Defining the Term in Contemporary Times

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There are three senses in which the term “evangelical” is used today in the early 21st-century. The first is to view as “evangelical” all Christians who affirm a few key doctrines and practical emphases. British historian David Bebbington approaches evangelicalism from this direction and notes four specific hallmarks of evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and “crucicentrism,” a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Bebbington’s definition has become a standard baseline for most scholars. However, some consider his broad categories so inclusive that they would exclude few Christians of any stripe. Historian George M. Marsden has suggested a fifth characteristic—trans-denominationalism—which takes into account evangelicals’ pragmatic penchant for cooperation in support of shared projects and evangelistic efforts.

Gateway churchA second sense of the term is to look at evangelicalism as an organic group of movements and religious tradition. Within this context “evangelical” denotes a style as much as a set of beliefs, and an attitude which insiders “know” and “feel” when they encounter it. As a result, groups as disparate as black Baptists and Dutch Reformed Churches, Mennonites and Pentecostals, Catholic charismatics and Southern Baptists can all come under the evangelical umbrella—demonstrating just how diverse the movement really is.

A third sense of the term is as the self-ascribed label for a largely Midwest-based coalition that arose during the Second World War. This group came into being as a reaction against the perceived anti-intellectual, separatist, belligerent nature of the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Importantly, its core personalities (like Carl F.H. Henry, Harold John Ockenga and Billy Graham), institutions (for instance, Moody Bible Institute , Wheaton College, and Fuller Theological Seminary), and organizations (such as the National Association of Evangelicals and Youth for Christ) have played a pivotal role in giving the wider movement a sense of cohesion that extends beyond these “card-carrying” evangelicals.

Recently, historian Molly Worthen has suggested that another way to understand evangelicals that goes beyond a strict theological, denominational, or sociological definition is to see them as Protestants that have historically been "circling around three questions":  1.) How does one reconcile faith and reason? 2.) how does one become sure of salvation; and, 3.) how do Christians reconcile their personal faith with a society that is increasingly pluralistic and secular?  

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©Larry Eskridge, 1996. Revised 2001, 2005, 2011, 2012, 2014

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