Evangelical Sub-Cultures

Though the term Evangelicalism has come to mean different things to different people  (e.g. to very liberal Protestants it seems to be a term hardly distinguishable from the term Fundamentalism) but what it usually connotes is Conservative Protestants, and more specifically white Conservative Protestants.  In fact many African American Protestants are just as conservative as ‘Evangelicals’  but they do not self-identify as ‘Evangelicals’.    A good litmus test is looking at the membership rolls of a group such as the Evangelical Theological Society.  Not many African Americans of any stripe are members of that group,  only a very small percentage.  Whether we like it or not, the term Evangelical is basically a term used by white Conservative Protestants to self-identify and very often in tandem with the phrase ‘not Fundamentalist’.

Even within this swath of Protestantism it takes only a little scrutiny to discover there are a whole series of Evangelical sub-cultures.  There are Reformed Evangelicals and Arminian Evangelicals.  There are Pentecostal Evangelicals and Dispensational Cessationist Evangelicals.  There are pietistic Evangelicals and social-action Evangelicals.  There are Mainline Church Evangelicals and conservative denomination Evangelicals.  There are high church Evangelicals (see the new Anglican Church in America) and there are profoundly low church Evangelicals such as the Salvation Army or the Evangelical Friends.  There are Evangelicals from an Anabaptist tradition (including Mennonites)  and there are various Paedo-baptist Evangelical traditions, and of course there are the Southern Baptists, who, while no longer entirely a breed apart,  only mingle with the larger world of Evangelicals in some respects.  Even just within the Baptist sphere, the Texas Baptists are certainly different from many of the Southern Baptists, not to be confused with the National Baptist Convention, which my colleague Craig Keener was ordained in.

How should we view all these distinguishable but not entirely distinct forms of Evangelicalism?  Are these variegations a sign of weakness or strength in the Evangelical movement?  On the whole, the student of church history would have to say strength, because church mergers normally happen when denominations or groups are too weak to stand on their own any longer.  Growth, development, new movements (say the Emerging Church movement) are all signs of diversity and usually of some sort of ferment, fervor, and development,  often a healthy sign.

If there is one thing, besides basic Christian orthodoxy  (see the Apostle’s Creed) that all Evangelicals share, it is of course a high view of Scripture.  This is one reason for the burgeoning number of new Evangelical translations of the Bible,  the number of conservative Protestant Bible commentary series,  the number of language and exegesis courses required at Evangelical seminaries compared to mainline seminaries, and the number of Evangelicals working on translation teams like Wycliffe to produce the Word of God for every tribe and tongue and people and nation.  And of course what is behind that is the belief that the world is lost without the Gospel of Jesus Christ, certainly historically one of the non-negotiable positions that define an Evangelical.

Lest we think that Evangelicalism is a North American phenomena, in fact the truth is the movement is alive in well on all the Continents and in many faith traditions.  On the mission field, where people tend to be theologically conservative anyway, it is rare to find non-Evangelical Protestant missionaries.  The Great Commission is alive and well in Evangelicalism.  It is interesting however that Oriental Evangelicals tend to be more pietistic in orientation whereas most Commonwealth Evangelicals (i.e. in the former British colonies) tend to have a stronger commitment to what has come to be called the Social Gospel,  to environmental issues, and the like than North American Evangelicals.

I have had the privilege to teach in most of these Evangelical enclaves on all the inhabited continents, and it has been interesting to be involved in and watch the growth of Evangelicalism behind what used to be the Iron Curtain and in Russia itself.  But nowhere is Conservative Protestantism growing more rapidly than in South America,  especially the various Pentecostal streams of tradition.  When you read the works of Mark Noll or  Phillip Jenkins or the like,  it is always well to keep in mind that even they are only scratching the surface of the story of Evangelical faith.  The story of the influence of North American Evangelical seminaries such as Asbury on their many international students who take back with them to Africa or India or a myriad of other places what they have learned is only beginning to be told.  I had a recent report from India on what a large impact my socio-rhetorical commentaries were having in that country.  I had no idea,  as I have never been to India.

One of the reasons the story of Evangelical seminaries impact on worldwide Christianity has not been much told is that it is a recent phenomena.  The history of seminaries themselves is mostly a 20th century story including Evangelical schools, and so the track record is not that long.  But soon the story will need to be told in full, and doubtless the words of Scripture will be seen to be true — God can do exceedingly, abundantly above and beyond anything we could imagine if we just make ourselves available to his purposes.  As Adoniram Judson once said “The future is as bright as the promises of God”.

  • Sally Stewart

    As an “orthodox” United Methodist Christian who graduated in 2010 from a progressive UCC seminary (Lancaster Theological) I struggled to find scholarly resources that resonated with my theology. I would love an article talking about more “conservative” commentaries and theoogians who are writing from that perspective.

  • http://www.barrybiblicalnotes.com Barry Applewhite

    I would be curious to know:
    1. What do you see as the relationship between evangelicalism and fundamentalism?
    2. What seminaries do you see as the ones preparing students for fundamentalist churches?


  • Peter

    I have lived in Latin America for 30 years and the lack of real Bible knowledge (as opposed to proof texting) is shocking. My local bookshop is full of “health and wealth” books (mostly by televangelists) but not much else. There is a desperate need for translations of solid scholarship, like your own. Perhaps not the most complicated stuff, as Christians down here tend to be quite simple people, but certainly books that teach the historical and social context, to broaden and deepen understanding of the text.

