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Two Bearded Preachers

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Apr 14, 2016

Martin W. Bender

I was texting with a church member and made a joke about evangelicals needing their own headgear, you know, like the Catholics, Coptics, or Orthodox. She responded that we needed to have a talk about how being evangelical isn’t cool anymore. I couldn’t help but think of Rachel Held Evans.

Evans made waves in 2015 when she publically left “evangelicalism” for the Episcopal Church.[1]  Doing so caused many to declare the failure of evangelicalism and predict its downfall. After all, if the voice of western millennial Christianity says something it has to be true, right?

The funny thing is, “leaving evangelicalism” it turns out, is a very evangelical thing to do. “The critiques of the church and a call for renewal have been central features of evangelical-type movements for almost five hundred years.”[2] Placing Evans in the odd position of advocating for the very thing she claims to be abandoning.

Evangelicalism is rooted in the Protestant Reformation, European Puritan and Pietist movements, American revivalism, and the modernist/fundamentalist controversies of the twentieth century.[3] All of these movements have a common theme: the attempt to better apply scripture to the contemporary context. The word evangelical comes from the Latin evangelium or “gospel” and it is upon the gospel evangelicalism has been historically defined.[4] Since the 1970’s, however, evangelicals in the US have been popularly understood in terms of social issues rather than religious.

Today’s evangelicalism is largely thought of in terms of its political action, but ought to be considered a “grassroots, gospel-focused, warm-hearted ecumenism.”[5] Four positions have traditionally defined it: the centrality of the gospel, conversion, scripture, and service, but even these criteria are frequently elaborated upon.[6] Leaving the very word “evangelical” vague at best and meaningless at worst.

This fuzzy definition is likely the reason for criticism of evangelicalism. It has yet to adequately be defined for the millennial generation. Instead, the word serves as a catch all for politically conservative New Testament adherents. Such a loose understanding is inconsistent with how evangelicals have been identified historically and is insufficient as an identifier of a particular movement.

In light of this, those of us who identify as evangelicals in the historical sense must be deliberate in stating how we are evangelical. Yes. We are evangelicals. As such we have a responsibility to communicate the gospel, call for conversion, focus upon the Scriptures, and serve one another in love.


[1] Rachel Held Evans, “On ‘Outgrowing’ American Christianity,” Rachel Held Evans, http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/outgrowing-american-christianity (accessed April 14, 2016).

[2] David S. Dockery, “Evangelicalism: Past, Present, and Future,” Trinity Journal 36:1 (Spring, 2015): 12.

[3] Dockery, 4.

[4] Wheaton College, “Defining Evangelicalism,” Wheaton College, http://www.wheaton.edu/isae/defining-evangelicalism (accessed April 13, 2016).

[5] Dockery, 16.

[6] Ibid., 6.

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