When I was growing up our family attended an evangelical church. We knew it was because it was in the name. Broadstone Evangelical Church was even a member church of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. The name was later change to Broadstone Baptist Church because it was felt no one outside of the church really knew what an evangelical was but had a better idea what a baptist was.
The situation is no longer like that because no one inside the church really knows what an evangelical is partly because lots of people believing quite different things in quite different ways all claim to be an evangelical. We even have helpful books that try to determine What is Evangelicalism? I have had a number of web based conversations where I’ve found it a struggle to recognise what was being claimed as evangelical.
Carl Trueman writes,
“I am not persuaded that [evangelicalism] actually exists as anything other than a loose network of non-ecclesiastical institutions (professional societies, seminaries, publishers etc.). Thus, terms such as `liberal evangelicalism,’ `generic evangelicalism,’ `open evangelicalism,’ and `confessional evangelicalism’ all run the risk of mistakenly assuming the real existence of a sort of Platonic ideal of `evangelicalism’ in which they each participate.”
“Evangelicalism, at least as a doctrinal movement as opposed to a network of institutions, does not possess any real existence beyond the imaginations of those who have a vested interest in the idea.”
Evidence of such fractures in evangelicalism was last seen most clearly in the debate about hell. Two examples, Al Mohler highlights some keys pieces from a Time article that spell it out and on a more popular level, blogger Adrian Warnock writes about Bell being an ‘evangelical insider’ and the clear implication is that one cannot be an evangelical and think as Bell thinks. For some these differences mean we can’t work together. John Piper expresses this view (in what I thought was a good explanation of a poorly thought through tweet) about his ‘farewell Rob Bell’ comment. The Word Alive and Spring Harvest parting of ways in the UK would be another example.
“I am an evangelical, and I have been robbed” and essentially complains that the narrow right wingers are defining the term for the rest of us.”
Yet on the other side of things Randy Alcorn wonders, does the word evangelical mean anything any more? and says,
“I am increasingly concerned that the “big tent” of evangelicalism is rapidly becoming so big that the term “evangelical” is now almost meaningless.”
Alcorn concludes with the question many are asking,
“is it reasonable to suggest that there is a point where if you no longer believe that the whole Bible is true, and you deny core truths evangelical Christians historically believed, it is misleading and even nonsensical to continue to call yourself an ‘evangelical Christian’?”
All this is to say that how we answer or even try to answer this question could be the biggest theological debate of the next twenty years.