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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  1. Well put. I think the benefit of Smith’s work is that it makes us mindful of our cultural patterns and their influence on us. What I worry about in his call to move away from worldview thinking is two-fold: 1. I don’t think Evangelicals really are as doctrine or worldview aware as he makes out. There’s a lot of ignorance and fuzzy thinking in the ranks. And 2. Smith emphasizes competing pre-cognitive social imaginaries to such a degree that one wonders what use apologetics is, what use preaching is, what use theological training is. We just need the right liturgical praxis and our imaginations will fall into line. He’s denied this reading on his blog, but it’s awfully hard to read him otherwise. So I appreciate your both/an emphasis (and emphasis that he claims to share).

    1. Thanks, Ted.

      As the article above should make clear, I have considerable appreciation for and agreement with Smith’s position. One thing that does make me hesitate—and something that I want to highlight as a necessary qualification of my own position above—is the way in which he can appear to suggest that the practices of the Christian Church can readily conscript the imagination apart from extensive liturgical catechesis.

      Bringing his recent work on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age into closer dialogue with his Cultural Liturgies project would be helpful here. Even when we return to traditional liturgy, we experience it as subjects of a secular age, which makes it hard for us to perceive and experience the liturgy as a common and collective act (I discussed some of these problems in conversation with Jake Meador here). We don’t have the sense of the permeability of times, events, and persons to each other, which makes it difficult for us to grasp the typology inherent in the Scripture and the sacraments. Liturgy can also be disembedded, which means that we experience it as a sort of aesthetic spectacle.

      We face unique challenges in advocating for a formative liturgy in the contemporary context. The worship of the early Church occurred in a context where the world was naturally perceived very differently. Animal sacrifice still made intuitive sense, elements like blood and water were charged with meaning, identities were porous, the modern individual did not yet exist, stories echoed and inhabited other stories, time wasn’t purely linear and space wasn’t a hollow realm, etc. Much of this is very alien to us, yet it would appear that it is part of the warp and woof of the New Testament, the logic of the gospel, and of the practice of the sacraments, which derive a lot of their symbolic power from such dynamics. This is why the challenge of liturgical catechesis is most keen in our age and appeals to the formative effect of liturgy, right and important though I believe them to be, can only ever be part of the story.

    2. 1. Lots of people are in evangelicalism purely for the culture as a form of secular culture: they grew up with Veggie Tales and such and they don’t want to leave their community. These people can be utterly shocked and dismayed when the people around them rally around a strong statement of Christian doctrine or moral principle.

      2. Respectfully, I honestly don’t think Smith can be read as saying the spoken or written world are dispensable. They just aren’t nearly enough on their own. But Alastair’s point is a good one: liturgy on its own, without an integration with explicit teaching, is not enough either.

  2. You’ll notice, though, that the new interest in liturgy has come largely from the laity, not from church leaders. Yes, it’s been encouraged and enabled by a number of academics, but so far as I know, it’s not coming from the International Mission Board, the Southern Baptist Convention, or the General Assembly of the Assemblies of God. Liturgical Evangelicalism is a populist movement, too.

    As you point out, Evangelicalism in America has always been populist. In fact, historically, Christianity has always had a strong populist element, which is frequently in tension with whatever hierarchy theoretically directs it. (Medieval Catholicism and English Puritanism are two good examples, I think.) Personally, I am an elitist by nature, so I find populism distasteful. Yet, Scripture warns me that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. Certainly a healthy critique of populist Evangelicalism is necessary, especially when populism enables bad theology and spiritually irresponsible behavior. However, it is exactly this populist element (from Veggie Tales to Liturgical Baptists) that marks Evangelicalism a living, breathing culture. A culture is like a language: if the people are not shaping it in their everyday use of it, then it’s dead. Language and culture can be enriched or impoverished by popular practice (and both are usually happening at once), but nothing kills it faster than top-down attempts to limit and control it.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Steve. I think that we should be careful not to conflate a renewed interest in the notion of a ‘liturgical evangelicalism’ with its actual practice. Although one might argue that the former is a populist movement, the latter is less clearly so.

      I think that, underlying many of these debates, we are dealing with a breach—an unnecessary breach—within our ecclesiologies, between more institutional ‘priestly’ forms of church and the more ‘prophetic’ model that evangelicalism champions. We are also dealing with a cultural and aesthetic breach—also unnecessary—between ‘elitist’ and ‘popular’ aesthetics, which runs through the heart of the Church (Peter Leithart makes some suggestive observations on this here). My intention here is not just to play one side of these breaches off against the other, but to suggest that people on both sides of these breaches might benefit greatly if they were overcome.

  3. Maybe regular viewing of Thomas Kincaid paintings could be considered a liturgical practice like confession, reminding us of Original Sin and human depravity.

