iMonk Class Review: Defining Evangelicalism and Post-Evangelicalism

The Cambridge Seven, missionaries to China

Since Internet Monk designates itself as “Dispatches from the Post-Evangelical Wilderness,” it is important from time to time to recall what we mean by “evangelical.” Over at Jesus Creed today, Scot McKnight reviews a new book about Dallas Willard that includes a helpful sketch of evangelicalism, both in terms of its emphases and its historical developments.

The standard template for identifying evangelical beliefs has been David Bebbington’s fourfold description:

  1. Conversionism
  2. Activism
  3. Biblicism
  4. Crucicentrism

Evangelicalism is thus described as a faith that involves:

  • making a personal decision of faith in Christ
  • serving in evangelism and mission
  • being grounded in the Bible (I would add — in literal readings of the Bible)
  • emphasizing salvation through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus

In various periods of history, one or more of these emphases has tended to take center stage. McKnight thinks #1 is front and center today, while others would stress #3.

Furthermore, there is a historical path that we may trace with regard to evangelicalism’s movements. Here I list some of the stages McKnight notes and add some emphases of my own:

  • From First to Second Awakenings: there was a theological move from salvation as God’s sovereign act to an emphasis on salvation as a transaction involving human decision.
  • From the mid-1800’s forward: a move in eschatology from amillennial and postmillennial teachings to premillennialism and dispensationalism. This really ramped up in the mid-20th century with the formation of the state of Israel.
  • In the late 1800’s there began an impressive mobilization of students and churches for foreign missions which led to tens of thousands of missionaries going to the field and the start of hundreds of fundamental/evangelical mission organizations.
  • From the late 1800’s to the mid-19th century, fundamentalism broke away from higher critical Bible interpretation and liberal theology, forming its own organizations and separating itself especially from mainline institutions of higher learning as well as mainline denominations.
  • Neo-evangelicalism began to reengage with culture and higher learning in the middle years of the 20th century and split with fundamentalist teaching and institutions. N-E also maintained much closer ties with mainline Protestant denominations and was more ecumenical in spirit and practice.
  • In the post-war period many evangelical parachurch groups developed, including high school and college campus ministries and those which focused on military personnel.
  • The “Jesus Movement” of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s began introducing unprecedented levels of contemporary culture and music into the church, as well as an updated version of Pentecostalism known as the “charismatic movement,” which emphasized individual spiritual experience. The combination of spiritual vitality and cultural engagement meant that “Evangelicalism” was on the verge of becoming a culture of its own, with its own media, publishing, and retail outlets.
  • The social upheavals of that same period led to the rise of the Religious Right. Hardcore fundamentalists withdrew even further from society, but some joined with evangelicals in reentering the public sector through political involvement and newfound media savvy. The term “Evangelical” became more and more identified as a term that described those who held conservative political positions.
  • At the same time there was the rise of the Church Growth movement, which morphed into the Seeker-Church movement. McKnight describes it well: “The Baby Boomer Church Growth Movement, rooting itself in folks like Finney and Moody, sought to combine social sciences, heart felt needs, charismatic personalities, and upbeat church services to create current American megachurches. Seeker churches then used marketing skills to make it happen.”

This, in a nutshell, describes the historical development of what we call “evangelicalism” today.

Post-evangelicalism, then, consists of those who, in McKnight’s words, offered a “prophetic critique” of where evangelicalism has come. In a set of posts in August 2010, we identified three of the major streams of post-evangelicalism:

  1. Neo-Calvinist movements
  2. Emerging movements
  3. Ancient-Future movements

In his current post, Scot McKnight also talks about a “Spiritual Formation” movement, led by such teachers as Richard Foster and Dallas Willard.

When reading this, it is important to remember that we are primarily looking at evangelicalism as it has developed in the United States. However, it is probably true to say that the U.S. experience has had a significant influence over the way these kinds of churches have developed in the rest of the world.

Nevertheless, today we should also note that “evangelical” movements have rapidly expanded and are continuing to grow in Africa, South America, and in places like South Korea. The future will reveal what forms evangelicalism will take in a global marketplace.

39 thoughts on “iMonk Class Review: Defining Evangelicalism and Post-Evangelicalism

  1. Hi TURKEN,

    well, I sure didn’t ‘get it’ what he meant . . .
    I have sometimes asked questions of fundamentalists in the past, and they got angry with me and instead of dialogue and discussion, which might have clarified some of the ‘code talk’ that fundamentalists rely on, I am simply told ‘you are on your way to a devil’s hell’ . . .

    it doesn’t really help put light on anything when that happens, no . . .

