The Evangelical Identity Crisis

A lot of pieces have been appearing recently — especially in the past year since the election of Donald Trump with the support of many evangelicals — discussing the crisis currently besetting evangelicalism. They usually reference American evangelicalism, but since there are 10 times as many people in the USA than in Canada and 5 times as many as in Britain, and since the largest denomination in the USA is the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, what happens in American evangelicalism has a knock-on effect on the rest of anglophone evangelicalism, even when we know there are definite differences amongst our different cultures and church traditions.

One problem is that people who aren’t evangelicals have no clue what an evangelical is to begin with. This is not necessarily a terrible thing; most people probably can’t tell the Greek Orthodox from the Coptic Orthodox, and some people can’t even tell Greek Orthodox priests from Muslims (true story). But as evangelicals in the USA have been making themselves a visible and felt presence in the public sphere for a while now, it’s a bit surprising that people still can’t tell them from other kinds of Christians.

For example, a somewhat amusing but ultimately false and absurd post at Salon says this:

Millions of evangelicals and other Christian fundamentalists believe that the Bible was dictated by God to men who acted essentially as human transcriptionists.

First of all, one of the defining features of American evangelicals is the fact that they are explicitly not fundamentalists. That’s part of the point of the evangelical movement in the USA since at least the 1970s — to be a countercultural, conservative, Protestant voice committed to Scripture, Gospel, and evangelism that is an alternative to the fundamentalists. Second, this is not how most evangelicals actually understand inspiration. Some do, I admit. But I don’t think most do. This is how Muslims think about the Qur’an, sure. But Christians aren’t Muslims.

One prominent scholar of Late Antiquity once referred in 2010 to people who believe in Intelligent Design as fundamentalists, which demonstrates a failure to understand either Intelligent Design (a movement that says science and theism are compatible, with an openness to evolution) or fundamentalism (a movement that requires the sort of biblical literalism that says that rejecting a literal six-day creation means rejecting the authority of Scripture).

So, part of the evangelical identity crisis lies in the fact that, well before Trumpism, people couldn’t actually tell who evangelicals were. As a result, anyone who thinks of his’erself as ‘evangelical’ and who pays attention to the misrepresentations of evangelicals on the Internet became a bit uncomfortable with the word. I remember, back in 2001, talking to a Canadian who was surprised when I talked about evangelical Anglicans, because he associated evangelicalism with certain varieties of (American) neo-conservative politics.

I’d say that American politics are probably the main source of contemporary evangelical angst, but before I get there, I’d like to say that we’ve been having an identity crisis longer than that. This is partly because evangelicalism, in whatever nation and whatever form, is a cross-denominational movement and often involves para-church organisations and inter-denominational events.

In his little book, The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Carl Trueman argues that the real problem facing evangelicals is that there is no such thing as an evangelical. He, a Presbyterian of confessional cast, recalls being seated at the ‘evangelical’ table at a conference and found that he had very little with the others at his table, who included an Open Theist. He looked to another table and realised he had more in common with the Dominican Roman Catholics in the room than his fellow evangelicals.

Indeed, the concept of the evangelical is so loose that in Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, Bradley Nassif is able to argue that the two are compatible due to using the common definition of evangelical as having four components:

  • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus
  • Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
  • 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 as making possible the redemption of humanity

But, of course, for most Orthodox, to cite the title of a different book, Evangelical Is not Enough.

So, not only do evangelicals get confused with other groups that they are not, they also can’t even agree amongst themselves what they are. But whatever they are, it originally was rooted in particular Christian beliefs and a certain view of the Christian life rooted in Scripture and the Cross.

But politics has muddied the waters. Surveys now show that a lot of people who, if you quizzed them on their beliefs, would qualify as evangelical, do not use the word. As well, there are people who would use the word of themselves if it had no political baggage. Others wouldn’t. That, I think, was a recent Pew survey? Another survey revealed that amongst self-identified evangelicals, regular churchgoers were less likely to vote for Trump than non-churchgoing evangelicals.

Wait a second.

Evangelicals who don’t go to church?

In my mind, evangelicals are a committed brand of conservative Protestant, part of whose personal piety is regular church attendance, along with daily prayer and Bible reading. Indeed, not just weekly church attendance on Sunday, but a mid-week Bible study is a typically evangelical event.

So, not only do we have an inability on the part of non-evangelicals to tell them apart from others, an inability amongst so-called ‘evangelicals’ to define what they are, we also have people who identify as ‘evangelical’ who are not even active Christians.

Of course, what matters is not what labels we use. I still think of myself as an evangelical — not just those four distinctives but also a belief in robust preaching and rich theological reflection being part of my vision of evangelicalism. But it is clear that, because of developments in the culture of the USA, the term’s usefulness is running out.

What matters, then, is the commitment of Christians of any denomination — Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox — to the Gospel of Christ Crucified and Risen, to Scripture, to the encounter with God, to making more disciples, to living holy lives, to seeing a world transformed by the fire of the Holy Spirit. This can happen, and we don’t need the word evangelical to do it.

Should people like me give up on it, then?

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The difficulty of the ‘high-church’ evangelical

I write this as one raised within the evangelical, ‘charismatic’ wing of Anglicanism who treasures the Prayer Book and the theology it and the 39 Articles espouse yet who finds himself at worshipping with Presbyterians at present.

