This article appeared as the introduction to The Beliefnet Guide to Evangelical Christianity, edited by Wendy Murray Zoba
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A friend of mine who runs an inner-city shelter for drug addicts and homeless people and is tantalizingly hard to place on any theological map made this observation: “I love evangelicals.  You can get them to do anything.  The challenge is, you’ve also got to soften their judgmental attitudes before they can be effective.”  As a journalist working primarily within the evangelical milieu, I have seen the truth of his remarks.

Indeed, you can get evangelicals to do anything.  This year alone I have seen a variety of evangelicals at work on several continents.  In South Africa I spent time with Ray McCauley, a larger-than-life character who in younger days finished second-runner-up to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Mr. Universe contest.  Ray founded a church in Johannesburg based on the charismatic “name it and claim it” philosophy, a church that ultimately grew into the largest in South Africa, with 32,000 members.  As the apartheid government began to crumble, Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu embraced Ray, no doubt coveting his nationwide television constituency.  In the process Ray’s attitudes, politics, and rigid theology began to soften.  White members grew disgruntled, and gradually the church’s makeup changed in a way that reflects the racial spectrum of the nation: 70 percent black, 10 percent mixed race or “Coloured,” 10 percent Indian, and 10 percent white.  Today Rhema Ministries’ many programs include an AIDS hospital and a rehabilitation farm for addicts.

At the other end of the country, in Cape Town, I met Joanna Flanders-Thomas, a dynamic and attractive woman of mixed race.  As a student she agitated against the apartheid government.  After that nationwide victory she turned to a local problem, the most violent prison in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela had spent several years of confinement.  Alone, Joanna started visiting prisoners daily, bringing them a simple Gospel message of forgiveness and reconciliation.  She earned their trust, got them to talk about their abusive childhoods, and pointed them to a better way of solving conflicts.  The year before her visits began, the prison recorded 279 acts of violence; the next year there were two.  Joanna’s results attracted the attention of the BBC, which sent a camera crew from London to produce two one-hour documentaries on her work.

Two months later I traveled to Nepal, the world’s only Hindu kingdom, a dirt-poor country where the caste system lives on.  There I met with leprosy health workers from fifteen nations, mostly European, who serve under an evangelical mission specializing in leprosy work.  Historically, most of the major advances in leprosy treatment have come from Christian missionaries—mainly because, as my friend put it, “You can get them to do anything.”  I met well-trained surgeons, nurses, and physical therapists who devote their lives to caring for leprosy victims, many of them of the Untouchable caste.  At their annual conference, the missionaries assembled a makeshift orchestra, sang hymns and prayed together, and shared practical hints on how to handle the Maoist guerrilla threat in Nepal.  In their leisure time, some of these missionaries climb the high mountains in Nepal, others focus on bird life, and at least one French doctor studies Himalayan moths.  Several had run the Kathmandu marathon, and two had taken a wild motorcycle trek across mountains and rivers into neighboring Tibet.  None that I met fit the stereotype of “uptight, right-wing evangelicals,” yet all would claim the word evangelical.  They had come to Nepal, after all, to spread the “good news” implicit in the etymology.

From Nepal I went to Beijing, China, where I attended an international church, 2000-strong, comprising members from sixty nations.  An African dance troupe led the music that morning, and the rented hotel room rocked.  I met diplomats, business executives, an Oxford philosophy professor, and platoons of young evangelicals who had moved to China in order to teach English and in the process communicate their faith to the Chinese.  Government restrictions forbade Chinese nationals from attending the church—ushers checked passports at the door—but later that day I met representatives from the Chinese underground church.  In the last thirty years, despite periodic government crackdowns that have led to harsh prison sentences for its leaders, the house church movement has burgeoned into perhaps the largest Christian awakening in history.  Experts estimate that 70 million Chinese now worship in house churches scattered throughout the officially atheistic nation.  One of the leaders met with me even though authorities had explicitly forbidden it.  “I’m 89 years old and I’ve already spent 23 years in prison,” he said defiantly.  “What are they going to do to me?”

