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What is “Evangelicalism”?

December 29th, 2009
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In a recent post, over on the blog Evangel, Nathan Martin shared some interesting observations by Os Guinness about the state of Evangelicalism. It is a thought-provoking post. It made me realize that for all the years I’ve been reading about, and studying, Evangelicalism, self-understanding and self-definition remain, at least as far as I can tell, ever-elusive. What is that? And, for that matter, on this blog site, called, Evangel, do the contributors to this blog site share a common understanding or hold to a common definition of what Evangelicalism is? I’d be very interested to hear what this understanding and definition is. So, what is Evangelicalism? What does it mean? Where is it found? How is it done?

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  1. John Molitor
    December 29th, 2009 at 11:23 | #1

    I’ve wondered the same for years. From the 1990s and 2000s, the term evangelical seemed to arise from the political realm. Christian conservative voters were being identified as evangelicals. Then, individual Christian leaders and churches began to adopt the term for themselves. It’s almost as if the political morphed into the spiritual. I’m probably wrong, but that’s how it has seemed to me.

    SSgt John Molitor
    San Antonio, TX

  2. December 29th, 2009 at 16:11 | #2

    The problem is that Evangelicalism is not defined on theological terms. It has always been about “engaging the culture” by identifying things that are considered antithetical to Christianity, and then creating and promoting Christian alternatives. And so Evangelicalism is:

    * Contemporary Christian music as an alternative to the modern music industry.

    * Contemporary worship as an alternative to the club scene.

    * Creation science as an alternative to evolution.

    * Veggie Tales as an alternative to Saturday morning cartoons.

    I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

    The only clear theological attribute of Evangelicalism is its rejection of infant baptism and its insistence on the born-again experience as the means of salvation. In fact, the word “Evangelical” as they use it, means that you “evangelize” people so that they will accept Jesus as their Savior. The word is completely disconnected from its original meaning.

  3. Sue Kreft
    December 29th, 2009 at 18:52 | #3

    @Kaleb: good explanation. I never would have thought of that, but once I read it I thought it was right one. My Lutheran congregation has the word “evangelical” in its name, and it sure doesn’t mean what you were describing.

  4. Ken Howes
    December 29th, 2009 at 21:15 | #4

    Sue, that’s why German has two different words that would be translated into English as “evangelical”. “Evangelisch” is the older word. It means the churches of the Reformation, especially the Lutherans. “Evangelikal” is used to mean the modern fusion of Methodism, Baptist teaching and Pentecostalism that is in many respects directly contrary to the teachings of the Reformation.

    There are many points of disagreement between Lutherans and the Reformed, but what they agree on is that our salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone. Nothing we do–nothing–merits salvation. That means that even faith is a gift of God and not a decision we make. These modern “Evangelicals” teach that our faith is a decision we make. On TV programs across the country, Baptist, Pentecostal and Methodist preachers thunder, “HAVE YOU DECIDED TO ACCEPT JESUS CHRIST AS YOUR PERSONAL SAVIOR?”

    The scary thing is when Lutherans start saying such things; the insidious thing is when their pastors are preaching correct Lutheran doctrine yet select, or let their “music committees” select, “praise songs” that say these things.

  5. Thom Garrison
    December 29th, 2009 at 22:17 | #5

    Wheaton College’s “Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals” website notes (in the section “Defining Evangelicalism”) that the term is a “wide-reaching definitional ‘canopy’” but goes on to say (in the section “Defining the Term in Contemporary Times”) that:

    “There are three senses in which the term “evangelical” is used today as we enter the 21st-century. The first is to view “evangelical” as all Christians who affirm a few key doctrines and practical emphases. British historian David Bebbington approaches evangelicalism from this direction and notes four specific hallmarks 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 crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

    A second sense is to look at evangelicalism as an organic group of movements and religious tradition. Within this context “evangelical” denotes a style as much as a set of beliefs. As a result, groups as disparate as black Baptists and Dutch Reformed Churches, Mennonites and Pentecostals, Catholic charismatics and Southern Baptists all come under the evangelical umbrella-demonstrating just how diverse the movement really is.

    A third sense of the term is as the self-ascribed label for a coalition that arose during the Second World War. This group came into being as a reaction against the perceived anti-intellectual, separatist, belligerent nature of the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Importantly, its core personalities (like Harold John Ockenga and Billy Graham), institutions (for instance, Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College), and organizations (such as the National Association of Evangelicals and Youth for Christ) have played a pivotal role in giving the wider movement a sense of cohesion that extends beyond these “card-carrying” evangelicals.”

    I don’t find Evangelicalism to be monolithic or having one definition. (But as someone has said about pornography, I generally can recognize it when I see it.) I grew up as an evangelical Methodist and can see the above paragraphs as helpful in outlining some of the boundaries of the movement.

  6. Steve Newell
    December 30th, 2009 at 08:29 | #6

    @Thom Garrison
    I think that a modified quote by Will Rogers could be appropriate. Mr. Rogers said “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” An “evangelical” could say “I am not a member of any organized Church Body. I am an Evangelical.”

    Several years ago on Issues, Etc., Todd Wilken was interviewing Ted Haggard who was president of the National Association of Evangelicals at the time. Mr. Haggard was asked to give a theological definition on an “evangelical” and his answer sounded more like a definition of a political party and not a church body.

  7. Janet Young
    December 30th, 2009 at 15:34 | #7

    Regarding the “personal Savior” term: I first heard it as Ken described, in “Baptist talk.” Now some of my Lutheran Bible class teachers [and even one of our church's staff members] are using the term. Is there a “non-personal” Savior? If we believe in Jesus as our Savior, isn’t that description enough? Perhaps I am being too touchy, but the way I am hearing it used in my LCMS congregation makes it seem like the “personal Savior” concept is an indicator of “real” faith at a deeper “emotional” level instead of only “head knowledge.” And I don’t like hearing either term! But then I am a cold German in a sea of “real”, feeling Christians, apparently, and must be feeling that my faith is inadequate! It’s enough to often keep me from attending the women’s Bible study!

  8. December 30th, 2009 at 21:30 | #8

    @Janet: You are not being too touchy. That is exactly the kind of language used in the Evangelical churches I grew up in, to distinguish them from Lutherans! If teachers and staff members in your congregation are talking this way, there is a serious problem.

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