Evangelical Distinctives in the 21st Century

The first in a series on the meaning and place of a historic movement.
Evangelical Distinctives in the 21st Century
Image: Don Land / Getty Images

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.

This description will not likely end the ongoing debate about what it means to be evangelical. Ask 12 evangelicals to define the word and you’ll end up with 12 definitions, which in itself is a testimony to an evangelical distinctive—cantankerousness! Evangelicals are on the more radical end of the Protestant continuum. Evangelicals have no pope, no unified teaching office, no Book of Evangelicalism. It’s a dynamic movement led, we believe, by the Holy Spirit, and that means no one is in charge. And everyone is in charge—at least those who seem to us to be led by the Spirit.

So we don’t imagine this series will end the ongoing confusion and debate, but we trust it will at least bring some clarity and insights to the discussion.

As noted above, while many of evangelicalism’s own leaders are recommending we abandon the word because it has taken on too much cultural baggage, others have argued that identifying the movement is a fool’s errand in the first place. We are so divided, the argument goes, and the word means so many different things to too many different people, there’s no way to bring all that under one roof. Yes and no (see below). Still, trying to bring many under one roof—that is, to help envision what evangelicals have in common—is one distinctive of the movement and certainly one distinctive of this magazine. We have a history of attempting to call together “all evangelicals of all stripes” and to be as large a tent as possible without sabotaging the distinctives the word evangelical suggests.

No Such Thing as “Evangelicalism”

One thing that needs to be clarified: There is no such thing as “evangelicalism” in one important sense. It’s a word to describe in abstract a spiritual and theological phenomenon, a word that points to certain traits and features of certain people and groups. As an abstract word, it is used in a confusing manner sometimes, as when some today talk about “leaving evangelicalism.” In fact, one cannot ever join “evangelicalism”: you don’t get a membership card, you don’t pay membership dues, and you don’t go to annual meetings of evangelicalism. So you can’t leave it either.

Then there is cultural evangelicalism, which is a bit more concrete. For example, we talk about white evangelicalism, black evangelicalism, Hispanic evangelicalism, Asian evangelicalism, as well as Northern and Southern evangelicalism, among other phenomena. Each has a distinct history, culture, and emphases; each brings wonderful gifts to other evangelicals and to the larger body of Christ. Of course, each is fallen and sinful in its own way, as well. It is frustrations with some traits and sins of a subculture that prompt some to say they no longer identify with one of these subcultures or another.

It’s when evangelical is used as an adjective that it begins to have concrete meaning. There are evangelical churches, evangelical parachurch organizations, and evangelical identity groups (Evangelical Environmental Network, Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration, and so forth) that one can participate in or not, that one can join or leave. There are evangelical magazines one can subscribe to, and evangelical statements one can sign.

Much talk about evangelicalism is confused today because the conversation goes back and forth between these different senses. Because the people and groups who identify with evangelicalism are sinful and still growing up in Christ, subgroups of our movement can get frustrated with individuals and groups who identify with the larger movement. Thus members of the Evangelical Environmental Network can lose their patience when they visit evangelical churches and find church members resistant to their concern for creation care. Black evangelicals become angry when they talk to white evangelicals if they don’t see race issues the same way. Evangelicals are often the quickest to condemn evangelical statements of one sort or another, saying that if this is what it means to be an evangelical, I don’t know that I am one. So while one cannot really “leave evangelicalism,” one can refuse to identify with a particular subculture of evangelicalism (or all of it for that matter). But the most concrete expression of rejecting evangelicalism is to leave an evangelical institution or church, refuse to participate in evangelicals conferences, or refuse to fellowship with evangelical individuals.

In this series, I have to revert to the more abstract word evangelicalism for the sake of economy, but I always have in view concrete, embodied evangelical institutions, churches, and events that reflect classic evangelical beliefs and behavior.

Furthermore, this series is not intended to convince people to stay in their evangelical churches or parachurch organizations, to hold on to the label evangelical for dear life, or even to give themselves with equal passion to evangelicals of all subcultures. God leads each of us in mysterious ways. If God is calling you to a church that doesn’t describe itself as evangelical, he probably has something for you to do there. Given your social location, if you believe the word evangelical confuses others about what you believe, stop using it. Not everyone is called to work across evangelical subcultures, and if this frustrates you to the point of ineffectiveness, then there’s nothing wrong with focusing your discipleship on your own subculture of evangelicalism.

In other words, this series is not about denying our great diversity, insisting that we all be on the same page about all things. It’s not even saying we have to like one another (though we are nonetheless called to love one another!) or even work together just because we’re evangelicals. In fact, as will be made clear in future essays, we hope many evangelicals will work across subcultures and with evangelicals with whom they seriously disagree about this issue or that. But we also recognize that is not everyone’s calling.

In sum, this series is about describing something that transcends all these differences, about beliefs and traits and habits that characterize a certain way of following Christ, one that has expressed itself in a variety of cultures and in a variety of times. It’s about evangelical distinctives that usually transcend the movement.

Remember Who We Are

This series essentially says: “Let us recall our distinctives.” In the last few decades, evangelicals have become more appreciative of the many gifts that Catholic and Orthodox traditions bring to Christendom, for example. While this has led some to convert to those other streams, some evangelicals have been more eager to incorporate these gifts and insights into evangelical life. This is all to the good—unless the incorporating dilutes or compromises the gifts that evangelicals uniquely bring with them.

