DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Webster says…

Written by: on January 30, 2018

Don’t we just love to define things—music, food, people, ideas?  One of the more popular ways people begin a public speech is with the words, “Webster defines X as A, B, C and even sometimes Q, but never W or R. Let us begin with A.” And off they go. With a definition in hand, we have a certain power over the subject. The subject becomes more orderly and contained, even controllable. In Global Evangelicalism Theology, History and Culture in Regional Perspective we find ourselves returning to the topic of evangelicalism and its global impact.[1] That return begins with a search to define evangelicalism.

The 10 chapters cover topics and issues from expansion and globalization of Evangelicalism to the way in which Evangelicalism approaches engages culture including issues of gender. The book gives an account of the way in which evangelicalism has expanded from a relatively local North American religious expression to a worldwide expression of faith and religious experience. Embedded in the central theme of Global Evangelicalism is an argument against a global secularization thesis whos proponents predict the demise of the church and religion. However, Lewis and Pierard argue, via the various chapters and is an argument against a global secularization thesis whos proponents predict the demise of the church and religion. However, Lewis and Pierard argue, via the various chapters and scholars, that “Instead of receding, religions throughout the world have been growing and often have been rigorous in their engagement with the public sphere.” [2]

In spite of the exponential spread of evangelicalism in the world, Lewis and Pierard are convinced that non-religious scholars are not well aware of the phenomenon and possibly even bias against evangelicalism. [3] According to Lewis and Pierard, evangelicalism is marginalized in the academic world for several reasons. First, by its nature evangelicalism is challenging to track and therefore study. Second, the term evangelicalism is often misunderstood or misused—politically and socially. Finally, evangelicals themselves suffer from a lack of unified identity and a central locus, for example, as is the Vatican for the Roman Catholic Church.[4] The stated purpose of the book is both historical and theological, i.e., to survey the recent expansion of evangelicalism as well as delineate its beliefs, practices, and expressions in a global world. [5] With that thought, we find ourselves once again faced with the attempt to define evangelicalism.[6]
There are so many things one could focus on in this book, but I wish to ask one question—that invariably leads to others. Why do scholars try to define evangelicalism, when to do so often ends with only varying degrees of consensus? I understand the need for a definition in academic circles, it’s difficult to study a moving target. There is also the importance of understanding—outside of political affiliations—those who call themselves evangelicals. No one political party or ideology own’s evangelicalism. [7]

On the other hand, maybe like love, art or the cosmos—evangelicalism defies definition. Actually, that may be a good thing. To be wholly defined is to be put into a box with limited boundaries, to be pressed into a mold or forced into a framework that literally defines. In this scenario, anything not within the limits of the official definition is outside! But evangelicalism has so many varied and diverse parts, that to define some portion out, would unbalance the delicate symmetry which makes evangelicalism what it is. Could it be that evangelicalism is one of the more dynamic religious movements the world has yet seen? It cannot be pinned down, put in a box or forced into a frame—it just doesn’t sit still long enough!

Maybe the need to define evangelicalism is based on the desire for a pure theology or the advancement of a specific political or social agenda. In this case, the definers probably need to read Erdozain’s Soul of Doubt. [8] Evangelicalism is more inclusive than some would wish and less than some would hope. That may make it more “heaven-like” than some might think or find agreeable.

Finally, could it be that a lack of definition is exactly what is needed in a world that is bound by an immanent framework? In this way, evangelicalism is almost boundless in its expression of faith in God. It is a far-reaching global movement in a world defined and bound by an immanent framework. It is a movement where people who live and are influenced by this immanent framework experience the transcendent God, who is boundless and undefinable.  What a witness of the true God in a world that longs for choices that are sorely limited by the very boundaries in which they have set for themselves. Maybe we could define evangelicalism as simply a living and dynamic expression of “the Church.” Global Evangelicalism certainly alludes to that.

At this point, some might suggest that without a definition Evangelicalism could quickly fall into an unbiblical universalism. I suppose the risk exists as it would for any dynamic religious movement. But the higher risk may be those who use a definition to try to control and limit what is and is not evangelicalism and what it can and cannot do. At this point, Evangelicalism has continued to grow exponentially, while being somewhat inclusive both from a theological and cultural context. I would not be alone in arguing that even in this growth Evangelicalism has maintained it core biblical orthodoxy. There is no reason to believe that it will not continue.

Webster’s defines Evangelical as: “relating to, or being in agreement with the Christian gospel especially as it is presented in the four Gospels.” [9] With that definition, where do we begin?

