Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

What/Who is An Evangelical?

Written by: on February 7, 2014

There are some words that can conjure up an assortment of feelings, moods and attitudes. Those feelings can be both positive and negative. Evangelical is one of those words. When you hear the word “evangelical” what or who comes to mind? I randomly asked some people to answer this question with one word or phrase, and here is what I heard: a Christian, Jesus Christ, faith, a bible thumper, negative, fundamentalist, “fundie,” republican, Baptist, the Word, strict, world, narrow-mindedness, hell, church people, offensive, oppressive, justice, a movement, Amen, protestant, gospel, tv evangelist. I was not surprised by the words, because I have heard them all before, but I was surprised by the way the person reacted when they shared their one word or phrase with me. Some appeared angry, some looked pleased, some seemed confused, and some appeared hurt. What is it about the word “evangelical” that stirs up such positive and negative feelings? Is it the word that sets off these strong reactions or is it the people who are connected with the word “evangelical?”

In his book, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, David Bebbington states that evangelical religion is a popular Protestant movement that has existed in Britian since the 1730s.[1]  He goes on to say that the term has found expression in a variety of institutional forms, a wine that has been poured in many bottles.[2] However, Bebbington is careful not to define evangelical too narrowly on the basis of contemporary opinion of a particular group or period.

Perhaps it may be helpful to briefly examine some of the different bottles this wine was poured into. Bebbington provides a great description of how evangelicalism religion changed throughout the years. He describes it in three distinct phases. First, for Bebbington, the evangelical movement was a product of the Enlightenment.  It is during this period in which assurance is the normal experience of the believer from the time of conversion onwards.[3] And it was during this time that the evangelical version of Protestantism was created by the Enlightenment.[4] Secondly, the Romantic influences produced another kind of evangelicalism. It was during this period where social impact was the strongest. This was the movement of taste that stressed against the mechanism and classicism of the Enlightenment, the place of feeling and intuition in human perception, the importance of nature and history for human experience.[5] The Holiness movement was also part of this social impact that influenced evangelicalism. Advocates of holiness teaching urged that Christians should aim for a second decisive experience beyond conversion.[6]  By the 20th century another evangelical movement was birthed—the rise of cultural modernism.    The growth of international trade in the postwar world had created unprecedented affluence. The young, feeling that prosperity could be taken for granted, set out on a quest for higher values.[7] This movement was very concerned with self-expression, which came to be known as “Expressionism.” Out of the movement of Modernism, two groups evolved: the Oxford Group and the Charismatic movement. Both groups represented an adaptation of evangelical religion to the trends of the 20th century.[8]

Yes, evangelicalism has expressed itself in various institutional forms. Yes, evangelicalism has changed throughout the ages as a consequence and influence of the time and culture. And yes, evangelicalism “wine” is still being poured into new bottles—changing and engaging the world.

As in earlier periods of British and American history, evangelicals have once again won converts, brokered alliances, and gained social influence.  The political and cultural revivals have been supported by a demographic resurgence. Evangelicals have not stepped back, but have moved forward with recruitment strategies adapted to a secular world strongly shaped by television, with a strong impetus from immigrant churches, and with effective ministries to the various groups into which society is now divided.  In some earlier eras, the balance of theological integrity and cultural sensitivity moved mountains. At other times, loyalty to traditions led to separatistic stagnation, or lust for cultural relevance perverted the gospel into Christianity-lite.  An evangelical resurgence that balances faith and cultural relevance sounds a trumpet of salvation to the world.[9]

However, according to Bebbington it is the distinguishing marks of the evangelical that does not change with the current philosophical and cultural trends. Bebbington identifies these marks as conversionism (the belief that lives need to be changed) activism (the expression of the gospel in effort), Biblicism (the importance of the Bible) and crucientrism (Christ’s redemptive work on the cross).[10] These marks form the priorities that are the basis of evangelicalism. So, when you hear the word “evangelical” what or who comes to mind?

[1] David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002) 1.

[2] Ibid., 1

[3] Ibid., 46

[4] Ibid., 74

[5] Ibid., 81

[6] Ibid., 151

[7] Ibid., 232

[8] Ibid., 248

[9] Mark A. Noll, Where We Are and How We Got Here (Christianity Today, September 29, 2006). Accessed 2/6/2014.

[10] Ibid., 3

About the Author

Miriam Mendez

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