« Monday Reality Check: Are Your Values in Your Schedule? | Main | The Competitive Market of the Church »

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Meaning of "Evangelical"

EvanOn Easter, evangelical Christians can celebrate knowing that they are part of a movement that has never been so powerful or so large. But like any dominating force, evangelicalism is not monolithic, and it seems that now, at a time of heightened power, old fissures are widening, and new theological and political splits are developing.

Perhaps it's not surprising that these conflicts are occurring as many of evangelicalism's elder statesmen — most notably, the Rev. Billy Graham — are retiring, and a new generation of leaders is vying to define its center.

"When he leaves the scene, there will be some deep fractures that come out into the open and become wider," said Roger E. Olson, a theology professor at Baylor University's Truett Theological Seminary. "It will be harder for anyone to talk about evangelicalism as a movement with any unity."

Evangelical leaders have clashed recently over a range of issues, including whether the movement should get involved in the debates over global warming and immigration. A tug of war is also unfolding behind the scenes over theology — should evangelicalism be a big tent, open to more divergent views, or a smaller, purer theology?

To a certain extent, divisions are to be expected, because the evangelical movement has become increasingly diverse as it has grown, making it harder to define, or for any one person to serve as even its symbolic head, as Mr. Graham did.

"There are many people today who call themselves evangelical whom no person would call an evangelical 40 years ago," said Donald A. Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill.

John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, used polling data to separate evangelicals into three camps, traditionalist, centrist and modernist. The traditionalists, characterized by high affinity for orthodox religious beliefs and little inclination to adapt them to a changing world, bear the closest resemblance to what has been labeled the Christian right, whose most visible spokesmen have been figures like the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the television evangelist Pat Robertson, Dr. Green said.

Centrists, he said, might be represented by the Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., and author of the best-selling book, "The Purpose Driven Life." Mr. Warren is theologically and socially conservative, but has mostly avoided politics and recently turned much of his focus to fighting poverty and AIDS in Africa.

According to Dr. Green's findings from a survey taken in 2004, the traditionalist and centrist segments are roughly the same size within evangelicalism, each accounting for approximately 40 to 50 percent of the movement's adherents. Modernist evangelicals, who have much more diversity in their beliefs and lower levels of church attendance, are a small minority. Fissures between the traditionalist and centrist camps of evangelicalism have begun to emerge much more prominently in recent months in the political realm.

Earlier this year, more than 80 evangelical leaders, many of them pastors who would likely be classified as centrists, including Mr. Warren and the Rev. Leith Anderson, pastor of a megachurch outside of Minneapolis and a former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, signed an evangelical call to action on global warming.

Meanwhile many of the more conservative leaders in the movement, including Dr. James Dobson, the head of Focus on the Family, Mr. Falwell and Mr. Robertson, were conspicuously absent.

"It's a tension that exists between the traditionalists and the centrists," said the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, which did not sign the statement after pressure from Dr. Dobson, Mr. Falwell and others. "The centrists want to deal with these issues. The traditionalists are saying, 'Hey now, I thought we understood the issues.' "

In its public statements, Focus on the Family said Dr. Dobson chose not to sign on because the group questioned the validity of the theory and believed that it put plants and animals above humans. "For us, we have to focus on some core issues that are connected to our principles," said Paul L. Hetrick, a spokesman for the group. "One of our core principles is the value or sanctity of human life."

Mr. Hetrick criticized other evangelicals like Mr. Cizik and the Rev. Jim Wallis, a prominent, politically liberal evangelical, who have been active on climate change and, more recently, immigration issues, for neglecting core concerns like abortion and gay marriage.

"What's interesting is many times these folks can't get worked up in a lather about 45 million babies killed," he said.

There is also a growing conflict over theology, or specifically the orthodoxy of the "emerging church" movement.

ALTHOUGH much of the attention on the emerging church movement has been on changes that its leaders have made in worship — bringing back liturgy and ancient practices like meditation and chanting — the movement has also sought to introduce theological innovations.

It emphasizes reading the Bible as a narrative, perfect in its purposes but not necessarily inerrant; de-emphasizing individual salvation in favor of a more holistic mission in serving the world; even making evangelicals less absolutist on whether people from other religions might find their way to heaven.

