3 Kinds of Evangelicals (Whether They Want That Label or Not)

3 Kinds of Evangelicals (Whether They Want That Label or Not) April 17, 2015

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Rachel Held Evans’s new book Searching For Sunday (see my interview with the author here) has sparked a good deal of speculation over what constitutes an evangelical, and whether or not Rachel is one.

Without getting into all the details of this particular situation (because just, no), I’d like to propose 3 kinds of evangelicals that I am observing in the U.S. Christian conversation – whether the folks I’m describing would self-identify with that label or not, and whether the folks I’m describing would recognize each other as evangelicals or not. In other words, these are people who are, in my opinion, evangelicals in substance, even if they are not so in name. And I will heartily include my friend Rachel in that number even if she is not particularly anxious to be included in it. Does that make sense?


Let’s start with the obvious:

1. Conservative Evangelicals

Whether fundamentalist, charismatic, or Reformed, this brand of evangelical is obvious in its self-identification and often overbearing stances on biblical authority (inerrancy, mostly), evangelistic/conversional necessity, and spiritual vitality. And added as near-essentials of the evangelical faith for this group are traditional sexuality and right-leaning politics. There is certainly a spectrum here, from those who may resemble the popular Fox News, guns-n’-God stereotype, to those who take a more intellectual and relevant approach like many in the neo-Reformed camp. But regardless, these are the folks that most people imagine when they think “evangelical.” 

2. Incarnational Evangelicals

This group begins to buck the cultural image associated with label. Now, there are probably all sorts of names one could come up with for this group, but this is an emerging category that, in many ways, is attempting to go back to the roots of the evangelical movement, before so much theological rigidity, cultural antagonism, and political animus took hold. Incarnational evangelicals look to the “mission of God” as the center of their identity, with a holistic gospel that, like Jesus, becomes flesh and blood and moves into the neighborhood in the form of the church. These evangelicals are committed to biblical authority (but not usually inerrancy), evangelistic/conversional necessity, and spiritual vitality. They span theological traditions (from Reformed to Wesleyan to Anabaptist), and value an ecumenical spirit. Their churches are located in the evangelical space, but they are highly contextual – sensitive to the challenges and needs of the culture and eager to reach out and communicate well. They may even dabble in liturgy.

On those other “essentials” of traditional sexuality and right-leaning politics, these Incarnational Evangelicals are diverse on the first and likely ambivalent or opposed to the second. While a minority of churches in this camp are clearly open and affirming, the majority try to take a more nuanced stance. And regardless, all Incarnational Evangelicals opt for a relational, communal, and embodied tack rather than a rule-based, ideological, or politicized strategy with regard to numerous cultural issues. Because of a holistic gospel and an incarnational impulse, loving neighbor, doing justice, and seeking racial and gender equality are central to a true gospel presence. If they are active politically, they tend towards a left-leaning Sojourners type identity. And these elements sometimes earn them the ire of the Conservative Evangelical posse – and even some regularly scheduled excommunications.

3. Elsewhere Evangelicals

This will be the most controversial category, and one that is made up of many who would likely eschew the evangelical label altogether. These evangelicals are “elsewhere” because they typically are not located in traditionally evangelical churches – Bible churches, community churches, Baptist churches, charismatic churches, megachurches, etc. Instead, they may take up residence in new churches, simple churches, church plants, emerging churches, etc. OR, as may be the more likely outcome, they end up in mainline/liturgical churches, like Rachel and myself (though my journey is currently unfolding).

Elsewhere Evangelicals are generally of a deconstructive bent, or have passed through a deconstructive phase – for them, questions of biblical authority and evangelistic/conversional necessity are not always settled. They value spiritual vitality, but have begun to experience it not only in personal piety or communal worship but also sacramental rhythms and the Great Tradition of the church. On those other “essentials”, both are almost certainly rejected; Elsewhere Evangelicals are open and affirming and left-leaning politically.

So why, you ask, do I consider them evangelicals?

And the answer is simple: because they are.

Elsewhere Evangelicals grew up evangelical or came up evangelical and were formed by that experience. They have not utterly rejected or jettisoned that formation, and so the substantial marks of evangelical identity remain. The questions are not settled – but the Bible is still central and authoritative at the end of the day. They can’t help but talk about their love for God, their commitment to Jesus, their comfort in belief and baptism, despite how they may doubt. They cling to the creeds of the church, come hell or high water; they don’t deny the miracles or the resurrection because the mystery is still more compelling than any liberal materialism could ever be. On social justice, they are motivated not by obligation or institutional habit but by a belief that a just God is on the move and Jesus will one day set all things right.

I find myself somewhere among these second two categories, though I, for one, have raised the white flag of surrender to the label and my formative identity. I am a charismatic evangelical despite what others may say, and regardless of these new ways I see the world. Because Jesus and his gospel – the evangel – are at the center of who I am and everything I do. 

And honestly, whenever I see that quality in someone else, my impulse is to include them in the evangelical tent, such as it is, whatever that might mean – not farewell them.

Indeed, the desire to expel, or farewell, may be the least evangelical impulse of all.

[photo: russellstreet, CC via Flickr]

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