Various approaches have been taken in response to the challenge of defining evangelicalism. Most of these have focused upon identifying the distinctive beliefs of evangelicalism. An important example is that of The Barna Group, which, for polling purposes, has identified evangelicals using nine criteria of personal belief. “Bebbington’s quadrilateral”—biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, activism—is another well-known approach, highlighting four historical emphases of evangelical theology. This definition, first advanced by the historian David Bebbington, originally served a more descriptive purpose. However, it has often subsequently been used for more prescriptive ends.
Whether designed to clarify evangelicalism as an object of study or analysis, or to police its supposed boundaries, definitions of evangelicalism have generally tended to occlude the cultural, institutional, and sociological dimensions of the movement. This is unfortunate, as it is precisely these elements that are most salient in the experience of many within it. Evangelicalism is not There is a sort of evangelical folk religion, most of which is largely unauthorized by pastors or elders.typically experienced as a set of abstract and explicit doctrines or beliefs held by individuals, but more as a distinctive cultural environment within which such beliefs are inconsistently and idiosyncratically maintained. The official beliefs of evangelicalism exist alongside a host of other miscellaneous elements and the cross-pollination from the surrounding society, all sustained within local churches and a shifting constellation of denominations, movements, ministries, groups, and agencies.
Much that swims in the weird and wonderful (and sometimes not-so-wonderful) soup of evangelicalism was added quite independent of church leadership. There is a sort of evangelical folk religion, most of which is largely unauthorized by pastors or elders, a folk religion driven and populated by TV preachers, purity culture, uninformed theological speculations in democratic Bible studies, Chick tracts, evangelistic bumper stickers and T-shirts, Thomas Kinkade paintings, VeggieTales, Kirk Cameron movies, Amish romance novels, the Left Behind series, Focus on the Family literature, Christian bloggers, CCM, Christian dating guides, Answers in Genesis books, sappy mass-produced devotional literature, study Bibles for every conceivable niche market, and much else besides. Unsurprisingly, many presume that this all passed quality control and received the imprimatur of Evangelical Central Headquarters.
For a movement that has often promised those within it the pristine order and integrity of a single comprehensive “world-and-life view,” the reality on the ground of evangelicalism can be disorienting.
In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith argues for a movement from the category of “worldview” to that of the “social imaginary” (68). While the former category accents the cognitive and theorized dimensions of our Christian faith, the latter is founded upon the recognition that much of our Christian formation occurs on an affective and non-cognitive level. Our characters and minds are forged through bodily practices, institutions, liturgies, rituals, stories, icons, and the material culture that surround us. In our fixation upon the trickling down of culture from the beliefs in our minds we have frequently failed to appreciate the ways in which our thinking bubbles up from the world of our bodies, via our imaginations.
Through our unawareness of the immense significance of the affective and non-cognitive levels of Christian formation, we have encouraged the notion that pumping in more right teaching will serve as the solution for all problems. Yet such right teaching, even where accepted, often lacks the transformational impact anticipated for it, its effects distorted or dulled by the largely unacknowledged formative power of the surrounding evangelical culture.
Evangelicals have been at particular risk of sharply separating content from form and denigrating the latter. Our characteristic and laudable concern that the living heart of Christian faith not be neglected has often produced a wariness of those who emphasize the importance of “externals” such as liturgies, institutions, rituals, confessional documents, and cultural forms. Yet forms do not disappear. Where inattention has replaced a fixation upon external form, the result has frequently been an unchecked proliferation of unconsidered and damaging forms, forms whose unruly development has threatened to smother or misshape the heart of our Christian faith.
Evangelicalism’s innocence of or resistance to form has been a key factor in its development and one of the reasons for its many successes. Its characteristic fluidity rendered it more versatile, footloose, and adaptable than many other forms of Christianity, facilitating gospel outreach, missionary endeavour, movement into new contexts and less hospitable fields, and proactive adaptation to new cultural developments. It is also one reason why evangelicalism has widely come to find the core of its identity in the parachurch, rather than in more established ecclesiastical structures.
Where form has become a matter of theological ambivalence, it can become a continual focus of pragmatic concern. Evangelicalism has displayed an immense degree of innovation in the area of church structure for this reason, instrumentalizing ecclesiology for the sake of mission, producing a vast menagerie of ecclesiologies and modes of church: seeker-sensitive churches, purpose-driven churches, house churches, cell groups, megachurches, multi-site churches, Internet churches, pub churches, drive-in churches, etc.
This same protean nature is displayed in evangelicalism’s largely uncritical welcome and adoption of new technologies and cultural forms. Evangelical churches are often distinguished by such features as their use of contemporary musical styles, modes of dress, conspicuous use of state-of-the-art audio-visual technologies, their colloquial manner of speech, heavy online presence, and their ecclesiastical architecture that breaks with tradition to adopt the pattern of modern auditoriums. Evangelical identity is also widely expressed through the forms of a consumer society: through corporate models of Christian leadership, through the production, marketing, advertising, and selling of a Christianity that functions like a “brand” on everything from mints to keyrings. Few pause to question whether these forms of expression might be shaping us in unhealthy ways, assimilating us into culturally prevailing habits, dynamics, and ways of life and perception, all beneath the cover of a thin veneer of Christianity.
All of these elements play their part in establishing evangelicalism’s “social imaginary,” informing our affections, desires, and, through these, our minds and actions. This social imaginary may be ignored within the official definitions, but it is nonetheless powerfully constitutive of what evangelicalism is. It is this evangelicalism that many have found wanting and abandoned, not typically through a direct rejection of evangelicalism’s beliefs in the abstract, but on account of a deep distaste with their shape and outworking in the world created by an unruly social imaginary. Until evangelicalism develops a deep mindfulness about the factors and forces that create its social imaginary, the health and strength of the Christian faith at its heart will be in jeopardy.
At its best, evangelicalism has always preserved some sense of the inseparability of structure and freedom, of form and content. It has appreciated that the forms of the life of the Church are not merely utilitarian vehicles for delivering the content of the Christian message into people’s minds, but play a central and indispensable role in the process of Christian formation. Preaching, the public reading of Scripture, weekly assembly of the church, the celebration of the Supper, Baptism, creeds, confessions, liturgies, singing of psalms and hymns, the works of mercy, public prayer, church government, among other core Christian forms all shape us in non-cognitive and affective ways. As we maintain their necessity, centrality, and clarity in a mindful and reflective manner, ensuring that other practices don’t encroach upon or obscure them, but serve and support them, we will be equipped to think more critically about the forms of our life more generally, aspiring to a more edifying form of culture.
In recent years I have witnessed a renewed attention to liturgy, the sacraments, and other central forms of the Church’s life among many evangelicals. Many, dissatisfied with the shallow and distorting character of the amorphous and teeming reality of much evangelicalism are mining the rich seams of our evangelical and Christian history, discovering buried treasures and wisdom within them. Among this wisdom is the recognition that, treated in the right manner, the external forms of our faith need not distract from our core evangelical commitments but can serve and strengthen them, forming the people of God within them and establishing us in the skills with which we can improvise a Christian culture that is robust and deep. My hope is that, through a recovery of the importance of these formative “externals” of our culture, we will once more be able to cast our core evangelical and Christian convictions in the sharpest of reliefs, living out an evangelicalism in which our evangelical culture neither distracts nor detracts from our evangelical faith.
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