“Rebrand Evangelicalism” by Bringing Back Denominations

“Rebrand Evangelicalism” by Bringing Back Denominations April 25, 2024

[An open letter to evangelicals.  A free post.]

Dear evangelical friends, allies, and fellow-travellers:

After reading another account about how the term “evangelical” has acquired negative connotations and how that movement is in need of “rebranding,” I have an idea how that could be done.

Instead of calling yourself an “evangelical,” identify with the church that you belong to.  Say, “I’m a Baptist.”  Or, “I belong to the Assembly of God.”  Or, “I’m an Orthodox Presbyterian.”

You could even say, “I’m a nondenominational Christian.”  Or, better yet, “I’m a nondenominational Baptist,” if your congregation only baptizes adults.  Or, “I’m a nondenominational charismatic,” if your congregation or you individually speak in tongues.  Or, “I’m a nondenominational Calvinist,” if your congregation or you individually hold to Reformed theology.

I am aware that “denomination” has an even worse connotation today than “evangelical,” even among many Christians.  But hear me out.

The word “denomination” just means a naming.  There is nothing wrong with a name.  And what is named in this context is a church body that has a particular identity.   A Christian denomination has a particular history, and, more importantly, it represents a particular Christian tradition, with a distinctive theology and spirituality.  Everyone with faith in Christ is part of the universal Church that is His body and that exists throughout time and eternity.  The Church also exists in the here and now in individual  congregations, communities of faith that are also bound together with others of like mind.

But isn’t the multiplicity of denominations a scandal in Christianity?  Not necessarily.  The “holy Catholic and apostolic church” is highly diverse, with many strains and emphases.  Of course Christians should be unified. But there is surely more net Christian unity in a church body consisting of people who agree with each other theologically, as opposed to a church body whose members disagree with each other and are often in conflict.  In the bigger picture, the “holy Catholic and apostolic church” is already unified in Christ.

Evangelicalism began as a parachurch movement.  That is, it existed alongside of, and in support, of actual churches.  Christianity Today, Billy Graham,  various campus ministries, Christian charities, Christian publishing houses, Christian media, Christian schools, and other organizations embodied a conservative Protestantism that could serve a wide range of conservative Protestant denominations.  These served and still serve a good purpose.  But actual churches–not parachurches–are where Christians live out their faith.

Yet there arose “evangelical churches.”  This happened when denominations, seeking to emulate the success of the burgeoning evangelical movement, traded their confessional distinctives for the purposefully more generic theology of Christian bookstores and Christian media.  The denominations also changed their distinctive approaches to worship to emulate the seemingly more popular styles of evangelical evangelism crusades and contemporary Christian music.  The result was a hollowing out of denominations.  They all began to look the same on Sunday mornings.  Without their own theology and their own way of worshipping, the institutional bureaucracy was about all that was left, and denominations did indeed seem superfluous.

American Christianity became homogenized.  And in losing its confessional identities, it lost a great deal of its substance.  It became less able to deal effectively with an increasingly secularized culture.  Into the void rushed politics, worldliness, and the “prosperity gospel.”

Denominations are doubtless in need of reformation.  And “institutional religion” certainly also has a branding problem.  But institutions exist and last as long as they do for a reason:  human beings need them.  Part of the problem with evangelicalism is the non-stop effort to build institutions from scratch, which often devolve into “kingdom building” on the part of individual leaders.  You don’t necessarily need to do that with denominations, which have their own schools and seminaries, publishing houses and mission projects.  Embracing an institution lets you get on with what is really important.  When actual churches–and denominations–follow the parachurch model, jettisoning specific doctrines and “bureaucracies,” they throw out mechanisms for supervising and disciplining errant or misbehaving pastors.  The lack of pastoral oversight and discipline has led to many of the scandals that have tarnished the reputation of evangelical churches.

The irony is that most evangelicals are members of congregations that belong to denominations.  And yet they think of themselves primarily as evangelicals rather than as members of their denominations.  I urge them to recover that denominational identity, to rediscover that expression of Christianity that their denomination embodies.  I suspect most of them will find that very inspiring and helpful.

If not, they can find in the rich and varied tapestry of Christianity a denomination that they can more wholeheartedly identify with.  Many “exevangelicals” are, in fact, doing just that:  joining sacramental traditions by becoming Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, or Lutherans.  Others are finding their church identity by becoming conservative Presbyterians or Wesleyans.

Evangelicals can ask themselves, just what kind of evangelical am I?  If you focus on conversion, adult baptism, and the notion that you can’t lose your salvation, you are a Baptist and might as well join a Baptist congregation. If you are a charismatic in a congregation that does not approve, if they can’t convince you, join a Pentecostal denomination.  If you see conversion in terms of making a decision for Christ and then living a better life, be a Nazarene or Free Methodist.

If you are an evangelical who is outraged at the right wing proclivities of your congregation and who is committed to the social justice activism of left wing progressivism, don’t leave church entirely as many are doing to become a “None.”  Become a mainstream Protestant–the United Methodists, the Presbyterians (USA), the Disciples of Christ, ELCA Lutherans, or the Episcopalians feel the same way and would be glad to have you.  Or if you can’t bring yourself to go that far from orthodoxy, try a more evangelical “peace church” like the Mennonites.

But if you are joining a different Christian tradition, don’t try to change it to make it more “evangelical” like you.  As in the post The Case for Baptist Anglicans, which calls on Anglicans to change their teachings to accommodate those who don’t believe in infant baptism.  These traditions typically have a rich heritage than you can learn from if you approach them humbly.  And yet, those traditions can also profit from your personal faith and your impulse for evangelizing others.

If you are a “non-denominational” pastor, just go ahead and band together with other independent congregations and make yourself a denomination.  This is already happening, in effect, as similar-minded congregations form associations and join in common efforts.  Or just stick with yourself, understanding that independent self-governing congregations are nothing new–this is simply the “congregational” church polity, and it too constitutes a long Christian tradition.

In saying all of this, I don’t mean to imply any kind of theological relativism.  You should hold to a theology because you think that it’s faithful to Scripture and therefore true.  And that conviction means that you should consider other theologies, at least in part, mistaken.  You can still accept your mistaken friends in other churches and denominations as brothers and sisters in Christ, insofar as they have faith in Christ as their Savior.

Take me as a case study.  I grew up in a mainstream liberal denomination, becoming campus-ministry-style evangelical where I flirted with theologies from Catholicism to Calvinism.  Now I am a confessional Lutheran (meaning someone who believes in the Lutheran confessions collected in the Book of Concord, as opposed to liberal Lutherans), and, specifically, a member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.  My denomination is not “ecumenical” in the liberal sense at all, having been founded by immigrants fleeing the forced lowest-common denominator unionism of the German state church.  And yet my Lutheranism frees me to appreciate elements across the whole range of Christianity.  We are sacramental and liturgical (like Catholics and the Orthodox) and we are grounded in God’s inerrant Word and the Gospel of free salvation in Christ (like conservative Protestants, though we see the Gospel not as a one time experience at conversion but as something we return to continually as the Law convicts us of sin).  We hold to divine monergism (that God does everything for our salvation) like Calvinists, while holding to universal atonement and rejecting double predestination like Arminians.  (For how this all holds together, see my book Spirituality of the Cross:  The Way of the First Evangelicals.)

Luther was reforming the Church, getting it back on track when it drifted away from the Bible and the gospel of Jesus Christ, not starting a new one, so we identify with the early and medieval church and, by extension, the fragmented churches of today, all without excusing their errors.

That post about “rebranding” evangelicalism by Joey Cochran that started these reflections mentions one approach from Mere Orthodoxy‘s Jake Meador, who is advocating “Reformed Catholicism,” combining Reformed theology with liturgical worship and historical continuity.  That’s basically what we Lutherans have already, though with a more robust view of the sacraments than is possible with Calvinism.  Lutherans sometimes call themselves  “Evangelical Catholics.”

The point is, the best way of bringing evangelicalism back to life is recovering its substance in the evangel–the good news–of Jesus Christ, and that can be done not by making up something new but by delving into the rich, variegated heritage of the Christian faith and finding our place in it.

C. S. Lewis attempted to articulate and defend the major tenets of the Christian faith in his classic book Mere Christianity.  He warned, though, that Christians need more than just the basics.  He explained it this way:

I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions—as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.

Evangelicalism has been the “mere Christianity” for American Christians today.  But too many have stayed in the hallway.  Now that this is proving less tenable, it’s time to go into a room for the “fires and chairs and meals.”

With blessings in Christ,

GENE VEITH

 

Illustration:  Christian Denomination Logos quilt by Scott Lenger via Flickr,  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

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