 

 

  1. Lewis, Donald M., and Richard V. Pierard. Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History & Culture in Regional Perspective. IVP Academic, 2014.
  2. Ibid., 11.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 12,13.
  5. Ibid., 14.
  6. Ibid., 17-37.
  7. Smietana, Bob. “What is an Evangelical? Four Questions Offer New Definition.” What Social Science Shows About Beliefs and Behavior (2015): http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2015/november/what-is-evangelical-new-definition-nae-lifeway-research.html (accessed Jan 29, 2018).
  8. Erdozain, Dominic. The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief From Luther to Marx. 1 ed. Oxford University Press, 2015.
  9.  “Evangelical: Definition of Evangelical By Merriam-Webster.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/evangelicalism (accessed Jan 29, 2018).

About the Author

Jim Sabella

10 responses to “Webster says…”

  1. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Great question Jim – “Why do scholars try to define evangelicalism, when to do so often ends with only varying degrees of consensus?” It’s a bit like trying to catch a fly with chopsticks. I suppose it can be done, but with extreme patience and lots of focus. That’s how it felt reading this book. And in the end, do we ever agree on one definition? The book read more like the history and impact of evangelicalism.
    Webster’s definition was surprisingly different than the book. I would not have defined evangelicalism in that way. It takes me down a very different cognitive path in comprehending evangelicalism. Very interesting. And yet, it would have been a much simpler and efficient read. 🙂

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Thanks, Jenn. Good illustration about trying to catch a fly with chopsticks—ala The Karate Kid! I do understand the need to for a definition. Define is what scholars do! I just don’t think evangelicalism can be defined, it is much too dynamic.

  2. Mary says:

    Jim, I really appreciate the way your thoughts parallel trying to define Pentecostalism, though you didn’t go there in this post. It’s the part about “To be wholly defined is to be put into a box with limited boundaries, to be pressed into a mold or forced into a framework that literally defines.”
    Why is it that we like to do that? Is it security? I think your surmise that it may be to keep evangelicalism from falling into unbiblical universalism is an important point. After all, that is the reason some denominations give for having catechisms.
    I’m sure you see in Eastern Europe many different ways that people worship God, but it is the same gospel. Our global Advances have reinforced for me the joy and love in worshipping with diverse cultures. What an incredible faith that transcends immanency!
    My prayer is that Christians, especially in the US, would see that this is exciting and not fear the immigrants that are coming in and can enrich our experiences.

  3. Stu Cocanougher says:

    I appreciated your post. Sometimes, terms are best defined by clarifying what they are NOT.

    For example, Evangelicals do NOT believe that you are a Christian because your parents were believers. Evangelicals do NOT believe that you a a Christian because you are a member of a church.

    In fact, most evangelicals would say that if you are trusting in church membership or biology to save you, you are probably not a Christian at all.

    Yet, when I look at world statistics of “Global Christianity,” I see that there are probably millions who are listed as “Christians” who have never made any kind of a profession of faith in Christ (Romans 10:9). I find this very convicting.

    • mm Katy Drage Lines says:

      True, Stu. For example, in Israel, among the Arab communities, there are many cultural Catholics and Orthodox Christians. In order to distinguish that their faith is alive, active, and CHOSEN, the folks we work with there identify themselves as “believers” rather than “Christians.”

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Interesting thought Stu—defining by determining what it is not! One of the problems of “counting” Christians around the world is that there is no definition. Again, I’m convinced that evangelicalism cannot be defined because the movement is too dynamic. For example, we used the numbers provided by Joshua Project for a large event. This only gave a point of reference for the missionaries serving in those countries to argue that the numbers were completely off—usually on the high side. One person’s criteria is another person’s point of disagreement. As you said, is some surveys there are many counted as Christian who have no profession of faith only a family history.

  4. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    Interesting, Jim, that both you and I question the ability to define/boundary “evangelicalism,” though my challenge of the word is that I wonder if the authors applied it exceedingly broad. In my opinion, if a term stops being useful, it might be time to put it to rest. With “evangelical” carrying political baggage in the US, and being so hard to pin down, perhaps we just stop using it and find something else to call ourselves… Christians? Jesus followers?

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Katy, you make a good point. Maybe it’s time to use another term. Interestingly enough, I was recently talking to some friends who are Pentecostals and they said they do not define themselves as Evangelicals. They too sighted the heavy political overtones that the term has taken on in the last 30 years or so.

  5. Kristin Hamilton says:

    “Could it be that evangelicalism is one of the more dynamic religious movements the world has yet seen? It cannot be pinned down, put in a box or forced into a frame—it just doesn’t sit still long enough!”
    I love this wholly optimistic view of evangelicalism, Jim. I have to say that I believe one of the reasons so many don’t take (global) evangelism seriously is that the self-proclaimed gatekeepers of American evangelical orthodoxy have turned what has been a vibrant, exciting collection of traditions into a parody of itself. I have struggled with claiming the title Evangelical for myself because it now smacks of irrelevancy in my community, unlike in other parts of the globe.

Leave a Reply to Katy Drage Lines Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *