I have stumbled into the most fascinating conversation.
Background: I work at an evangelical institution. I recently worked at a liberal mainline church while attending a liberal mainline school. I was raised evangelical and am ordained as an evangelical. It was interesting being in a mainline context for 7 years and it is equally as interesting to return to an evangelical context now.
I was talking about this with a colleague two weeks ago because a group that I am a part of is planning to simply its name but it will no longer contain with word ‘evangelical’. This decision was made before the recent US election in which 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. The group is afraid that this decision will now appear to be a reactive move.
I find three unspoken things going on in this discussion. Unspoken things are concerning because the assumed is unexamined and is often a source of operative power at a secondary register which hides behind the primary concerns.
Here are my 3 concerns:
- ‘Evangelical’ has become a floating or migrating signifier. It does not mean what it used to mean and most people who use the term cannot tell you what it means. (Personally, I use an expanded version of Bebbington’s fourfold definition.)
- The dominant boogeyman for evangelicals is being ‘liberal’ – another term which most cannot define, which has caused it to become a code-word and a boundary-marker. Liberal, to evangelicals, seems to be a place-holder and a sort of dog-whistle for being open and accepting. Using the label this way has resulted in the word operating as a master signifier.
- Evangelicalism in the Pacific NW (where I recently returned to) is a unique type of evangelicalism which is highly visible and influential but which functions on a narrative whereby they are a minority who get the short end of the stick socially, politically, and culturally.
I find this stuff fascinating. As someone who has lived all over N. America, who has evangelical cred (I went to the Billy Graham school of evangelism for crying out loud), who has worked and studied with liberal mainline folks, and who is a committed social constructivist … I feel like I am in the vortex of a cultural and historic moment. I have friends in both camps and am comfortable in both conversations, but this is an eye-opening moment for both.
I was doing some research last week on a different issue and stumbled into a conversation from 2008 that is growing increasingly relevant. It centers around the work of University of Washington professor James K. Wellman in “Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest”.
A review in the Seattle Times by Bob Simmons starts this way:
“The “evangelicals” of James K. Wellman Jr.’s new book know there’s only one way to God, and it’s their way. The “liberals” know there’s more than one way and are still questioning theirs. By numerical and other earthly measures, the evangelicals are winning big in the Pacific Northwest. The only question is your definition of winning.”
The research is amazing. It shows that evangelical churches are larger by a 10-1 margin and are growing at an incredible rate. However … they often feel marginalized politically, oppressed culturally, and even victimized by public policy.
This is exactly what I had been telling my colleague! I have never lived in a place that felt more christian-y with so many Christian radio stations, Christian book stores, and large churches surrounded by asphalt lakes/moats (which I call a island/castle mentality) … all the while feeling that they are losing the culture war!
It is sad because the evangelicals are doing a tremendous job in so many ways. They really should be enjoying this kind of success. As Wellman writes:
“Evangelicals have an ideology that is centered on growth, and is in relation to the self, to God, to the family, the church, and the mission of the religion. Evangelicals have accommodated styles of group work that appeal to northwesterners because they activate a sense of belonging and moral accountability.”
A different article points out that, “while liberals sermonize about the importance of building a religious community, the evangelicals are living out community”, supporting financially, relationally, and spiritually.
What I am finding in these conversations has been complex and multi-layered. It turns out that when liberals talk about evangelicals, they are often commenting on two aspects: worship style (happy clappy) and politics (by which they mean women in ministry and LGBT support). Evangelicals in a similar way, use the moniker ‘liberal’ as a kind of a double-code. The first layer is supporting/accepting the LGBT community – and here is where it gets tricky – which is actually a metonym for “biblical authority”. In this sense, neither group is exactly representing the focus of the other group accurately.
I have so many thoughts that I am sure that this will be an ongoing theme for me in 2017.
One final note – you may be aware that I have developed an interpretive scheme for a potential book on the church that looks at how N. American churches relate to the ‘system’ or the ways things are. Churches fall into 3 primary categories: Prophetic, Therapeutic, or Messianic.
- Prophetic churches critique the ‘as is’ structures to confront the system. Prophetic churches look toward the marginalized and those being run over by the machine.
- Therapeutic churches help folks exist within the system. ‘Chaplains to the Empire’ as we say. Therapeutic churches work within the ‘ways things are’ to help make you a better version of yourself.
- Messianic churches focus on helping one survive until God delivers us from the system. This can be rapture, evacuation, eschatological, etc. Messianic churches often have animosity toward culture’s slippery slope ‘slouch toward Gomorrah’ and view change as resistance. Anything else is just ‘rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic’.
I reference that quickly (there is a whole book chapter that fleshes it out) in order to say that I found an amazing quote in another review.
For liberals and evangelicals, Jesus is the central focus, “but in the case of liberals, Jesus is the focus that offers compassion and hospitality to the world; in the case of evangelicals, Jesus is a source that saves them from the world by creating a new one to come” (p. 268).
I would love to hear your thoughts, concerns, or questions.