I’ve been able to use my dissertation a bit since the new year. With its contents fresh in my mind, I thought that I’d post a bit on the blog.
Today’s topic: Evangelicals
Much of my dissertation is content that others have shared in order to show “scorekeepers” that I’ve read the content, a bit. One of the things that I “stand out on a limb” about in the paper is a thought about Evangelicals.
Evangelicalism went through three major makeovers within one century (or thereabouts). These transitions and the time period in which they occurred would suggest that there is something within Evangelicalism that is flexible, having the ability to shape-shift in order to engage in faithful mission.
Evangelicals came to North America from Europe as a small group of pietistic, social justice servants. There certainly was an emphasis on a personal relationship with God, but one could imagine that Evangelicals were equally devoted to social issues as their individual faith.
During the Fundamentalist/Liberal controversy, these evangelical communities absorbed the Fundamentalist script through the fight; resisting modern scholarship and not associating with those who failed their doctrinaire “litmus tests.”
During the Billy Graham era, however, there was a renewed interest in scholarship and ecumenism (associating with others) all-the-while finding ways to grow as a loose association of like-minded churches through theological institutions and publishing houses and journals/magazines. Evangelicals were trying to get Americans saved at any cost.
Next, Evangelicals were the engine behind the rise of the “Moral Majority” or “Religious Right” that took to the polls to allow voting numbers to be the major influence upon American culture. Pat Robertson’s campaign for President was perhaps the apex of this era of American Evangelicalism.
The first 10-14 years of the 21st century has presented evidence of another attempt for a “Neo-Evangelicalism” or what Robert Webber called the “Younger Evangelicals.” A fair amount of Evangelicals are recovering a bit of the early social justice impulses of the first generation of Evangelicals, unlike Evangelicals before them. A significant amount of young Evangelicals are voting “blue” instead of “red” in voting booths all across the country in the name of “social justice issues” and are not following the lead of their Evangelical parents.
Each of these phases of Evangelicalism still remain in our religious landscape. One could find an Evangelical of each stripe in a myriad of Evangelical churches in our country. To call oneself or another “Evangelical” is not as easy as one would think.
One could suggest that Evangelicalism is a center-set system, having a few items of commonality and allowing for diversity in expression of worship, mission, and ecclesiology. David Bebbington, perhaps, has the best list of that center-set values: Biblicism (commitment to the Scripture text), Crucicentrism (commitment to Jesus’ work on the cross), Conversionism (humanity’s need to embrace personal faith in Christ), and Activism (engaging the world with redemptive activity).
But… in light of this overview, I find that Evangelicalism is not as flexible as their short, recent history. Many Evangelicals that I know are the last to embrace developments in sharing the faith in a changing world. Roger Olson would seek to remind Evangelicals that the primary evidence of an Evangelical faith is not the data about Jesus, but a life-giving experience of conversion and life-long transformation. To put it more simply: if one knows the data of Evangelical faith but has not had that data shape who he/she is, they are not Evangelical. A faith-filled experience with God has been and will remain the gateway into Evangelical faith.
So, if the Evangelical “event” takes place outside of one’s “Evangelical dogma” shouldn’t that Evangelical call it “good” even though it is different from their own? That is a question that we’ll have to see dominant Evangelicals answer in the near future. And, if the dominant structure will not “adjust” to Neo-Evangelical developments, will Neo-Evangelicals continue to insist to be called Evangelicals or move towards another tribal name?