My Trouble with Evangelicalism

21 Feb

I grew up in what I would consider an evangelical church. Perhaps I should stop there before going on so I can ask my first question: what exactly is evangelicalism? What does it mean to be an evangelical? This seems like it should be easy to answer, but it’s one of the more complicated questions I’ve encountered. I’ve been through seven years of theological education, been involved in leadership in the church for about ten years in a variety of different settings, grew up in a church that considered itself evangelical, and I still can’t really tell you what defines evangelicalism. For some, evangelical just means Christian; they’re interchangeable terms. That, to me, is the worst use of the word. Some use it to refer to really conservative or fundamentalist Christians (this is more of a European understanding of the word). Again, this usage seems too broad and inaccurate. What exactly is evangelicalism?.

As a disclaimer, I don’t have an issue with evangelicals. I work at an evangelical institution and have attended evangelical churches for most of my life. This post isn’t meant to be an argument against evangelicals. I do, however, see issues in evangelicalism that lead me away from self-identifying as an evangelical. That’s what I hope to address here.

As I said before, a lot of people throw around the word evangelical loosely. It’s become one of those nondescript words that needs to be defined by the person using it before it carries any meaning. So before I dive into what I have trouble with, I want to try to identify what I understand to be evangelicalism first.

Let me start by quickly saying what evangelicalism is not. First, it is not a catch-all for all Christians. I think people who use the word “evangelical” in this way are either being careless in their usage or they’re trying to use it as a missional term (i.e. we are all witnesses focused on envangelism, therefore we are all evangelical). Evangelicalism is also not a substitute for evangelism or evangelist. Evangelical does not refer to a specific denomination or tradition. I think it is possible, for example, to be an evangelical Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, or non-denom. I think in most cases, evangelicals tend to be non-denominational (or post-denominational), but not all non-denom or post-denom Christians are automatically evangelical. So as I am defining this term, I am trying to stay away from understandings of evanglicalism that tend toward these definitions. Hopefully as I spell this out, it will become clearer.

Evangelicalism, as I understand, is something like on overlay on the Christian tradition. What I mean by that is that it tries to take a narrower, more focused view of the Christian tradition. This is a place to start. Now, many traditions do this; in fact, one could argue that every denomination (including non-denom) could be defined in this way. But when I describe it this way, it is meant to be more like a secondary layer, one that can narrow even a particular denominational perspective on the Christian tradition. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this either. All Christians do this, starting first with our own experiences and perspectives, which are then filtered through our denominational perspectives. So I see this as a particular worldview that can be nestled within or over particular denominational perspectives.

This overlay has a few unique qualities. I’ll keep this to four points, and this is reductionistic, but I feel evangecalism is readily identified by these characteristics. First, it puts a lot of stock on the devotional Bible. It is a historical, theological document, to be sure, but evangelicalism tends to focus on the personal impact of the Bible’s message. So when the Bible is read, the pressing question is often, “What does this mean to us?” This historical and literary questions are not ignored or brushed aside, but they almost always are in service to getting at the application. This is not to say that non-evangelical Christians don’t focus on the Bible this way, but it is not as heavily emphasized. Second, evangelicalism is atonement focused. The foremost understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection is on the atonement of sins. In some cases, this is the sole understanding of the crucifixion, but usually it is the most heavily emphasized aspect of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The atonement also focuses on the substitutionary act of Jesus on the cross, a heavy emphasis that Jesus died in our place for the payment of sin. Third (and flowing from the second point), there is an acute focus on living morally acceptable lives. I’ll get into this a little more later, but evangelicalism puts a lot of focus on living morally pure lives and making sure that one is not sinning (and working to eliminate sin from one’s life). Living one’s life certainly focuses on doing good to other people, but the main focus is on personal purity in most cases. Fourth, evangelicalism is very focused on the afterlife. This flows from the third point, and I think in particular of Rick Warren and “The Purpose Driven Life” as an example. One’s life is a preparation for living in Heaven, and what we do on Earth should be focused on how we live in Heaven. These, to me, are the four main identifiable characteristics of evangelicalism.

Now evangelicalism typically gets played out in a fairly specific way. Evangelical churches tend to be very devotionally focused. Along with sermons and worship services that are focused on personal living, evangelical churches tend to focus on small group devotional ministry whether it’s youth groups, college groups, young adult, new parents, middle age, or senior groups. Again, this is not to say that other churches don’t focus on this ministry, but they are vital to evangelical churches. And, as I said, these small groups are focused on devotional living. Small group bible studies are designed to focus on how the Bible applies to everyday living. Evangelical churches are tend to be very emotionally focused. There is a lot of stock put in the emotional response to Christ and Christian living. Church services tend to be emotionally focused with worship focusing on putting a person in the right emotional state to be ready for the sermon, and the sermon focused on getting people in the right emotional state to either accept Christ or serve Christ. Serving Christ in the church is very focused on winning people over to Christ. In other words, evangelism is emphasized, but it is emphasized in terms of conversion. The focus is to being people to church or to be an evangelist and encouraging people to convert. Good Christian living (i.e. living a morally pure life) along with the focus on evangelism become the main focus for evangelical churches. Again, this is oversimplified, and there are instances where evangelical churches depart from this model, but this seems to be a typical example (and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong or add anything in the comments).

