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Can I be an Evangelical without being an ‘evangelical’?

Written by: on January 11, 2018

Who really wants to be named as an Evangelical today? The term comes with so much baggage from centuries of history and is a challenge to define in mainstream culture, as it often tends to categorize a very specific demographic having little to do with the origins of the movement at all. The word ‘Evangelical’ is frequently removed from ministry names as it is misconstrued for something it never was or at least was not intended to be. But what does ‘Evangelical’ mean and who are the Evangelicals?

According to a story done by National Public Radio during the last US presidential election, Evangelicals are deemed as either ‘born-again Christians’ or ‘white evangelical protestants.’[1] These two terms are centered on pollsters’ attempts to determine how to get a vote for a particular candidate. The National Association of Evangelicals begins with belief rather than political or racial demographics.[2] Belief gets much closer to the heart and history of the Evangelical tradition. In his book, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, David Bebbington outlines the historic passage from the beginnings of Evangelicalism through the majority of the twentieth century, defining at the outset the core elements comprising those who went by the term Evangelical. He writes, “There are the four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.”[3]

Although Bebbington explains that the four qualities have rotated in prominence and by various leaders and groups since the 1700s each has remained over time. This holds true when referring back to the NAE’s definition on belief. Only two years ago the group of sociologists, theologians, and evangelical leaders used the following four statements to define an Evangelical, with near exact alignment to Bebbington’s thesis:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.[4]

Perhaps they used Bebbington as a reference. Regardless, the history originating in Britain is still accurate for the coalition of Christians in the United States today.

While the four pillars of belief have held over time, they only vaguely scratch the surface of what an Evangelical looks like or how they function. As Bebbington explains throughout his text, Evangelicals have morphed and changed over the years and included a variety of groups such as Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals. While some groups focused their effort on the poor, others were intent on education, while still others sought holiness of life.

Bebbington’s work is an educational standard and necessary historical account for Evangelicals as noted by Malcolm Greenshields, Robert Clouse, and William Sachs in their reviews of the text. Each comments on the depth and breadth citing the balance of content along with the readability by a general audience.

Each review is generally glowing although limitations are also mentioned. Greenshields comments that little is written about the influence of the Methodists in the mid-section of the book and the text is in need of a bibliography.[5] Sachs determines Bebbington could use less narrative in his account while providing more analysis, particularly with regard to theological changes in the 1830s and the lethargy after WWI.[6] These critiques are relatively minor in the scope of the work and value offered by the detailed historic research and composition of the text.

One particularly fascinating aspect still active today about Bebbington’s explanation of Evangelicals is that though the four core qualities of Evangelicalism remain there are many divisions arising not out of theology but rather from the impact of culture.[7] Though theology is certainly impacted, the theologians are not the first movers. Rather, culture changes and the church responds to fit the needs of the day. This does not make the church spineless but rather nuanced, complex, and diverse. As Clouse remarked, “Despite statements to the contrary by Evangelicals, the movement does not reflect a world of eternal and unchanging truth. Rather, it has been bound to the flux of ideas and events within the general culture.”[8] Sachs adds, ‘Bebbington does not believe Evangelicals triumphed over their circumstances. He endows contextual forces with the power to circumscribe religious forms. Social factors shaped Evangelicalism’s intentions repeatedly.”[9] Two of the primary contextual forces noted include class separation and intellectual differences, which split the movement from within.

Today Evangelicalism is still responding to the context of the day. When we are not defined by our core historic beliefs, we likely do a really poor job responding, capitalizing on personal, political or social gains. Yet, when we know and are reminded of our core theology, we have the opportunity to remain faithful to the heart of the movement, even with the complexity and tensions of our general theological differences.

I have always been proud to call myself a Wesleyan and a Free Methodist theologically and practically. And, in reading Bebbington and discovering my historic Evangelical roots, rather than the cheap propagandized term, I am glad to be called an Evangelical within the wider array of Christians.

 

[1] Kurtzleben, Danielle. “Are You An Evangelical? Are You Sure?” NPR. December 19, 2015. Accessed January 12, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2015/12/19/458058251/are-you-an-evangelical-are-you-sure.

