Is Evangelicalism Dead? Does It Matter?

March 12, 2013 — 12 Comments
That's me, moderating the question and answer time with Rachel Held Evans and Roger Olson.

That’s me, moderating the question and answer time with Rachel Held Evans and Roger Olson.
Photo credit: Loren Kerns. See the original image.

Yesterday I had the honor of being part of a seminar called “Does Evangelicalism Have a Future?” put on by George Fox Evangelical Seminary as a part of their Ministry in Contemporary Culture series. I first proposed this seminar a year ago, for somewhat selfish reasons. I wanted to get two people that I greatly respect (Roger Olson and Rachel Held Evans) in a room together to hear them talk about a question that I’ve been struggling with for the past several years. In the marketing for the event I wrote,

In a time when “evangelical” has more of a political connotation than a convictional connotation, we need bright voices that can help sort through the noise and imagine a way forward for those who call themselves evangelical.

I still call myself evangelical, but find that I must often follow that with “but let me explain what I mean by that.” In the US, and likely elsewhere, the word “evangelical” has become synonymous with white-male-fundamentalist-Republican-Christian. Those of us who don’t fit that description often find ourselves using the evangelical moniker to our own detriment. It would be so easy to just stop using the word, but I’ve found that problematic as well.

I resonate with much of the work of Mark Noll and David Bebbington and their descriptions of historical evangelicalism. The “Bebbington Quadrilateral” is a good starting point for articulating what it is that evangelicals emphasize, though I am the first to admit that being an evangelical is much deeper and richer than those four points. Evangelicalism, broadly speaking, comprises much of my faith history, so I find it difficult to lay down that “label.”

Roger Olson did a great job of differentiating between evangelical movements and an evangelical ethos. In his remarks he said,

“Evangelical” is an ethos, not just a movement. Movements come and go, ethoses that gave them their identities and outlived them live on.

This is consistent with much of evangelicalism before WWII. The evangelical ethos popped up in the brothers Wesley, the Methodist church, Pentecostalism, there were even evangelical movements in Roman Catholicism. Yet after WWII, an evangelical movement rose up that eventually co-opted the term for good. Solidified in the National Association of Evangelicals with Billy Graham as its figurehead leader, the late-20th century evangelical movement subsumed the evangelical ethos in the popular lexicon. Now, when one speaks of “evangelical” it brings to mind this recent movement, not a broader ethos. This late evangelical movement, according to Olson, is dead. But perhaps the ethos lives on?

What does it matter, even if it does? For Rachel Held Evans, “evangelical” is a label which she (and many of her readers) find largely unhelpful because of its cultural baggage. So, they choose to not use the label and seem to have little problem casting it aside. That troubles me. If evangelicalism does not equal white-male-fundamentalist-Republican, and instead encompasses a history and sentiment broader than what it has come to mean in the last sixty years, isn’t it worth fighting for? Or maybe it’s too late to fight that fight?

Olson declared that even though the most recent evangelical movement (NAE/Billy Graham) is dead in terms of cohesiveness, it’s remnant has separated into three threads:

First, there are what I call the conservative, neo-fundamentalist evangelicals. They are represented by the Gospel Coalition and similar organizations such as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals that publishes Modern Reformation. Second, there are what I call the conservative but centrist, mediating evangelicals. They are represented by Mouw, George, Neff and Christianity Today. Finally, there are what I call the postconservative evangelicals. They are represented by McKnight and the Missio Alliance and magazines such as Sojourners and Relevant.

These three groups are well-represented in the blogosphere, the publishing world, and the conference circuit. Each is touting itself as the next future of evangelicalism–the next movement. I’ve been identifying myself within the third movement but have recently been more and more unsettled there. I’d like to believe that Olson is right, that there is an evangelical ethos that exists apart from embodiment within a movement, but I’m not sure sure. With Rachel, I’d find it easier to just stop using the word if it has too much baggage, but for me that is the height of consumerism–to throw something away when it no longer suits me. I’m not sure where that leaves me . . .

Anderson Campbell


  • Dan Stringer

    Evangelicalism doesn’t need to fit snugly to be alive and well. Divorcing “movement” from “ethos” requires a narrow, culture-bound understanding of the former (white, American, late 20th century) and a broader, inclusive definition of the latter (namely all the vibrant, diverse, global, Bebbington-Noll features extracted from a white/American/C20th context).

    Even if we use Olson’s 3 sub-streams represented by voices like Keller, Mouw and McKnight respectively, a huge overlap exists. For example, Keller frequently recommends Mouw’s work on culture/vocation, while Fuller Seminary is a significant sponsor and alma mater for many in MissioAlliance. All 3 have written for CT and published with Zondervan. Granted, the blogosphere gets ugly whenever we antagonistically focus on who/what we’re “not” (cherry picking sound bites from other camp’s worst moments), but this is hardly a seas-apart schism. It’s what evangelicals do. We actively critique, adapt, re-imagine and voice our ideas. We begin new projects we hope will make a difference.

    If “evangelical” is not still the best one-word descriptor of the kind of Christianity embodied by the likes of Keller, Mouw and McKnight (as well as organizations like InterVarsity, IJM and World Vision) on this continent, not to mention many other non-white expressions both locally and in the Global South, I’m not sure what is. To simply call it “Christianity” ignores the significance of RC & Orthodox traditions. To call it “Protestant” misses something too. We may not always like who we are or what our reputation has become in recent times, but we still need the e-word for now until something better sticks.

