How to Be Evangelical After World Vision: The Code

As Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition and the excommunication-by-farewell trend have made clear, evangelical has become code for a couple Utterly Important Things:

Hell: i.e., totally for it.

Homosexuality: i.e., obsessively against it.

Sure, there are some underlying principles there like Penal Substitutionary Atonement Is The Gospel Or Else (which supports Hell) and the Bible Read Superficially Without Factoring In Historical Context Is Inerrant Or Else (which wars against Homosexuality); but overall, these two H’s have become the articles upon which evangelicalism stands or falls.

But I want to suggest a different code, one in which the true heart of the evangelical project is held tightly while the cultural trappings of the loud conservative segment are left behind. I want to suggest a big tent that can include the conservative theological and ethical perspectives and those deemed more progressive around a compelling, gravitational center. I want to suggest an evangelicalism that truly values mercy over sacrifice, restorative justice over religion, neighbors-as-people over theological gnats. In other words, an evangelicalism after World Vision. 

This evangelical code replaces the two monolithic H’s with something much more nuanced. Instead of cultural/theological/ethical articles on which the church stands or falls (and authors and aid organizations are summarily excommunicated via “farewell”), there is a broader sweep and a stronger spirit. Instead of the contemporary antagonisms around Mainline and Catholic expressions, there is a movement toward blurring the lines to carve out a historic yet futuristic evangelical path. Instead of all the culture warring and new religious right-ing, there is some bonafide, holistic gospelling.

Because, you know, the evangel.

While others have certainly put forward definitions of evangelicalism that are similar to this, and while I admit that there’s both some old and some new here in regards to how evangelical has been practiced and understood, let me work out this code in three points. Evangelicalism is:

1. Orthodox/Scriptural: While some have phrased this element of evangelical identity as believing in “the authority of Scripture”, I think orthodoxy gets it much better. And that’s because orthodoxy implies the authority of Scripture and the Church. The Bible is the Church’s book, and it must be interpreted and applied communally in connection to the communities of the past and in the context of the present. The orthodox Creeds provide a historic basis for this foundation, keeping us accountable to core truth and allowing enough room for theological and ethical interpretation. On the one hand, this element does distinguish evangelicalism from some Catholic and Mainline expressions. On the other hand, it avoids the inerrancy/biblical obsession of the conservative evangelicals which leads to the culture war litmus tests. Likewise, the absence of wholesale antagonism toward Mainline and Catholic expressions means that the orthodox evangelical emphasis can generously exist within those streams, and, I believe, become a gracious and powerful leaven that influences the whole lump.

2. Pietistic/Spirit-Filled: I believe it was Stan Grenz who defined evangelicalism simply as “convertive piety.” Historically, evangelical identity arose from a merging of Protestant theology and pietistic spirituality. In the last 50 years, the charismatic renewal has spanned denominations and movements creating an “evangelical” spirit among both Protestant and Catholic expressions. The passionate pursuit of spiritual experience is an evangelical must, as is the beginning of this pursuit – conversion itself. While old manipulative or guilt-driven approaches to revivalistic conversion may be jettisoned, the necessity for a personal choice to follow Jesus based on experiencing his grace and power is arguably the most important element of evangelical identity. On the one hand, this will distinguish evangelicalism from some Catholic and Mainline expressions that dismiss the importance of both conversion and a passionate spiritual life in Christ. On the other hand, this readily dismantles the dismissive “farewell” of the conservative evangelical voice. For if a person has decided to follow Jesus by experiencing his grace and power, and has become genuinely Spirit-filled, then arguable theological and ethical particulars cannot be held against them.

