What I mean by the name “post-evangelical” keeps coming up in discussions. Though I have addressed the meaning of the term in a previous post, I’d like to make some further contributions to the discussion.
I want to note, first of all, that the “Truly Reformed” blogosphere is now using the term without any explanation as well. For example, in this quote a well-known reformed apologist criticizes those who accept Roman Catholics as fellow Christians.
This kind of “spirituality” is quite popular across the spectrum today, and what truly showed through plainly last year when the Pope died was how post-evangelicals have completely lost all contact with historical doctrine and a meaningful understanding of things like “idolatry” or “the glory of God.” I was not at all shocked at how Roman Catholics responded to the Pope’s death last year; I was, however, deeply disturbed by how non-Catholics who proclaim themselves to be faithful to biblical truth were willing to close their eyes to the reality of the Pope’s teachings in light of Scripture itself.
It is quite predictable that the failure to denounce Roman Catholics will be seen as an absolute indication of apostasy among fundamentalists and truly reformed Calvinists. It is true that a “post-evangelical” perspective allows us to see true Christian faith in many non-evangelical Christians. That all our traditions contain errant practices- from viewing relics to Jabez praying to claiming that certain kinds of music are anointed- is a fact that crosses all traditions.
Several of my co-workers have also asked me about the term, and for them I would like to make another attempt at an explanation.
How you understand post-evangelical depends on how you understand the term “evangelical.”
Most persons who work alongside me would understand evangelical to mean “evangelistic,” and would be concerned that I am saying I’ve become a hyper-Calvinist who is against evangelism. That would make the majority of what I do with my day rather puzzling.
“Evangelical” should not ever be used as a synonym for evangelistic, but we can say that an evangelical is someone who believes in the “evangel” or the saving message of Christ as summarized in the Bible and as proclaimed by the church. In that sense, I am and always will be an evangelical.
Evangelical can also refer to a set of beliefs, though not to a particular creed. In different times and places, the word evangelical has been used to identify particular beliefs centered around the “good news” of Jesus. So Luther called his movement evangelical, and Lutherans continue to use the word today, including liberal Lutherans with a very different idea of that good news than Luther ever held!
Evangelicals in American often do hold similar, but not identically expressed, beliefs about the Bible, Jesus, salvation, the atonement, saving faith, the Christian life and the church, particularly its mission. Evangelicals have endlessly debated the correct, Biblical expressions of these doctrines, and while no one would deny there is great unity among evangelicals on these matters, there is also much serious division. Areas of division would include the exact language of the authority of the Bible, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the place of women, the nature of saving faith, the security of salvation, the role of the Holy Spirit, the continuance of spiritual gifts and the structure of the church itself.
In this sense, “post-evangelical” means that I have not identified completely with any of the attempts to “close” the evangelical conversation around a particular denomination, clique, team or tribe. I believe we are not “hunting heretics,” but listening to and waiting upon the Holy Spirit who is still at work in the church. I am not about the isolation of every strand of error, but about the continuation of the evangelical conversation that has been going on since, at least, the Reformation.
This is why my post-evangelicalism is often expressed in support for the inclusion of others in the conversation, even if I do not personally agree with all, or even most, of their positions on particular issues or doctrines. I often confuse those who read me because I will side with Piper, Driscoll, Wright and Mclaren at various times. This is entirely consistent within my understanding of “post-evangelicalism,” because I am rejecting the “team sport” approach to theology that has dominated the attempt to define evangelicalism down to the minutia.
There is nothing I resent more than the insistence that I cannot find Jesus genuinely present in other traditions or in the lives of Christians with whom I disagree. The attempt to “launder” and purify evangelicalism down to a “100%” error free expression of the true church is a project I want nothing to do with. I do not need a theo-babysitter to keep me away from Christians, books and expressions of the faith that might be tainted. This is, in my view, little more than human pride and the desire for power over others expressing itself in the denouncement of all who are not identical to our own current level of understanding.
Another sense in which the word “evangelical” occurs is also useful to my use of “post-evangelical.” This is what I call “evangelical culture” and refers not to the essential doctrinal structure of evangelicalism, but to the culture that evangelicals create. We would see this in styles of doing things, preferences in non-essentials, ways of relating to the world, traditions in church, art, music, publishing, business, unspoken rules and assumed agreements.
In a typical church there is a mixture of doctrine and culture. The time/length of the service, the dress code of the congregation, the styles of music, the use of non-essential elements and the vocabulary of the preacher are all cultural aspects of evangelicalism. Evangelical culture is tremendously hard to define, map or distinguish from other kinds of culture, but I have four “poles” that cover much of evangelical culture.
1) A culture that relates to Billy Graham’s embodiment of evangelicalism.
2) A culture that is similar to the common practices of the Southern Baptists or independent Baptists.
3) A culture that is acceptable in mainstream charismatic/Pentecostal churches.
4) A culture that is marketable in a Family Christian Store.
Generally, what I consider to be evangelical culture will be found within these poles, but not exclusively of course.
To be post-evangelical is to consciously move beyond uncritical allegiance to and participation in this culture, choosing instead to return to sources, look to other traditions and radically critique all versions of religious culture by scripture and older, more “catholic” tradition. I believe that it is on the level of culture that we can see the true state of evangelicalism. This is, for me, the significance of Joel Osteen, his acceptance by so many Christians, his promotion by publishing and broadcasting interests and his authority by way of church growth rather than a proclamation and confession of the Gospel. Osteen is entirely a creature of evangelical culture minus the majority of evangelical beliefs.
My own journey has been away from evangelical culture to the more dependably Biblical culture in the ancient and Reformation churches. I am not at all alone on this journey, as many others are rejecting evangelical culture and arrogant innovation as well. I believe the post-evangelical commitment is to be aware of this “world” and to “come out of it,” as much as possible. This is why the liturgy, creeds, confessions, hymns and Lord’s Supper centered worship and life of the ancient and Reformation church are more spiritually interesting and nourishing to me. I highly recommend them.
So to be post-evangelical is to reject evangelical culture in favor of a more catholic, diverse and ancient expression of the Christian faith, while adhering to evangelical doctrine without becoming part of team or faction operating under the illusion of superiority to others and a closure of the Christian conversation.