Evangelicalism is in the middle of an identity crisis.
- Sex scandals are rocking the movement (see: Savage, Hybels)
- Alignment with conservative political movements is causing growing unease (see: Graham, Falwell)
- Views which some find archaic are presenting challenges for Evangelical leaders (see: Patterson, Jeffress)
- The election of Donald Trump, riding a wave of evangelical support, has exposed a rift within the Evangelical community (see: every Facebook post ever)
So pronounced is this tension that it has prompted some to assign alternate labels (Trumpvangelicals, Fearvangelicals) for the community, while prompting others to flee the movement altogether (the Ex-vangelicals).
All of this has left many wondering, what is an Evangelical, anyway?
In his self-titled Quadrilateral model, historian David Bebbington says that evangelicalism consist of four core tenets:
- Conversionism — which states that you must be born again
- Biblicalism — which places a high view on the Bible’s authority
- Crucicentrism — which focuses on the work of the cross
- Activism — which essentially states that if you believe the Gospel, you should talk and act like it
Worth noting: this was Bebbington’s summary as he considered Christian practice in Europe and the United States from the 17th-20th centuries. That’s the 1600s to the 1900s. He wrote about it in a paper published in 1989. That was almost 30 years ago. So while his quadrilateral describes what an evangelical has been, is it possible that it does not necessarily unpack what an evangelical is. Or perhaps a better question is this: does it in any way reflect what an Evangelical will be. What might emerge in place of it?
Maybe much of the tension we feel in modern evangelicalism is a reformation toward new expressions and emphases. What if a “newvangelical” quadrilateral is emerging? What would an outline of those values look like?
Before I theorize what I think defines current/future American evangelicalism, two ground rules:
- My thinking goes beyond the West. One of the limitations of Bebbington’s work, in my view, was that it was distinctly Western in nature. Our world is shifting East, and I see that manifest in modern Christianity.
- My categories attempt to reflect the same as Bebbington’s. For instance:
- Conversionism speaks to anthropology (doctrine of man)
- Biblicalism speaks to bibliology (doctrine of Scripture)
- Crucicentrism speaks to soteriology (doctrine of salvation)
- Activism speaks to ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church)
I think in looking at the Church now and in the future, I would characterize a Newvangelical (or whatever it’ll be called) as embracing four central realities.
There’s no question that conversion is an integral part of the disciple’s journey. But the idea of being born again is based on an athropology that emphasizes our fallenness, not our intrinsic value. That is, if you didn’t know, an emphasis unique to the West.
The more modern idea (which is actually an ancient idea) is that we are image bearers of God individually and to be image bearers of Christ in community. This approach emphasizes the innate goodness of mankind at Creation rather than emphasizing the brokenness of man as a result of the fall. These are two very different foundations for a theology of humanity. Pastors like Brian Zahnd and Greg Boyd are exemplars of this movement.
The authority for faith and practice for evangelicals has been, and I believe will continue to be, the Bible. But there has been a massive shift in recent years from a hermeneutic which coached readers toward certainty to a more generous, literary approach to the Bible which validates questioning. Scholars are, perhaps more than ever, confronting the Scriptures with skepticism. It echoes the old rabbinic mantra, “God is in the wrestling.”
There is, as a result, greater sympathy for doubt. Certainty is no longer the goal. In addition, there is an embrace of truth wherever it may reveal itself. Many more believers accept scientific findings which the Bible had no way of speaking to in the ancient world. Bear in mind that these believers do not find science to be antagonistic toward their faith — quite the opposite. Scientists like Francis Collins, authors like Rob Bell, and podcaster “Science” Mike McHargue are leading the charge in this part of the quadrilateral.
Embracing the Resurrection
It’s not that the resurrection hasn’t been central to Christian theology since, well, the resurrection. As a matter of emphasis, however, it has mostly been overshadowed by the cross (hence Bebbington’s label “crucicentrism”). For centuries the cross has been the logo for Christianity. I believe a shift is taking place where the empty tomb will step from the cross’s shadow. Maybe it is the culture of death we live in that is inspiring this change. Perhaps the hopefulness of new life stands in contrast to the hopelessness we see around us. I’m not sure.
What I know is this — I’m hearing more songs about the resurrection than the cross, more sermons about the resurrection than the crucifixion. Again — not a new theology, but a fresh emphasis.
Openness is activism of a different kind. The idea that we should live out our faith has historically taken the shape of international missions, the founding of para-church organizations, and involvement in politics. But as more people favor mission strategies that employ indigenous people, as the Church rightly engages in work that in recent decades has been outsourced, and as many grow weary of the marriage between faith and politics, I see a different kind of engagement.
This openness speaks of room at a table, belonging before believing, and inclusion. Many contemporary issues (the LGBT community, women in leadership, racism) all center on this theme. This value may expose the most significant fissure in modern American Evangelicalism, but it is a fissure that will be sealed up in the coming years with greater openness toward all, by all. The Red Letter Christian movement models this kind of activism.
If you’ve been scratching your head as you consider what is going on in Evangelicalism today, perhaps this look at who we’ve been and who we are (perhaps) becoming is helpful in giving language to the tension you feel. I’d love some feedback as we consider these things, and how we can honor Jesus through it all.