In every age, there are some who yearn to practice a perfectly balanced Christianity, taking a little from here and a little from there. It is a noble ideal, but in practice what you find is this: The deeper you dig into the various Christian traditions, the more you realize the unbridgeable divides that separate us from one another, and the inherent contradictions such an attempt would entail.

I know whereof I speak. I have had moments when I seriously considered the claims of the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox. I delved deeply into these venerable traditions to see if I could incorporate them into my Protestant faith. What I’ve discovered is that one can do that only up to a point. It becomes clear early on that while each Christian family follows Christ in exemplary ways, many of those ways are impossible to reconcile. Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts in the local body of Christ seems to apply to the gifts of the different Christian traditions in the universal body of Christ. We really are different. And we really need each family to live into its gifts and calling.

Take one obvious example: Congregational worship. Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy have a rich liturgical tradition, repeating prayers and chants and customs that reach back far into Christian history. They have accumulated thick books with detailed instruction on what to do when and how exactly to do it. When a liturgical service is done with integrity, it is a marvelous thing.

On the other hand, Pentecostals (who are part of the larger phenomenon called evangelicalism) glory in the fact that God can and will interrupt our worship with extraordinary moments, unplanned and unrehearsed. This encourages a spiritual spontaneity that can also be a wonderful thing to participate in.

Yes, there are some congregations that try to leave room for both, but in my experience, such churches end up moving finally in one direction or the other. Why? Because they eventually see that, over the long haul, each way of worship is grounded on different theological assumptions that, in the end, are incompatible. For liturgical churches, the liturgy itself has a kind of teaching authority; it is shaped not in attempts to be relevant but in what they believe God has revealed to be true worship. For free churches, the form is not God-ordained but subject to change at any time, especially if they sense is that the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing. For the liturgical, changing the service may very well be an act of unfaithfulness; for the Pentecostal, not changing the service may be what’s unfaithful.

For all that we can learn from other traditions, there really are theological differences that remain unbridgeable. Evangelicals really do think Catholics, mainline liberals, and others get some things seriously wrong. We really do believe we have a keener grasp of some dimensions of the gospel. So the differences between the traditions are not just matters of style or emphasis. The differences are profound.

But that does not mean we have to be rancorous and divisive. We can still recognize these others as fellow believers and work with them on issues of common concern. But it also means that integrity requires evangelicals to be ourselves if we are going to continue to offer the global church and the world our distinctive gifts.

What are the distinctives that evangelicalism brings to the table? Many have found a good starting point in historian David Bebbington’s quadrilateral: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentricism. Though he was specifically describing British evangelicals from the 1730s to the 1980s, it has turned out to be a good summary of evangelicalism found in many times and places. There is this and much more to be unearthed in future essays.

At this point, I will say this much: Evangelicalism is a current expression of a venerable and unique way of being a Christian that can be found throughout church history. What the great historian Perry Miller wrote in The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century about the Puritans applies in large part to evangelicals as well:

As long as it [American Puritanism] remained alive, its real being was not in its doctrines but behind them; the impetus came from an urgent sense of man’s predicament, from a mood so deep that it could never be completely articulated. Inside the shell of its theology and beneath the surface coloring of its political theory, Puritanism was yet another manifestation of a piety to which some men are probably always inclined and which in certain conjunctions appeals irresistibly to large numbers of exceptionally vigorous spirits. I venture to call this piety Augustinian … because Augustine is the arch-exemplar of a religious frame of mind of which Puritanism is only one instance out of many in fifteen hundred years of religious history.”

Evangelicals share that “urgent sense of man’s predicament” that has led us to practice an “exceptionally vigorous” piety. As Miller writes:

Puritan theology was an effort to externalize and systematize this subjective mood. Piety was the inspiration for Puritan heroism and the impetus in the charge of Puritan Ironsides; it also made sharp the edge of Puritan cruelty and justified the Puritan in his persecution of disagreement. It inspired Puritan idealism and encouraged Puritan snobbery. It was something that men either had or had not, it could not be taught or acquired. It was foolishness and fanaticism to their opponents, but to themselves it was life eternal. … It blazed most clearly and most fiercely in the person of Jonathan Edwards. … It cannot be presented by description; to be presented adequately there is need for a Puritan who is also a dramatic artist, and Bunyan alone fulfills the two requirements.

Evangelicals recognize themselves in this description, both the “heroism” and “idealism,” as well as the “foolishness and fanaticism.” Perry’s reference to Bunyan is especially apropos. A few decades ago, Christianity Today asked leading evangelicals of the previous generation what books most shaped them, and the one book mentioned by almost every one was Pilgrim’s Progress.

Because evangelicalism is part of this enduring Augustinian spirituality, I don’t imagine it will ever go away, at least this side of the coming kingdom. We can abandon or change the name, but that won’t change the reality of lived faith of this stream. And for now, since we can’t think of a better name, we’ll continue to call the current manifestation of this stream evangelical.

And it’s this stream that I will try to describe. That means sometimes I will have to acknowledge frankly our foolishness along with our idealism and heroism that has transformed the lives of so many. When I suspect we’ve lost our way, I will say so, which of course is a very evangelical thing to do: We are a movement in progress, never quite reaching the ideal we strive for, always laboring to reform not only the world but ourselves, that we might more perfectly reflect the life of Christ in us.

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.

Evangelical Distinctives
Christianity Today's editor in chief considers what it means to be an evangelical Christian today, drawing on the movement's history, theology, and spirituality.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
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