What has Jimmy Carter to do with Pat Robertson? Both would name themselves evangelicals, but it would be a very broad church indeed that could accommodate them. David Bebbington came up with perhaps the most credible definition of the evangelical movement in his Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. Evangelicalism, according to Bebbington, has four characteristics: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism. Undoubtedly, many calling themselves evangelicals would still affirm these, but the range of meaning ascribed to each of these characteristics by those within the evangelical tradition has expanded dramatically, to the point where encompassing so much they explain very little.
Undoubtedly there are parts of the world where Bebbington’s four elements still call forth considerable agreement, but in the Anglo-American world it is increasingly the case that evangelicalism has become so diverse that the term has been rendered almost meaningless. Evangelicalism has always been a diverse movement but diversity isn’t endless. At some point diversity gives way to incoherence.
This lack of theological coherence is not the only challenge facing contemporary evangelicalism. A further problem is the extent to which evangelicalism has undermined the church. Historically, evangelicals worked across confessional boundaries, but the church, particularly the local church, remained central. Evangelical agencies were enablers, bringing churches together to work more effectively as the church.
Today, though, evangelical agencies – ‘ministries’ as they tend to be known these days – spring up like mushrooms and have, in many cases, replaced or usurped the role of the church, becoming alternative vehicles for activism of all kinds for those who are, perhaps, frustrated with the constraints of church. They enable us to connect, both physically and electronically, with a self-selecting group of like-minded people who share our beliefs and values. These ministries, though, lack the discipline of church and, worse still, they enable us to avoid the hard work of living with, growing with – and debating with – those who are different from us. I grew up in some very conservative Baptist and Brethren circles in Northern Ireland, but there was more diversity in a Mission Hall on a Sunday night than there is in many of the ministries that have arisen in the evangelical world.
Yet while these more theological matters may be of concern to those who consider themselves evangelical, the biggest challenge to evangelicalism is that the rest of the world doesn’t see the evangelical community in terms of its theology – or theologies – but in terms of its practices. Right now I live in Washington, DC. If I were to stop someone on the street tomorrow and ask for that person’s views on evangelicalism I’m quite confident that the answer would have little to do with the nature of biblical inspiration, or the atonement, or any of the other issues that exercise evangelicals.
For evangelicalism on this side of the Atlantic is, in my view, irredeemably tainted by its successive compromises with political power. Yes, there are many evangelicals, particularly in the African American tradition, who have not sold their souls, and others from more pietistic traditions who eschew politics entirely. But these are not the movements that have shaped how evangelicalism is now perceived. Instead, a politicised and compromised evangelicalism, sometimes of the left but predominantly of the right, has taken hold of the evangelical narrative and dragged it into the gutter.
You may say that this is not the case in Ireland or the UK but, like it or not, the perception of evangelicalism in the US will inevitably shape how it is seen elsewhere. We saw something of this in the last UK election with the constant questioning of Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron over his views on abortion and homosexuality. The media’s perception of Farron’s evangelicalism was shaped in part by their sense of evangelicalism as socially conservative and illiberal, a perception significantly shaped by their encounter with the dominant media narrative concerning American evangelicalism.
We may protest that evangelicalism has been misrepresented by some who take the name and that it has been misunderstood by others as a consequence, but we have not done enough to challenge or resist the Babylonian Captivity of evangelicalism at the hands of religious nationalism. So, for me, it’s time to say goodbye.
Our forebears survived in the absence of the evangelical label for 1700 years. It shouldn’t be difficult to survive without it again. In the meantime what shall we call ourselves instead? The New Testament doesn’t offer any single answer – the followers of Jesus are the saints, the elect, followers of the way, Christians, the believers and more besides. Perhaps we shouldn’t call ourselves anything, unless we are asked to give an account, and perhaps then our answer should be shaped by the needs and concerns of those asking the question. And if no-one is asking, perhaps we have more important matters to consider than what we call ourselves.
Alwyn Thomson is a member of Windsor Baptist Church, former Research Officer at ECONI and a serial expat currently living in the US.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.