As I said before, I have trouble self-identifying as an evangelical. Ultimately, my issue is that evangelicalism tends to get overly reductionistic. Though I have specific areas where I have trouble with it, they all are ultimately areas where evangelicalism reduces Christianity to something overly simple. And as I said before, I don’t believe every evangelical has the issues I’m about to address. I don’t identify as an evangelical anymore because of these issues I’ve noticed having been a part of evangelical churches.

1. A Lack of Thoughtfulness About The Bible

This sounds harsh, but it has been a trend I’ve noticed about evangelicalism. This stems back to putting emphasis on devotionally reading the Bible. I’m not arguing that the Bible shouldn’t be read devotionally. We believe as Christians that the Bible does has something to say to us, and reading to find that understanding is important. But the Bible was not written to be a self-help book. It is more like reading good literature, and sometimes that means when we read the Bible, we have to focus more on the literary and historical aspects of the Bible than simply the “applicable.” And as its worst, evangelicalism can ignore those aspects of the Bible and make it overly simplistic. This is especially the case in parts of the Bible that don’t lend themselves to being read devotionally (such as the genealogies) or areas that require more background or definition to clarify the context (many of Jesus’ parables).

2. Sin becomes Naughtiness

This was pointed out to me by one of my professors in college. This isn’t necessarily just an evangelical issue either, but it’s prevalent in evangelical circles. Often, sin is thought of as naughtiness. Saying a “bad” word, telling a lie, doing in appropriate things are the major sins that need to be eliminated. Living a morally pure life is equated with living a life that is free of naughtiness. That is certainly admirable, but it’s not really what the Bible talks about when it refers to sin. Paul, in his epistles, tends to focus on Sin more as either an entity (typically equated with Death) or a state of being. When referred to as a state of being, Sin is opposed to the Spirit. You are either living in Sin or or in the Spirit. These states of being have more to do with things more like personality traits than specific acts. Sin is defined by selfishness, cruelty, and hate while the Spirit is defined by kindness, generosity, and love. Those areas are distinct, but similar actions can be done with different motivations. Further, Sin isn’t reduced to simple petty acts; Sin is about deep, deep tragedy. God did not send his Son to forgive someone for dropping an ill-timed F-bomb, or for cheating on a test. Jesus died and was resurrected because we are capable of incidents like Sandy Hook; we are capable of producing someone like Christopher Dorner. There is something deeper than naughtiness there.

3. Lack of Appreciation of Church History

This seems to come out in a couple of different ways, and this is also not necessarily just evangelicals (some mainline denominations struggle with this too). First, evangelicalism, because it’s a very contemporary-focused movement, it feels like much of the history between Constantine and the 1950s is simply forgotten. Sure, there are shout-outs to Calvin and Luther here and there, but they are very cursory and sometimes incorrect. Calvin, in particular, seems to suffer. When I entered seminary, I was not looking forward to reading Calvin’s Institutes because my only understanding of Calvin was his views on predestination (and TULIP). But when I started reading them, I was amazed. Calvin was first and foremost a pastor. His works are deeply rooted in his work with his churches. Predestination and TULIP are often presented (or they were to me at least) as this type of callous and abstract dogma, disconnected from real church life. In reality, Calvin came to his conclusions not only through study but through working with congregations. Not understanding that history, not just with Calvin, but with other church history figures and events, is something that evangelicalism seems to suffer from.

That lack of understanding also carries over into the second point I notice, which is that evangelicalism tends to treat anything that is new to it as new to Christianity. Now, I have nothing against self-discovery. In fact, I think sometimes the most important things we carry with us are those things we discovered on our own even if they’ve been known to everyone else for awhile. But it’s one thing to have those moments and appreciate them as your own discoveries. It starts to become problematic to declare those discoveries as new to everyone. Evangelicalism seems to do this, and it stems from now knowing (or not appreciating) the breadth of church history.

4. Spirituality is Defined by Emotional Response

This one section will eventually spawn an entirely new post, so I will keep this section short. This, to me, is the most irksome part of evangelicalism. There is a subtle, mostly unspoken assumption that the only legitimate response to Christianity is an emotional one. Contemplative and more cerebral responses are ok from time to time, but in evangelicalism, the most respected and expected response is an emotional one. This comes out especially in worship and small groups. Every prayer must be accompanied by heartfelt music, every worship song must lead to emotional excitement or tear-filled humility, and every testimony must be a tear-jerking story. There is little room for those of us who grew up with Christianity as a fact of life, who perhaps are moved more by our brains than our hearts, and who find deepest gratification in digging deeper mentally than emotionally.