  4. Two quick thoughts:

    1. Thank you, Alastair, for the challenging and important read.

    2. And have your read Alister McGrath’s “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea” about the Protestantism? Some very similar themes exist both in his work and in your article.

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  6. A few comments.

    First, regarding Ted’s concern about subordinating the teaching of worldviews. After being involved in teaching worldviews (and apologetics) for a long time, I’ve seen how apologists can unconsciously give the impression that correcting worldviews can be sufficient for altering people’s beliefs (Christian and non-Christian). They won’t agree with that if asked; it’s just what happens when one talks about something so often. Opening our view to the wider horizon of imaginaries can help us see why people don’t easily change their thinking or way of living after learning about worldviews (and frankly, even with the proliferation of apologetics and worldview ministries and materials, I’m not seeing significant fruit in the evangelical church). Other attitudes and beliefs, not on the worldview charts, can unwittingly serve as buffers to keep out important truths. If there is an overemphasis in Smith, maybe it can serve as an initial imbalance that can pull us back from an overemphasis on abstract structures. I have become dulled to the forms and possibilities of modern apologetics in recent years. The possibility of opening it up to the wider content of imaginaries has sparked my interest, and I hope it will become a topic of conversation among apologists.

    Second, regarding Alistair’s follow-up comment about disembedded liturgies. This reminds me of initial criticisms of the “ancient-future” way of thinking about worship, that it didn’t really take modern church-goers back to the ancient experience, but simply added more options to our postmodern, mix-and-match worship service repertoire. Here is another place where thinking in terms of imaginaries might be helpful. How do we break through the habit of seeing whatever form is adopted as merely a form that has caught our fancy? I have to ask myself that on occasion: Why did I move from the Bible church world to the Anglican? The unconscious habit of thinking of everything in terms of *my* tastes and *my* choices is, in my opinion, one of the biggest problems we face in the church (of which I myself am surely guilty as much as anyone). How do we get Christians outside of themselves (ourselves) to make real (dare I say, ontic?) connections with forms of worship appropriate to the One we worship?

    Third, and finally, regarding finding our identity in parachurches. This theme was taken up in another blog I read recently (but where and the title of which I cannot remember), and I hope it too will become a topic of conversation in the church. Parachurch ministries, of which I was a part for over sixteen years, often have to remind themselves that they are to serve local churches (I put it that way to emphasize the concrete over the abstract “church”). With the reach parachurch ministries have through the internet, on the receiving side it’s easy to fall into the trap Alistair described. So, another problem: How to convince believers of the greater importance of the (local) church?

    This is an excellent blog, and I thank you for posting it.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Rick. You raise some important issues.

      Your first point is a very important one. Conversion of the imagination is typically epiphanic in character. Worldview argumentation, which tries to unpack the epiphany, is not so effective at recreating it. Such things as the actions of liturgy, however, done well, rehearse an openness to the epiphany. While they may not accomplish the epiphany themselves, they prepare us for it and attune us to it. I like the following extended quotation from Mark Searle:

      By putting us through the same paces over and over again, ritual rehearses us in certain kinds of interaction over and over again, until the ego finally gives up its phrenetic desire to be in charge and lets the Spirit take over. The repetitiousness of the liturgy is something many would like to avoid; but this would be a profound mistake. It is not entertainment, or exposure to new ideas. It is rather a rehearsal of attitudes, a repeated befriending of images and symbols, so that they penetrate more and more deeply into our inner self and make us, or remake us, in their own image.

      Kneeling, for example, is not an expression of our humanity: it is more an invitation to discover what reality looks like when we put ourselves in that position. The texts of Scripture and the images of the liturgy are not didactic messages wrapped up in some decorative covering which can be thrown away when the content is extracted. They are images and sets of images to be toyed with, befriended, rubbed over and over again, until, gradually and sporadically, they yield flashes of insight and encounter with the “Reality” of which they sing. Their purpose is not to give rise to thought (at least, not immediately), but to mediate encounter. As Heidegger said in another context: “The point is not to listen to a series of propositions, but to follow the movement of showing.”

      So there is a discipline of listening, looking, and gesturing to be learnt: ways of standing, touching, receiving, holding, embracing, eating, and drinking which recognize these activities as significant and which enable us to perform them in such a way that we are open to the meaning (the res) which they mediate.

      As you observe, often the things preventing people from seeing things are not ideas but ‘postures’, habitual ways of leaning into life. While liturgy may not accomplish the task single-handedly, it can remove many of the obstacles and prepare us for those sudden and surprising moments when we see everything from a different perspective.

      On your second point, we are (post)modern subjects and we must start from where we are, even though it may not be the most promising starting point. It is here that I think that detailed liturgical catechesis is essential. The liturgy will not just form us of its own accord: we must also be formed into it. In many of the contemporary celebrations of liturgy there is a failure sufficiently to reckon with the possibility that we can go through the motions of liturgy perfectly, yet radically frustrate its purpose. I have compared this to a living museum in the past: on the surface, everything looks like it did in 1850, everyone is doing the same things, but it is all just a thin but elegant veneer upon contemporary ways of thinking and being in the world.