  • Graham Veale

    The book “One Faith” by Thomas Oden and JI Packer is a wonderful resource. It “redacts” numerous evangelical statements of faith to express the evangelical consensus on matters of faith and practice.
    I think that Packer and Oden demonstrate that there is a real consensus; there is an “essence” of evangelicalism. Given the moral panic caused by the emergent church and Rob Bell’s book, it is helpful to make clear that there is not an evangelical identity crisis. Our identity has been spelled out in many statements of belief over the last century.

    Unfortunately, “One Faith”only seems to be available in book form. This is a shame, as it could provide common ground between groups like the Gospel Coalition and Wesleyan Evangelicals.

    Graham Veale

  • Peter

    Graham: many pastors have received only basic theological training themselves. Academics like BW3 and NT Wright have the gift of being to able to write well and to write for all levels. Some of their books targeted at a more general audience would be very useful.

    Most Christian publishers are based in the North. In the case of the USA, I assume they are targeting Hispanics living there.
    Sales of translated materials appear to be low. In LA, I think they need to invest in marketing. People are not aware even of what is available. I have to trawl through websites to find stuff.

  • http://dimlamp.wordpress.com/ Dim Lamp

    I wonder how your kudos to evangelicalism fits in with Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17? Contrary to your perspective, I believe the evangelical movement has borne witness to the world in a negative way, opposite to the intentions of John 17. Rather than celebrating the divisiveness of evangelical Christians, perhaps Jesus is weeping.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Hi Sally:

    Have you looked at any of my commentaries and the annotated bibliographies there.

    You’ll find plenty of help there,

    Ben W.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    One of the obvious differences between fundamentalism and evangelicalism is critical thinking and meaningful interaction with critical thinkers from other points on the spectrum without simply indulging in polemics.


  • graham veale

    Stackhouse suggests the following definition of Fundamentalism:

    “Fundamentalism nowadays, therefore, is a subdivision of Evangelicalism and is marked off from the broader
    evangelical movement by the following:

    • strong opposition to certain aspects of modernity—especially modern ideas seen to be threatening to
    traditional faith (liberal theology, some forms of Biblical criticism, and the theory of evolution chief
    among them);

    • use of martial metaphors in rhetoric and playing hardball in politics in both church and society, although almost never resulting in actual violence (contrary to the common equation in the mass media of “fundamentalist” with “terrorist”);

    • separation from all who are not wholly pure in their convictions and associations;


    • binary thinking(“black/white,” “us/them,” “right/wrong,” “God/devil,” “all or nothing”).”

  • graham veale

    Of course Stackhouse runs the danger of defining a fundamentalist as ‘an evangelical Republican who makes me cringe’.

    Historically Fundamentalists did “separate” from Christians who “compromised” with liberalism. However, they set aside their separatist instincts to form the “Moral Majority”. And did the Fundamentalists of the 1920′s play ‘hardball with politics?’ Or did they withdraw from politics? It can’t be both.

    I also wonder about defining fundamentalism as a subset of evangelicalism. Modern evangelicalism surely owes its heritage to the “neo-fundamentalists” like Henry and Schaeffer. Which is the chicken, which the egg?

    Perhaps a more fruitful exercise would be to take Packer/Oden’s “One Faith” and compare this to Fundamentalist statements of Faith. How would Fundamentalists want to qualify terms like “inerrancy”? Would Fundamentalists have certain “non-negotiables” (a literal 7 day Creation, for example).

    Also – do Fundamentalists still define themselves against Roman Catholicism?

    Graham Veale

  • Mike Taylor

    Dim Lamp, you may not have noticed but we normally use our real names here. For me, at least, it reminds me that I need to speak not just what I think but do so in love and humility. Using my own name helps keep me accountable and (hopefully) repentent. Promise, we won’t abuse you.

    As to divisiveness, I don’t see evangelicals as such. I’m Southern Baptist (Texas variety I now hear) but, like my Methodist brothers, I know that some things are central (e.g. salvation by [a living] faith) while others are not (e.g. singing hymns rather than praise songs). We must be faithful to the foundation of the gospel and withdraw fellowship from someone who claims Christ but whose life or stated beliefs willfully contradict it. On the other issues, not so much. Of course dancing and playing cards are still just as evil as swimming on Sundays or not wearing a tie to church.

  • Andy

    Thanks for including the Salvation Army in your list, I have never thought of being identified with the phrase “low-church evangelicalism.” I imagine you have us there because of the non-practicing stance on the sacraments. Low-church is a tough phrase, though I get it, but I suppose if we are to be with the people who Jesus’ has called the church to serve, “getting low” isn’t a bad thing.

    As when I took a class with you, and have read your writing on the sacraments, I have always been encouraged by the fact that you include us a legite ecclesiological movement and not hard headed heretics. Of course, as a sixth generation Salvationist, I have not been baptized, and alwasy find it strange when people say that I might be not be in heaven some day.

    Forward to the Fight–high or low,
    Andy Miller III, Captain

  • http://www.rottentomatoes.com/celebrity/ed_lauter/ hotshot bald cop

    Now that is some fantastic writing.