The evangelical faith is going through another of its spasms of critical self-reflection. Every week, it seems another prominent person claims that “evangelicalism is in crisis” or that they no longer want to be identified with the word evangelical.
This sort of thing happens when some evangelicals do something scandalous in the eyes of another part of the movement. In the recent past, many were disturbed by the televangelist scandals of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and others. Over the last year, many American evangelicals have been aghast at other evangelicals’ support for Donald Trump and their general political conservatism. Meanwhile, the movement has seen increased division over racial reconciliation and sexual ethics.
There is nothing new under the sun. I remember my days at evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary in the mid-1970s, deciding that evangelical had no real meaning other than a code word for some that meant “real Christian.” After 50 years in the movement, I’ve come to believe it really does mean something. But like many realities we can’t define with absolute precision (gender differences, happiness, time, consciousness), the reality exists.
This series of essays will try to describe the hard-to-pin-down reality that is evangelical faith as it has expressed itself throughout history and today across the globe. It has been and continues to be an extraordinary phenomenon of God, changing not only individual lives but the trajectory of nations. Like all great movements, it is subject to misunderstanding and mischaracterization. Because of the way the media covers it, the larger public today tends to think of it as primarily a political movement with a religious veneer. At other times, it has had the reputation of being parochial and unconnected with public life. But beneath the mischaracterizations and, frankly, verbal abuse, stands a reality, a way of being a Christian in the world, that simply won’t go away. And it won’t go away because, first and foremost, it has a gospel to bring in both word and deed to a world in desperate need of good news. Some people may scorn the label and others want to shed it. You can change the name, but it will have no effect on the reality of the divine-driven movement it represents.
As a “magazine of evangelical conviction,” Christianity Today continues to believe in the vitality and necessity of the movement. Such a dynamic movement, of course, is not without failings, and anyone who has read us for years knows we are not remiss in pointing those out. Evangelicalism is a reforming movement, and among the many things we are continually reforming is ourselves.
So, given that the word has become a scandal to some and confusing to others, we wanted to articulate what we mean by evangelicalism—and more importantly, why we continue to think that evangelicals are a people whom God still uses mightily to reform his church and touch the world with the grace and hope of the gospel.
Because evangelicalism is a complex phenomenon, it will require me to talk about it from a variety of perspectives. This series will include theology because evangelicals care about theology. It will include sociology and cultural anthropology because we are a social group with a unique culture. It will include psychology because our spirituality demands it. All in all, it will look at evangelicalism as a lived reality, as one way that Christians of many times and places have shaped their lives and, as a result, shaped their worlds.