3. Evangelistic/Missional: Finally, this evangelical code insists on evangelism – it is contained in the label itself! The desire for all peoples to know the love of God in Christ and turn to Jesus as Rescuer and Lord is essential. The gospel must go out, and we are the people of the evangel, the emissaries of the good news that Jesus is Lord. Further, the missional renaissance of recent years has renewed the holistic nature of Christian mission; that it is about good news in all parts of life, justice for the poor and oppressed, a lifestyle of simplicity and peacemaking, localized love for neighbors, etc. And, all is located fundamentally in the church as a new social reality giving witness to the kingdom of God in the here and now, not an individual transaction to obtain hell insurance. On the one hand, this will distinguish evangelicalism from some Catholic and Mainline expressions that have acquiesced any need for evangelism and embraced interfaith universality. On the other hand, this will rebuff the conservative evangelical insistence that only one vision of “salvation” is correct. That is, evangelical universalists, inclusivists, and annihilationists are all welcome, as are those whose knowledge of historic, first century context has them reimagining the texts and the meaning of the kingdom of God. And again, more important than anything else is valuing mercy over sacrifice, keeping the equality and humanity of all people at the forefront, rejecting colonial and oppressive missionary techniques, all abusive/manipulative practices, etc.

Keep in mind that in all of these points, conservatives are welcome in the tent. But they are not welcome to dismiss and excommunicate others who carry this evangelical identity. Also keep in mind that by my reasoning many gay Christians would fit within the tent; mainline luminaries like Nadia Bolz-Weber, Phyllis Tickle, and Adam Hamilton would fit; emergence voices like Tony Jones and Brian McLaren would fit; Pope Francis would fit. This is not to mention the many centrist/nuanced voices that exist in Wesleyan/holiness/charismatic/anabaptist expressions (all often “farewelled” by the current conservative majority).

I hope this all makes sense. And I hope that for some of you, this might provide a way forward. Based on the principle of the thing – Ten. Thousand. Kids. – I understand those who are leaving the label behind. And yet, perhaps there is something worth redeeming here.

Perhaps there is a way to be evangelical after World Vision.

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Find him on Twitter & Facebook!

  • Dee Parsons

    Thank you for this post. I have been blessed to have been in two churches in my life that held to the Creeds yet had congregations made up of people who were “all over the road in secondary issues”

    We grew together in spite of our differences. We struggled together, occasionally had blow ups which were then dialed back. I long for the church that you present.

  • http://henryimler.com/ Henry Imler

    How do you see this relating to other branches of Christianity besides the American post-fundamentalist branches (and their derivatives) of Christianity?

    Restated, shouldn’t we blow up the term “Evangelical[ism]” and instead talk about Ecumenicalism from the post-Evangelical point of view?

  • Tim

    I think you’re probably right that we need to take “Evangelical” back in terms of re-appropriating its definition. Unfortunately, the term has long since come to mean things other than what it should, so I’m not sure it’s possible to take it back.

  • k_Lutz

    Ah … the Good News! The good news that I don’t have to think any more, that they, the shouters of good news, have it all figured out for me so that I really don’t have to do anything except shout “Good News!”

    While I comprehend that you don’t want to cut off the gazillion religionists that identify as ‘evangelical’, that you still want to be a part of something ‘special’, it seems rather mind-numbing to ask it to embrace the Gospel, the God Spiel. It has assimilated many of the fundamentalists who will fight tooth and nail for a cave-dwellers reading of Scripture – the idolatry of the arcane.

    It seems that the self-centeredness of E. will relegate it to the dustbins of time as we are recognising that humanity is the unit created by God. Individuals live and die by their participation in it.

    Trust God.

  • Tim

    As Martin Zender would say; “Believe in God, no matter what the Clergy say.”

  • sharon peters

    In the
    Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle, the stages are: Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Testing, Acceptance.

    BARGAINING
    is defined as

    · seeking ways to avoid having the bad thing happen,

    · hope that the bad news is reversible,

    · Seeking alternatives,

    · experimenting,

    · offering to work to seek
    alternatives

    · denying dependance on an addiction.

    my bargaining may be part of the inventory process of
    showing why I need to examine the necessity of either being loyal to an
    evangelical church I have become attached to in order to contain an immature or
    trapped sense of identity or find a way to resolve my identity crisis by
    putting the process it in the lords hands and waiting. When bargaining I am
    vulnerable to accepting false hope.

