The word “evangelical” seems to have been co-opted and caricatured to the point where it’s become meaningless, if not outright detrimental. My coconspirators at Think Theology and I meet monthly via Zoom, and we’ve had an ongoing debate over it’s continued usefulness.
Doctrinal tongue planted firmly in cheek, one of us wondered aloud, “Can ‘evangelical’ be saved?”
Perhaps it’s time – we sighed in weary resignation – to dump the term altogether. It’s been rendered obsolete. Irredeemable. Beyond hope. Deep-six that sucker. Ghost the term.
I chafe at the idea that media caricatures and post-evangelical podcasters can get away with misrepresenting and vilifying evangelicals. I get far more upset when some of our evangelical kin – it’s a big tent containing a lot of denominational groupings and sub-groupings – says or does stupid stuff in the name of evangelicalism.
(Gah! You’re not helping!)
And therein lies one of our biggest challenges: recognizing the difference between evangelicalism as a theological framework versus evangelicalism as a cultural subset that appears – frankly – more like old-fashioned Fightin’ Fundies.
So, at it’s theological core, just what is evangelicalism?
The graphic pictured above is a good summary. I like providing solid explanations in a visual arts medium. At the same time, it’s full of a lot of insider-jargon that would take time to unpack. A more basic introduction: start with the four key descriptors of evangelicalism as compiled by David Bebbington, in what’s become known as the Bebbington Quadrilateral. There’s a range of opinion and nuances under each of these four items, but as a broad description, it works:
Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross making salvation possible
Conversionism: the belief that each person must choose to follow Jesus (oldskewl: “born again”)
Activism: the gospel is a “marketplace faith” and societal impact is the fruit (missions, ministry among the poor and marginalized)
Put into your own words as much as possible; no need to sound like an encyclopedial parrot. For starters, you don’t have to call it a quadrilateral or provide a biographical sketch of David Bebbington. Just sum up Bebbington’s Quad in your own personal-speak:
The Bible is a Big Deal. When its teachings and my life don’t match up, guess who needs to change?
Jesus was crucified so we can have life. Yes, He loves us so much that He voluntarily went to that extreme.
Nobody is “born” a Christian. You have to make a choice to surrender to Jesus. And keep surrendering (aka “discipleship”).
Faith in Jesus is a private decision that is expressed in the public square. By serving, not by being obnoxious.
However you decide to put it into words, I think it’s time for those of us who are evangelical to stop playing possum when people misrepresent who we are and what we believe. So when you hear someone make a comment about “typical evangelicals,” and you suspect they don’t know what the term means, why not invite them into a conversation about it? Offer to pay for their coffee.
“If someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear (1 Peter 3:15 NLT).”
Hindsight is 20/20 Update
Upon further reflection, I had an epiphany of sorts — Don’t bothering defending “evangelical” – just share your version of the Quad to explain what you believe. No label to defend. No emotionally-charged caricature to diffuse. When Jesus sent His disciples out to share the good news of the Kingdom, He gave them an admonition that applies perfectly to us today.
“Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16 NLT).”