[2] Smietana, Bob, Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, Kate Shellnutt, Brett McCracken, and Marshall Shelley. “What Is an Evangelical? Four Questions Offer New Definition.” Christianity Today. November 19, 2015. Accessed January 12, 2018. http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2015/november/what-is-evangelical-new-definition-nae-lifeway-research.html.

[3] Bebbington, David W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. London: Taylor and Francis, 1988.

[4] Smietana, Eekhoff Zylstra, Shellnutt, McCracken, and Shelley.

[5] Greenshields, Malcolm. “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, by D.W. Bebbington.” Canadian Journal of History 25, no. 2 (August 1, 1990): 267-70.

[6] Sachs, William. “Evangelicals in the Church of England, 1734-1984 by Kenneth Hylson-Smith; Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s by D. W. Bebbington.” The Journal of Religion. 72, no. 1 (Jan., 1992): 114-116.

[7] Bebbington, 275.

[8] Clouse, Robert. “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, by D.W. Bebbington.” The American Historical Review 96, no. 1 (February 1, 1991): 165.

[9] Sachs, 115.

About the Author

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Trisha Welstad

Trisha is passionate about investing in leaders to see them become all God has created them to be. As an ordained Free Methodist elder, Trisha has served with churches in LA and Oregon, leading as a pastor of youth and spiritual formation, a church planter, and as a co-pastor of a church restart. Trisha currently serves as leadership development pastor at Northside Community Church in Newberg, OR. Over the last five years Trisha has directed the Leadership Center, partnering with George Fox and the Free Methodist and Wesleyan Holiness churches. The Leadership Center is a network facilitating the development of new and current Wesleyan leaders, churches and disciples through internships, equipping, mentoring and scholarship. In collaboration with the Leadership Center, Trisha serves as the director of the Institute for Pastoral Thriving at Portland Seminary and with Theologia: George Fox Summer Theology Institute. She is also adjunct faculty at George Fox University. Trisha enjoys throwing parties, growing food, listening to the latest musical creations by Troy Welstad and laughing with her two children.

12 responses to “Can I be an Evangelical without being an ‘evangelical’?”

  1. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Trish,

    I loved your quote, “The word ‘Evangelical’ is frequently removed from ministry names as it is misconstrued for something it never was or at least was not intended to be.”

    That is exactly what I am seeing in our denomination. Many churches are going away from the name “Evangelical” after their name, because of the baggage you described. On the same side of the coin, many churches in my area are taking the name “Baptist” from their church name, too.

    Thank you for being proud to be called an Evangelical. I am, too. But I am not sure everyone is?

    Thank you as well for your work with the Global Wesleyan Alliance. I wonder if they are proud to be called Evangelicals, also?

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Jay, to be honest, I am not sure I have been proud to be called an Evangelical. Until Bebbington’s history, the water was so muddy I just preferred to say I was a Christian and not deal with evangelical so much. The baggage is just hard to deal with although there’s lots that comes with Christian too. As much as no one cares about denominations anymore I am always talking about being Wesleyan. I just think it’s easier to define and is closer to home in many ways as evangelical has been so elusive.

  2. Great post Trisha! It was interesting to read about how important it is to accurately define what being an evangelical really is. You also did a great job of bringing out the fact that our political system likes to throw around this term although no one really knows how it is defined. Your words were profound: “Yet, when we know and are reminded of our core theology, we have the opportunity to remain faithful to the heart of the movement, even with the complexity and tensions of our general theological differences.” I could not have said it better myself and I agree that if we get back to the basics of our evangelical roots we are doing well.

  3. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    Trish,

    I kind of thought the opposite. I think many people like to call themselves evangelical as a normalizing catch-all term. Many independent churches I know will still call themselves evangelical while they shake off any other denominational ties. On the other hand, I think it is trendy to deconstruct labels and invent a new paradigm for oneself to exist in and obligate others to recognize it. “I’m not evangelical! How dare you assume my denomination.” I’m being facetious.

