism’s mentality of seeking “birds of a feather” with whom to flock, initially on the basis of the most subtle differences in doctrine and generating varying degrees of “separation” of these various “tribes.” This has been and continues to be extraordinarily damaging to evangelical ecclesiology.

    At the same time, globalism has created whole new communities where, for example, internet “fellowship” and text messaging have arguably all but replaced genuine biblical koinonia. The thoroughly individualistic tendency in our culture to avoid intimate relationshipwith those with whom we don’t agree—or who, quite frankly simply rub us the wrong way—has received overwhelming reinforcement by the positive strokes we get from “birds of a feather” on the internet, or even on the foreign mission field. (Should I wash my mouth out with soap?)

    Finally, Kyle, I think you grossly underestimate the ongoing influence of culture on ecclesiology. I am increasingly aware that we can operate according to the flesh both individually and corporately. The problem is that there is both “bad flesh” and “good flesh,” and evangelicals have typically prided themselves on having “grade A, USDA-inspected good flesh.” (Brits probably won’t get the North American significance of the acronym, Kyle and Kent, so I rely on you to help explain.) Once we choose flesh, bad or good, the World has a field-day and is having a field-day with contemporary evangelicals of many stripes.

  13. Jim, my comments must not have been clear. I wasn’t denying that culture has had a huge impact on ecclesiology, in fact, just the opposite, but I was asking why. My thought was that evangelicals are oriented towards worldliness because of their gospel – being what I called a revivalist-gospel. This is what I tend to deny about my evangelicalism and want to move away from – one of the many traits of it at least.

    In terms of the postmodernism, I guess I am allergic to some of the semantics to that whole issue, particularly with the “modernist epistemology” which I just don’t tend to buy. But overall I suppose that is right. In terms of tribalism and globalism I just don’t see how that isn’t just cultural shifts rather than a shift in epistemology. Although I tend to think “postmodernism” basically means the right to make up funny words. But that might just be me!

    I’m just playing around with the idea of revivalism, but I think it has some legs. My generation is the postmodern generation, and to be honest, all they seem to be doing is the same thing the last generation did, but the cultural issues and realities have changed. Instead of being influenced by Microsoft and Motorola they are influenced by Bono and Starbucks – hence, instead of seeker sensitive we have living rooms with couches.

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