Evangelicalism’s Spirituality

One way of framing evangelicalism’s spirituality looks like this: “It concerns the manner by which we [evangelicals] live in communion with Christ in response to the Spirit in pursuit of holiness resulting in sacrifice to others” (160). So Evan Howard in the multi-authored and counterpoint book, Christian Spirituality. Accordingly, what are its major “marks”? Here I think Evan Howard nails it… his categories, though briefly sketched, are insightful and not the usual and backed with a wide variety of good examples from the history of evangelicalism.

Question: For those of you who grew up in evangelicalism, what were its defining marks of spirituality?

1. Protestant: “The Protestants broke with the scholasticism of Catholic theology, the hierarchy of Catholic ecclesiology, the mechanics of late medieval spirituality, and the basic structure of late medieval Catholic ascetic and mystical consciousness.” This element of protest against Catholicism, sometimes in quite particular forms, pervades evangelical spirituality.

2. Orthodox: the orthodox set of categories in theology. [Nassif criticizes Howard for separating Nicea from the church that framed Nicea.]

3. Lived conversion: this is the heart of evangelicalism and its spirituality. Howard points to Menno, Johann Arndt, Edwards, Wesley, Wilberforce and Stott. Which leads to a fuller treatment, including an emphasis on the Holy Spirit. 

4. Active: what the evangelical should be doing. Evangelicalism has had its share of contemplatives, but it’s emphasis is the active life, not the contemplative life. Cotton Mather, Francke … and then he moves to evangelism and the missionary movement.

5. Lay oriented: priesthood of all believers is a hallmark feature of evangelicalism. Thus it is populist spirituality.

6. Bounded ecumenicity: it is networked, and this reminds of Marsden and Stackhouse’s emphases on the coalition nature of evangelicalism (at its core). He thinks this is an intuitive, not doctrinal, element.

The Institutions and practices of evangelical spirituality:

1. For evangelicalism there are a variety of institutions at work — church, family, town — but also one needs to consider the “invisible” church theology.

2. Practices: here Howard sketches the major elements of practice in evangelical spirituality. Interesting, here, is that this list is not quite the list I would expect: where is the activism? This is more of the contemplative side of spirituality, and I would have expected some more on evangelism and justice and public agitation.

Reading, studying and meditation on Scripture. This is the fundamental practice of evangelicalism.
Preaching, hearing and reading sermons.
Family worship.
Intercessory prayer.

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  • Paul W

    There’s no gospel here.

    That was a statement made of mainline spirituality perspective. If we understand the gospel in terms of the “King Jesus” styled gospel (which I think is spot on) then I’d say that the description of each view (as it was presented) is not a gospel oriented one. Scot’s review is perhaps too kind toward Evangelicalism.

    If this is Evangelical spirituality then– there is no gospel here as I can see it. Despite the value Evangelicalism may possess can’t we– who embrace a King Jesus gospel– all agree that Evangelicalism’s spirituality has no gospel.

  • James Petticrew

    I am interested in the “lay orientated” aspect. I think in theory we believe in the priesthood of all believers but with the rise of the mega-church in the States I think increasingly real decision making in the church has been taken from “lay” people and congregations have become “pastor led” I wonder if this is a new form of clericalism? I also wonder with the increase in “video venues” if the opportunity for “significant” ministry in the church is being concentrated in fewer people, maybe “visible” ministry would be better.

    It seems like in the Victorian era, some significant para church organisations were started by “lay” people and many local initiatives in evangelism were lay led, that seems rarer now, those who are ordained seem to have a firm hold on the reigns of power.

    Could be wrong but I do think the practical significance of the priesthood of all believers withing evangelicalism has diminshed since the second half of the last century. Perhaps the missional movement with its emphasis on decentralised missional communities will restore this emphasis again?

  • scotmcknight

    Paul W, cheeky cheeky. Howard covered the gospel topics in #1 and #2, and he — unlike the progressive fella — doesn’t deny any major elements of the gospel.

