Am I Still an 'Evangelical'? Yes, but ...
Updated: Aug 13, 2022
This week, I have been busy at New Horizon in my first year as Chair. I have something of a ‘love hate’ relationship with big events like this. On one hand. It is wonderful to come together as a large group from across traditions and tribes to celebrate and to make connections that would not otherwise happen as well as the ability to bring speakers from outside our context. On the other, I fear the celebrity culture that often surrounds big platforms and I worry that the experience of high-quality sound, lights and music may breed dissatisfaction for some with their home churches. I hope my contribution as Chair will help the event stay on course to glorify God and serve His purposes. Please pray for me!
Another issue has occupied my thoughts around New Horizon 2022. I have long been an ardent supporter of the idea of gospel unity. It was a major theme in my PhD work and it has been a guiding principle in deciding which organisations I have worked and volunteered with. I have sought to be part of things that celebrate unity in Christ above tribalism and where there is a healthy diversity over secondary issues. In both my current job at Living Leadership and my voluntary work with the Centre for Christianity in Society I am eager to see networks develop with shared vision from across the ‘evangelical’ family.
The ’evangelical’ family. What is that? Well, put simply, evangelicals are people who shape their beliefs and lives around the gospel (the New Testament Greek word translated ‘gospel’ is euangelion). For those who are interested, I have written a little more about what that means in an article entitled What Is An Evangelical? Evangelicalism is a movement that started in the 18th century as a movement among Protestants placing a fresh emphasis on four principles identified by historian David Bebbington: the centrality of Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord; the authority of the Bible as the foundation for our faith; the need for a personal response of faith in Jesus Christ; and the call to serve God in the world including through evangelism. It has always been a diverse movement, crossing church traditions and theological and spiritual tribes, but these four principles have had remarkable power to forge unity in mission.
For many years, I have been happy to call myself an ‘evangelical’. I recognised the terms weaknesses: its tendency to get caught up with particular political visions in contexts like the USA and Northern Ireland and the fact that some self-confessed ‘evangelicals’ have departed from biblical orthodoxy on moral issues as our culture’s values have changed. Still, I haave believed the term to be useful and have sought ways to gather with others behind it. Over the years I have found that a tough line to hold. It has felt like Evangelicalism has been disintegrating into ‘Evangelicalisms’ (plural) and few people (if any!) are fighting to maintain the centre ground where all can meet. Even organisations that are supposed to be working for evangelical unity seem to have become distracted by other causes.
So, do I still think ‘evangelical’ is a useful term? Yes, I suppose so, but my confidence is declining. It still seems the best term to describe Christians who hold to the four distinctives identified above. I cannot think of a better alternative. But, its value is being weakened by three dynamics:
Increasing tribalism among evangelicals. By this I mean a tendency to focus time and energy in subgroupings within Evangelicalism which emphasise their distinctives on a par with or above the core evangelicals share. Evangelical unity does not mean merely holding to some shared beliefs, but speaking and acting as if those shared beliefs are greater than others.
Declinging commitment to biblical truth on moral issues. In some cases this results from a drift from biblical authority which means they no longer believe what Scripture teaches. In others, it arises from confusion over the nature of mission that breeds reluctance to speak clearly about sin and its consequences.
In both cases, I would argue that these people are no longer truly ‘evangelical’. Yet, so many people and organisations in each camp use ths label and so few people seem to be willing to fight for the term's historic understanding that I am unlikely to win that argument. In any case, I do not claim to be the guardian of the term or the final judge of what it means or whether it is useful.
So, the day may be coming when people like me will have to abandon the term ‘evangelical’. But I do not think that day is yet. In my Chair’s report to New Horizon tonight, I will describe New Horizon as ‘evangelical’ and I am still happy to call myself ‘evangelical’ (although I do so less freely than I once did). When the time comes, I suppose I will simply say I am Christian or orthodox or classically Protestant (although that last term is also horrendously misused in Northern Ireland). Above all, though, I long for the day when all such labels fall off and there is only Christ who is all and in all.