There is more I could say about this (and probably will at some point), and I realize this is probably somewhat controversial or at least a discussion starter. I consider myself more traditional mainline. I thought that being at Princeton and experiencing “East Coast Presbyterianism” would be bad, but I found myself very much at home in the traditional liturgy and the more contemplative approach to Christianity. I am trying to be fair and not trying to tear down a straw man, so feel free to respond in the comments.


Posted by on February 21, 2013 in Current Issue, Theology


3 responses to “My Trouble with Evangelicalism

  1. Jim Stochl

    February 21, 2013 at 8:47 PM

    That’s a lot of writing, Jeff. I think you are correct that there is an experiential core to evangelicalism (what you call devotional). It is also a problem to define what evangelicalism is. It’s like the old question about defining pornography, we know it when we see it. Such is usually the case with evangelicalism, perhaps.

    Marden’s book, “Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism” does a good job at describing a consensus about what the movement is. It is not Fundamentalism, as Evangelicalism does respect scholarship and the role of ideas. Nor is it liberalism, which tends to treat the Bible merely as good literature. I believe evangelicalism does a fine job of holding together the creative tension between the Bible being the Word of God in the words of men. Certainly fundamentalism insists on one side, liberalism on the other side. Just like the tension with Jesus being fully God and fully human. But that’s for another discussion.

    Still, this is a pretty broad brush you paint with, and perhaps some specifics would be helpful. I get lost when writers make sweeping generalizations.

    Here’s a question. Do you have trouble with evangelicalism, or with your experience with it? One can have a bad marriage and yet still believe in marriage. But if a person has a bad marriage and then gives up on marriage, have they really given up on marriage, or simply given up on their experience of marriage?

    I have encountered some absolutely wonderful evangelical leaders and churches in my life. All of them are flawed, of course. But the preaching of Earl Palmer, John Stott, Darrell Johnson, Roberta Hestenes, Dale Bruner, Os Guinness and others has had a profound impact upon me. No one could accuse them of being merely devotional in their approach.

    So again, is it your experience of the thing or the thing itself that you have trouble with?

    And related is what have you found as a replacement that has fueled your passion for God, your love of neighbor, and the transformation of your own soul? Or are you in a theological wilderness, traveling from your understanding of evangelicalism towards a destination as yet unknown?

    I appreciate your honesty, and time spent on writing this, and posting it to allow fellow travelers to comment.

  2. James Shewey

    February 22, 2013 at 8:02 AM

    Jeff, I think you definition of Evangelicisim isn’t really one of Evangelicism, but of Evangelical culture. I once heard Dr. Dennis Okholm give a fantastic definition of Evangelicism in a lecture he gave. I just bought this book: because I think this definition might be in it. But, in my opinion, Evangelical Theology is a whole different animal.

    That being said, I agree with you on most of this. I really like your #2 thoughts about sin being more the antithesis of a soul filled with the holy spirit than acts that are performed. I think Your #1 and #2 points however go together. It seems to me that evangelical culture simply suffers from a lack of scholarship in general and these are merely examples of that root cause.

  3. thejeqff

    February 22, 2013 at 9:20 AM

    Good thoughts. The only thing I have to go off of is my experience (an argument I think can be made any time we make a judgment or have an opinion on a matter) and my educational background. I think it’s fair to say that my undergrad was an evangelical school and that the current place I work is also an evangelical school, and that Princeton is not. Until Princeton, I would say that I worked in and attended evangelical churches (or at least churches that self-identified as evangelical). And a lot of my studies, even at Princeton, had some type of focus on evangelical theology. So my thoughts on it (and criticisms) primarily come from those experiences. It’s probably fair to say that most of these criticisms deal mainly with West Coast evangelicalism since I have little experience with the deep South, the Midwest, even the Northwest. So I realize that’s where my bias and experience come in.

    I was originally going to call this “My Trouble with Evangelicals” but I realized that wasn’t really true because there are evangelical leaders and churches that I have great respect for (Glenkirk and the pastor in particular come to mind). I really do believe my criticism is aimed at Evangelicalism, the “ism” as a whole, which is going to be broad and have exceptions to the rule. And Evangelicalism, as I see it, includes the culture that comes along with it. Because of that, this post is going to be like nailing Jello to the wall, but that’s also why I tried to define it. It is also difficult to define what Mainline Protestantism is. Is it just the traditional denominations that we associate with Protestantism (Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc) or is it a little more amorphous? I tend to think the latter. And while I tend to see myself as more mainline that evangelical, I also have problems with Mainline Protestantism as well, including the point that the Bible does seem to lose its sacred nature and that there is, perhaps, too much willingness to accept what is happening in culture as what God is doing (the ordination question falls squarely in that category for me).

    So this long-winded response is basically to say: yes, I do think part of this is simply my experience with Evangelicalism (which I do think is a legitimate definition of Evangelicalism but is certainly open to debate and clarification), but I do think I have also identified real problems with the movement itself. Number 2 and 3 in particular are things that I do think that Evangelicalism struggles with as a whole. There are always exceptions to the rule, but I think the exceptions also prove the rule.


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