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

Who’s in? Who’s out? Who decides?

Written by: on January 17, 2019

The formation of identity groups has divided people throughout history. Whether by geography, biology or idealogical identification, the creation of the ‘we’ is simultaneously dependent on the creation of a ‘them’. The bulk of scripture leans heavily on the ‘we’ being the chosen people of God—the Israelites who grow to identify as the Jewish people. Every one else becomes identified as a Gentile. A Gentile is most simply defined by negation: ‘not us’, ‘not chosen’ or ‘not Jewish’. When Jesus throws the door open pointing toward a crumbling of this simplified binary there is resistance because the Jewish identity group becomes destabilized. Genealogy is no longer a primary factor in being ‘in’, but the boundaries for this new identity group are unclear. Establishing the criterion for the new identity group, the Christian, has become a significant work of the church. The project has been influenced by power, theology, politics and local culture to name but a few.

Expert church historian David Bebbington traced patterns within the evangelical movement, identifying the key features which distinguish it from other Christian streams and produced the much used Evangelical Quadrilateral. The four criterion are: biblicism, crucicentrism (centred on Jesus activity on the cross), activism (action) and conversionism[1] . The emphasis on conversionism establishes an evangelical understanding of a new binary delineating Christian identity. Bebbington points to Russell for the differentiation: there are those who have “a converted character” and there is everyone else[2] . It is very similar to the original notion of ‘Jew and Gentile’ found in scripture. Though there is a significant shift in identifying markers.

The notion of conversion embraces some key aspects of the enlightenment while at the same time working to reject it by asserting that the Bible rather than reason be the foundation to understanding. “The grand sin of these days, according to an Albury report, was ‘scepticism, infidelity, the deification of the intellect of man, reasoning pride, disbelief in the Word of God’” [3]. Just the same, conversion began to encompass an element of critical thinking. “The idea of critical thinking is to learn to think for oneself…evaluating beliefs on the basis of reason and evidence, to question when it is rational to question, to believe when it is rational to believe and to conform when it is rational to conform.” [4] Wesley posited that knowledge about God could be verified through the senses as was critical to enlightenment thinkers, but introduced the idea of a ‘sixth sense’ to add a supernatural element to the criteria. “Confirmation of the knowledge can be derived from reasoning about experience, (and) the evaluation of the marks of a true believer”[5] . As such, supernatural experiences which were beyond reason and might suggest conversion could thus be retrospectively confirmed by reason. To then proceed in the required ‘converted character’ was to exert control over oneself. Elliott’s examination of Social Theory recognizes the shift towards a belief in the capacity for self-mastery as replacing earlier belief of being enslaved to human nature. [6] These elements contributed to the evangelical agenda to see unconverted people converted and assimilated as there emerged an identifiable process that both accommodated reason while maintaining distinctive supernatural characteristics.

Conversions at an increased rate, known as revival, often coincided with an external crises, or times of uncertainty. For example times of political unrest frequently contributed to an increase chance of revival breaking out. Similarly, increases in death rates such as in times of disease outbreak would increase existential introspection. Two possible ways to view this are out of fear and a desire for the security that faith offered in eternal life or more positively, that people would be open to considering the deeper meaning of life and the suggestion that there is a supernatural realm amidst or beyond the painful and finite natural realm. Regardless, the certainty that comes with clear identity boundaries through conversion and the resulting guaranteed benefits meant that such clarity was welcomed in contrast to the anxiety produced by death and social unrest. [7] It may have been an extension of the desire for security that drew so many middle class people to the growing movement. Whether this was the case or not, the rise in this demographic meant financial security and social influence for the evangelicals. [8]

While evangelicalism was not always linked to specific denominations and was rather a characteristic of practicing faith in a particular way, they were drawn together by the common desire to see more conversions. A second aspect of the Evangelical quadrilateral was often incorporated in the form of Activation of faith. Outreach to the poorer classes took various forms with two primary emphases: to see the poor converted and to see the poor upwardly mobilized.[9] The motivation to respond to this philanthropic work was a mixture of genuine desire to become a Christian and the hope that being part of a community that was made of up of a higher class might lead to a more economically stable position. “Evangelical religion, as many commented at the time, was itself an avenue of upward social mobility.”[10]

The expansion of generous faith and philanthropic care is a beautiful continued legacy of the evangelical movement. There are however a number of cautions that might be gleaned from these moments in evangelical history. While supernatural experience may not be under the control of an individual, the ability to testify to it rationally demands an ability to reason unavailable to all. Further, the self-control that becomes evidence of a ‘changed character’ may also be inaccessible to some. Finally, linking faith with upward social mobility will further marginalize the economically vulnerable if financial security becomes a necessary hallmark of ‘changed character’. Such complicating factors necessitate ongoing critique of an over simplification of a binary ‘converted’ verses ‘non-converted’, ‘us’ verses ‘them’ identity system and explore Paul’s declaration that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile.”[11] Could it be that Jesus was pointing to something even greater than a new binary?