    Having said that, this is not a gospel-shaped spirituality but a spiritual formation shaped one. Very typical for those who write on spirituality.

  • Scott Gay

    Personal rebirth is the defining part of evangelical, It still isn’t emphasized in RC,EO or mainline; keeps Jesus central and the faith inclusive(unbounded); and gives an updated version of scripture and tradition- it sort of keeps you reformable. That last part isn’t defined very well, but I think it is part of a new birth. It is possible to put the historic in a new language.
    And I believe justification by faith has been made well nigh un-understandable today. It is like a law(or 4). Chick tracky. The exact opposite of grace. When one will get out of the pressure of the mimetic that is so human, the Holy Spirit will move in one’s life. And our mimetic nature is so good at blocking the Spirit- it is as if we become God players. Isn’t this a lesson from the Tower of Babel? A personal rebirth is the foundation for combating that natural inclination. From that beginning your heart(center of who you are) is not your own. And its very nature is as varied as people. And it is the impetus for go, instead of staying put and the same.

  • Peter

    Scot – I find your comment, “this is not a gospel-shaped spirituality but a spiritual formation shaped one.” intriguing. Care to expand?

  • scotmcknight

    Peter, read the major spiritual formation folks of our day and they talk about disciplines or means of growth and about inner life; a gospel-shaped spirituality focuses on the life, death, burial and resurrection/exaltation of Jesus that turns us into cross-shaped people, while often what I hear in “Christlikeness” in many today is about character rooted in the life alone. We need that, but need it more drenched in cross and resurrection and ascended Lord. That make sense?

  • CJW

    Scot, re: a gospel-shaped spirituality, have you seen the recent little gem of a book called Spirituality According to Paul?. It’s shaped around the three movements of life, death and resurrection. A similar approach is Elaine Heath’s Mystical Evangelism which brings out a gospel-shaped and -driven contemplation and praxis.

  • Peter

    Scot, thank you for your attention to my query. Your response reminds me of two books that I’ve read (each of which I learned about on Jesus Creed): “Discovering Our Spiritual Identity” by Trevor Hudson (excellent though fitting the description of spiritual formation-shaped) and “Spirituality According to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ” by Rodney Reeves, a more “gospel-shaped” approach. Thanks again; I’ll spend some time pondering this distinction.

  • scotmcknight

    CJW, I blogged through Reeves’ book … very good book.

  • T

    Mmmm . . . I grew up here, and I’m sure everyone’s home had a different flavor, but here was mine (skipping 1 and 2 for now):

    3. Conversion centered, specifically the born-again experience. I would not say at all that there was an emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Rather, I would say that the Holy Spirit’s near exclusive emphasis was on conversion. Every service of ended with an invitation. It was the reason we weren’t all in heaven already–convert the lost.

    4. Active. See #3.

    5. Lay-centered? I don’t know what that meant in my evangelical churches except that everybody should be praying, reading their bibles (to equip themselves to be) doing evangelism and inviting people to church. And many important events require lots of good, homemade food. We were anything but lay-centered from my perspective. Every evangelical church or service I attended had a center, and it was the one spot where “lay” people didn’t go very often, if at all: the pulpit. We were preacher centered. Not pastor-centered, (certainly not priest centered!). Preacher centered. Preaching centered. See #3 for the goal of preaching.

    6. Suspicious Ecuminity. Being born-again was the test based on a personal confession of sin and the need for and trust of Christ’s sacrifice. Any emphasis on forms of “doing good” outside of #2, starts to sound like works-righteousness, and that’s a bad, bad thing.

    (Back to) 1. Catholics were the polar opposite of #3, and were most often the silent and assumed foil, but sometimes explicitly named as anti-Christ, anti-gospel.

    (Back to) 2. “Orthodoxy” was the solas. Period. See #3.

