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Reflections on Evangelicalism Part I

There are at least five main things that make up Evangelicals George Marsden states that the essential beliefs are: “(1) The Reformation doctrine of the final authority of the Bible, (2) the real historical character of God’s saving work recorded in Scripture (3) salvation to eternal life based on the redemptive work of Christ, (4) the importance of evangelism and missions and (5) the importance of a spiritually transformed life.??? Even among evangelical scholars there is some disagreement as to the essentials, as Mark Noll points out Scotland’s David Bebbington’s four main beliefs that make up the core of evangelicalism: “Biblicism (reliance on the Bible as the ultimate religious authority), conversionism (or an emphasis on the new birth), activism (or energetic, individualistic engagement in personal and social duties), and crucicentrism (or focus on Christ’s redeeming work as the heart of true religion).???

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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By Wess

Teacher, author, Quaker, ​and public theologian. He works at Guilford College, enjoys riding his Triumph Bonneville, and listening to music.

8 replies on “Reflections on Evangelicalism Part I”

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.

[…] As an aside, Chris Spinks is correct to suggest that there are no groups that have gone unscathed by the powers of Evangelicalism, and that there are many groups  of every tradition that would fall under its influence (I indeed do use a fairly broad definition of understanding the movement).  What I’m simply suggesting is that these movements, Quaker, Catholic, Mennonite, and Episcopalian did not start out as Evangelical. […]

[…] Part I – Reflections on Evangelicalism Part II – What Evangelicalism Is Part III – Critiques and Possibilities – Biblicism Part IV – Critiques and Possibilities – Spiritually Transformed Life Part V – Evangelicalism as a Subculture A critique on the movement as a subculture What I like so much about Quakerism and the Emerging Church (not necessarily both together) is that they both hold values that extend beyond the restrictions of Evangelicalism and modernity. What both Quakers and Emerging Churches hold in common is a desire to transform secular space (see Ryan Bolger’s conversation on this), and see that all is God’s, all is in his realm and that his fingerprints are over everything. This is where the larger Evangelical church loses me and many in our generation. There seems to be a lack of ability to create things new and authentic. I was having a conversation the other day where my friend and I were making fun of those old G.A.P. (God Answers Prayers) christian tees. Now maybe I take that stuff too seriously but we rarely as the church generate ideas worth duplicating, instead we take the ideas of the world and slap some kind of christianese on it. This is the effect of a dualistic disease that sees everything as either Christian or non-Christian. “Gap??? is not Christian but we can make it Christian by rephrasing what it stands for. Some things are not worth saving. The Evangelical church has become a sub-culture, a group of people out of touch with the larger world. It is this part of the church that has largely moved away from the urban centers of the world and into the Suburbs, it is largely representative of Anglo-Americans and has largely represented conservative views on politics and culture. Even if these are only generalizations and don’t fit the whole of the movement, these generalizations in my mind constitute a reason to “listen up??? and “consider thy ways.??? Many of us were told as teenagers to throw, burn, and smash anything that was not Christian. Growing up under this kind of anti-secular sentiment, Evangelicals try and think “what would a non-christian person like to do if he/she came to church??? or “what kinds of songs would they like to sing,??? or “what words can I use to change the way they think about Jesus.??? This is how we “engage??? with the culture. The reality is that there is little interaction from those “on the outside.??? A majority of church growth is transferring memberships from one Evangelical church to another (typically to “bigger??? and “better??? churches that offer more programs and services to me as a consumer). […]

[…] Write a Series I like to write series on occasion, and in fact this post may have been better as a two part series don’t you think?  Well if you are going to write a series you need to think about it before you do it.  Once you’re all done writing your posts be sure to go back through and have them all link to each other (you can see what I did on the XFBA Series).  Another tip that Darren from Problogger points to is the need to have a central page for the series (I’ve done this by creating a Featured page).  Another fun thing to do is find collaborators to write with you on a topic, even finding people with different views than yourself is a great idea to help broaden your series’ appeal and readership. […]

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