My roommate Jeremy knows how I love to bash on evangelicalism, perhaps throwing the word around more loosely than I should in order to land a critical remark on American Christianity. In my defense, the evangelical landscape has become little more than a group of far-right, über rich, Trump-kissing white people patting themselves on the back. They may even throw in a Bible verse!
However, today’s iteration of the Christian sect was built on legitimate grounds which wanted to serve God and people, and resist a swelling tide of secular intellectualism which posed a legitimate threat to families, individuals, and the moral environment of America.
I look back on my own very-evangelical upbringing with fondness and fun. I was in an energetic youth group which would regularly go to conferences when we weren’t destroying our church building playing games. It’s easy to look back now and point fingers and nitpick everything we could have done better back then.
We shouldn’t have made such a big deal about Christian media, music, and movies.
We should have engaged with the rest of culture.
We shouldn’t have created purity culture.
It’s easy to forget how much fun us teenagers had dancing around to now-cheesy worship songs by David Crowder or Delirious?. We have grown to poke holes in a lot of this culture which was legitimately beneficial for many people from the 80’s to early 00’s. I think the reason for this is, it is easy to forget that at that time, there were no ‘cool’ Christians. So when TobyMac starts rapping verses that are safe to listen to around our parents and pastors, and youth group becomes a ‘cool’ place to invite your friends, it was a monumental shift in how church could be done.
Looking back on those days from our ultra-woke state in 2019, it’s easy to see these as thinly veiled gimmicks, forgetting that at the time, this way of doing church was novel and inviting. The purpose was not to perform a classic bait-and-switch, duping unsuspecting teens into listening to a gospel message for 20 minutes; the purpose was to think outside the box, try new things, and make church an appealing place where truth could also be shared.
The term ‘evangelical’ in itself has no political shades — at least, it didn’t until the most recent election. It was founded on four principles:
- Having a conversion experience
- The elevation of Scripture as the ultimate authority on life and belief
- A focus on Jesus & His atoning death
- Activism; participating in social and missional activities
As you can see, none of these are political, nor do they explicitly spell out historically evangelical attributes such as the Moral Majority or the conservative-leaning health and wealth preachers, much less…televangelists.
However, one word which nicely sums up most aspects of evangelicalism, which was not true of past expressions of Christianity, but flourished in America is entrepreneurial.
Every culture influences the people and religions which occur within its walls, and American capitalism is no different. With a country so deeply rooted in Christianity (referring to the Puritans, not the framers of the Constitution), it makes sense that both capitalism and Christianity would grow together like twin vines.
And that they did, especially after World War 2. Not only did church planting explode, but so did creative new ways to draw outsiders into the fold: para-church organizations. If you think about it, the church was the body responsible for evangelism, worship, discipleship, and all other aspects of Christian life until less than 100 years ago. Our enterprising new country opened doors for Christians to get more creative in how they lived out their faith.
Now, several decades later, we can more easily look back and see things which were beneficial and things that were not. The most obvious, to me anyway, would be the marriage of the church to profitable ministries which can deceive people into giving their money. What better soil to plant a for-profit entity disguised as a Christian organization than the capitalistic economy of the United States — especially given her Christian upbringing?
My point is, evangelicalism is suffering. Today it looks little like the things Jesus ever stood for (humility, poorness of spirit, generosity, inclusion…), and seems to have more political breezes than spiritual.
But it wasn’t always like this. Its roots began earnestly and with the intention of reaching the lost, loving the neighbor, deepening the biblical knowledge of Christians, and serving the needy. Is it too late to reverse the trend and redeem the term ‘evangelical’?
I don’t know.
I’m not aware enough of today’s culture, nor am I smart enough to predict trends to say. What I do know is that I (and many others) have distanced ourselves from the term for good reason. Unless there is a dramatic shift in the perception and meaning of ‘evangelical,’ I am fine leaving the term in the past. It is barely 200 years old, so it may have run its course. It had a good run and did a lot of good, but perhaps the best of these days are in the past.
Killing a term like this shouldn’t be a scary thing, but it should leave Christians excited for the future of the Church, as well as challenge us to build something bigger and better in its place.