1. David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 2015), Google Play. 10.

2. G.W. E.Russell, ‘Recollections of the Evangelicals’, The Household of Faith (London, 1902), pp. 240 f., 245.
3. David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 2015). Google Play. 193.
4. Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools (Dillon Beach, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2009). iBooks. 27.
5. Bebbington, 84.
6. Anthony Elliott. Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. (New York: Routledge, 2009) GooglePlay. 45.
7. Bebbington. 147.
8. Bebbington. 181.
9. Bebbington. 183
10. Bebbington. 183.
11.Galatians 3:28 NIV

About the Author

Jenn Burnett

Jenn is lead pastor at The Well church in Kelowna. She longs to see the body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit and contending for unity across difference. She also loves rugby, the outdoors, the colour orange and the chaos that goes with raising 4 kids.

11 responses to “Who’s in? Who’s out? Who decides?”

  1. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Thank you, Jenn! Hope you are well. I appreciate your highlighting of the gifts and caution of activism among the poor – and our ongoing responsibility to think critically about our assumptions, methods and even promised outcomes when serving the marginalized. Very helpful.

  2. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Thanks, Jenn. Do you see these binaries predominant in Evangelicalism today (i.e. faith with upward mobility, inaccessible self-control)? What would be another option to conversionism?

    • Jenn Burnett says:

      I think one of the important pieces is continuing to learn from different parts of the body of Christ. I grew up in the church, reading the Bible, praying, doing outreach, but it wasn’t until I was part of a campus ministry that I ran into this idea of ‘conversion’ or ‘leading people to Christ’. Up until then it was more about ‘sharing Christ’s love’ or inviting people to come along. It was interesting how quickly the campus ministry wanted to tick the box that I was converted when I’d been a Christian since I was very young. I think there is definite strength in creating opportunities where people can make life transforming decisions, but a danger in insisting this is the only way. I also wonder if sometimes we have lost our ability to embrace mystery or oversimplified a beautifully complex narrative of various expressions of devotion to Christ and inclusion by Christ.

  3. Mary Mims says:

    Thanks, Jenn. One of the cautions to the expansion of the Evangelical movements you mentioned was, “linking faith with upward social mobility will further marginalize the economically vulnerable if financial security becomes a necessary hallmark of ‘changed character’.” I can say this is really a problem when this is done. This can actually destroy the faith of a struggling believer. I know this philosophy was popular with many in the prosperity gospel movement, and it really never held true to the examples in the bible. It is interesting that the Evangelical view of Christianity has emphasized different things at different times. I guess I wonder what will it be in the future for our children.

  4. Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    A clear example of spiritual “revival” as a result of ” increases in death rates such as in times of disease outbreak would increase existential introspection” would be after 9/11. Both church communities I have served here in New York have such unique collective memories of that time. Yes, it was horrific and everyone has such terrible stories of terror and fear from that day . . .and the days after. However, there also is a unique nostalgia from that time as well because the church was so active . . . and the sanctuaries were so full.

    • Sean Dean says:

      I have friends who live in the NYC suburbs in CT and they are exactly the same way. They knew people who died on that day and speak of it with both fear and reverence, but also a type of nostalgia that I can’t quite grasp.

  5. Sean Dean says:

    Jenn, thanks for pointing this out. I struggle with the in/out binary. I’ve thought it was strange how, it seems, most evangelical churches in the U.S. are situated within communities of higher socioeconomic standing. I wonder if this type of ghetoization of Evangelicalism within the U.S. has lead to the rise of charlatans pushing health and wealth gospel as people strive to get into those communities. Lots to think about here.

    • Jenn Burnett says:

      I’m consistently flummoxed by churches anywhere that take the teachings of an itinerant, homeless rabbi who spent time as a refugee and then was executed by the state and somehow use them to insist true faith will lead us to excessive wealth and health. Full support for believing for ‘our daily bread’ though.

  6. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    I so appreciate your illuminated tension of “who’s in, who’s out, and who decides?” I often struggled with this approach (even as a pastor) in the AoG. Since coming to the Vineyard, we utilize more of a centered set perspective (where Jesus is the center) rather than a bounded set perspective. While this is far messier and certainly makes it far more difficult to “check the box” of salvation experience, I believe this construct is more relevant to life experience (for those both “in” and “not yet in.” How does your post relate to your research? How have these blog responses helped your understanding? Many blessings, Dear Friend.

    • Jenn Burnett says:

      My research is about overcoming difference and division and I think the binary mentality is a major barrier in this regard. I have encountered the image of Jesus being in the centre and we are all located in relation to him and I love it! While I definitely think there is value to creating opportunities for making a decision for Jesus, as that is really significant for some, insisting on this model is problematic.

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