Thursday, November 03, 2005

It’s Not Your Father’s Fundamentalism Anymore! - The Challenge of Today's Evangelicalism

It’s Not Your Father’s Fundamentalism Anymore!

An Opinion Piece
By Dennis E. McFadden

Some time ago a television commercial boasted that younger consumers should reconsider the Oldsmobile since it had changed considerably from the stodgy older reputation it enjoyed. “It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile” seemed to sum up the quantum transformations in the brand as it had changed with the times.

For many in the mainline denominational orbit, the challenge from the right might be: “It’s not your father’s fundamentalism anymore.” Cultural, theological, even ideological trappings of old timey fundamentalism are conspicuously absent in modern expressions of evangelicalism.

Whether dealing with the highly corporate corporate culture of “Purpose Driven” Rick Warren or Bill Hybels or the compulsively affable Ted Haggard, NAE’s optimistic champion and cover boy of this issue of Christianity Today, evangelicals continue to confound and confuse their cultured despisers. With some of the conflicts taking place in mainline denominations such as the ABCUSA, denominational staff may continue to ignore the evangelical challenge only at their own peril.

When Haggard was interviewed recently as to the breadth of evangelical convictions, he answered simply that Jimmy Carter "is," Bill Clinton "is" and Hillary "is not."

“Evangelicalism is a continuum of theologies all the way from Benny Hinn to R.C. Sproul. The R.C. Sproul crowd has a hard time with Benny Hinn, and the Benny Hinn crowd has a hard time with R.C. Sproul. But they’re all evangelicals," says Haggard.

For Haggard, evangelicalism incorporates the culture warriors like Pat Robertson and Phyllis Schlafly as well as the African American community with its passion and “honorable concern for social justice.”

It is precisely at this point that evangelicals join their more progressive friends in echoing the word “diversity.” However, for evangelicalism, the diversity is one of class (rich and poor), race (red and yellow, black and white), politics (liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans), and theology (Calvinist and Arminian, Dispensational and Pentecostal, studious and experiential). Diversity for evangelicals never permits one to trifle with the authority of the Bible as the Word of God or advocate for positions believed to be contrary to Scripture.

David Bebbington’s widely cited categories are still instructive. Evangelicalism may be distinguished by its conversionism, Biblicism, activism, and crucientrism. In other words, evangelicals expect people to enter into the church by a transforming experience of new birth, continue to rely upon the Bible as the source of religious authority, advocate a concern for propagating the Christian faith through evangelistic encounters, and see Christ’s work on the cross as an atonement (generally a substitutionary one).

Contemporary evangelicals are often exceedingly well educated and aware. Christian college enrollments, for example, have soared more than 70% in the last several years. Probably the majority of working clergy who continue to use Greek and Hebrew in their sermon preparation hail from the evangelical wing of the church. And, it is not uncommon for pastors of conservative churches to have background, often advanced degrees, in secular disciplines such as management and business. One of my fellow bloggers, Dr. Glenn Layne of, boasts an advanced degree in political science in addition to his theological training.

As mainline denominations are being wrenched asunder over issues of left vs. right, those in positions of denominational leadership would do well to consider the actual evangelicalism that truly exists today rather than their stereotypes of the fundamentalism of yesterday. They will discover that the vital and vibrant faith known as evangelicalism poses significant intellectual, cultural, and ecclesiastical challenges to mainline religious assumptions.

[Special thanks to American Baptist historian/scholar/pastor extraordinaire, Dr. Howard Stewart. When he is not thinking deep thoughts, writing, or enjoying retirement at Atherton Baptist Homes, Howard feeds ideas to your blogger. He suggested the notion for today's piece. Naturally, all of the criticism belongs to me alone. But, thanks, Howard for a great idea!]

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