What is an evangelical? Tim Keller’s December 19, 2017, article in The New Yorker effectively explains what it means to be an evangelical—a term that is often misunderstood in our greater culture. Yet it’s a term that many are trying to define and even dismiss.
Type “evangelical demise” or a similar term into your Google search bar and you’ll find no shortage of articles: “The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” “Will Evangelicalism Survive Its Own Popularity?” “Can Evangelicalism Survive in the Context of Free Inquiry?” Indeed, critics appear obsessed with predicting the death of evangelicalism.
Yet what do critics, pollsters and evangelicals themselves mean by the term “evangelical”? Keller outlines the history of “little-e evangelicalism,” with its tenets and motivations, and “big-E Evangelicalism” in his provocatively titled article “Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore?”
Keller writes that “understanding the religious landscape requires discerning differences between the smaller, let’s call it ‘big-E Evangelicalism,’ which gets much media attention, and a much larger ‘little-e evangelicalism,’ which does not.”
By understanding what’s at the heart of evangelicalism, all of us may be able to see beyond the labels.
The History of Evangelicalism
Christian Evangelicalism, as a movement, began in the 18th century as a revival of piety and devotion to God. Adherents hold to the core convictions of the triune God, the Bible, faith, Jesus, Salvation, evangelism and discipleship.
Keller cites historian David Bebbington’s research that identifies four primary characteristics of evangelicalism:
- Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a lifelong 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
“Do the self-identified white ‘big-E Evangelicals’ of the pollsters hold to these beliefs?” writes Keller. “Recent studies indicate that many do not. In many parts of the country, Evangelicalism serves as the civil or folk religion accepted by default as part of one’s social and political identity. So, in many cases, it means that the political is more defining than theological beliefs, which has not been the case historically. And, because of the enormous amount of attention the media pays to the Evangelical vote, the term now has a decisively political meaning in popular usage.”
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SOURCE: Church Leaders, by Bob Ditmer