I know of another evangelical Anglican, raised low-church evangelical, who attends one of the highest Anglo-Catholic churches I know of, and who sometimes wonders if he should leave — even mentioning a Baptist church in his neighbourhood as a possible destination!

What we two represent are the result of the tough choice that the liturgically-minded evangelical must face. I, personally, am more attuned to liturgical worship as the space where I can set aside my wandering thoughts and focus on worship of God and enter into His presence. However, I am also powerfully, inescapably, at times vehemently, attached to orthodox, biblical, ‘evangelical’ Christian teaching in line with the historic creeds as well as the Reformation principle of justification by faith.

What this means is that here, in Edinburgh, I have to make a choice. Worship in a way that I think brings great glory to God and where I am at my most natural in my response to His unchanging glory, or hear sermons where the Gospel is preached and orthodox doctrine clearly and unashamedly espoused and expounded.

I have chosen the latter, and chosen it outside of Anglicanism (there is one Anglican church here that might do the preaching [orthodox theology, but rumour has it shallow teaching] but misses the liturgy; it is easier for me to worship with non-Anglicans than Anglicans who don’t act Anglican). I use the BCP in my own private worship and sometimes turn up at Anglican churches for weekday services as well as my local Orthodox Church.

Other people I know choose the former; they worship with beauty and elegance and power. But they also read the Scriptures on their own and gather with Christians in the week. The person I mentioned above worships with the music of Palestrina and reads the books of J I Packer.

Why do we have to make this choice? I do not wish to abandon my evangelical theology and commitment to mission when I settle on a church home. Why must I abandon my love of liturgy that encapsulates that theology in ritual action and that ties me to a tradition over  a millennium long?

What times we live in!

The Evangelical Meaning of High Church Worship

A church I know that made the transition from ‘High Church’ to ‘Low Church’ removed the statue of its patronal saint from the sanctuary into the vestry. This move was made on the grounds that, ‘This an evangelical church, not an Anglo-Catholic Church.’ The same minister, who had worn a cope in the past, refused to wear one on a later occasion on the grounds that you don’t wear High Church Vestments in an evangelical church.

The following has been floating around in my head for a while, but I feel it is appropriate to write now, since I was at the Duomo in Milan for Morning Prayer this morning. (I didn’t stick around for Eucharist because I felt uncomfortable with the guards staring down anyone who didn’t speak Italian.)

By evangelical, I mean Gospelly. Gospel-focused. Something or someone focussed on the Incarnation of God as a man and His death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again in glory for the salvation of the human race, with a strong emphasis on Christ’s atoning death. Someone evangelical has a very high regard for Scripture as the revelation of God and our way of learning about Jesus and his life on earth. Evangelicals believe in the saving power of Jesus Christ and his Gospel, available to those who believe.

By what follows, I don’t wish to minimise the differences between High and Low Churchmanship. Nor do I wish to downplay the worthiness of Low Church worship — I grew up Low Church, worshipped at my dad’s Low Church parish just recently, and worship with the Free Church of Scotland.

I hope, rather, to help Low Church Evangelicals to be more comfortable with their High Church siblings, and for High Church worshippers to realise the levels of Truth and Gospel witness found in their rituals — these rituals ought not to be dead, for in them is contained a witness to the glorious Truth of God made Man for our salvation.

Genuflection & the Sign of the Cross When you join your High Church friends on a Sunday morning, you may notice that many of them genuflect before entering the pew, and that many also make the sign of the cross. This is not mere superstitious nonsense, a hangover from those dark days of Roman Christianity.

Look to the front of the church. What stands on the Holy Table or hangs from the ceiling or is mounted on the back wall (or all three)? A cross or a crucifix. Why genuflect to a cross made of brass or wood? Is not the Lord Jesus risen and ascended to heaven? Yes, He is. And, ascended to glory, He is now everywhere, for heaven has not a fixed location (despite silliness from J S Spong). Yet you cannot worship Christ who died for you everywhere unless you worship Him somewhere.

In kneeling briefly before being seated in the pew, the worshipper acknowledges his or her debt to the One who died on the historical cross on a hill far away. He or she worships in his or her spirit, using the body and the physical space to honour the invisible God. It is a spiritual act of worship.

The same, needless to say, goes for making the sign of the cross, an act I am much in favour of (see this post and this post).

Regular, old kneeling If a person of particular outward piety, your High Church friend will probably proceed to kneel and pray for a bit. It used to be the case that most, if not all, western Christians knelt to pray. Most have a tendency to sit these days. Kneeling is a physical act of submission and humility. No matter how intimate we get with God — and He does call us friends and we are called his Bride — He is still God; still holy; still other; still wholly other; still almighty; still King.

We are to humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord. It is His will to lift us up. When we present our prayers and petitions unto the Most High, is there any posture more fitting than that of kneeling?

Standing There is always standing, of course. This is the first ritual act the whole congregation performs. As the clergy, assistants, and choir enter, everyone stands up. The cross, that great symbol of our salvation and the very reason we are present at church, goes before them. Out of honour to this cross, we stand. Out of respect for the clergy who have a duty and role to teach us and instruct us in the Faith and to lead us in worship and to draw us near to God through the sacraments, we stand — we stand even though so many, high and low alike, fail at most or all of the above often or sometimes.

And so they process in, the choir singing something, hopefully in English. Preferably, in my opinion, a congregational hymn. But maybe not. Maybe in Latin, even.

Things are just beginning. Stay tuned for more …