    The inevitable depression from this loss of something I was once so certain of
    cannot be avoided (which may be a necessary episode in my life that gets me
    grounded). I need to go where my depression from the loss
    of my identity takes me. i may lose my sense of control, privilege, entitlement but i will gain a connection to my integrity in Christ.

    When bargaining I need
    support for change & opportunities to master new skills.

    I need validation for the
    improvements I am trying to make regarding an expansion of the freedom to
    explore alternatives to beliefs I held and was held hostage to.

    My returning vitality is a
    sign that I am recovering from apathy.

    I need contact with a peer
    group going through the bargaining stage. They are my resource of collaborations,
    information & contributions.

    (REFERENCING
    THE KEN BURNS SERIES ON THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR MUSIC PLAYING IN THE BACKGROUND
    THE TUNE OF ASHOAKEN FAIRWELL)

    WE OWE THE CONSERVS A DEBT OF GRATITUE FOR GIVING US A CAUSE TO RALLY ROUND.

    Some more hard questions;

    Q; What is the true disconnect to the heart
    of the evangelical project?

    Q; Why has ‘evangelical’ become
    code for the cultural trappings of the
    loud conservative ‘evangelicals’ ?

    Q; isn’t this
    ‘world vision moment’ a legacy of empire and empire church that masterminded a
    ruling class based on its claim of the bible’s
    inerrancy, bonded to empire’s own interpretations of whose going to hell
    that secures the power and resources flowing in the direction of empire by
    supporting the use of violence and fear?

    Q; What does this mean; a half Truth is a whole lie? (a Yiddish proverb) For something to be true, all of it must
    be true. A lie is a lie, whether it is half true or not.

    Parker Palmer calls this “functional atheism”; saying pious
    words about God’s presence in our lives but believing, on the contrary, that
    nothing good is going to happen unless we make it happen. our culture wants to
    turn mysteries into problems to be solved or breakdowns to be fixed, because
    maintaining the illusion that we can “straighten things out” makes us feel
    powerful

    Q; By phantasizing who would fit am I defining once again a new orthodoxy/of who will not fit? ‘If they fit I don’t fit or if I fit they don’t fit?’

    Q; If I have a phantasy about a big tent that can include the conservative
    theological and ethical perspectives and those deemed more
    progressive that truly values mercy over sacrifice, restorative justice over
    religion, neighbors-as-people over the atrocity of disposing of people isn’t this
    an expression of impossible hope so common to the bargaining stage?

    Q; If I long to find an historic yet futuristic evangelical path that blurs the lines
    around the ‘cultural/theological/ethical articles on which the church stands or
    falls’, that finds it ‘convienient to empire’s purposes’, & try to include
    some real connection w/ Christ’s story, can
    I put new patches on old
    garments.(mark 2.21)?

    I wish for an “evangelical” spirit &
    evangelical identity among both Protestant and Catholics. What I want is the authority of Scripture written in my heart to be
    a gracious and powerful leaven that influences the whole lump. Because Jesus
    grace and power is the most important element of my identity I want to engage
    all my passionate energy in the pursuit of guilt free spiritual experiences based
    on my personal choice to follow him. If I also identify myself as evangelical
    my evangelicalism will be the kind that gently persuades. My “farewell” to the conservative evangelicals is temporary b/c eventually Jesus will win all arguments contrary to his spirit.

    Q; Am I giving witness to the kingdom of
    God in the here and now, not an individual transaction to obtain hell insurance?

    Q; Am I putting my life and resources on
    the line in order to create a lifestyle of simplicity and peacemaking that
    supports justice for the poor and oppressed?

    Q; I realize I wont be having
    conversations with some Catholics and Mainliners who express that they
    neither have need to for evangelism nor embrace interfaith universality.

