At the National Pastors Convention last week, a certain theme kept popping up in conversations. People who had not previously identified themselves as evangelicals were claiming the evangelical label, and people who might no longer be really evangelical continue to play to an evangelical base. And self-identified non-evangelicals are talking about the importance and cultural power of evangelical Christianity. It seems that whether people are coming or going, evangelicalism is where the action is. Outsiders coming in or insiders getting out still necessarily define themselves in relationship to evangelicalism.
Some of this is probably sheer numbers. Christian authors of all stripes, whether fundamentalist, mainline, conservative or emergent, generally sense that the largest Christian book-buying audience are evangelicals. Even people who are reacting against evangelicalism's issues (and are eager to bolt) still reach out to evangelicals (who may feel similarly disaffected). There's also been a mini-trend in recent years of general trade New York publishers starting or acquiring evangelical divisions in order to reach evangelical readers. They look at the success of authors like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen and want a piece of that action.
I could be wrong about all this, ensconced as I am in the evangelical subculture. Of course, some of the fuzziness is that there are different kinds of evangelicalism - some folks are theologically evangelical while ecclesiologically mainline, or perhaps sociologically evangelical while doctrinally elsewhere, or whatever. And evangelicalism often needs to be qualified; people talk about Reformed evangelicalism or progressive evangelicalism. Or it might be better as an adjective than a noun, to talk in terms of evangelical Episcopalians or evangelical Methodists or whatnot. But even if the grass is always greener (wherever you may be located), it seems like evangelicalism is still pretty dominant and inescapable. What do you think?
A related observation. I've been following the various emergent conversations and authors for some years now with varying degrees of interest and investedness. There's much to applaud, but I have cautions as well. (As is true of practically any movement! We're all a mixed bag.) But my guess is that the majority of readers of emergent-ish books and participants in emergent conversations are Christians who are rooted in evangelical or mainline churches of some particular tradition or another, with some degree of discontent and dissonance who are hoping for renewal and reform from within. For these folks (clergy and laity alike), the emergent conversation is an opportunity to apply fresh thinking to their established church contexts. A smaller percentage are completely independent or unchurched, or in startups or church plants that are unaffiliated with some kind of denominational tradition.
There are pros and cons either way. The entrepreneurial startups have the opportunity to do new things, explore new horizons and pioneer new ways of living Christianly. But there are dangers of potentially reinventing the wheel and being disconnected from (and unaccountable to) the larger church. On the other hand, those seeking renewal and transformation from within a particular tradition (like Presbymergent, Anglimergent, Luthermergent and Submergent [Anabaptist]) might face more challenges of institutional inertia, but they might be more anchored in their identity. I think of these groups like kites on a string, able to fly because they are connected to a base. I worry a bit that completely independent groups can be like flyaway kites or helium balloons that might go wherever the winds take them.
At any rate, these are random musings that occurred to me last week while at NPC. For the record, I self-identify as evangelical (an evangelical Anglican in particular). Even though perceptions and misunderstandings of evangelicals can be problematic, as the book unChristian has highlighted, I still tend to think that the word is more helpful than not.