So what is an evangelical, and should we care?

Posted by on Nov 6, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

This is a lightly edited version of an article I published in Perth’s The Advocate, in 2012. It in turn was a more radically summarized version of a much longer article on the topic which I published in Churchman in Autumn 2008.

With around 2 billion people claiming allegiance to Christianity, it is not surprising to discover that it comes in a wide range of flavours. Those in the know point to the Great Schism of 1054 when the church divided into the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church. The latter divided again after the Protestant Reformation of 1517, which in time birthed more denominations than we can confidently count. A new turn was taken with the Azusa Street revival of 1906 which saw the advent of the Pentecostal movement.

Over the last century the branch of Christianity which operates under the broad title of evangelicalism has been the one to grow the most rapidly, David Barrett claiming that there are now over 600 million Christians (roughly 30%) who are best described by this label.

So what is an evangelical? In 1989 David Bebbington outlined what he considered to be the four distinguishing marks of the evangelical movement, writing “There are four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be termed crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.” As this description of the movement gained traction, it was common to hear people speak confidently of the “Bebbington Quadrilateral” as they tried to decide is someone was a worthy bearer of the name evangelical.

But change is afoot. Evangelicalism is in danger of becoming a hyphenated movement. Increasingly its adherents find it necessary to qualify what kind of evangelical they are. Some are conservative evangelicals, others postconservative evangelicals, yet others are post-evangelicals while some prefer to think of themselves as the younger evangelicals. The divides often stem from different understandings of Bebbington’s four marks, and while some may sigh at the emphasis on what divides us, it’s as well to know what the debate is about. So how are people speaking differently about conversion, witness, the Bible, and the Cross?


The nature of conversion has provoked much thought and controversy. The classical evangelical view of conversion stressed conversion as a crisis event in which the individual accepted Jesus as personal Saviour and Lord, an experience through which they were instantly justified, albeit that the journey of sanctification remained for the rest of their earthly pilgrimage. The stakes of conversion are staggeringly high, with one’s eternal destination hanging in the balance.

So strong has the emphasis on conversion been in evangelicalism that Donald Dayton suggests that it is a movement characterised by ‘convertive piety.’ What matters is that individuals are saved from their sin. Some are having second thoughts about this.

In 2004 Brian McLaren wrote of his growing unease with the limitations of this paradigm of conversion:

“I used to think that Jesus’ primary focus was on saving me as an individual and on savings other ‘me’s’ as individuals. For this reason I often spoke of Jesus as my ‘personal Savior,’ and I urged others to believe in Jesus in the same way. I still believe that Jesus is vitally interested in saving me and you by individually judging us, by forgiving us our wrongs, and teaching us to live in a better way. But I fear that for too many Christians, ‘personal salvation’ has become another personal consumer product… and Christianity has become its marketing program. If so, salvation is ‘all about me,’… I think we need another song.”

Dimensions of the new song include a holistic understanding of salvation. Instead of salvation from the world, we are also saved for the world, including the poor, the oppressed and the environment.

Witness or Activism

Bebbington argues that the assurance of salvation that flowed from evangelicalism’s stress on conversion, led to the active sharing of faith in the attempt to get others to experience a similar assurance of salvation. Evangelical churches were busy places, and being a church member occupied most of the time not spent at work.

Things have changed in recent years. Instead of lay people leading most church ministries, leadership by a pastor specializing in fields such as youth, children’s ministry – even administration, has now become common. Volunteers are more difficult to source in an environment where two incomes are needed to service the mortgage. Rather than get church members to work harder, it is not uncommon to encourage church members to give more so that additional staff can be employed. The professionalization of ministry rather than the priesthood of all believers, is now a common emphasis.

The Bible

While Bebbington is undoubtedly correct to suggest that evangelicals have historically placed a priority on the Bible and have viewed it as the authoritative source for theological affirmations, a marked shift in the attitude of evangelicals towards the Bible is underway. While much of this plays out in disputes between professional theologians, at the grass roots significant changes are easily spotted by those who have been around for more than a decade.

At a popular level, most evangelicals appear to be content with an emotional rather than a substantial commitment to scripture. Ben Witherington has accurately observed that three of the most successful and lauded evangelical communications, viz. The Passion of the Christ, the Left Behind book series, and Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life, are all deeply flawed from a Biblical perspective – but that little has been said of this. Small groups in most evangelical churches used to focus on Bible study, but it is now more common to have accountability and share groups. Where material is studied, it is more commonly the text of a popular evangelical author than a book of the Bible. David Wells has noted that in spite of highly emotional debates about Biblical inerrancy within evangelicalism, ‘while the nature of the Bible was being debated, the Bible itself was quietly falling into disuse in the church.’

The Cross

Increasingly evangelicals are asking if they need to broaden their understanding of the cross. Some have suggested that while Cowper’s ‘There is a fountain filled with blood’ might catch the imagination of Braveheart enthusiasts, it seems poorly suited to the sensibilities of the 21st century. There is slowly a shift away from a focus on the cross as a substitionary act of atonement to appease an offended Deity (or the cross as retributive justice), to an exploration of the cross as a vehicle of restorative justice. Rather than ask if the cross represents a victory over sin, death or the devil, growing numbers of evangelicals respond ‘all of the above, and more beside…’

“OK,” you sigh, “so we now think about conversion and witnessing and the Bible and the Cross a little differently, but does any of it really matter?”

It probably does! While it would be foolish to perpetually lock ourselves into an understanding of Christianity that characterized a now past era, it is as foolish to drift into new understandings of the faith without examining them thoughtfully. Bebbington was right. There are 4 niggling questions that Christians, especially those of the evangelical variety, need to keep coming back to. So what do we mean by conversion, and witness and activity, and the Bible and the Cross? I suspect that they are not just the concerns of yesterday…

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