Evangelicalism: It Ain’t What It Used to Be

“Why does ‘Evangelical’ seem to be synonymous with ‘bad theology’?” a friend asked recently. She, like many conservative Christians, had always identified as Evangelical. Yet more and more often the word was used as a pejorative or at the very least in a dismissive manner by other Christians who also identified as conservative.

I can certainly understand the confusion or even anger this might bring out. No one likes to be insulted and nothing turns a conversation into an argument faster than insulting what one participant identifies as. And when it comes off as ‘my church is better than your church,’ well…probably not a winning tactic.

When I went to college, I heard people I respected and agreed with throw the term around as an obvious negative. And I was confused, because I too came from a background that identified with Evangelical.

To me, ‘Evangelical’ generally meant conservative, Bible-believing, often vaguely (but not necessarily) non-denominational Christians and was contrasted with liberal ‘mainstream’ Christians. Instead of Protestants vs. Catholics, it was Evangelicals vs. Liberals, and of course we fell on the Evangelical side.

I remember going back home and telling my parents how confused I was by my friends’ usage of the term. They laughed and said that was because I hadn’t ever been to a bad Evangelical church.

What I have come to understand is that just as the term ‘Christian’ no longer designates much, so Evangelical has become non-specific…and unfortunately, the majority of Evangelical churches seem to be of the more problematic variety, such as seeker-friendly and emergent.

However, much as I sympathize with conservative Evangelicals (I grew up as one, after all!), I recognize a fundamental weakness in many of the churches that have primarily identified as Evangelical, which has, I believe, lead to the proliferation of bad theology and thus to the negative connotations the word now has in some circles:

Evangelical churches lack systematic doctrine and teaching.

Don’t get me wrong: The Evangelicals I grew up with were great on the social issues and how they connected in with scripture. Abortion, Gay marriage, Evolution/creationism–you name it, they were on the right side of it.

However, the two main foci and defining aspects of Evangelicalism seem to be the born-again conversion experience and what I now see as a bizarre preoccupation with eschatology. (I didn’t think much of it growing up, since it was normal, but I did notice that out of the 8-15 points of belief or what have you that most churches seemed to have, end-times theology featured awfully prominently.)

While my non-denominational church in middle and high school did offer classes on the canonization of scripture, church history, and so forth, the good doctrine being taught in those classes was not systematically passed on to the youth. Never once did we ‘youth’ hear about any theology regarding communion, tithing, the trinity, the Holy Spirit, or baptism.

I still think that that church was pretty solid and was great for me. But, in that area, they dropped the ball.

All this is to say that the Evangelical movement was (is?) huge and spanned denominations. As such, the label incorporated a fairly wide spread of theologies and doctrines, and at least for the non-denoms and ‘community church’ style churches, that almost invariably lead to a fairly sparse set of doctrine/theology. Sermons were, by and large, practical advice on how to live a godly/good/moral life, which can run the gamut from either actual law and actual gospel to by and large pop-psychology.

The skeletal set of doctrines, then, was only partially passed on (if at all), often by accident more than by systematic design. This, in turn, has opened the Evangelical church to go through the general church cycle of sound doctrine to liberalism or outright heresy in the span of a generation.

Not all Evangelical churches are bad. I have good friends who still go to the church I went to in high school, and it seems to have remained very solid. When one looks at identified Evangelicals such as Piper, Sproul, Ravi Zacharias, Alastair Begg, and John MacArthur, there is a lot we agree on.

But the tide has changed with the likes of Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, and Mark Driscoll. In terms of sheer numbers, those identifying as Evangelical are either in the midst of, or are beginning to follow, some very worrisome trends.

And, frankly, Evangelicals don’t systematically have the doctrine or the teaching to protect themselves from those trends. When someone starts talking about the purpose-driven-life/church/whatever, folks don’t know how to recognize the bad theology embedded in such notions.

Ultimately, Evangelicalism used to be synonymous with conservative Christianity in most of its forms. That is no longer the case, and those who identify as Evangelical may not actually be conservative or orthodox. Like all ‘Great Awakenings,’ the surge of conservative Christianity that came about in the 70’s has petered out.

Until my friend asked that question, I hadn’t thought about whether I identified as Evangelical or not. With regret, I must say that I no longer do identify with the label.

My theology has not changed (although my knowledge of it certainly has grown). Evangelicalism has. Everyone who is facing this change in terminology has my empathy in the discomfort: I’ve been exactly there.

Stand firm in scripture; test everything against it. I sadly think that, in the end, where you remain standing and where the label ‘Evangelical’ goes will be two different places.

It’s not you. It’s them.

Virginia Phillips

Author: Virginia Phillips

Virginia Phillips has a M.A. in Religious Studies and an enduring interest in history and politics. In her spare time she writes opinion pieces on current events and theology. She enjoys speculative fiction, martial arts, dancing, and both consuming and preparing food and beverage pairings.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *