Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Evangelicalism: Where the action is?

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.


Marcus Goodyear said...

As long as I could remember, I always told people simply, "I'm a Christian." It's just easier.

I didn't even know what an evangelical was until three years ago when I joined a Christian ecumenical organization. Then I found out I are one.

Anonymous said...

Al, an observation of the value of the term "evangelical" is that it has withstood the test of time. Moreover, it is used and abused. All good terms and designations are taken advantage of by people who want in or out.

Another observation is that evangelical is a kind of foundation, or place, where many Christians can comfortably reach out to issues. Evangelical Environmentalism. Evangelical Social Justice. Evangelical Entrepreneur. Etc. Some people might say it would be best to substitute "Christian" for "Evangelical." Maybe. But there are risks in abandoning a church tradition while at the same time reaching outside of a comfort zone.

I like evangelicalism. It's longevity. It's adaptability. And of course, it's emphasis on Christ.

Al Hsu said...

Mark - I went to a Church of Christ/Christian Church college, and the big emphasis there was that we are "Christians only." And part of me still resonates with that, but pragmatically, if you just say, "I'm a Christian," then you usually need to follow it up with some sort of explanation or qualifier to explain what kind of Christian you are. Catholic? Pentecostal? Falwell? Spong? "Christian" has a simplicity and purity to it, but also a generic-ness that can be unhelpful at times.

Of course, it depends on the setting. Talking in a multifaith context, it makes more sense to self-identify as Christian (rather than Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, etc.), and an extra qualifier may or may not be needed. But within Christian circles, something more is usually better.

So, I'm an evangelical Anglican Christian. And depending on who I'm interacting with, I may use any or all of those three words, as needed.

Anonymous said...

"Evangelical" has died the death of a thousand qualifications. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (which is, by the way, using "evangelical" in its historic sense) and the Evangelical Free Church of America are quite different (one might even say radically different). So are James Dobson and Tony Campolo, and on and on.

Anonymous said...

For whatever it's worth, the "Evangelical" in Evangelical Free Church actually comes from its roots in the Lutheran church-same for the Evangelical Covenant Church, although they are certainly both now in the mainstream of Neo-evangelicalism.

Friar Tuck said...

Dave's view is helpful. If pressed I would identify myself as an evangelical, because I believe in the necessity of a personal relationship with Christ for salvation, and the importance of sharing my faith with others. But then I often have to qualify it with "I am not one of THOSE evangelicals."

Unknown said...

In response to the above comment from Friar, for me probably the most useful thing about the word evangelical has been the fact that it has forced me to identify with "those" evangelicals.

When I went to college I was "an evangelical that doesn't like evangelicals." I'm coming out of college an evangelical identifying as theologically "moderate" and politically liberal, toying with Anglicanism (through my roommate and authors like Lauren Winner), strongly loyal to InterVarsity, and attending an independent black church. I'm not the kind of evangelical I used to be, and I'm not necessarily the average evangelical. But I know other evangelicals I feel are much more like me than unlike me. And of the ones unlike me, I have a lot more grace that I ever would have imagined possible. (Which doesn't mean I can't ever criticize evangelicalism... Last night, in fact, I was dissing Joel Osteen, as my dad and I walked by a display in Barnes and Noble.)

My greater tendency is definitely to critique and separate myself rather than being a patient reformer (and learner!). Because evangelicalism has felt like an inescapable identification (I'm not theologically liberal; I'm clearly not a fundamentalist, etc.), it has forced me to be in fellowship with people quite different from me. And that's been a good thing.

I've been amazed how much "those" evangelicals have been able to teach me about loving Jesus.

M. R. Burgos said...

Jesus calls His people, The Church. Why do we wander adm waste time with a mish mosh of labels? Why do we have to be so divisive? Anytime division arose in the early church Paul was quick to squash it; (1Cor12:12 One body, many parts... ,1Cor3:1-9 We are all God's)
I call myself forgiven.
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cawoodm said...

Just what the peep is "Evangelical"? I mean all Christians are called to be evangelical in the sense of the great commision just as all Christians are automatically catholic (one body, one church) whether they like it or not and all should be reformed in the sense that they reject the corrupt and pagan practices of the medieval church. Why do we need these denominational labels - there's only one Jesus: you know him or you don't regardless of your theological position.

Call me what you like, I'm just crazy for Jesus!