In the aforementioned Christianity Today interview with Billy Graham (see here) the evangelist was asked, “What are the most important issues facing evangelicals today?” He gave two answers: (1) the danger of being victims of our own success and (2) the risk of critically focusing inwardly toward one another rather than evangelically outwardly toward the world. In other words, we may find ourselves imploding as a global movement.
These share a common flaw. If we become victims of our success, or if we become overly concerned with shaping the future of evangelicalism around our own idiosyncrasies, we have made ourselves the center. Graham points out this danger saying,
“Will we reach our world for Christ? In other words, will we give priority to Christ’s command to go into all the world and preach the gospel? Or will we turn increasingly inward, caught up in our own internal affairs or controversies, or simply becoming more and more comfortable with the status quo? Will we become inner-directed or outer-directed? The central issues of our time aren’t economic or political or social, important as these are. The central issues of our time are moral and spiritual in nature, and our calling is to declare Christ’s forgiveness and hope and transforming power to a world that does not know him or follow him. May we never forget this.”
These are important and timely words. Evangelicals have often crossed denominational boundaries. According to Larry Eskridge we were shaped around the common beliefs that (1) everyone needs personal conversion (i.e. being baptized into the empire is not baptism into Christ); (2) we should actively declare and share the gospel with others; (3) we have a high-regard for biblical authority (traditionally inerrancy, but other approaches have found a home amongst evangelicals); and (4) and emphasis on the death, burial, and resurrection (see this study). Modern groups like The Gospel Coalition have attempted to recover this core, but it seems allusive. Rather, as Graham notes, we tend to be caught in a lot of infighting. We don’t have a unified identity and this vacuum has resulted in many groups stepping forward attempting to provide one (e.g. the Neo-Reformed, the E/emerging church, Big Tent Christianity). Meanwhile, we must ask ourselves whether or not evangelicalism has been defined primarily by dictionary style definitions or action. If it is action—the intentional spreading of the gospel message to the nations—then definition is secondary. That being said, if we don’t even know what our gospel is to proclaim, it seems action is improbable.
What do you think of Graham’s warning? Are we becoming too inward focused while forsaking outward mission? Can outward mission succeed if we do not do some inward tinkering?
What does “being baptized into empire” mean?
@Dan: Baptism that is essentially a cultural ritual. For example, Soren Kierkegaard criticized Europe for Christendom, or culturally owned Christianity, which lacked any emphasis on individual faith. Or the protest of the early Baptist toward the same thing, emphasizing the need for each Christian to make a faith commitment for his/herself rather than it being assumed, “While, you’re British, you must be a Christian. We are all Christians.”
I think evangelicalism has already imploded. Graham’s movement emerged out of American fundamentalism and was distinct in three ways.
1) It was ecumenical embracing faith partnerships with protestant mainline churches and Catholics. (I’m not aware of any contemporary evangelical leader who would do the same)
2) It was apolitical (1979 is when this effectively ended with the advent of the Moral Majority)
3) It was patriotic (The reason for Hurst’s financial and media backing of Grahams early revivals)
In the fractured world of contemporary evangelicalism I don’t see anyone holding to these three simultaneously.
@ Dan H. : I do think there are evangelicals that would work with Catholic and Orthodox Christians. While I am not a leader I do consider myself an evangelical who would willingly partner with Christians of other stripes.
Likewise, I think the pendulum swing from apolitical to Moral-Majority-power-play may help evangelicalism in the long run if it finds some balance.
I am not patriotic. Rather, I think I am part of a large group of evangelicals who see themselves as people in a foreign land. Like the Jews in Babylon we seek to do good in the place where we live, but we hope to maintain our distinct identity as servants of the King of Kings.
But I must add that I do not see these three things as mattering as much to the identity of evangelicals over the last couple centuries as have been the points I noted in my post. Those things have been much more consistent aspects of evangelical identity.
I think we’re maybe looking at two different historical movements when we talk about evangelicalism. I’m talking about a schism in American fundamentalism lead by Graham and Ockenga in the 1940’s. Your four identifying marks of evangelicalism while correct fail to differentiate evangelicalism from fundamentalism.
What made evangelicalism distinct were the three additional criteria I laid out. The fact that you, Al Mohler, John Piper, N.T. Wright, etc. all fail to embrace these three (While Graham did and does) makes be believe that Evangelicalism has imploded already. Schisms within Evangelicalism have been taking hold for thirty years.The project embraced by the likes of Graham and Ockenga is not one that I see many of their descendants as being interested in.
@Dan: The Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (Wheaton College) presents the birth of evangelicalism as going back to the methodology of people like Wesley, Whitefield, Edward, Finney, et al. Wesley and Finney being the more Arminian types; Whitefield and Edward being Calvinistic. Nevertheless, they all shared a sort of revivalism, a passion for individual conversion, and the like.
I don’t think evangelicalism has imploded on itself yet, though maybe the segment that you are highlighting has done so. For instance, I would see Pentecostalism as a form of evangelicalism and it is spreading. Most of Christianity in the Latin America, Africa, and Asia has evangelical tendencies. So I’d agree we are looking at two different movements or at least a broader and a more narrow definition.
I honestly believe American Evangelicalism has imploded, if in fact we are following the stricter definition Dan highlighted. Yet, I think there is an ethos of Evangelicalism, connected to the Evangel itself; that has been pervasive throughout the history of the church (for Marc Cortez that would be most captured by the Baptists 😉 ).
This a great comment by Graham! And quite insightful – I think Evangelicalism may very well be imploding and that from our increasing divisions and drawing lines in the sand over mostly secondary separation issues. And this is unfortunate but probably part of the problem of organizing – it’s possible we’re too institutionalized as a movement and while it has positive and negative effects, the negative can and usually does the most harm – in short, I agree with Graham, we’ve lost our focus. I am not an expert on these things so those are my thoughts at the moment – Graham is great man and has a strong prophetic voice for the times.
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