A few months later, in Wisconsin, I attended a conference on ministry to women in prostitution that attracted representatives from nineteen different nations.  Several dozen evangelical organizations work to counter illegal sex trafficking and also to liberate women from prostitution, which in poor nations constitutes a modern form of slavery.  The representatives brought along some of their “clients,” who told wrenching tales of abuse and then credited the ministries with setting them free and helping them find new trades.

When I return from such trips and read profiles in Time and Newsweek about American evangelicals, I feel sad.  In the United States, everything eventually boils down to politics, and usually that means polarization.  Many Americans view evangelicals as a monolithic voting bloc obsessed with a few moral issues.  They miss the vibrancy and enthusiasm, the good-newsness that the word represents in much of the world.  Evangelicals in Africa bring food to prisoners, care for AIDS orphans, and operate mission schools that train many of that continent’s leaders.  There, and in Asia and Latin America, evangelicals also manage micro-enterprise loan programs that allow families to buy a sewing machine or a flock of chickens.  In the last fifty years, the percentage of American missionaries sponsored by evangelical agencies has risen from 40 percent to 90 percent.  Presently, about a third of the two billion Christians in the world fall into a category to which the word evangelical applies, a large majority of whom live outside North America and Europe.

A friend of mine visiting a barrio in Sao Paulo, Brazil, began to feel anxious as he noticed the minions of drug lords patrolling the neighborhood with automatic weapons.  The streets narrowed to dirt paths; plastic water pipes dangled overhead; and a snarl of wires tapped power from high-voltage lines.  The stench of sewer was everywhere.  Anxiety increased as he noticed that people inside the tin shacks were glowering at him, a suspicious gringo invading their turf.  Was he a narc?  An undercover cop?  Then the chief drug lord of that neighborhood noticed on the back of his t-shirt the logo of a local Pentecostal church.  He broke out in a big smile, “O, evangelicos!” he called out, and the scowls turned to smiles.  Over the years, that church had extended practical help to the barrio, and now the foreign visitors were joyfully welcomed.

In the United States, too, evangelicals are thriving even as mainline Protestant churches decline.  Evangelicals staff many of the five hundred Christian agencies which have sprung up since World War II to combat social problems.  Mega-churches based on the 17,000-member Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago and Saddleback Community Church in southern California are replicating in major cities.  A new, hard-to-classify “emergent church” has evolved to minister to the post-modern generation.  In fact, one recent survey revealed that 93 of the top 100 rapidly growing churches in the U.S. identify themselves with evangelicals.

Truly, you can get evangelicals to do anything.  The challenge, as my friend emphasized, is that “you’ve also got to soften their judgmental attitudes before they can be effective.”

When I was writing the book What’s So Amazing About Grace? I conducted an informal survey among airline seatmates and other strangers willing to strike up a conversation.  “When I say the word evangelical, what comes to mind?” I would ask.  Often in response I would hear the word against: Evangelicals are against abortion, against pornography, against gay rights.  Or, I would hear a name like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, two of the most visible, and political, representatives of evangelicalism.  For many people I talked to, evangelicals were a force to fear, a gang of moralists attempting to impose their will on a pluralistic society.

A journalist working in the New York media told me that editors had no qualms about assigning a Jewish person to a Jewish story, a Buddhist to a Buddhist story, or a Catholic to a Catholic story, but would never assign an evangelical to an evangelical story.  Why not?  “They’re the ones with an agenda.”  Evangelicals, according to the New York stereotype, will propagandize and proselytize.  You can’t trust them.  They’re judgmental.  They have an agenda.

Pollster George Barna found that while 22 percent of Americans say they have a favorable impression of evangelicals, 23 percent report an unfavorable impression.  Much of the reason traces back to the perception of evangelicals as a political force, a perception based on a most checkered history.