    Q; Can I take their rejection, contempt and in some cases, their withdrawal
    of financial support, b/c I cannot go along to get along?

    Q; am I willing to be open to evangelical
    universalists, inclusivists, annhiliationists and those whose knowledge of
    historic, first century context has them reimagining the texts and the meaning
    of the kingdom of God?

    Q; am I consciously having mercy over sacrifice and trying to honor the equality
    and humanity of all people?

    Q; am I aware of colonial oppressive
    missionary techniques, abuse, manipulation, etc. and rejecting those practices
    myself?

    To me leaving the evangelical label off
    is like not buying a Chevrolet of a Saab just b/c because daddy always drove
    one.

    The label is not the problem.

    Is there gas in the tank and is it
    running well enough to get me to where I need to go?

    It’s like by faith I am getting into a
    car in the dark in order to make a quick getaway from the scene of a robbery so
    that I can cross the frontier of the truth of christ’s presence in my life.

    Perhaps there is a way to be evangelical
    after World Vision.

  • Gavin Johnston

    I love your peaceful gestures here Zach. What has helped me deal with these seemingly tragic immaturities of sectarianism and worldly divides is realizing that humanity is in pre-school concerning spiritual maturity. Otherwise I would have no mercy upon others and even Jesus said “how long shall I have to suffer this wicked generation”. I just want to bring some attention to an extremely powerful message from Jesus as found in Luke 12 (King James Version) bringing to light that your call for unity might as of yet still be too soon:

    I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled? 50 But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished! 51 Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: 52 For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. 53 The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

    54 And he said also to the people, When ye see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway ye say, There cometh a shower; and so it is. 55 And when ye see the south wind blow, ye say, There will be heat; and it cometh to pass. 56 Ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky and of the earth; but how is it that ye do not discern this time? 57 Yea, and why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right? 58 When thou goest with thine adversary to the magistrate, as thou art in the way, give diligence that thou mayest be delivered from him; lest he hale thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and the officer cast thee into prison. 59 I tell thee, thou shalt not depart thence, till thou hast paid the very last mite.

    The Holy Bible : King James Version. 1995 (electronic ed. of the 1769 edition of the 1611 Authorized Version.) (Lk 12:49-59). Bellingham WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

  • Gavin Johnston

    Verse 56-59 is mind-blowing to think that Jesus might surprisingly have something to say to even us “progressives”. Even the Pharisees believed in God and were very passionate (evangelical) about it, but then they could not recognize the one of God right there before them. Where are the blind spots of us progressives? Where is the Christ staring us right in the face and we’re not seeing It? The conservative evangelicals need their beliefs otherwise they would not be conservative evangelicals and there are still a lot of “mites” that need to be paid in this divisive “time”…

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    I think you’re overreacting here, but thanks for weighing in :).

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    You could be right, and I’m not particularly concerned about the cultural currency of the label itself, more the continuance of the ethos (which, for now, can still be contained by the label).

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    That’s one approach that could work. From my current position in the mainline I see value in retaining the evangelical ethos. It brings some salt and leaven into the mix. However, the mainline is also salting and leavening me, if you get my meaning. We are good for each other :).

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Me too, Dee :).

  • http://flamingfundamentalist.blogspot.com/ Curt Day

    Sorry about the response being so late. I can’t go with the universal, but my guess is that Conservative Christianity’s response to a changing culture is causing a dissonance that causes people to question some of the basic truths from the Scriptures. For more on this, see my post on Keller’s Center Church model at

    http://flamingfundamentalist.blogspot.com/2014/04/when-tribalism-becomes-victim-of.html

    With regard to homosexuality, it seems that my fine fellow flaming fundamentalist friends and family are forever finding ways to overstate the distance between heterosexuality and homosexuality. BTW, could you guess from the sentence that I am an ill-alliterate? They want to do justice to the Scriptural teaching on homosexuality but their overreach suggests that something else is involved.


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