All of this has made many evangelical leaders nervous. They worry that the "emerging church" will water down the theology.

"It's over the question of the nature of truth," said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., whose appointment in 1993 helped seal what many critics saw as a conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, evangelicalism's largest denomination.

But Brian D. McLaren, founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church outside of Baltimore and a chief apostle of the emerging church, argues that he is not promoting relativism; rather, he believes the evangelical movement has been hijacked theologically, as well as politically, by its more fundamentalist elements, something he is trying to correct.

"In many, many areas, I'm looking at polarization, " he said, "and I'm looking at a third way."

These disputes are nothing new for evangelicalism. The evangelical movement as it is known today emerged in the 1940's and 50's as a middle way between what many Christian leaders perceived as theological liberalism in the mainline Protestant denominations and the cultural separatism of the fundamentalist movement.

Today, with the term, "evangelical," often equated with "fundamentalist," many in the movement are even discussing whether the label evangelical should be jettisoned completely, said David Neff, editor of Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine.

"I did sit in a room with a number of key leaders, some Christian college presidents, some representatives of major college ministries," he said. "They were seriously discussing whether the word evangelical should be used anymore, or should we call ourselves classic Christians or historic orthodox Christians."

[from the New York Times, Sunday, April 16, 2006; article by Michael Luo]

Add Your Comments and Ideas now...
Pass this post on to a friend now...
Subscribe to RSS Feed | Get Email Notifications on New Posts

April 17, 2006 in Trends in Today's Church | Permalink

First Name:
Email:
 

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451dafb69e200d834b9e2cf69e2

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Meaning of "Evangelical":

Comments

Howdy everybody... It's old Clairvoyant 1 here this Morning. I want to thank everyone for praying for me. It has been a very interesting week since last Thursday. But the good news is my blood pressure is down and they found the reason why... SALT, country ham, to much fat intake, peanunts and pizza.... I am about to go nuts not eating this food but. It is the best for me. The other thing is I have to learn to realax. That is why I am posting this here.

You see. I have noticed a few things in our churches and here on MMI. I have noticed that we have evangelical's then we have those who are not evangelical's. Me on the other hand, I am just a mess...

I am an evangelical. I am geared differently than most people in my church. For instants. Our pastor is a very good pastor, he goes with the flow and he handles being a pastor very well. Me on the other hand, it drives me nuts. I like being in the field rubbing elbows with sinful people and talking smack. You know with issue's like Politic's, Global Warming, Homosexuality, Was Jesus Really Gods Son, Hurricanes, signs of the times, and the Rapture.

Every passing day I meet people here or on the internet who blame Bush for Global Warming and Hurricane Katrina. There you have three subjects rolled into one. 1) We all know that there is nothing you can do about global warming. I know this is where most of you will disagree with me, and that is fine. You see how it works. God Geared us all different. 2) Katrina was an ACT of God... I do not know anyone yet that can stop God. Sure the leeve's broke but that is because of the force and amount of water that hit them all at once. Last) We are living in the last days, and everything that Jesus said and the Apostle's said are coming to pass.

The way I see it is like this. You have different people working for the Lord. We all are not going to see things eye to eye all the time. But what makes it bad is when we are so closed minded to the other guys belief's and the way they are doing things. We simply can't be that way. BECAUSE AFTER ALL THAT IS GOD TELLING THAT PERSON TO DO IT THAT WAY, NOT THEM DOING IT THEIR WAY. GOD SAID, MY WAYS ARE NOT YOUR WAYS, MY THOUGHTS ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS.

THANK YOU ALL FOR ALL THE PRAYERS. I DID NOT KNOW MY WIFE DID THIS UNTIL TODAY. LOVE YOU ALL VERY MUCH. CLAIRVOYANT 1

Posted by: Clairvoyant 1 | Apr 17, 2006 9:44:58 AM

I find it interesting that the polls always target the leaders of evangelicalism and not those who are at ground level. I consider my an evangelical because of my theological beliefs and my passion for the kingdom of God. Neither Mr. Dobson nor Mr McLaren speak for me. I do not see a conflict in standing against abortion or being concerned about immigration. I do not want these people speaking for me. I can speak for myself. I also do not want a close connection with mr. Robertson at the momnet. But I will gather with them pray with them as I will many people who follow Jesus. The critical concern is not who speaks for us, but what is it we are speaking and doing and reaching?