Until the 1960s, evangelicals were as likely to be aligned with the Democratic Party as the Republican.  For example, early in the twentieth century the prominent evangelical William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat, ran unsuccessfully for President and served in Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet until he became alarmed over the U.S. tilt toward entering World War I.  Evangelicals led the fight for women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery—and also the opposition to it.  (Revivalist George Whitefield in the eighteenth century actively campaigned for slavery and the Southern Baptist denomination later formed over the right of missionaries to own slaves.)  At times evangelicals opposed immigration in an attempt to dam the flood of European Catholics.

In perhaps the high-water mark of evangelicals’ involvement in politics, they battled for a constitutional amendment decreeing the prohibition of alcohol, a measure later overturned and now viewed with considerable misgiving.  Evangelical African-Americans led the civil rights crusade while some white evangelicals opposed it.  In the 1980s, Jerry Falwell urged American Christians to buy gold Krugerrands and to promote U.S. reinvestment in South Africa in an effort to shore up the white regime.  Currently, evangelicals take a prominent role in championing the death penalty, supporting pro-life legislation, and retaining traditional definitions of marriage.  In short, evangelicals have taken political stances that sometimes appear quixotic, sometimes heroic, and often contradictory.

Modern evangelicals in the U.S. increasingly ally themselves with conservative politics.  Evangelicals rallied around Ronald Reagan, the nation’s first divorced President, who rarely attended church and gave little to charity, while viewing with suspicion Jimmy Carter, a devoutly religious President who taught a Baptist Sunday School class throughout his term in office.  Televangelist and preacher Pat Robertson ran for President.  So did Gary Bauer, head of the evangelically-based Family Research Council.  Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition, who made the cover of Time in 1995, served in 2004 as a regional chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign.

To complicate matters, many evangelicals in places like the United Kingdom and New Zealand align themselves with liberal political parties, believing their Christian commitment enjoins them to seek government help for the poor and to oppose war.  And in China, many in the underground church see no contradiction in their support for the world’s largest Communist government.

According to author Randall VanderMey, “Evangelicals tend to view the church not as a giant ship so much as a fleet of rowboats and boogie boards, with each individual in search of an authentic personal experience with God.”  As we have seen, politics hardly offers the appropriate labels to slap on evangelicals.  What descriptors might apply, then?  In this book you will meet a wide variety of people who somehow fall under the label evangelical.  To adapt a comment famously made by a Supreme Court justice about pornography, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

Over the decades, the emphases of American evangelicals have shifted.  Early in the twentieth century, evangelicals tended to define themselves by doctrine, countering theological liberals with an emphasis on the fundamentals of the faith (hence the term fundamentalism).  In the years following World War II, evangelicals entered an activist phase, founding Bible colleges and universities, dispatching missionaries overseas, and reaching out to a young generation through such organizations as Youth For Christ, Young Life, and Campus Crusade.  Evangelicals were often distinguished more by a behavioral lifestyle than by doctrine: “We don’t drink, smoke, dance, or chew, and we don’t go with girls who do.”  Later in the century, many of these lifestyle distinctives broke down and the emphasis, in the U.S. at least, moved to politics.

Every few years the national media recognizes the cultural phenomenon.  Time magazine called 1976, when Jimmy Carter got elected, “the year of the evangelical.”  During Watergate, Charles Colson attracted much attention for his dramatic born-again conversion.  In 2003 Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed article in the New York Times acknowledging that “nearly all of us in the news business are completely out of touch with a group that includes 46 percent of Americans,” the proportion who described themselves in a Gallup poll as evangelical or born-again Christians.

Evangelicalism in the U.S. has become not just a set of beliefs or organizations, but rather a vast subculture that manages to flourish within an increasingly pluralistic culture.  In 2003 a book written by evangelical pastor Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life, sold more copies in a single year than any previous nonfiction book in history.  The dozen books in the Left Behind series on the Second Coming of Christ have passed 60 million copies in print.  The Prayer of Jabez and the older The Late Great Planet Earth show that blockbuster evangelical books are no fluke.  And Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ stunned Hollywood studios with its success, due in large part to evangelicals’ support.

