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Tim Keller on What It Means to Be an Evangelical

Tim Keller

What is an evangelical? Tim Keller’s December 19, 2017, article in The New Yorker effectively explains what it means to be an evangelical—a term that is often misunderstood in our greater culture. Yet it’s a term that many are trying to define and even dismiss.

Type “evangelical demise” or a similar term into your Google search bar and you’ll find no shortage of articles: “The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” “Will Evangelicalism Survive Its Own Popularity?” “Can Evangelicalism Survive in the Context of Free Inquiry?” Indeed, critics appear obsessed with predicting the death of evangelicalism.  

Yet what do critics, pollsters and evangelicals themselves mean by the term “evangelical”? Keller outlines the history of “little-e evangelicalism,” with its tenets and motivations, and “big-E Evangelicalism” in his provocatively titled article “Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore?”

Keller writes that “understanding the religious landscape requires discerning differences between the smaller, let’s call it ‘big-E Evangelicalism,’ which gets much media attention, and a much larger ‘little-e evangelicalism,’ which does not.”

By understanding what’s at the heart of evangelicalism, all of us may be able to see beyond the labels.

The History of Evangelicalism

Christian Evangelicalism, as a movement, began in the 18th century as a revival of piety and devotion to God. Adherents hold to the core convictions of the triune God, the Bible, faith, Jesus, salvation, evangelism and discipleship.

Keller cites historian David Bebbington’s research that identifies four primary characteristics of evangelicalism:

  1. Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a lifelong process of following Jesus
  2. Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
  3. Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
  4. Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

“Do the self-identified white ‘big-E Evangelicals’ of the pollsters hold to these beliefs?” writes Keller. “Recent studies indicate that many do not. In many parts of the country, Evangelicalism serves as the civil or folk religion accepted by default as part of one’s social and political identity. So, in many cases, it means that the political is more defining than theological beliefs, which has not been the case historically. And, because of the enormous amount of attention the media pays to the Evangelical vote, the term now has a decisively political meaning in popular usage.”

The Heart of Evangelicalism

Keller says he first started describing himself as an evangelical in the 1970s, primarily to let people know what he was not—a fundamentalist. “When I became a Christian in college, in the early 1970s, the word ‘evangelical’ still meant an alternative to the fortress mentality of fundamentalism.”

Fundamentalism also adheres to the basic tenets of Christianity. One of the primary differences is fundamentalists made separatism from the culture a true test of faith. Evangelicals wanted to engage the culture.  

Since 1960, there has been an explosion of evangelical ministries finding biblical ways to help a culture in need. They work with the homeless, families, children in need, each one challenging the church to fulfill its biblical mission while keeping evangelism at its core.

Today, however, the term evangelical has taken a beating in the broader culture. Keller explains: “Many younger believers and Christians of color, who had previously identified with evangelicalism, have also declared their abandonment of the label. ‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite.’ When I used the word to describe myself in the 1970s, it meant I was not a fundamentalist. If I use the name today, however, it means to hearers that I am.”

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Bob Ditmer has worked in Christian media for more than 20 years including positions with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and Focus on the Family.