Conversations about evangelicalism —its definition, its essence, its variety, its center and circumference, its history, its self-contradictions and periodic self-reinventions— are things I generally try to avoid. The noise to signal ratio is too high, and the likelihood of talking past each other is enormous. For example, I’m happy in a local church, and (perhaps in my rich fantasy life) I think of evangelicalism as a coalition of other folks who are likewise happy in theirs, and we come out into the evangelical hallway and have common goals. But sometimes you get a long way into what you think is a clear discussion of evangelicalism, and suddenly realize that the person doing the talking is getting increasingly shrill about how the hallway needs to have more room for seats in it, and wants to know where we’re going to put the worship band or the choir, and where the weddings take place. That’s when I realize I have nothing to say and little to learn from somebody who thinks of evangelicalism as a church you can join, a megadenomination that comes in different flavors. And why, when I hear the word ecclesiology (as in, “We have no ecclesiology, we are so lame!”) in that context, I may not reach for my revolver but I do head for the door. Why would a movement have an ecclesiology? It ought to have a movementology, if it has anything. But as for me, “get me to the church on time,” as they say.
The discussion about evangelicalism here at this blog for the last few days has been interesting, though I admit to skim-reading many of the posts as I succumbed to that Eyes Glazing Over feeling that I get whenever the essence of evangelicalism is discussed.
Because when I do decide to listen or take part in a discussion about what evangelicalism is, I’ve got a goal in mind: I want to keep from drifting. As David Gibson said in a classic essay, Assumed Evangelicalism: Some Reflections en route to Denying the Gospel, movements begin by proclaiming the gospel, pass through a phase of assuming it but not making it central, and end by rejecting and denying it. All Gibson is really saying is that draft happens, especially generational drift. But he’s such a great worrier that he says it very well:
Assumed evangelicalism believes and signs up to the gospel. It certainly does not deny the gospel. But in terms of priorities, focus, and direction, assumed evangelicalism begins to give gradually increasing energy to concerns other than the gospel and key evangelical distinctives, to gradually elevate secondary issues to a primary level, to be increasingly worried about how it is perceived by others and to allow itself to be increasingly influenced both in content and method by the prevailing culture of the day.
There are lots of important, local-church-centered ways of resisting the onset of assumed evangelicalism. But for those of us who also have significant investments in interdenominational ventures and institutions, one way to keep from assuming evangelicalism is to keep talking about it. Not too much, and not all the time. But some.