I have written before about the definition of “Evangelical” and just what evangelicalism is. I have argued for some time now that the term has been so over-used and over-claimed that it is largely without meaning. But that does not mean there is any dearth of people trying to define the term. Christianity Today carried a particularly interesting attempt at definition back in March. (Note – I could only find the Google cached copy of it when I started to write this.) The piece was by Bruce Hindmarsh, a professor at Regent College.
It follows the most common outline for an attempted definition and begins with a trace of the history of the movement, but notes that a historical definition is insufficient. The piece also notes that Evangelicalism is without formal theological underpinnings, even if it has produced some excellent theological work. Finally Hindmarsh settles on the four distinctives identified by historian David Bebbington, “emphasis on personal conversion, the Bible, the cross of Christ, and active Christian service.” Those distinctives probably come as close to defining the core of Evangelicalism as anything. And if we accept that as the core of Evangelicalism I think it explains so much about where Christianity is today – particularly in America.
Evangelicalism is the predominate expression of Christianity in the US across all denominations and conventions. Thus most Christians in America, whether Roman Catholic or Presbyterian, Baptist or Pentecostal are, as Hindmarsh notes, “centrally concerned with what it means to discover a personally meaningful relationship with Christ through conversion.”
I said when I wrote on the occasion of Billy Graham’s death:
And while I agree that Christianity starts with personal salvation, I cannot help but wonder if in emphasizing that we have lost much that accounts for the state of things we see today.
I want to expand on that.
Prior to Evangelicalism’s overwhelming pretty much everything else, being a Christian was something most associated with affiliation – belonging to a congregation, that belonged to a denomination. Some denominations viewed themselves as “the church,” while others thought of themselves as part of a panoply of churches. This resulted in many people who were affiliated with Christianity, but on whom Christianity had had little effect. In light of that an emphasis on a “personally meaningful relationship with Christ” made a lot of sense. Such emphasis moved Christianity out of the realm of a club one joined and made it something that changed your life.
However, current generations are overwhelmed with the “personal” culturally. Technology enables them to tailor everything to their personal taste. As I said in that post after Graham’s death, “We now identify rather than convince, label rather than persuade, build fences to protect our personal space where we should have meeting places.” Current generations are raised in an atmosphere of constant personal affirmation. Note that while the four distinctives include “conversion” they do not emphasize from what one is converted. And thus people, many of them claiming to be Evangelicals, have little or no sense of what it means to be a sinner, or even just wrong. Finally, if the emphasis is on a “personally meaningful relationship with Christ,” is the rise in “spiritual but not religious” really shocking?
Is it any wonder then that Christianity finds itself as culturally and politically insignificant as it currently does? Evangelicalism, once embraced as the hope of political activism for faith in the nation, has actually been undermining such activism. Evangelicalism was never meant to be a distinct Christian expression – it was meant to be a corrective to existing expressions. And yet, in a Screwtape-like fashion it has been twisted and perverted.
It is time to abandon Evangelicalism, not simply because of its practical meaninglessness, but because what it emphasized, its central concern, is no longer what Christianity most needs. What Christianity needs are not simply people converted, but people transformed, and affiliated. Defined more by their affiliation than their conversion.