I recently spoke in a small Northern-Michigan city. While driving out of town, I passed an interesting sight; both sides of the road were lined with Evangelical churches. They were across the road from each other and next door to each other. It was almost a comical site. It reminded me of the way fast food restaurants line both sides of the road at expressway exits. I wonder why they are all together. Was property less expensive in that area? Were there some weird zoning laws that forced the churches to all be in one area? Is it possible that they did not want to be outdone by their “competition”? I don’t know the answer, but I was reminded of a major criticism I often hear leveled toward the Evangelical Church. I have often heard people cite the abundance of denominations and independent churches within evangelicalism as a blatant sign of their disunity. While I realize that people can use this as an excuse to not connect with a church, the observation is worth exploring.
In his book Evangelism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, D.W. Bebbington does a great job of not only tracing the history of the evangelical church in Great Britain, but also helps unravel some of the reason for the extensive number of groups.
While it is easy to identify the differences, it is important to remember that there are some core characteristics that help define what it means to be evangelical. “There is nevertheless a common core that has remained remarkably constant down the centuries. Conversionism, activism, biblicism and crucicentrism form the defining attributes of Evangelical religion.” These beliefs are held in differing levels of priority, depending on the group, but for the most part, they continue to unite us. With that said, we cannot ignore that there are differences. Some of these differences have to do with geography and timing. A great example rest in the fact that many denominations have their roots in evangelistic events. Following mass conversions, such as in the time of Wesley and Whitefield, groups were formed around geographic locations or even around the leadership of a particular person. There were also obvious doctrinal issues that came into play such as Calvinism and Arminianism. But perhaps the greatest reason for these separations has to do with culture.
Following “the Lausanne Congress of 1974…it was commonly admitted by Evangelicals that the shape of their religion is influenced by the environment.” The cultural environment continues to influence and challenge the church. “Denominational splits form an excellent index to the advance of fresh ideas. Repeatedly, new wine broke old bottles.” Over the centuries, the church has addressed many cultural issues. At times, the church moves forward in unity, but more often than not, groups within the church move at a faster pace than the church as a whole. The sad truth is that sometimes the outside culture of the world holds great influence over the church. When this happens, people who bring injustices to light often make the church uncomfortable. In my own denomination, a group of pastors and laypeople who spoke out against slavery and the renting of pews was forced out of the Methodist Episcopal Church. As I read Bebbington, I see more than just three centuries of church splits, I see God working through groups, individuals, and denominations to impact their culture for Christ. Yes, there have been times that the church did not represent Christ in a very loving way, but “moulded and remoulded by its environment, Evangelical religion has been a vital force in modern Britain.” I believe this also applies to America.
 David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 1993, ©1989), 4.
 Ibid., 272.
 Ibid., 275.
 Ibid., 276.