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On the Evangelical Identity Crisis

Right now, I’ve got a two-track understanding of evangelicalism, a way of holding together an aspirational definition and a cultural one. There is evangelicalism as a renewal movement based on common beliefs and distinctives and evangelicalism as a sociological and political phenomenon. The first is more aspirational and more closely aligned to the movement’s roots (as well as its global connections), while the second is a sociological manifestation of varying traits of evangelical culture (even if the core beliefs and distinctives are no longer present).

We’re not alone in this need for a two-track understanding of a movement. Today, large numbers of Americans identify as Catholic but do not affirm official Catholic doctrine and may, in fact, defy Catholic teaching in their lives. Yet they still see themselves as Catholic. Articles from Catholic leaders lament the reality of how many parishioners are not “practicing.” Hence the many conversations about who is truly Catholic not just “culturally” Catholic, and why renewal (toward the aspirational vision) is needed.

Evangelicalism departs from Catholicism in a number of ways. There’s no pope, no hierarchy, no outward, visible unity in a structural form. No “evangelical by baptism alone.” Nor is there an evangelical “catechism” on which all leaders would agree.

But there is still at some level a cohesive movement. It’s cultural. You know it when you see it, whether it’s the Passion conference or parachurch organizations like InterVarsity and Cru, or major churches like Moody Church in Chicago or Redeemer in New York City or North Point in Atlanta.

Similarly, all across the country (especially in the South) are people who feel an affinity toward churches and institutions labeled “evangelical” even if they do not regularly attend those churches or follow the lead of those institutions. Their moral intuitions are culturally and politically driven, which leads “cultural evangelicals” in a more populist direction than may be the case with “cultural Catholics,” who usually lean more liberal (although we should take care to remember there are large numbers of populist Catholics).


Where does this leave us? Should we give up the name “evangelical”?

I would not recommend Catholics change their name because of the many non-practicing Catholics who do not embrace Catholic teaching. Instead, I’d recommend they work to reclaim the historic meaning of the term. Similarly, there are Baptist churches far from where I believe true Baptists should be doctrinally (including First Baptist Church of America), but I am somehow able to hold both the historic definition and the contemporary de-formation in my mind at the same time.

I take a similar stance with evangelicalism. I don’t want to lose the aspirational beauty of the term “evangelical.” But we shouldn’t use an aspirational definition (even if it’s helpful and confessional) to conveniently disavow “cultural evangelicals.” We ought instead to do some serious soul-searching as we consider the gap between historic, doctrinal evangelicalism and its cultural, often-political manifestations. Soul-searching may lead us to some uncomfortable places and some surprising conclusions about characteristics of the evangelical movement we thought were healthy but were actually tainted. Perhaps it will be painful but necessary to recognize how the culture of evangelicalism has morphed into something unhealthy and unsustainable. Our aspirational vision will lead us back to the past for the sake of the future renewal, but such ventures into evangelical history will need to trace the roots of both the good and bad fruit we’ve seen in our time.

There may come a time when we find it impossible to hold to both aspirational and cultural definitions for “evangelical.” Perhaps the political connotations have already engulfed the aspirational. It may be that more Christians choose to identify with their denominational heritage rather than the renewal movement that has influenced it.

Still, as I consider the situation globally, I take heart. Evangelical is not an American reality. The word has different connotations in different contexts. It has a rich history that spans generations (even preceding the American neo-evangelical movement). It is a narrow and American-centered view of the world to allow American controversies to define the movement.

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Trevin Wax is first and foremost a follower of Jesus Christ. Trevin currently serves the church by working at LifeWay Christian Resources as managing editor of The Gospel Project, a gospel-centered small group curriculum for all ages that focuses on the grand narrative of Scripture. He has been a regular blogger since 2006 and regularly contributes articles to publications such as Christianity Today. He authored two books, "Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals" (2010) and "Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope" (2011).