    I end up thinking that is a code phrase for ‘if you don’t agree with me, you are damned’ . . . thing is, that in order to agree with someone, or disagree with them, you have to understand what they are saying . . when they shut the door on that, you are left with few answers . . . and sometimes wondering ‘do they know the answers to my questions?’

    so it goes . . . but would sure like to see a different way open up for more understanding to develop 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That is certainly true, Ken. One wonders, however, if evangelicalism rooted in revivalism and spiritual enthusiasm has the ballast to resist other influences that would co-opt it wherever it appears. It certainly does not have the tradition, liturgy, or historical memory to serve that purpose.


  3. Maybe people in the USA just need to look beyond their borders to see that there are evangelicals across the world who do not define themselves the same way you do, specifically the negative aspects such as the culture wars.


  4. I agree. I don’t think it is just people that are moving “post,” but the actual movement itself. I don’t think anyone I cited can be categorized into one of the three distinct PE streams, which is why I find it helpful to retain the plain evangelical banner.

    I’m hoping that we don’t just move beyond the banner into “post-” world, but we take it with us and shape it into something much more Jesus-shaped. Hoping the “post-‘s” become the norm: Compassionate, scholastic, prophetic, missional. Of all the streams of the faith, evangelicalism has the plasticity/pliability to embrace the best of what the church catholic has to offer around the globe, if only we can first repent past our drive-thru, consumeristic, boundary-guarding past.


  5. Yes, there are other eras of church history that could be traced, which, as you suggest, laid the foundation not only for modern forms of evangelicalism, but the modern and post-modern world itself. Starting with the shift from first to second great awakenings, from Edwards to Finney through Wesley, as it were, shows that evangelicalism as we know it is indeed a modern phenomenon, rooted in modern philosophies, political theories, and modern industrialization.


  6. Sean, I find it interesting that everyone you point to is someone I would consider a “post-evangelical.” Your comment shows me that evangelicalism has been affected by the prophetic critique of the PE’s and may be morphing into something more progressive and world-affirming. Good news from my perspective.


  7. The Catholic perspective is that by grace we are truly perfected. We share in the divine life of the Trinity. We are turned more and more into the image of Christ. Our sins are not simply covered or hidden from God, but by the work of the Holy Spirit, “we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” We are transformed by grace not just camouflaged.


  8. I am over 50 and resonate with a lot of what you have written.
    But I don’t know if lots of others my age agree or not.


  9. Speaking for the 30’s & under crowd who still fly under the banner of ‘evangelical,’ while not finding a home in the three specific post-evangelical iterations:

    I think most of us still hold to all four points of Bebbington’s template, although the playing out of the “isms” are slightly more nuanced:

    -Conversion is still crucial, but less emphasis on salvation-for-heaven and more emphasis on the appeal to live the “abundant life” that Jesus offers. The appeal is that Jesus enters into our brokenness right now, in this life, and can make a real difference. (Think Rob Bell & Greg Boyd)
    -Activism involves much more social justice & awareness of privilege (Sojourners, Missio Alliance)
    -Biblicism places much more emphasis on background & context, and the necessity of community in order to discern the message of Scripture (I believe postmodernism has done us a great service in this respect) (Peter Enns, Christian Smith, RHE)
    -Crucicentrism includes substitutionary atonement, but it is no longer exclusively limited to it.

    I’m also finding that there is another point that has emerged: a return to seeking out ‘deeper life’ theology that is something of a blend of mysticism & charismaticism. Spiritual formation classes in seminaries & churches often appeal to mystics and the historic spiritual disciplines, and ministry often involves an empowering of the Spirit to give insight via words of knowledge & so forth — all of this while engaging a strong critique of the kinds of prophetic ministry that have gone horribly wrong. “There’s gotta be more than this” is often our cry, so there is a seeking of the supernatural.

    Back to the various streams: I’m finding that my peers are living a much more ‘fluid’ Christian life, able to interact with Christians of other flavors in a much healthier and respectful way (which is described by the ancient-future impulse in us).

    At the same time, many of us find the neo-Reformed to be too fundamental, and the Emergent streams to be too theoretical. We want to be gracious and open to new ideas, but since our concern is still missional we want to make sure that there is an actual difference (read: ‘power’) that our faith can make in the lives of others.

    My .0002 from the ground.


  10. I’m sure these sorts of comments are very helpful and remind Catholics of why they aren’t Evangelicals.


  11. I think there is a difference between the two, Fundamentalists are often Evangelical, but the converse is not necessarily true.

    In my past I have seen fundamentalism as an attitude of mind. It is often accompanied by an absolute certainly of its own rightness and an unwillingness to question. It seems to cling to simpler explanations of the world and the Bible. There seems to be a lifeboat mentality ‘our group is the lifeboat and if you are on it you are fine’. There is a suspicion of anything outside. Now a group can have all of these and still fit the 4 criteria above. You do not need to look very far to find some who fit this pattern. So they are Evangelicals of a certain strain.

