For all of my adult life, I have identified with the word “evangelical” without apology. Now, I am wondering if the term has outlived its usefulness given that the movement it identifies is now one sick puppy. Perhaps it is time for a new movement, one that retains the historical/theological character of early evangelicalism without all of the baggage that now comes with it, baggage that has come because of the bizarre beliefs and actions of many of its most recent advocates and so-called leaders.
A movement of individual and church renewal
Let me explain. Evangelicalism is not a church, a denomination, or an organization. It never has been, until recently. At its best, evangelicalism is a renewal movement. By that I mean that early evangelicals and their Anglo-American descendants sought renewal of individuals, congregations, denominations, and organizations through emphasis of four historical/theological characteristics.
First, evangelicalism at its best practices a healthy biblicism. The source for Christian faith and life rests not with church traditions (as important as those can be), the preferences of its leaders and academics, or what is deemed culturally relevant. What Christians believe and teach, and how they live are grounded in Holy Scripture, rightly interpreted.
Second, for evangelicals the cross of Jesus Christ lies at the center of God’s plans and purposes for humanity. Through the cross, the penalty for our disobedience is provided, the power of our enemy is broken, and our broken relationship with the Triune God is healed. Without the cross, Christianity is reduced to another human self-help scheme.
Third, evangelicals stress conversion. Faith in Christ is not a passive acquiescence to ritual. Evangelicals teach that authentic Christians are those who make an intentional commitment of faith and life to Jesus Christ and seek to practice that commitment in the ways that they live.
Finally, evangelicals are activists. Christianity is a faith that engages the world through calling men and women, boys and girls to active faith in Jesus Christ. Its emphasis is both missionary and social. It sees Jesus’s words in Matthew 28 18-20 as applying to all Christians and it seeks to reform social practices such as slavery, child labor, and other social realities that harm human flourishing.
A movement of Word and Spirit
These four markers have been codified by the research of the British Baptist historian David Bebbington based on his study of the First Great Awakening of the early 1700s. Not only is evangelicalism a renewal movement within the larger Christian church, in its Anglo-American form, it is now approaching its 300th birthday. But, as I look at and celebrate its past, I find myself wondering if the American evangelicalism we now see has abandoned the very historical and theological roots that gave it vitality as a renewal movement. Obviously, evangelicalism has never been anywhere close to perfect because it is a human movement. But evangelicals at their best were people of both Word and Spirit. They studied and believed what Holy Scripture taught, and sought their guidance from the Holy Spirit.
I wonder if that is the case anymore, especially with three pernicious trends that have infected the movement over the last 40 years. The first is the rampant spread of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” a faith grounded more in American greed and individual lust for wealth than in what the Bible teaches. What is obscene about this false gospel is that it baptizes our greed as God’s will, to the point where its advocates claim that to be without either material prosperity or physical health is a clear signal you are out of proper relationship with God.
Then there is our unwillingness to confront the evil of continuing racism in American culture. For 250 years, many evangelicals acquiesced to slavery, Jim Crow, segregated housing patterns caused by government action, and the violence that so many African-Americans suffered even after a 19th century Civil War that was fought to eradicate slavery. And you know what? We’re ignorant of how many of our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ still suffer from the legacy of these practices.
One of the most important books that I have recently read is The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. In it, the social historian Richard Rothstein documents how the American government from 1900 through 1970 through its housing policies and other means willfully excluded African Americans from schools, from public housing, and from neighborhoods that were predominately white. The source documentation is overwhelming, and the book left me to face the reality that Jim Crow was not just a few segregation laws in southern states, but a national policy that excluded African Americans from public life and economic well-being. The descendants of those policies continue to suffer today. And frankly, I wonder if white evangelicals even care. (If you think I am wrong, then I challenge you to read it!)
Finally, contemporary American evangelicalism has sold its soul to a witches brew of politics and religion. This has been gaining steam ever since the emergence of the Religious Right in the 1980s. Frankly, I am a bit stunned that evangelicals made the same mistake as the theological liberals of the 1960s, but there it is. Now, many who claim to be evangelical take their political cues from a President who makes Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson look like tinker-bell.
I don’t believe the polls that indicate that 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. But I wouldn’t be surprised if almost half did. And the endorsements from self-designated evangelical leaders who should know better are the icing on a cake ruined in the oven. Personally, I don’t care who you vote for. Most of us try to do the best we can, but sometimes later wish we hadn’t voted for whom we did. (I know I have on more than one occasion.) But when we pretend that someone who is a sexual libertine, who is greedy beyond imagination, who is narcissistic, who traffics in hypocrisy, and who in his business dealings has treated others cruelly and with malice is somehow the candidate ordained by God, then I wonder if I want to be identified with a movement where many of its self-identified adherents view him as God’s man for the hour.
A new word for a fresh movement
I’m starting to think it is time to retire the word “evangelical” only if to redeem the historical and theological qualities that gave evangelicalism its strength in the first place. I have a new phrase to suggest (actually an old phrase renewed for our day and time). How about we simply identify ourselves as “gospel people?” Or, “gospel Christians?” The word “evangelical” is now too political and too nefarious to be used. I want a word or phrase that identifies more with Global Christianity than with the politics of the religious right, with the Christian faith more than with a political crusade, with world missions more than with efforts to keep all immigrants out of the country, with the Apostle’s Creed more than a gospel of wealth and greed.
How about it. Is it time for us who have long identified with American evangelicalism to write a new story, a story grounded in Holy Scripture, moved by the Holy Spirit, and attendant to bringing the gospel to bear in the lives of people and societies? is it time for us to articulate a fresh narrative of God’s mission in the world, a mission that is moving all of creation to the culmination promised in Romans 8 and Revelation 21? i think it is. Will you join me?