If It’s Broken, Fix It!
The oft-quoted English aphorism, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a good rule of thumb. However, if something is broken, fixing it in most cases is preferable to replacing it. But I highly doubt the saying will catch on. Is Evangelicalism in need of fixing as pundits seem to suggest?1 Are we ready to give up on Evangelicalism to avoid public embarrassment? Or do we euphemistically refer to it as something else? Worse yet, relegate it to the spinmeisters so we attach a new meaning to it, vis-a-vis tolerance?
A few months ago I found myself within earshot of a conversation around the idea of whether or not to distance a major private Christian university from Evangelicalism. My heart sank upon hearing this. This sounded like giving in to cultural pressure. This organization had stood firm in recent past when the issues were far greater. We must always be cautious and prudent that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
British historian David W. Bebbington is a helpful reminder. There is so much good and has remained in Evangelicalism, even today and to think otherwise is simply intellectually and academically naive. What founded Evangelicalism in the 18th century Britain largely remains unchanged.2 Astonishly (providentially), the following distinctives are still common place: conversionism, activism, biblicism and crucicentrism.
A quick look at the statement of faith of Evangelical churches reveal this to be the case. A brief survey of the mission and vision of the church I attend highlight these qualities. It might be a bold claim but I think we would be hard pressed to see large swaths of evangelical organizations deviate from their original founding values. Sure, there are drifts here and there but those are exceptions. Our very own George Fox University can confidently point to her core values3 as being solidly Evangelical and has remained unchanged since the founding more than 125 years ago.
One of the reasons we find ourselves at peril of losing Evangelicalism is that we have simply taken it for granted. Taken for granted in a sense that we no longer think and talk in our respective communities about what it means to be bearers of the good news (evangel). For starters, it would be worthwhile as church leaders to remind one another of the etymological origins of the word evangelical. It comes from two Greek words, “eu” meaning good and “angel” meaning messenger of God. When put together we are reintroduced to our special identity as those who have received and entrusted with spreading the good news.4
The Lord knows we experience spiritual amnesia. This is the reason time and time again he had instructed his people to erect monuments as remembrances of his faithfulness and goodness. We find an example of this in Joshua 3 when we read about God causing the Jordan River to stop flowing so the Israelites could cross on dry ground into the Promised Land. Festivals and sacrifices achieve the same purpose.
Ben Reaoch, a pastor serving at Three Rivers Grace Church in PA wrote an article about the importance of remembering. He cleverly puts his points in a nice mnemonic device by laying it out in alliterative form. He said we ought to engage in: Think, Thank, Tell, Traditions, Transcribe, Taste and See. He briefly expounds on each one. For the purposes of this piece we will not delve into each one. Suffice it to say, we are living in times when we cannot afford any longer to simply take our faith for granted.
Is Evangelicalism in need of repair? Os Guinness, social critic and Oxford don believes in this American Hour that it is time for reform. He reminds us that even centuries before anyone started calling themselves Evangelical in the continent that the Reformers in the 16th century claimed it for themselves. The spirit of Evangelicalism goes as far back as St. Athanasius and St. Augustine when they talked about the principle of being “reformed to the image of God.” After we have regained and reclaimed who we truly are, we must repent and humbly ask God and those who we have wronged to forgive us because we have betrayed our beliefs by our behavior. Only then can true reform begin.
1 Hearts & Minds Books. Accessed January 17, 2019. https://www.heartsandmindsbooks.com/2018/01/five-different-audiences-for-a-very-important-new-book-still-evangelical-insiders-reconsider-political-social-and-theological-meaning-edited-by-mark-labberton-20-off/.
2 David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain : A History from the 1730s to The 1980s, Routledge, 1988. ProQuest Ebook Central, accessed from biola-ebooks on 2019-01-16 13:46:47. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/biola-ebooks/detail.action?docID=179445.
3 “Core Themes.” George Fox University. Accessed January 17, 2019. https://www.georgefox.edu/about/mission_vision_values/core-themes.html.
8 responses to “If It’s Broken, Fix It!”
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Harry, thank you for the great blog! I too have been a part of these conversations to distance ourselves from the term. After reading your blog I would agree that we do need to remember and to reform.
If you had to pinpoint one or two areas where this is needed most in the Evangelical sphere what would you point too?
Hey Mario, thanks for the questions/comments. I think the single thing that has hurt us the most is the charge of hypocrisy — when we do things we say we ought not to do, vice versa. We have indeed betrayed our beliefs by our behavior.
We say we possess the greatest thing the world has ever known, we have knowledge about ultimate things, we are created in God’s image. And yet our lives do not reflect these truths. Instead, we spend our time and other resources putting each other down, divide churches over secondary and tertiary doctrines, divorce our spouses whom we vowed to never leave at rates indistinguishable from unbelievers, etc.
Surveys have shown that one of the main reasons young people leave the church or are discouraged from considering the faith is our tendency toward hypocrisy. We’ve got to fix this.
Harry, I always appreciate your conviction on matters. I am curious why evangelicalism, as a group, is important? It seems the early church being called “the way” or “Christians” and they were quite effective at spreading the good news. Why is a separate group within that description necessary?
Hi Tammy. Thanks for the comments and questions. I’m with you in way. There’s really no need for new labels. Christians, The Way, etc. do just fine. As Bebbington chronicled, even “New Light” is all good and well. The unavoidable issue we face is that we just have a knack for creating new terms.
I remember a time when the term “Christian” no longer communicated the real meaning of being followers of Christ. Then we began to qualify it as “born again.” That term apparently meant you were a “real” Christian as opposed to a nominal or cultural Christian. So even in this example we’ve already seen this being a casualty of cultural drift in which words change meaning.
We have to stop giving in to these kinds of pressures. The term Evangelical is a good one and ought not be lost in our vocabulary. The emphasis of this brand of Christianity is on the good news, the message that God reached down to us to bring us peace and be with us forever if we trust him. It’s mere Christianity and it’s a message that everyone understands and longs for. Of course this term is now saddled with all sorts of bad things and now it’s our job to peel those layers away and present the gospel afresh in these times.
This Presbyterian is pretty down with a blog post talking about ‘reform’!
Oh, that is so Presbyterian.
Let’s start the 21st century version of the Reformation. Who’s with me?!
Thanks for your thoughts and perspectives. Your passion for the term, Evangelical, is obvious. While I am sure it depends upon one’s context, I would say much like your example of Christian or born again Christian, “even in this example we’ve already seen this being a casualty of cultural drift in which words change meaning.” While not at all trying to be argumentative, why do you feel the term Evangelical for you is somewhat sacrosanct? Blessings and take care.