I was born and raised in Wheaton, Illinois. For some people that might be thought to say everything. Wheaton is the home of Wheaton College, that 156-year-old bastion of evangelical higher education. The city itself hosts the head offices of numerous missionary and parachurch organizations, though, tellingly, precious few denominational headquarters. The population is heavily churched, with vibrant congregations of every and no denomination. Although I attended a public elementary school, many of my teachers were evangelicals and at least two were Wheaton graduates. Our family were members of an Orthodox Presbyterian Church congregation, which my parents helped to establish just over half a century ago. We spent my first eleven years there.
I do not recall hearing the word evangelical used to describe us. At that time fundamentalist had not yet become the term of near universal opprobrium that it is today, and I often heard my mother speak favourably of “fundamental” churches, that is, those which confessed the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, including the incarnation, the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth and so forth. Our church was obviously one of these. On a weekly basis I grew accustomed to hearing the Ten Commandments read either before or after the confession of sin (I can no longer recall the precise order), reciting the Apostles’ (but, as I recall, not the Nicene) Creed. The church was strongly sabbatarian, with certain activities mandated or proscribed on the Lord’s Day. (We could listen to Mantovani’s rendition of classic hymns, but not Lawrence Welk, on the phonograph.) I was taught the Westminster Shorter Catechism beginning in the early elementary grades.
Yet our family’s experience was somewhat at the periphery of the larger evangelical movement. Such typical proscriptions as avoidance of alcohol, the cinema and tobacco were largely foreign to that congregation, though their use was an obstacle to membership in some neighbouring churches. However, what distinguished us from other Presbyterians was that we had no room for the liberal protestantism that we believed to have sidetracked Princeton Seminary in the 1920s and had further decimated some of the major American church bodies during that troubled decade.
One of the things that makes the word evangelical so difficult to pin down is that, whichever defining characteristics one comes up with, there will always be exceptions. An evangelical is someone who has had a born-again conversion experience – except, that is, for those who have not. Some, like myself, have never known a time when we were not aware of belonging to Christ and would be hard pressed to fasten onto a single moment of personal conversion.
Similarly, I am tempted to say that an evangelical is someone who rejects liberalism, though it’s no longer clear that the average evangelical even knows what liberalism is. Nevertheless, the evangelical believes strongly that the Bible is the very Word of God. She believes that Jesus really did rise from the dead and that he performed genuine miracles during his earthly ministry. He believes that Jesus really predicted the destruction of the temple in AD 70 and that his eschatological discourses were not artificially inserted into the gospel record after the fact. Evangelicals may differ in their interpretations of the apocalyptic books, but they firmly believe that Jesus will indeed return to earth to establish his eternal kingdom. This would seem to indicate that there is a certain confessional core to which virtually all evangelicals, whatever their other differences, would adhere.
Yet there is also a strong pragmatic streak among evangelicals, as can be seen in the proliferation of seeker-friendly worship services, the ready embrace of marketing techniques in spreading the gospel and the apparent subordination of truth to measurable results, usually calculated by the numbers of warm bodies (or souls!) present in the pews. The danger here, of course, is that certain non-negotiables will be inadvertently discarded in the interest of attracting new converts. In which case evangelicals may end up looking very much like the liberals from whom their forebears struggled to distance themselves.
Could it be, then, that evangelicalism is best understood in terms of the tension between this confessional core and the pragmatism that so often comes with well-intended activism? If so, my subjective judgement is that the confessional core still has priority of place within the movement, though the lure of pragmatism could one day dilute that core.