« Topic #1: Evangelicalism and the Broader Christian Tradition

Launch Date for the Conversation: May 1, 2013


Most definitions of American Evangelicalism highlight biblical authority, personal conversion, and an actively lived-out faith with a focus on evangelism. Some students of evangelicalism highlight its historical rise within the revivalist movements in 18th century America. It is often distinguished from Roman Catholicism and both Protestant liberalism and fundamentalism. Finally, it is also sometimes identified through association with particular Christian institutions and leaders understood to be evangelical. In light of these various views, some “leading questions” are:

  1. What are the pillars of evangelicalism? Are these changing?
  2. Is it important for groups and individuals to decide whether they are or are not evangelical?
  3. What are the strengths and weaknesses of evangelical forms of Christianity and non-evangelical forms of Christianity? Do these differing forms of expression need one another?
  4. What can evangelicals learn from the broader Christian tradition and vice-versa?
  5. Should full Christian fellowship be shared between evangelicals and non-evangelicals?
  6. Is evangelicalism best understood as a particular movement within the larger history of the church or as something more central?
  7. Is the persistence of evangelicalism into the future a critical element of God’s work in the world?

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Reader Comments (3)

As a layman and newcomer to the United States (back in 1981), and as a Christian who lived for 40 years in a Muslim-majority country (Egypt), I tend to look at evangelicalism as a way to acquaint and attract people to Christianity. Though simple and clear, we sometimes get too involved at the expense of the main goal: winning people to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Some, like Ravi Zacharias, have cautioned against being perceived as superior or sinless: "there is no sense of cutting someone's nose then giving him or her a nice rose to smell."
The spread of Christianity allover the world was the work of evangelicals: the Disciples and Apostles. One of them (St. Mark) went to Egypt and spread Chrsitianity there; Thomas went to India, Paul to Europe. All had one and the same goal: let people hear the Gospel.

Dr Bishara touches on something that often causes a bit of confusion. In some ways, classical evangelicalism can best be understood as historical Christianity. In other ways it is a particularly modern movement in the church (I would say especially in its ‘individualistic’ tendencies). C S Lewis is a good example of how it is sometimes difficult to ‘pigeon hole’ evangelicalism. He did not attend an ‘evangelical’ Church, but is read and celebrated by evangelicals. Evangelicalism, as he understood it, was simply ‘historical Christianity’ and would be at the core of any genuine Christian community, regardless of the way in which that community preferred to pray (e.g., liturgical or non-liturgical). C. S. Lewis loved the historical liturgy of the Anglican Church, the Book of Common Prayer.

So, in response to question 7, I would say that understood in the first way (evangelical = historical Christian) the answer is yes. This, it seems to me to be what Dr Bishara was saying. Evangelism and the preaching and teaching of the Bible (interpreted in fellowship with Christians down through the ages) is a non-negotiable part of what it means to be a Christian church.

However, understood in the second way (a modern manifestation of a more ‘individualistic’ or self-centred form of Christianity) the answer is no. I think it is this form of ‘evangelicalism’ that is particularly struggling to maintain any sort of intellectual coherence or spiritual integrity in the face of massive cultural and contextual change. At what point does a faith which is individualistic (e.g., practices extemporaneous individual prayer only; sings only very personalized songs in church; reads the Bible as an isolated individual rather than consciously as a part of ‘the whole church’; struggles with issues like ‘the assurance of faith’ because such assurance needs always to be justified and trusted in reference to individual feelings and convictions; is prone to justifying questionable moral conduct based on how they feel about it) simply drift-off into a sea of subjectivism?

May 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterThe Rev'd L F Nowen

Although I have a doctorate in psychology, I'm no intellectual. Just a guy with a job.

In my opinion, the "American" definition of evangelicalism is only important as a cultural discussion and has no bearing on the central tenets of Christian Kingdom. For that, it'd be Christ's definition of evangelicalism. Rest is the human interpretation of His Great Commission. Christian colleges seem to believe that intellectualizing Christ & the Christian faith is their mission...and using a human endeavor, "defintion", can bring us closer to the ultimate truth - the mind of God.

It cannot...only faith can. The rest is all futile attempts. Remember Isaiah 55:8-9. It'll always be like that...forever, until we're up there "eyeball to eyeball with Christ".

Having come to Christ in 2004, I've had several thoughts about my faith. Before coming to Christ, I was in an ultra-intellectual environment that was mostly rabidly atheistic (UC-Berkeley, SF Bay Area). Pursuit of intellectual achievement was almost at times, aimed to destroy faith. During my times at Vanderbilt University, when I came to Christ, there was this interesting mix of ultra-intellectual elite at the school, that mixed in with the passionate faith of the stereotypical "Southern Baptists" that surrounded me on Sundays. They were the one that I came to Christ with. They weren't the stereotypical "rednecks" that one might associate with deep south believers, but MD / PhD intellectuals from China who were anything but "intellectual" in our services, but passionate...at times, so emotional. For them, this question would seem to sink into the problem I see in modern intellectual discussion of our faith - too much brain and to little heart.

Where is the love & the heart of our evangelicalism in this discussion? Isn't it enough that we evangelize because Jesus commanded us to? I asked the faculty at my current school about their Reformed faith, "If there is election, why evangelize?" One person said, "To obey Christ." Whay can't it be as simple as that?

How did my Nashville, TN SBC church evangelize to Chinese intellectuals? First thruogh the brain...then through the heart. The brain is when they present them with philosophical, logical, and scientific arguments for our faith...after they've come into the fold, the believers then abandon their "day job" explanations of their faith (remember, they were usually MD/PhD post-doc researchers at Vanderbilt's medical center or research centers, as I was) and totally dove into the passion & heart of their faith on weekends.

Let's not over-intellectualize a faith built on love with backbone (as my WI pastor used to say) lest we lose the essense of Christ's message and his commandment - evangelize because He loved us first, and He wanted us to share that with others.

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTERRY CHI

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