    Practices: Sermons pointing toward conversion (Law–to convict of sin, then Grace) were the apex. Bible studies (which almost always underscored the need for conversion, or the difference b/n law-based righteousness to forgiveness-based righteousness, or some conversion-related theme) were also important. Songs urging toward conversion (one of which was sung pleadingly after the invitation to conversion or recommitment) were regular. Baptism was all the way under or it wasn’t baptism, by definition. Communion was . . . awkward. It was always more about what it wasn’t than what it was. (It’s just a symbol! Those Catholics are heathen!)

    Individually, evangelism was the outward activity and “quiet time” was the inward. Giving one’s testimony (which meant the story of one’s conversion–that’s all we “saw” God do that mattered!) was also a staple, both corporately and individually.

  • T

    “Amen?” 😀

    (The evangelical version of call and response).

  • Kathy

    Evangelical spirituality, in my experience, is summed up as an obsession with piety: the exact inverse of Barth’s statement in Dogmatics in Outline: “And what interests me is not myself with my faith, but he in whom I believe.”

  • Bev Mitchell

    It would be hard to do better than Donald Bloesch in his brief section entitled ‘True Spirituality’ in his “Spirituality Old and New: Recovering Authentic Spiritual Life”. This quote gives the flavor.

    “True spirituality calls for the restoration of true humanity. But biblical faith has in mind something more than a new creation. Our goal is sanctified service in the name of Christ. We should strive not only for authentic humanity but also for holiness – not just individual holiness but social holiness (John Wesley). Holiness in the biblical view means not moral faultlessness but transparency to the divine. To be holy is to reflect the glory of God in our thoughts and actions.”

  • Bev Mitchell

    Along these lines, it would be good to have this blog review and discuss Amos Yong’s recent “Who is the Holy Spirit? A Walk with the Apostles” Paraclete Press.

  • Brian

    Nassif is certainly correct in criticizing the author for disconnecting Nicea from the church that framed Nicea. Not only does this create an individualized, a-historical (yea, anti-historical) reading of the Creed but it also divorces the Creed and ecclesiology from the canons also produced at Nicea. The canons greatly influenced the spirituality of the Church, as well. Typically, when I hear Evangelicals say “I accept the first [insert number hear] ecumenical councils”, I understand them to mean “I accept my own understanding of a creedal announcement that resulted from these councils, but not the whole councils”.

  • I must leave today for a trip and may not be able to follow this blog any further, but I couldn’t resist saying a few words:
    1. Spirituality – If I were to present an essay on evangelical RELIGION, I would speak in the broadest terms: doctrine, institutions, experiences, rituals and so on. If I were to speak of their FAITH or their THEOLOGY, I would speak largely about doctrinal matters and how it related to their lives. When, however, I am asked to write about SPIRITUALITY, I am obliged to describe the ways in which evangelicals have cultivated or experienced their lived relationship with God. To summarize spirituality is a task of describing a particular aspect of our relationship with God. This is why I did not spend time clarifying the theological questions of creeds or describe missionary practices. For discussion of “spirituality” and related terms see the first chapter of my Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality.
    2. Evangelical – When asked to write about “evangelical” spirituality, I was not trying to summarize what you might have experienced in your evangelical culture in the past twenty years. I am looking at a three-to-five hundred year history. As a matter of fact, the Holy Spirit had a much more central place than it does now, except among folks like Amos Yong. And evangelicals in history were very conscious about working together (ecumenical).
    For a brief selection of the vast resources to explore in the study of evangelical spirituality, see my list in the Scholar’s corner of my website.
    3. Four Views – When you read (or write) a book with a title like “Four Views of” it is only natural to ask the question, “Which of these views am I, and why or why not?” This, however was NOT the question I hoped people would focus on as they read the book or this blog. More than being an evangelical, I am an ecumenical. I have taught in a mainline seminary for years. I studied for a graduate degree at a Catholic University and spent my studies in spirituality primarily with Catholics. I have frequently visited Orthodox churches and had a graduate of St. Vladimir’s read and edit my Brazos Introduction before I published it. I have personally received SO MUCH from the fullness the body of Christ (please read my story on the gift of tears in my NewesLetter Archives). Perhaps we can look at these Four Views and share the riches that we each have in Christ so we can learn and benefit from one other?

  • Paul W

    Evan, I’m glad to see you touch base here. Having started the comments on a somewhat negative note, I feel obliged to weigh in again.

    My comment was really on how I thought Scot had taken a cheap shot in his review the mainline perspective. He righfully called me out with his “cheeky cheeky” comment (guilty as charged) and provided further helpful clarification.

    Evan, I have not read the book under review but have read your “Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality.” As someone who was raised in a mainline church and attends one today I fully recommend your big book to ANYONE interested in Christian Spirituality. It is in my opinion the finest Introductory work of its type being both fully researched/documented and readable.

  • Ana Mullan

    Spirituality is a very broad term. Everybody is spiritual because as human being we all have spirits. Christian Spirituality, as it indicates it is based on Christ and His work on the cross. I think there is always a danger of going too far one way or another. A spirituality without the gospel at his heart or a gospel that is “afraid of the spirit”, what I mean by this is, afraid of seeing what is inside of us and needs to be changed. Within certain evangelical circles is much easier to have a list of dos and don’ts that to spend time waiting for God to show us the root of our sin. However, spirituality that makes us spend a lot of time looking at ourselves it is a spirituality that has become self-obsessive, therefore not transforming and not looking at the Cross as the center for transformation.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Dr. Howard,
    Thanks for responding and clarifying what form you hoped this discussion would take. Scott’s question, or my reading of it,  didn’t quite capture this. To our own detriment,  we evangelicals are weak in discussions of the broad ecumenism that you represent. Books like those put out through Renovaré, for example, Richard J. Foster’s “Streams of Living Water” come closer than most, and can do much to help.  We should be much closer to our mainline protestant, Catholic and Orthodox, brothers and sisters in our spiritual walks – all having much to learn. However, as you know, even within evangelicalism we often disagree seriously in this huge area. The more or less recent downplaying of the role of the Holy Spirit that you mention, is indeed a great detriment.

  • I honestly don’t hear anything other than the same old, same old. These are good practices of course, but they do not necessary create real transformation, rather, they just produce more conformation to the Christian culture. (Which is not something I’m willing to die for!) They seem to feed the very ego processes that need to die so that we may become more like Christ.
    The Catholics still teach “spirituality” and spiritual formation best. Just saying. 🙂

  • Professor McKnight, I think your comment “this is not a gospel-shaped spirituality but a spiritual formation shaped one” comes from your amazing perspective of biblical scholarship and view of the tradition of the Church but is not reflective of the work of many contemporary Evangelical spiritual formation authors. I work with many of these folks and their concern is the Gospel much as you see it, yet this is not their calling as a discipline solely. Rather they spend their time casting a Gospel vision and then connecting this to the historic practices of Christian devotion and those who have advocated for and taught on them over the centuries.

    While not an academic treatment, perhaps the most Gospel-centered of all of the works that I know in the intentional Christian formation field–and that I spent a lot of time with through developing a conference on it–is Dallas Willard’s THE DIVINE CONSPIRACY, a treatment of the Sermon on the Mount and its implications for our lives. It is hard to get more Gospel than this book. I suggest that Evan Howard, Richard Foster, Mindy Caligure, and many other contemporary Evangelical spirituality authors have this very thinking as a background for all of their speaking and writing which makes what they are doing VERY gospel-centered.

    Another complication of the modern Evangelical spirituality movement is the very use of language like life, death, and resurrection, which is an accurate and creedal short-hand for describing the activity of Jesus Christ but is also quite liturgical church in usage. For instance, Richard Foster, a Quaker, may use this language somewhat but it is not native to his tradition. But just because he doesn’t use this formula does not mean that he isn’t constantly thinking/talking about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and its meaning for our everyday lives.

    On a personal note, I know Evan Howard pretty well and commend all of his work. Few people that I know have taken the teaching of Jesus and Christian tradition and integrated it so thoroughly into the whole of life–head, heart, and hands. I could provide specific examples though know this would be a challenge to Evan’s humility so will not do so. 🙂