  7. >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.

    I think I hear what you’re saying in this piece in general. At the same time, I think a number of us “thought culture” evangelicals fail to appreciate what “evangelical folk religion” — or at least popular evangelicalism, in all of its sappy, cheesy, me-and-Jesus glory — really can contribute and “bubble up” to the kinds of folks who (for example) read and write for CaPC (or CT).

    Hugely helpful (and short!) book for me on this matter: Rich Mouw’s *Consulting the Faithful: What Christian Intellectuals Can Learn from Popular Religion.* That book does not get enough attention (tho its themes are evident in many of Mouw’s other works).

  8. I was supernaturally converted to become a follower of Jesus Christ at age 9 in a fundamentalist/ evangelical church. My parents were relatively poor and uneducated, as were the churches we attended. When I rededicated my life to Jesus at age 25, I told my friends, who attended evangelical but upper class congregations. Not one gave the slightest indication they knew about being converted. Their preachers did not preach in the power of the Holy Spirit. Only at seminary did I disc over that such preaching was the norm for Calvin, Wesley, Spurgeon, Duncan Campbell…Such characteristics are far more important for evangelicalism than other cultural trappings. It means the preacher is supernaturally converted, called by God to preach, and preaching the words of God with Godly attitudes for a particular time and place. Otherwise even when evangelical truth is preached, it will not be for that time and place, and as a result it
    will be trivialized in the minds of the other parishioners, as it was in the minds of my good friends.

  9. I always value your careful thinking and posts. I am an Anglican and even prior to those days have valued “practices” (embodiment acts) as valuable for formation, but I have two questions:
    1. Is there any evidence at all that actions are as effective formationally as the theory claims? Do we have some social scientific studies that actually demonstrate this? (I remain skeptical of the effectiveness, I have to admit. Form without content does little; content with no form (is there such a thing?) may actually be more effective. Low church evangelicalism, whatever one may think of it, has sustained a liveliness at a level stiffer liturgical groups have not. In the end, I don’t trust liturgy alone.
    2. If practices are that valuable, the most vibrant forms of faith ought to be found among the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox and other more liturgical sectors of the church. The facts are not encouraging on the potency of practices. Why no cautions from such an angle?

    1. Thanks, Scot.

      On the formative power of the body, rituals, and actions more generally, we do have plenty of evidence (and social scientific studies). However, I suspect that your question is more about the formative power of Christian liturgy in particular. On this question, I am not aware of any social scientific studies. It is interesting to see so many evangelicals moving in the direction of more liturgical traditions, though. In my experience, many of us who have made these moves have made them in order to find deeper and richer soil for our faith, or a context within which the content of our faith can discover a more appropriate form. While it is more common to emphasis the way that liturgy forms faith—and I clearly believe that this is important—we should also recognize the way that faith can find itself seeking the form of liturgy. Many of us have experienced certain evangelical contexts as we might experience a constricting shoe, which digs into our heels and causes us to hobble when we would like to run. The form of a more consciously liturgical tradition has given our evangelical faith freedom to grow and move in a healthier way.

      I don’t think that our choice should be or is between formless content or contentless form. One of the things that my post hinted at was the ultimate impossibility of the extreme of a formless content: for good or ill, content will always be affected by form. Liturgy alone won’t work and, as you observe, one only has to look to the more liturgical quarters of the Church to appreciate this fact. However, liturgy was never meant to stand alone. Its power is known as it acts in concert with other dimensions of Christianity—the proclaiming and believing of the faith, the works of mercy, other elements of broader Christian praxis, etc. Held alongside these, rather than as a substitute for them, its benefits are immense.

      In my response to Ted above, I pointed out the danger of thinking that merely going through the motions of the liturgy is sufficient to form us rightly, apart from extensive liturgical catechesis. We must be formed into the liturgy by lots of teaching, just as the liturgy must be formed into us. If we are not formed into the liturgy by teaching and growth in faith, it will just become a hollow façade. Also, as persons living in a secular age, it isn’t easy for us truly to inhabit liturgy as it goes against many of our instinctive ways of thinking. We must be formed into the liturgy by teaching. There must always be a two way movement: we are pressed—and press—into the form of the liturgy and the form of the liturgy is pressed into us.

    2. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I have to disagree with your assertion that liturgical practices do not produce vibrant faith. While the Orthodox Church certainly has its problems with nominalism (as do all traditions), the holiness seen in the best examples of Spirit-filled Orthodox Christians far surpasses anything I knew of as an evangelical. So maybe you could be more specific as to what “facts” you are referring to as evidence that liturgical, and specifically, Eastern Orthodox practices are ineffective.

  10. “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, … ” That about covers it….

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