Oh and Jeff, I feel for you man. My favorite food groups are salt, pizza and sugar. May the bland diet work out well.

Posted by: Kent | Apr 17, 2006 12:12:03 PM

It's interesting to me that this article has not drawn many comments from posters. It seems to make clear what has been discussed before on MMI, that words and phrases change meaning based on the perception of the culture that hears the words and phrases.

I agree with the three camps as the author describes. And since perception is reality for the hearer or observer, I am personally very happy to distance myself from the label "evangelical" or "fundamental" (and also from those individuals that have been representatives of these groups). I'm desirous of distancing myself because of the negative way these groups seem to be perceived within the culture that represents my mission field. To me, it seems silly to cling onto a label like fundamental or evangelical, if the term itself starts me off with a negative balance in my efforts to enter into a discussion with people far from God.

Wendi

Posted by: Wendi | Apr 18, 2006 1:22:57 AM

Who cares.

No... what I mean is... I am sick of being lumped into categories. Here's my beef. I'm pro-life... It affects and sometimes defines my voting patterns, but abortion is not my life-issue. The GOSPEL is!

And here's one. So many pro-life-ers are SO pro-death penalty. I don't even get that one. In the US we have the capability to put people away forever, and we choose to kill them instead. I'd rather they lived long enough to embrace Christ. Yes, the OT has a death penalty. I have my own peculiar belief that when Jesus "pardoned" the woman caught in adultery in John 8 that he was abolishing the death penalty.

My .02 anyway. And interestingly enough, for many of you, that view puts me soldily in the liberal camp, even though I'm pretty conservative in so many areas.

Stop labeling me. It doesn't work. The glue on the label irritates my skin and I just peel it off and throw it away!

Posted by: Peter Hamm | Apr 18, 2006 7:40:31 AM

I agree with you Peter, about the labels not really working or fitting very well the reality of who we are. But I feel there is some value to having a sense of how we’re perceived, the labels pop-culture and the media places on us. Whether or not the labels fit, they are out there and no amount of complaining will make the labelers stop labeling. Articles like this one from the NY Times helps us be “wise as serpents” in our efforts to engage missionally with the unchurched in our communities.

And I’m with you on the pro-life and pro-death penalty issue. To me it seems like being “pro” both is talking out of both sides of ones mouth. Doesn’t matter though. It it’s ever on the ballot again here in California, my husband and I will cancel out one another’s vote.

How about this . . . in sub-Saharan Africa more babies die every single day from starvation and the byproducts of the Aids/HIV crisis than die in a whole year in the US from abortion. Yet, until very recently (due largely to the efforts of RW, BH and a few other mega-church pastors) the American Evangelical church has been nearly silent compared to the work of Oprah, Bono and others from Hollywood. In our 21st century global context, shouldn’t my biblical commitment to pro-life extend beyond American political and geographical borders, especially when a crisis of this magnitude faces us?

Wendi

Posted by: Wendi | Apr 18, 2006 9:05:48 AM

Thank you Wendi and Peter. Whenever 'pro-life' issues come up, I cringe at the narrow scope we give to that handy-dandy catchphrase. Labels have their ups and downs I guess.
In certain circles, the last thing I want to do is call myself an evangelical. There will always be a reason to be ashamed of a label I carry (American, pro-life, pro-choice, white, evangelical, etc.)... Hopefully though, I will never be ashamed to be 'labeled' a Jesus-follower.

Posted by: Daniel | Apr 18, 2006 9:28:51 AM

I think the "modernist" view that Brian McLaren is advocating is just liberation theology repackaged in an evangelical context. The "emerging church" is simply liberal mainline protestantism all over again. Which considering how mainline demoninations are collapsing in Europe and Canada, is not that appealing.

Posted by: Sandy | Apr 25, 2006 11:44:49 PM

denominations (sorry)

Posted by: Sandy | Apr 25, 2006 11:46:03 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.