In a tongue-in-cheek article, “What Would Jesus Do,” GQ magazine’s literary editor Water Kirn spent a week immersing himself in the evangelical subculture.  He read from the Left Behind series, dined on foods recommended in the book What Would Jesus Eat?, listened to Christian music on Christian radio stations and on his CD player, shopped at an evangelical bookstore, watched Bibleman videos, and got his news from Christian television and evangelical Internet sites.  He even used a computer mouse pad purchased from a Christian store and designed by Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light.  Kirn admitted to some relief from the assaults of secular culture but ended up unimpressed by evangelical subculture: “Ark culture is a bad Xerox of the mainstream, not a truly distinctive or separate achievement.  Without the courage to lead, it numbly follows, picking up the major media’s scraps and gluing them back together with a cross on top.”  Yet the very fact that he could spend a week inside that “ark culture” shows its pervasive influence.

The British historian David Bebbington suggests this overall summary of evangelical distinctives, which will be used as a kind of template in this book:

  • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born again” experience.
  • Activism: the expression of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts.
  • Biblicism: a particular regard for the Bible as the ultimate authority.
  • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.

Under this overarching description, Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Orthodox Christians can be evangelicals even while remaining within denominational structures that might shirk the term.  The National Association of Evangelicals bars members of the National Council of Churches, and yet many of those denominations have constituents who gladly call themselves evangelicals.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must report that I am an evangelical.  I write books for the same publisher that produced The Purpose Driven Life (while trying not to envy its sales figures), and I write a monthly column for Christianity Today, a leading evangelical magazine.  I have spent much of my career within the evangelical subculture, poking around it as a journalist, exploring and sometimes challenging its foibles and eccentricities.  As one who emerged out of narrow Southern fundamentalism, I have found the subculture surprisingly broad and diverse.  Not once has a magazine or book publisher tried to censor my words.

I studied in the graduate school at Wheaton College, a place that honors and rewards scholarship.  I cut my journalistic teeth as Editor of Campus Life, a magazine published by Youth For Christ, and then served as “Editor at Large” for Christianity Today.  All three identify themselves strongly with the one person who best exemplifies the evangelical style: Billy Graham, who studied at Wheaton and founded the other two organizations.  And all three provided a nurturing environment in which I could work out my own faith, including times of serious doubts and struggles, even as I pressed against the limitations of the subculture.  Graham’s influence has been enormous: his crusades embraced mainline denominations, Catholics, and charismatics; he dismantled racial barriers; and he eased evangelicals into the public square by addressing such issues as civil rights, abortion, poverty, and the nuclear arms race.

When I mailed the manuscript for What’s So Amazing About Grace? to the publisher, I told my wife, “This book may get me blackballed by evangelicals.”  After all, it contained a chapter on Bill Clinton, not exactly a hero to most evangelicals, and a chapter on Mel White, who came out of the closet as a homosexual activist even though he clings to most evangelical theology.  I was wrong.  Nearly every day I receive an appreciative letter from an evangelical reader.

As a writer, I have found that by sticking to Bebbington’s four distinctives, especially his emphasis on the Bible, I have a wide range of freedom.  The Bible looms as a decisive self-corrective to the vagaries of evangelical theology and practice.  When readers complain, I reply that I am not the radical; Jesus is.  He sought out prostitutes and sinners, in the process attracting violent opposition from the religious establishment of his day.  He set the standard for personal holiness in the midst of a decadent society while responding with love and grace to the very ones who made it decadent.  As he departed, he prayed that his followers would not be removed from the world, charging them instead to live in its midst as salt and light, as representatives of a counter-kingdom based on peace and love and justice.

After spending several decades working within evangelicalism I would summarize its essential tenets in three statements:

This is our Father’s world. Evangelicals believe that God created the world and lavished it with care.  Any residue of goodness on the planet reflects God’s “common grace”: the sun shines and rain falls both on those who believe and on those who don’t.  All pleasure, including beauty, sexuality, art, and work, are God’s gifts to us, and we look to God’s revelation for the pattern in best ordering our desires so that in them we may find fulfillment and not bondage.

