Reflections on Evangelicalism Part I

Reflection on the State of Evangelicalism

At Fuller we obviously talk a lot about American Culture, fundamentalism’s effects on American Evangelicalism and American Politics and the plight of Christianity in general. These tend to be radically diverse conversations, represented by a variety of voices within the student body. What I have typically loved about Fuller, though sometimes I forget this, is the wide range of beliefs represented. There are those who would be considered fundamentalists, those who are more conservative Evangelicals, some are more middle of the road moderates, and there are those who might be considered liberals. Of course categories never work all that well, but this works for generalizations. Of course There are those who aren’t even Evangelical, those who, like myself identify with Radical Reformation Christianity: Quakers, Anabaptists, Church of the Brethren and other random folk outside the mainstream of American Christianity.


I continue to think about and reflect on what Evangelicalism is, whether I am one, and whether it really matters? Humans have a need to label things, it helps us to understand and put words to things we feel, think, act and believe. Christians are no different than anyone else in our insistent desire to label people, unfortunately we’ve tended to like our labels and the people that it draws in or excludes more than we focus the core issues of being a Christian in the 21st Century.

Some thoughts have arisen for me within these ongoing conversations.

Why are we trying to save Evangelicalism?
George Marsden’s recent visit confirmed this question for me. At the end of his talk people fired a number of questions at him, trying to figure out “how we can save the future of Evangelicalism??? and “where have gone wrong so we can not make those mistakes again????

Now on the one hand I totally agree with these questions, I think that we must always look forward as the church to the guidance of the spirit and hope of the Lord. This is what Ray Anderson says in his new book on the Emerging Church (due out in the summer). His analysis is that the Jerusalem church was a church that continued to look behind them focusing on their troubles and tradition, while the church at Antioch was a church of the future because it continued to look ahead and prepare for the tomorrow. For Anderson the Holy Spirit comes from the Future not the past.

I agree whole heartedly that we must also learn from the past so we do not continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. This is the great tragedy of the Civil Rights Movement, for all the tremendous work King embodied and for the blood that was shed, we have not learned from those trying times, and those issues still challenge our society today.

However on the other hand, some things do not need to be saved or are not worth the energy, and in my mind Evangelicalism may be one of those things. Now hear me clearly, Christianity and the Gospel of Jesus is vastly different than Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism (with a big E) is a set of beliefs about the Bible and Jesus Christ, these beliefs have been forged since the time of the Protestant Reformation. Two important reminders are that there have only been card-carrying Evangelicals since the First Great Awakening (Mid-18th Century) and that there is a large portion of the church that would not be called Evangelical (Anabaptists, Brethren, Quakers, Catholics, many Episcopalians, Emerging Churches, etc).

I have written two more posts on this subject that are scheduled to be published this week where I will discuss these issues more fully. They will cover,

1. What “Big E??? Evangelicalism is.
2. The Good News of “small e??? evangelicalism.
3. Fundamentalism as a Subculture.
4. Some contrasts from the Quaker community.

Visit my “Series on Evangelicalism” under the Featured page for the rest of the posts on this topic.

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Wess

...is the William R. Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

8 thoughts on “Reflections on Evangelicalism Part I”

  1. I’m interested to see what more you have to say on this subject.
    It is something that I too have a passing fancy about. I wonder, however, how
    we can set aside those groups you name as not being Evangelical (“Anabaptists,
    Brethren, Quakers, Catholics, many Episcopalians, Emerging Churches, etc.”)
    without first defining what it is we are talking about with Evangelicalism. If
    the working definition we have for this term is broadly construed, we might
    find that Anabaptists, Brethren, Quakers, Catholics, and Emergers may need the
    “many” qualifier you place in front of Episcopalians. It seems to me some (if
    not a good many) among a few of these groups are as Evangelical as those who
    directly emerged out of the Great Awakening. I suppose we will have to wait to
    see how you describe big E Evangelcalism. It seems, at the moment, that a true
    Evangelical, according to the brief intro here, must come from the Protestant
    Reformation and the Great Awakening. I just wonder if that is necessarily the
    case. I’m anxious to hear and learn more.

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