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”.

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