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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