What is Evangelicalism?

What is Evangelicalism? June 15, 2012

Since this blog is on Patheos‘s “Evangelical Channel,” I thought we should devote at least one post to discussing what “evangelical” means today.

For their thumbnail definition of evangelicalism, many scholars rely on David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral” of conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism. There are at least two problems with Bebbington’s very useful definition. First, the terms are so capacious that many Christians few would regard as “evangelicals” could claim them. Second, when I use Bebbington’s quadrilateral to explain evangelicalism to my students, their eyes glaze over in a fog of indifference and confusion.

As Tommy writes in his Great Awakening book, “Bebbington’s quadrilateral does not adequately distinguish early evangelicalism from movements that preceded it … Missing from Bebbington’s definition is early evangelicalism’s new attention to the person of the Holy Spirit, particularly in revival … dramatically increased emphases on seasons of revival.” Within American and global history, revivalism is a key aspect of what we think of as evangelicalism. Within the United States today, revivalism per se is much less central than it used to be, though the significance of the Holy Spirit has not diminished within American evangelicalism.

In my book on Campus Crusade for Christ, I define evangelicals as “Protestant Christians who readily talk about their experience of salvation in Jesus Christ, regard a divinely inspired Bible as the ultimate authority on matters of faith and practice, and engage the world in which they live through evangelism and other forms of mission.” A bit informal and imprecise, I imagine.

It used to be easy to identify evangelicals as “people who like Billy Graham.” [I think George Marsden offered that observation in print somewhere]. That certainly helped for distinguishing between evangelicals from their fundamentalist counterparts in the late-1950s and 1960s. But Graham can no longer demarcate evangelicals for us. Christianity Today is still a good evangelical bellwether, but it exerts less of a unifying force for evangelicalism than it used to do.

Also, I sometimes wonder if “evangelical” has become such a pejorative term that “evangelicals” will be forced to abandon it, at least in casual self-identification. In 2007, the Barna Group found that “only 3% of 16 – to 29-year-old non-Christians express favorable views of evangelicals.” Yikes. Of course, they probably had no idea what the word “evangelical” meant. The same survey, by the way, found that only 16% of “non-Christians” had a favorable view of Christianity in general, so I’m not so sure that jettisoning “evangelical” would make that much difference.

Does “evangelical” remain a valuable, understandable term? What does it mean? Given the reality of global Christianity today, do we remain far too skewed by the American context in our understanding of evangelicalism?

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  • Kristen

    “People who like Billy Graham” would distinguish evangelicals from fundamentalists, but might include too much given that Graham was extraordinary for being willing to work with just about anyone. (I mean that as praise of Graham.) Cardinal Cushing of Boston shocked a lot of Catholics by encouraging Catholics to attend Billy Graham’s Crusades. But a definition of “evangelical” would have to be broad indeed to include a sitting Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop.

  • John Haas

    Are theologically conservative African-American churches also “evangelical”?

  • I wonder how many evangelical churches and pastors routinely use the term evangelical in “casual self-identification” anyway, or if it is more of a scholarly/journalistic term. I go to what seems to me a pretty standard evangelical Baptist church in Waco, but I think I may be the only person there who ever actually uses the term evangelical to describe us. Thanks for the note on the Great Awakening book, too. 🙂

  • johnturner

    I think that’s absolutely correct.

    I’ve noticed in political polling that there is typically a category for “evangelical/born again.” I imagine many more individuals would self-identify as “born again” than as “evangelical.”

    I wonder if this was different in earlier decades. I imagine it was more common for folks to self-identify as “evangelical” back in the 1960s / 1970s.

    John, theologically conservative African Americans as “evangelical?” What do you think? Certainly there were and are people like E.V. Hill out there, who clearly was part of the American “evangelical movement” and had many white evangelical allies. Your question raises the question of whether theological definitions are really all that useful. Pick a theological definition for evangelicals, and many, many African American Protestants would qualify. But I hesitate, because it’s hard to group people together who historically haven’t thought of themselves as belonging to the same movement or impulse. I’d be interested in your opinion.

    I agree, Kristen.

  • Greg D

    I think there is a difference between Evangelical (with a capital E) and evangelical (with a small e). Perhaps one is a noun and the other is a verb? Evangelical (with a big E) is what I believe to be an institution, mostly political and partly religious, comprised primarily of fundamentalist, born again, Biblicists who are staunch supporters of conservative Republican candidates for political office. Evangelicals (with a little e) are any of us Christians who see the importance of sharing and showing the love of Christ to all people in both word and deed. While I am glad to rid myself of the label “Evangelical” I cannot deny the fact that I remain evangelical with my faith.

  • Jay Case

    I still find Bebbington’s old-school definition of evangelicalism helpful, though it could be tweaked or revised in some ways. We would have to allow that there is a fair amount of diversity within evangelicalism (today and down through history) and that the definition will get fuzzy around the borders. But that will be true of any attempt to define the movement. In many ways, in fact, it seems to me that John Turner’s informal definition still tracks with Bebbington’s, containing conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism and a type of activism within it, even though the language seems to fit better for the ways that evangelicals have described themselves in more recent decades.
    By either definition, I think most African American Christians still fit. That makes sense to me historically, since evangelical revivalism played a key role in the development of black Baptists, black Methodists and black Pentecostalism. But the distinctive power of race in American history has also given black evangelicalism (a term, I realize, that hardly anybody uses) a distinct social and cultural dynamic that sets it apart from many other varieties of evangelicalism.

  • Barry

    “Are theologically conservative African-American churches also “evangelical”?”


    They vote Democratic.
    They’re black.
    They have rather poor opinions of slaveowners.
    In the Civil War, they fought on the ‘wrong’ side.

  • The_L

    As I experienced it growing up in Southern AL, evangelicalism was a movement devoted to demonize anyone who supported abortion rights, fair treatment of gay people, the idea that the earth was older than 6,000 years, and anybody who wasn’t Christian. Jesus was presumably in there somewhere, but he was secondary to the other stuff.