Theologian Langdon Gilkey said that if evangelical Christianity has a heresy, it is the omission of God the Father, the creator, preserver, and ruler of all human history and every human community, in favor of Jesus the Son, who is related to individual souls and their destinies.  I see his complaint not so much as a heresy as a failure in emphasis.  As C. S. Lewis, the patron saint of thoughtful evangelicals, once wrote, “When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.”

As an expression of love for the world, God entered its history (the Incarnation) and gave the Son’s life as a sacrifice for its redemption (the Atonement). Its emphasis on Jesus and the cross separates Christianity from all other religions, and evangelicals hold fast to that distinctive.  In the mystery of the Trinity, God was “in Christ reconciling the world unto himself” (the Apostle Paul’s words).  Evangelicals recognize that the world has been invaded by evil, and believe that Christ began a process of reclamation, in which the church plays a crucial role, that will culminate in a final victory.

On one of Karl Barth’s visits to Union Seminary, someone asked him what he would say if he met Adolf Hitler.  The German theologian replied, “Jesus Christ died for your sins.”  Evangelicals’ emphasis on conversion stems from a profound belief that, as Paul put it, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.”  Almost every message delivered by evangelist Billy Graham centered on that theme.  And yet Graham himself insisted that a stress on getting right with God does not imply a faith “so heavenly minded that it does no earthly good.”  Quite the contrary.  Evangelicals such as William Wilberforce, John Newton, and Charles Simeon in England led the way in social reform.

Sociologists in Latin America have documented how the act of conversion can lead to significant social change.  (See, for example, Base Christian Communities and Social Change in Brazil, by William Hewitt.)  A man goes forward to receive Christ at an evangelistic meeting.  He joins a local church, which counsels him to stop getting drunk on weekends.  With their help, he does so.  He starts showing up at work on Monday mornings, and eventually gets promoted to a foreman position.  With new faith and a renewed sense of worth, he stops beating his wife and becomes a better father to his children.  Newly empowered, his wife takes a job that allows her to afford education for her children.  Multiply that by several score converted citizens, and soon the economic base of the entire village rises.

Through the power of the Spirit, followers of Jesus advance God’s kingdom in the world. Karl Barth also said, “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”  Yes, and in recent years evangelicals have increasingly recognized the corresponding need sometimes to unclasp those hands and actively lead the uprising against that disorder.

Evangelical organizations like International Justice Mission fight to liberate victims of sexual slavery even as other missions minister to its victims.  Prison Fellowship International visits prisoners and equips them for life outside.  Mercy Ships recruits doctors to perform free surgeries in needy countries.  Habitat for Humanity pursues the lofty goal of providing suitable housing for whoever lacks it.  Organizations such as World Vision, World Relief, Opportunity International, Samaritan’s Purse, Food for the Hungry, and World Concern respond to human disasters like plagues and famines while simultaneously funding development projects to prevent the disasters from recurring.  In a reprise of the “settlement movement” a century ago, evangelicals are moving into major cities to establish community-based programs.  Belatedly, some evangelical organizations have taken up the cause of the environment.  Evangelicals run homeless shelters, addiction programs, and alternative pregnancy centers because they believe such activism helps further God’s kingdom in the world, a practical way of answering Jesus’ prayer that “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

In this introduction to evangelicalism, you will meet characters both saintly and eccentric. You will read of dissensions and discord.  The history of evangelicalism is a history of humanity, with all its fits and starts.  As one who has been nurtured by evangelicalism, I hope you also catch something of the spirit fueling a movement that has proven to be light on its feet, willing to self-correct, and is above all committed to follow Jesus “who, though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, that we, through his poverty, might become rich, and who has left us an example that we should follow in his steps.”  That last is a goal to which all evangelicals aspire, however falteringly we accomplish it.  Without doubt, Jesus is the radical one.

Copyright © 2005 by Philip Yancey