    I have also seen groups that fit the 4 criteria that have an attitude that recognizes that we can know the truth, but need to hold it in humility and that we can change if new evidence comes in. They are still solidly orthodox Christian but approach things very differently. You need look no further than some of the people here at iMonastery to see this. But I see this in CS Lewis, GK Chesterton and many others whom we could name. And those people would be Evangelicals, but not fundamentalists.


  12. ?From the mid-1800?s forward: a move in eschatology from amillennial and postmillennial teachings to premillennialism and dispensationalism. This really ramped up in the mid-20th century with the formation of the state of Israel.

    And ramped up to Crystal Meth levels with Hal Lindsay in the Seventies, Left Behind in the Nineties, and Y2K.

    To the point you’ve got to worry about some True Believers “immanentizing the eschaton”, i.e. trying to jump-start Armageddon (“It’s Prophesied, It’s Prophesied…”)


  13. No, you did a good job. Lutheran “two-kingdom” theory seems very much akin to the Byzantine concept of “symphonia”, where Church and Caesar [attempt to] work together for the benefit of the people of God. In Byzantium, though, as well as in 17th Century Saxony, you didn’t have so many people living as if there was only one kingdom, or as Fr. Stephen Freeman puts it, only one storey in a two-storey universe.

    I guess I would like to see a Chaplain Mike timeline for the Decay of Christendom. At one time, I may have put it as something like this

    1) The sundering of Romanitas in the Great Schism – Failure of the Ottonians to establish symphony in the West, Palamism vs Scholasticism
    2) The Papal Monarchy – eclipse of the East under the Latins, the Mamelukes, Turks and the Mongols
    3) The Western Schism and Crisis, rise of Nominalism, rise of nation states
    4) Reformation and Counter Reformation, Wars of Religion, shattering of the Western Unity, destruction of the Papal Monarchy.
    5) Secularity as a response to Thirty Years War, Enlightenment and birth of ideology, Science, Positivism, infection of Russia under Peter the Great and Catherine. The Whig Empire established in England and Holland – fourfold triumph of the Roundheads vs. Cavaliers: 1651, 1688, 1783, 1865 Emergence of the rational state and the “free” churches
    6) Romanticism and revolution, born in the cradle of the filioque, extends to the Third Rome and is thrown back. Second Great Awakening in America leads to the Free Church as the State Church of the emerging Whig Empire, meaning, in effect, the Personal Jesus and no-Church.
    7) Europeans learn how to slaughter themselves by the millions for reasons other than religion. First war clamps the chains of capital onto the emerging Whig Empire. Second war shatters nationalist utopian movements, cold war shatters collectivist utopian movements, all is technique and consumption.


  14. At what point in this historical continuum, did you have to decamp from the common world of humans and go live in Saved World?

    “Saved World” — great term, Mule.

    From my experience in the Evangelical Circus, sometimes you have to go live in Saved World (burn all your books and CDs…) immediately upon saying the Magic Words at the Altar Call. And when you’re in Saved World, you have to live inside its Thomas Kincade-decorated walls, enjoying “Just like fill-in-the-blank, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!” ersatz pop culture, going out only for drive-by prosletyzing sallies.


  15. As Christians, we live in two kingdoms at the same time: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. We are called to live as Christians in both. The kingdom of God is ruled by Gospel while the kingdom of this world is to be ruled by reason. Where we full into trouble is when we try to live only in the Kingdom of God and not engage in the kingdom of the world we live in, when we try to use the kingdom of this world to create a kingdom of God in it or we allow the kingdom of this world to affect how we understand the kingdom of God.

    There will be conflicts between the two kingdoms and we must come down on the Kingdom of God when those conflicts happen. However, we must be careful not to create conflicts where there are none.

    This is my poor attempt to explain the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms found in Lutheran theology. Maybe someone can do a better job.


  16. Yes, some are like that. I am not disputing that. My point is that American Evangelicalism is broader than just those type churches.


  17. Great, great summary of American Evangelicalism. I have a couple of questions.

    At what point in this historical continuum, did you have to decamp from the common world of humans and go live in Saved World? Are the mainstream Protestant bodies more reflective of Christendom than the more Evangelical bodies? To what degree is Saved World an alternative Christendom?


