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 . . .