Evangelicalism: Reframing a Fragmented Movement

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I hear and read of the increasing fragmentation of the Evangelical movement. Perhaps it has something to do with the passing of the cultural influence of Dr. James Dobson as an overarching force who speaks for the movement. Perhaps it has something to do with the increase in diversity politically and culturally within Evangelicalism. There may be many reasons for such fragmentation.

Fragmentation is bound to happen from time to time given that we don’t have a papal figure or common liturgy or universally binding doctrinal statement that unites Evangelicals. All too often, we tend to depend on charismatic leaders as uniting forces. Such figures and their charisma come and go, and so the movement is bound to go through ups and downs and experience fragmentation. Even those traditions that have strong and longstanding institutional and organizational structures in place experience significant challenges from time to time. So, for all the differences from them, we Evangelicals are not alone.

Personally, I find David Bebbington’s quadrilateral a significant framework for reframing the Evangelical movement during times of upheaval. I believe the historic values and intuitions that Bebbington articulates and that have been embraced by Evangelicals in various contexts will bring the movement back in service to the entire church. The National Association of Evangelicals sets forth Bebbington’s key distinctives for the movement:

  • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a lifelong process of following Jesus.
  • Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
  • Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
  • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.

While these distinctives or characteristics are not exhaustive, they are suggestive and constructive, serving as a sound basis for ongoing development and engagement.

Where might we go from here in relation to Bebbington’s quadrilateral? No doubt in many directions. Two directions stand out to me. As we live increasingly in a multi-faith world, it is important for Evangelicals to cultivate a form of centrism that helps us engage intra-faith (within the Christian commonwealth) concerns in a manner where our movement’s emphases noted by Bebbington serve the entire church in its mission. I for one see the Reformation tradition not as the last word, but as a reforming movement for renewal of the entire church as we are reformed in obedience to the Word (Biblicism). Moreover, as we serve to reenergize and help refocus the mission of the entire church in view of our Evangelical distinctives, we can also collaborate with the church at large to engage the interfaith community in centered terms. Of course, Conversionism is a value that Evangelicals should bring to bear on all of our public concerns, but to do so in a way that allows us to enter into conversations with those of other religions and spiritual paths that are not controlling but engage them in ways that affirm the common good. Being centered in Christ in one’s engagement of the religious other should not lead to coercive evangelism, but constructive interaction that cultivates understanding and respect, while accounting for various distinctives, including the Christian call to take with the utmost seriousness the life-altering claims of Christ that leads to compassion and self-sacrifical neighborliness in view of our firm hope in Christ and his redmpetion of humanity (Crucicentrism). Moreover, and in keeping with what has been stated to this point, I believe Bebbington’s emphasis on Activism should lead Evangelicals today to engage not by way of moral uplift or from positions of power, as Evangelicals relate to the poor, but to proceed from a vantage point of poverty of spirit and from the margins as centered in Christ. It also requires that we move beyond the cultural captivity of Western structures of cultural dominance to enter fully into a holistic Christianity made up of diverse ethnic leaders, male and female, in service to Christ.

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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  • Eric Shreves

    I also wonder if American Evangelicalism is following an American cultural trend of fragmentation. The “Big Sort” underway. Is a unified national culture (Evangelical or not) even possible in our era?

  • Chaplain Chris Haughee

    Eric makes a great point… when basing a great deal of your practical ecclesiology in consumer capitalism/individualism it is certainly possible that fragmentation is just the fruit of trying to meet consumer needs rather than working from the starting point of a sound (read: “unified”) theological core. This is probably especially true in those branches of evangelicalism that began as reactionary movements… Hmmm… something to ponder. Thanks, Eric.


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