  18. Considering dispatches from the evangelical wilderness, there has to be curiosity and (nothing else comes to mind that will suffice other than)an existential angst about post-evangelical. Of course I pay attention to the paths taken by the people who write the dispatches today. Considering what internet monk wrote in his oft mentioned coming collapse, I don’t think these paths taken are out of lthe trajectories he posted. And I have thought about neo-Calvinist, emerging, ancient-future, and spiritual formation.
    But I have more to add. I very much appreciate post-modern thought. I don’t think the ethos of it has filtered into the “church” people of today as much as it has into the younger among us. I don’t think many church goers could give a good description of its premises, Many with a post-modern mind-set can’t think of the church as anything but an old meta narrative that was constructed for control. It is how they think, but it can be infiltrated with the truth.
    I happen to think post-modern thought has its advantages and limitations from a conversion, active, biblical, Crucicentric view. But my major point is that this is the viewpoint and lifestyle that will take center stage in near future if not now, and to listen to those who have it, to be with those mainly young who bring it with themselves, and to be ambassadors of the Gospel………our path has to be the truth of a timeless and authoritative Word without believing that the church must adapt to the new post-modern culture. The overlaps are in areas of acts of compassion, human and civil rights activism, campaigns for voluntary simplicity, localism, attempts to carry out a consistent life-ethic. That last one, the consistent attempt, is so crucial to the turmoil that has come upon individuals, families, and local and regional communities like a storm that has no historic precedence.


  19. If you go to your generic non-dimensional church, will you see the creed as part of the worship? If you ask for their doctrine, it will it fit on a PowerPoint slide and be minimal?


  20. > Varying amounts of overlap with Fundamentalism

    Nah, the difference is marketing. People who want to defend some corner of Evangelicalism try to try lines between Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. The distinction is just trying to salvage the brand.

    They are indivisible parts of the same whole.


  21. I don’t think that is totally accurate. American Evangelicalism is diverse, and does have some a-creeda or anti-creedal groups (ex. Southern Baptists). However, it also has groups that hold to the creeds but does not promote them often (ex. Acts 29 Network, and also has groups that hold to confessions and creeds (ex. PCA denomination).


  22. I would add that American Evangelicalism can be defined by “a-creedal” or “anti-creedal” that they don’t recognize any of the three ecumenical creeds and “a-confessional” in that they don’t have detailed written confession of their faith that people are expected to adhere to.


  23. Biblicism is more of a big deal in western cultures, activism in southern cultures, and crucicentrism largely among evangelical theologians. But evangelicals all see conversionism as necessary.

    The dark side of this conversionism is a tunnel vision on the exact moment of conversion, leading into a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation, with all the problems that causes.


  24. Three more characteristics of American Evangelicalism:
    1) Non-liturgical, very “low church”, trappings and procedures bearing more resemblance to Baptists than anything else.
    2) Varying amounts of overlap with Fundamentalism, especially in the realm of literalist Bible interpretation.
    3) Little sense of church history.


  25. “…it is important to remember that we are primarily looking at evangelicalism as it has developed in the United States. However, it is probably true to say that the U.S. experience has had a significant influence over the way these kinds of churches have developed in the rest of the world.”

    Oh, just a smidge. I was at what I expected to be a starchy Presbyterian service in Taiwan last Sunday. My ears almost bled from the band practicing beforehand. And the preservice piped-in music was all in English.


  26. I have seen two different explanations from evangelicals that confused me (I’m Catholic):
    the first one is that your sin is still there after you repent but the blood of Christ covers it and God doesn’t see it (?)

    the second one is similar except it goes something like a sinner is saved and God no longer notices his sins that he continues to commit . . . this to me is even more extreme than the first one

    I take it that these two ‘explanations’ are not from the same doctrines because of the different role of repentence between them, but alike in that sin ‘remains’ but is not seen by God, that all God sees is His Son Who took the place of the saved sinner (whose sins continue to increase in number whether he is in the first category (repentent) or the second category (‘protected’ from judgement)

    As a Catholic, I know that somehow the people who believe this way got it from their interpretations of sacred Scripture (or parts of it), but it is hard to understand how forgiven sin ‘remains’ in the light of ‘wash me and I shall be whiter than snow’ (Psalm 51)

    Is also possible, I am not understanding the ‘explanations’ in the ways they are presented . . . some things don’t translate well between denominations because of differences in wording and ‘inside lingo’ 🙂 so the problem may be that I am seeing the explanations in the wrong light and misjudging what I have heard.


  27. Yep, this is the view of Evangelicalism as developed in the States. But the reason I emphasize personal conversion as its distinctive (#1 in Bebbington’s list) is because that’s the emphasis we tend to see worldwide. Biblicism is more of a big deal in western cultures, activism in southern cultures, and crucicentrism largely among evangelical theologians. But evangelicals all see conversionism as necessary.

    Of course, conversion is only the first step in the Christian life, which is where the post-evangelicals get it right: It can’t only be about making Jesus our personal savior. We have to follow him too.


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