    • Anderson Campbell

      Great thoughts, Dan. I think you are spot on regarding the internal blurring of the three threads Olson pulled out of the dead NAE movement. However, “evangelical” still suffers from a PR problem. Those who are not evangelical reduce the complexities into a voting block. While the forces which animate evangelical sentiment may be alive and well, I’m not sure the word will ever be helpful again, at least externally. Thanks for your thoughts.

      • Dan Stringer

        Very true, Anderson. I totally hear you. It’s a loaded term for sure, but so is “Christian” (or Catholic, Mormon, Muslim etc). None of these labels poll very well among non-adherents. They all get externally stereotyped, oversimplified and misunderstood (except for Red Letter Christians of course :-).

        It also feels very evangelical to fret about PR and perception management. Perhaps it’s a habit we acquired during the political glory days. We have such an impoverished sense of tradition and (small c) catholicity that we’ve become more trend-dependent than other faith groups. Are Jesuits or Quakers this worried about their image?

        So I wonder if the issue of evangelicalism’s reputation is more of a discipleship/idolatry problem than a PR one. Better favorability numbers would be nice, but so would a unifying tradition (and a name for it) to keep us grounded. Maybe then we could embrace the best of our complex, vibrant and multifaceted heritage to break the cycle of reactionary, individualist, “chronological snobbery” as Lewis called it. And if this movement could be understood as something broader and deeper than the socio-cultural preferences of a single generation on a single continent, we’d probably be less concerned with test marketing it for our intended audience.

        Sorry for the long comments. Love your blog. All the best to you at George Fox Seminary, an important hub on the evangelical landscape.

  • Warren

    Andy, for me the question is about more than just the word. What I see is that the evangelical world is fragmenting into the 3 streams Roger mentioned (and perhaps more) and this fragmentation is real on the ground and catching people. Yes, there is overlap, but the voices you mentioned (Keller, Mouw, McKnight) are the moderate and reasonable voices. There are a lot out there that aren’t. in my local context, i find there is not a lot of middle ground; you are either in the neo-fundamentalist camp, (which in my area is coming to define the larger and bigger churches) or you are a liberal. (my apologies to liberals, but in the theological world I grew up in and still live ‘being liberal’ is about the worst thing you can be); there is not a lot of room to exist in the middle or on the boundaries (I would put myself between conservative-moderate and post-conservative).

    • Anderson Campbell

      In a lot of ways, being in the center is the most difficult. You get pulled by folks on both sides of you. Olson mentioned that one of the ways you know you are in the center is if you are taking hits from both sides. He also mentioned wanting to be off the left-right spectrum. I can resonate with that. The problem is that people who find comfort in that spectrum and its boxes are quick to put you right back on it. I suppose we all just need some thicker skin!

  • Pete Garcia

    I’ve been thinking about all this since the event and want to weigh in a bit. Don’t have many fully worked out thoughts, but I’ll throw in my two cents.

    1. As Rachel and Roger differ on the helpfulness/vitality of the term, we observe that Rachel–who I resonate with–is critical of and “outside” of the church, whereas Olson remains denominationally affiliated (whereas many Millennials, myself included, resist this) and a part of a large Christian institution. The generational difference between the two is important as well in this discussion. Olson is holding onto and fighting for something that many young Christians aren’t convinced is worth it.

    2. Olson didn’t really expand on this evangelical ethos. Namely, the relationship between the ethos of “biblicism” and the authority of the scriptures. This is important as the question of authority determines much of how we engage doctrine. Which brings me to the next point.

    3. What doctrines do his evangelical ethos imply? Doctrine is an increasingly uncomfortable and messy area for many of us (if I may project a bit), and Olson’s insistence upon orthodoxy is more of the same evangelical problem us questioners rub up against. What room is there within evangelicalism for a radical theology, for doctrinal–not just ecclesial–critique? 

    I think that many of the concerns of this conversation actually hinge upon biblical authority and biblicism. Even though I am myself “outside” of the church for now, I resonated with what Rachel said in evangelicalism being her mother tongue; this is the faith and expression and identity that has shaped and formed me. With that said, though, the name by which we call a transformative Christianity is less important to me than whether or not we are radically inclusive and critical of the certainties that hold us back from faith. 

    • Anderson Campbell

      Thanks Pete for your insights. I’d written up a long, point by point response but it bordered on another blog post itself. Suffice it to say that, as a member of Generation X, I stand between Olson and his Boomer friends on the one hand, and Evans and her Millenial friends on the other. I am invested in the critique of labels and structures, but cannot so quickly discard them and proclaim them dead because they become problematic. I have a lot of thoughts on what biblicism is and is not, thoughts rooted in an historical understanding of that term and of the evangelical ethos, and how it differs from the inerrantist’s biblioaltry. All these things I’d love to discuss, but perhaps over a beer.

      • Pete Garcia


  • Chris

    The worry over the label is silly to me. Words don’t have inherent metaphysical value; they’re defined by their use. The fact is that the movement in the late 20th century subsumed the earlier movement. We should accept that and move on. Who cares what we call it? Pursue what is true.

    • Anderson Campbell

      What is true and how do you pursue it?

      • Chris

        In this case, I meant it in the sense of “continue acting on what you believe.” To answer you more directly, though, I think the mere asking of this question, and the realization that we lack a sufficient answer, is part of the point.

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