Defining “Evangelicalism” in America is like trying to hit a moving target, particularly in recent years. It is very difficult nowadays to capture the essence of what Evangelicalism means, and my sense is that we often work off of impressions based on our own experiences. The results can often be reductionistic and unsatisfying.
I do not wish to contribute to the confusion, but I’d like to offer at least an observation with respect to Evangelicalism’s origin (limiting myself to American Evangelicalism) as an entryway to this month’s topic. Evangelicalism is a 20th century cultural/theological phenomenon that arose out of the modernist/fundamentalist controversies as a third way between the extremes of those controversies. Evangelicalism sought to be intellectually engaged though still holding to certain fundamentals of the faith, such as biblical inerrancy and the exclusivity of Christianity as understood within classical Protestant categories.
I think this is a sufficient, though admittedly incomplete, observation of Evangelicalism’s raison d’etre. In recent years, however, Evangelicalism has been going through a bit of an identity crisis. After marking off its territory early on, with membership being wholly voluntary, we have seen an increased willingness from within the ranks to engage deeply beyond Evangelicalism's borders and re-engage issues thought long settled and indisputable.
Undoubtedly there are numerous complex and interconnected factors that help explain this shift in mood. One factor that I feel is important to note is the rapid access to information and the creation of global virtual “communities” afforded by the Internet. The result is that Evangelicalism has become acutely conscious of itself as a participant in a diverse global Christianity.
Be that as it may, in my experience, more and more Evangelicals—perhaps especially younger ones—are restless. They are actively looking for ways to respect the cultural movement that gave them spiritual birth while also looking for alternate language and categories better suited to explain their world and their place in it. Still others have given up on the Evangelical experiment altogether as a hopelessly encultured relic of their parents’ faith. It is not uncommon to hear reports of the significantly dwindling numbers that cause genuine concern for Evangelicalism’s future viability, let alone retaining its status as a mover and shaker.
Speaking for myself, these changes—among others—tell me that Evangelicalism, as it has been understood traditionally, cannot be thought of as a permanent fixture in Christianity history, let alone Christianity come into its own. I see it, rather, as a relatively recent, culturally conditioned, expression of Christianity. This fact alone does not make it right or wrong, but this simple observation serves to highlight Evangelicalism’s relative place in the world and in history.
I do not think, therefore, that the Evangelical tradition as such should be the standard against which other traditions should be judged, as if it has retained the essence of pure Christianity over against other traditions. It is one movement within a long and varied history of the Christian faith—not to mention the tremendous diversity we see at any one time across the world, the country, and even in one city block. This is not so much a comment on Evangelical theology, but an acknowledgement that Evangelicalism is simply one attempt to express faithfulness to God within a particular American historical context.
I think, therefore, that priorities are misplaced when one frets over the future survival of Evangelicalism, as if at risk is the continuance of the gospel itself. I realize that few would actually equate the two when pressed, but in my experience their close alliance seems for some to be functionally an operating assumption.
Our shrinking cyber-world has already contributed to Evangelical mass reflection on the wisdom and vitality that other Christian traditions have to offer. Stories of Evangelicals converting to Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or Anglicanism, though not unique in recent years, seem to have become more common. Although each story is unique, there is a fundamental lesson to be learned here.
These sorts of spiritual journeys are not the by-product of sloppy thinking, trendiness, or a lack of courage to hold fast to the faith—though one hears these accusations too frequently. They reflect, rather, the fact that many have grown dissatisfied with Evangelicalism’s effectiveness to provide a coherent spiritual path. Carefully defined boarders of traditional Evangelicalism have already begun to be less clearly defined, not by outside forces pressing in but from inside forces pushing out. Many Evangelicals are already looking for help to provide things that their familiar system cannot.
Now, such pilgrimages may be true of other traditions, too, but this would illustrate the very point I am aiming at—the isolation of traditions, whether we like it or not, is no longer viable. The question is not whether one ought to seek gospel-wisdom outside of Evangelicalism, but whether that process will happen intentionally or on the sly.
I am no prophet, but perhaps we are staring at a different expression of the Christian faith, one that is more global and less intellectually territorial than in the past. If I am correct here, the particular challenge of Evangelicalism is that its very existence is rooted not in inter-denominational (let alone inter-faith) dialogue and theological exploration, but in the defense of dogmatic concerns that has marked off—and continues to mark off for many—Evangelicalism from others. It was born to correct other traditions, not embark on a journey of theological discovery.
This raises the all-important question of whether Evangelicalism as it has been understood can genuinely enter into a broader dialogue and accept its role as one voice among many while also retaining its traditional Evangelical identity. In other words, is it within Evangelicalism’s constitution to assess its own identity in what seems like such a dramatic fashion? A choice I hear often and resonate with is whether Evangelicalism is to be reformed, or whether it has had its day, but now new times call for new measure. Either way, the status quo is in trouble.
What complicates the issue for the “reformers” is the very practical matter how those conversations would be able to take place. The Evangelical tradition has deep roots, and has provided a framework of faith and life that finds its intellectual support in clearly defined parameters, particularly concerning biblical interpretation. Evangelical ecclesiastical and academic structures have a vested interest in maintaining a traditional Evangelical model, and so do not easily tolerate calls for critical self-assessment and theological adjustment.
All this being said, my purpose here is not to denigrate Evangelicalism or predict its future. I do think, however, that the tensions within Evangelicalism today will generate further reflection from within about what Evangelicalism was, is, and what it’s future might be vis-à-vis the broader Christian tradition. I think that conversation, to be successful, would need to happen more deliberately than it has.