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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Evangelical?

The title is tossed about loosely at conferences. It is profoundly present during national elections. How will the 'evangelical' vote affect the outcome? No matter what we may think of the term 'evangelical' it is married to Christian history. But there remain problems with its modern face.

Christian faith is often bound up with evangelicalism. This is not an argument for 'evangelical' religion. But after spending over half of my life in 'evangelical' churches or para-church ministries, I have made some observations.  

Evangelical believers are supposedly a significant % of the United States population. That means that walking down the street, many faces you see may be evangelical. If that is true, there are some things you might look for in an evangelical.

First, evangelicals are theologically conservative. Not necessarily orthodox, they look to the Bible for their inspiration, and want to obey its moral law. The modern evangelical movement began in the late 1940's as thinking Christians pulled away from fundamentalism and liberalism to form a 'neo-evangelical' movement. They conceived of salvation as a one-time experience that changes you for the rest of your life. To be an evangelical means to be called out, to be selected as one of God's family, in a dramatically spiritual way. The balance of an evangelical's life must be spent in telling others who are obviously not 'of the way' about Christ. (John the Baptist, perhaps the first evangelical, called for repentance before the coming son of God, Jesus.)

Evangelicals can be annoying to Christians who see Christ differently. The modern evangelical movement is known for its aggressive marketing techniques. "Jesus is the reason for the season" replaces "happy holidays" to accentuate a difference of perspective. The point is, everything revolves around the gospel message, but in the process the message is submerged in what has been called a "whatever works, try it" mentality. Jesus deserves better.

Second, evangelicals are usually socially and politically conservative. Due in large part to their moral convictions rising out of regular Bible study in church and at home, evangelicals come quickly to support candidates who 'toe the line' in areas like abortion, freedom to choose private or home school over public education, and trickle-down economics, to name a few. There are good things advocated by evangelical leaders, who over the last generation have become a presence through publishing, broadcasting, and cinema. Weaknesses, including commercialized worship and shallow aesthetics, in my observation, are best avoided. Jesus deserves better.

Third, to be evangelical means to be counter-cultural. I have attended prayer meetings where God is addressed in intimate language, where spiritual unction is at work, and lives are improved. I have attended other events where a sort of 'ghetto' mentality exists. The evangelical 'ghetto,' a by-product of the separated life concept, is one of the movement's greatest failings. In the 'ghetto' I can retreat from engaging the culture. The result is often cultural poverty and intellectual dullness. Jesus deserves better.

There are people on the fringe of the evangelical movement, like myself, who sincerely desire a spiritual experience for all humanity that results in true faith in Christ. We are careful to avoid the easy  slogans that offend outsiders. We may attend churches where the worship is more formal, the preaching more thoughtful, the fellowship more outward, the engagement with beauty and the arts more present. 

What is 'evangelical'? At its best it is a return to the religion of the mind and heart engaged in a dialogue with the world. It is the religion of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and C. S. Lewis to name a few. When the Christian community departs from its moorings in order to 'reach more people with the gospel' while leaving matters of the mind to the academy, we are in a post-evangelical climate. I don't know about you, but in the current climate, I would rather not be bound to a name that implies a departure from historically true Christian faith. Jesus deserves better.

Terry Yount

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