    Your description of evangelicals from the political perspective was humorous. Evangelicals are deemed… ‘white evangelical protestants.’ They used the same adjective in its definition. I think this only emphasizes the ambiguity of evangelicalism.

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Yes, I thought the article definition of evangelical as evangelical was funny too. It just shows how ambiguous and shallow the term has become which is why it’s hard for me to want to identify as one- I don’t even know what it is. That is, until Bebbington’s historical perspective.

      You mentioned in your comment to someone else about the AG separation of Pentecostals considering themselves evangelicals or not. As a pastor and an academic, where do you stand in this? Also, are you going to SPS? I am and hope to see you there if so!

  4. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Hi Trisha! You raise some excellent points in your blog. The term Evangelical was used a lot during our recent presidential election and I struggled – or should I say I was incensed – by insinuations that our candidates were Evangelical. For me, naming your denomination means nothing but how you live your life means everything. We are fellow Methodists – I’m a proud Wesleyan. The UMC is facing some challenges regarding theology. What are the current challenges of the Free Methodists?

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Jean, I fully agree, it’s about living the faith/theology and not toting it as a badge of honor. That’s just ridiculous and nonsensical.

      Regarding the Free Methodists and theological challenges, we are watching some of the UMC discussion but are not having the same dialogues. The main conversations are about same-sex unions and gender and how do we navigate our practice well but we are more on the conservative side which I am seeing lead to some of our younger and/or more progressive pastors leaving the denomination.

  5. mm M Webb says:

    Trish,

    Happy New Year! Thanks for the outside in analysis of Bebbington and his work on evangelicalism. The evangelical movement, coming from the British, makes historic sense to me. I’m glad Bebbington focused on the strengths of the participating denominations and did not get down in the weeds of their differences, that the evil one always uses to try and divide the body of Christ.

    I also like his tetralogy of the four characteristics, like you said, have stood the test of time; Bible, cross, conversion, action. I like GFU’s “interdenominational” position on the matter of where they land on denominations. And likewise, I commend Bebbington for his lived religion context, because environment and culture really do influence how God works in His diverse creation.

    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  6. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Trisha
    Great insight into yourself in the opening. I agree when we allow ourselves to be drawn out of our core principles and to define ourselves either politically or by culture is when we get into problems. In the last election, one of the things I told our church was no matter who wins God is still on his throne and we should act like it, whether we agree with the outcome or not. God should be central to our actions, not some politician.

    Jason

  7. Shawn Hart says:

    Trisha, great post. I appreciate you pointing out the four areas of evangelicalism. It was ironic however, that as I read through the initial list in the reading, I found myself thinking how much I seemed to connect with those stipulations; however as I read on, it seemed that the more Bebbington described each one, the further from association I seemed to move. The modern understanding of evangelicalism has seemed to become a clouded version of a barrage of different religious views. I could not help but grow curious concerning the future of the thought process as more and more scholars/ministers give their on influences to its definition. The sad reality may be that anyone that classifies themselves under the modern day flag may find tomorrow that they regret any association with it.

    How do you think we should identify ourselves in the Christian world today? Furthermore, in the pursuit of the biblical call for unity, do you feel as though evangelicalism would help that plea or hinder it?

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Shawn, thanks for your thoughtful comment. To answer your question, maybe we should just identify ourselves as Christians to both the Christian and non-Christian world. I just want to identify closely with Jesus and if ‘evangelicalism’ as a term gets in the way I am willing to throw it out. Mostly, I want to be identified by what I believe, and if people recognize it as historic evangelicalism great! I think we are more unified if we are in Christ rather than under all these banners. So, I may be a Wesleyan and a Free Methodist but me and my Calvinist friends are still united in Jesus which is where I find comfort.

  8. Dave Watermulder says:

    Hi Trish,

    Thanks for this post and your usual clear analysis and synthesis of sources/perspectives. I was interested that in the end, there was a turn in your writing, where you started using the “we” pronoun. I see some other comments above, so maybe this is repetitious, but it’s definitely a question that comes up. How do you self-identify? How do you position yourself within the larger Christian world? And is “Evangelical” a helpful or meaningful title (given how it is understood by others), or not? Thanks for this post!

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