Evangelicalism – social movement or not?

Adrian Warnock has put up a blog post on “What is an Evangelical” which follows on from his post a few days ago entitled “What is a Christian?“. Methodist minister Dave Warnock (who isn’t related to the former blogger) who has regularly debated with Adrian on a range of issues has posted a response to the “What is a Christian?” post.

Adrian’s main aim is to seek to narrow the definition of Evangelical by moving away from definitions linked to it being a broad social movement and talking about it being a way of thinking and acting which has 6 discernible features:

1. A literal (where appropriate) approach to the whole Bible as the sole source of authority in the believer’s life (=  ”Biblicism” or “Sola Sciptura,” which means “Only Scripture”)

2. A strong focus on personal response of faith to the gospel (= Conversionism and Sola Fide, which means “Faith Alone”)

3. Activity to promote the conversion of others. (=Activism)

4. A focus on the cross of Jesus as the only means of salvation.  (=Crucicentrism and Sola Christa, which means “Only Christ”)

5. Grace alone (=Sola Gratia)

6. To God alone belongs glory.  (=Soli deo gloria)

Within his post he seems particularly keen to draw the line between “evangelicals” and “progressives” who may seek to retain association with Evangelicalism whilst having moved away from their “traditional” roots and those with a more high-church theology who may wish to identify as Evangelicals.

Whilst not a Patheos Blogger, I would regard myself as coming within the neo-liberal or progressive category and so will give my own view, towards the end of this post, regarding whether I would resent a narrow definition which would seek to exclude me from his definition of Evangelical.

Before I do that though I want to outline what I believe Evangelicalism to be.

To establish what is meant by an Evangelical, as Adrian did I begin by looking at David Bebbington’s work, which is widely recognised as yielding the ‘standard’ definition.[1] His historical study on Evangelicalism in Modern Britain  identifies four specific aspects of Evangelicalism: conversionism, activism, Biblicism and crucicentrism.[2]

Bebbington argues that the emphasis placed on them has changed over time and differs between strands of Evangelicals. Moreover, the way in which they are expressed differs according to where and when one is examining them; such differences of expression are linked to the influence of wider environmental and cultural factors.

Following on from Bebbington’s research it is useful to look at other Sociological studies. Rob Warner and Mathew Guest have both produced studies which have looked at the contemporary state of Evangelicalism in the UK. Warner did this, primarily, by tracing the development of the Evangelical Alliance and its influence between 1966 and 2001. He also conducted two case studies; one of Spring Harvest (a Christian festival), and the other of the Alpha Course. He sought to assess how successful the Evangelical tradition was at end of the last century, and how it might move forward into the twenty-first century.

Guest’s research was concerned with how individuals in Evangelical congregations relate a range of cultural and social forces to their individual and collective identities. Guest focused his research on one church that had two types of congregation associated with it; one was engaged in mainstream church, and the other was an alternative worship group.

Despite their different emphases, these two studies complement one another and reinforce several points about Evangelicalism at the beginning of the twenty-first century in the UK. The first, to which Brasher refers in her study of Fundamentalism in the US, is that Evangelicalism is both a tradition and a movement. As a theological tradition, it has the central tenants which Bebbington described, and can thus be used as a unifying term. However, it can, despite what Adrian would argue, also be regarded as a movement because it has experienced historical waves and sometimes conflicting agendas. Secondly, there is a diversity of thought in Evangelicalism, which is increasingly being highlighted by differences between the traditional (conservative) wing, the ‘entrepreneurs’ (as Warner classes them) who are often associated with broad Evangelicalism, and the progressive Evangelicals who are often associated with the Emerging Church movement and post-Evangelicalism. Within his critique Adrian clearly seeks to exclude the progressives but whilst there is some implicit critique and criticism of the ‘entrepreneurs’ it is not clear whether they would fall within or beyond his definition.

These theorists and others have identified the way that Evangelical churches are split between those more closely aligned with traditional denominations, and those which associated with ‘new church’ streams. Joseph Tamney’s study of five congregations included two which illustrate this division. Both were conservative Evangelical churches, but one was more focused on Spirit, and the other on Truth. The Spirit-based church was charismatic in nature, and had a restorationist theology, reflecting that of many of the ‘new churches’. The ‘Truth church’ was more Calvinist in its theology and solemn in character, with a strong institutional and denominational outlook.[3]  That is not to say that denominational churches are not also charismatic; indeed, many which are part of the established denominations do use charismatic practices, but it is more often a prominent part of the ‘new churches’. Adrian seeks to get around this issue by talking about people having two loyalties, a denominational loyalty and an Evangelical loyalty. Whilst I would argue this is true to some extent I think the loyalties go beyond this and reflect why there was a trend at one time to talk about ‘the tribes of Evangelicalism’. This to me would suggest the argument that Evangelicalism is a social movement continues to hold currency even if the progressives are excluded from the definition.

Moving beyond the debate as to whether Evangelicalism can be regarded as a social movement or not and on to the 6 features which Adrian identifies as being the test of Evangelical orthodoxy. They reflect in many ways the basis of faith statements which can be found amongst a range of Evangelical organisations who seek to clarify what they regard Evangelicalism to be:

Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith

UCCF statement of Faith

The Lausanne Covenant

The emphasis that different Evangelicals tend to put on each element of the basis of their beliefs does differ between individuals and churches and this is what gives us the diversity previously referred to. Adrian’s attempt to narrow the definition would still present that problem and so there may still be Evangelicals who he felt he was talking past.
That said the essential question he is seeking to raise is important. Can progressives who have as much if not more in common with “mainstream” Christians as they do with Evangelicals still describe themselves as Evangelical? Or should they give up and leave the label and leave it as a marker of identity for a narrower group of people?
It is a question I have wrestled with to some extent myself over the years as regular readers will be aware. (Cue those who have on each occasion said that we need to move beyond the labels and stick with Christian only as an identifier).
My argument is that as a progressive I still have much in common with ‘traditional’ Evangelicals even though they would not recognise my Christian beliefs as Evangelical and I value much of the cultural heritage which I have in common with them.
Each of the six headings which Warnock identifies is important to me, but I would differ with him on some of the definitions attached and would also sometimes be using a different set of language when talking about these things. My emphasis on the order of importance of each of these would also be highly likely to differ from his. Thus, even using this list we would be likely to be talking across each other.
So should I just walk away from the term Evangelical and would I resent it if Adrian were able to make me do so? The answer is yes I would resent it. I am an Evangelical Christian by heritage and many of my current beliefs still reflect this. The term Progressive Evangelical is an identity marker for me which is important. The difference between my beliefs and other “mainstream” Christians may be lesser than the difference between myself and many traditional or conservative Evangelicals but I still believe in and my life is influenced by the importance of much of what Adrian is talking about.
Additionally if progressives give up the term Evangelical and leave it to those who wish to apply it to a narrower group of people then it becomes more likely to be applied in a way which is political. I refer here to a particular type of identity politics rather than party politics because I agree with what Adrian says about the inaccuracy of the view that Evangelical automatically relates to particular political perspectives, particularly within the UK.

[1] Guest, M, Evangelical Identity and Contemporary Culture A Congregational Study in Innovation, Milton Keynes, Paternoster, (2007), Warner (2007and Jamieson, A, A Churchless Faith. Faith Journeys Beyond the Churches, London, SPCK, (2003) amongst others use this definition as the basis for defining Evangelicalism within their work.

 [2]Bebbington, D, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730’s to the 1980’s, London, Routledge, (1999).

[3]Tamney, J, The Resilience of Conservative Religion, The Case of Popular, Protestant Congregations, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, (2002).




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