“Be careful to do as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.”
~ Deuteronomy 5:32
The title of this blog is Beyond Evangelical. But what does that phrase mean? And what does it not mean?
First, “beyond evangelical” doesn’t mean “non-evangelical.”
The phrase “beyond evangelical” is short for “moving beyond evangelicalism,” which is a theological movement (not people or persons).
I am an evangelical. What is more, I stand with the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed (just in case anyone was wondering). In this regard, I agree with Alister McGrath’s statement that “evangelicalism is historic Christianity. It’s the standard bearer of historic, orthodox Christianity.”
But the term “evangelical” embraces a wide canopy. So much so that the word is becoming increasingly vague and open to interpretation. Evangelicalism has become a hyphenated movement. For instance, “old-evangelical,” “neo-evangelical,” “conservative-evangelical,” “post-evangelical,” “post-conservative evangelical,” “ecumenical-evangelical,” “charismatic-evangelical,” “young-evangelical,” etc. are all in common use today. American historian Mark Noll rightly points out that evangelicalism is made up of “shifting movements, temporary alliances, and the lengthened shadows of individuals.”
The word “evangelical” has become so generalized that people like Jim Wallis and Al Mohler stand on the oppose sides of the evangelical spectrum. The same is true for Rob Bell (on the left) and John MacArthur (on the right), both of whom claim to be “evangelical.”
As western culture has balkanized and changed the meaning of words over time, the same is true for religious vocabulary. We can no longer take for granted the meaning of terms like “evangelical” or “evangelicalism.” The evangelical formulas that worked in the past have evolved. So there’s very little consensus today as to their exact meaning.
Second, “beyond evangelical” doesn’t mean “post-evangelical.”
Popularized by Dave Tomlinson, the term “post-evangelical” is often equated with the emerging church movement/phenomenon. While I have close friends who identify themselves with this movement, I do not. I appreciate my emergent friends and applaud some of their concerns, while freely disagreeing with other concerns.
In our book Jesus Manifesto, Leonard Sweet and I address what we believe to be some of the critical weaknesses of “emergent” Christianity as it relates to the Person of Jesus Christ (see Chapter 7). We also address some of the critical weaknesses we see in “the Religious Right” (see Chapter 8). Right or wrong, you know where I stand on those issues.
Now here’s something I’d like to say to my friends who are analyzing evangelicalism today. The future of evangelicalism is not restricted to a choice between the left or the right.
Another direction exists: It’s forward. As Sweet and I say in our book,
The body of Christ is at a crossroads right now. The two common alternatives are to move either to the left or the right. It’s our observation, however, that we are living in a unique time, when people are frozen as they look in either of those directions. When they look to the left, they decide that they cannot venture there. When they look to the right, they feel the same. Whether they realize it or not, people are looking for a fresh alternative—a third way. The crossroads today, we believe, is one of moving forward or backward (Jesus Manifesto, p. xiii).
Those of us who are moving “beyond evangelical” resonate with that statement. The only gear we have is “forward.”
Third, for many evangelicals, the historical use of the word “evangelical” includes four key notes.
The British evangelical historian David Bebbington has defined the word “evangelical” by the following four notes. Mark Noll also uses this description as well as a host of others. Bebbington’s “evangelical quadrilateral” includes:
- Biblicism - being Bible-centered, which would include the belief that the Bible is the Divinely inspired authority for life and faith; it is trustworthy and sufficient.
- Conversionism – being conversion-centered, which would include the need for being converted to Jesus Christ.
- Crucicentrism - being cross-centered, which would include emphasizing the death of Jesus for salvation.
- Activism – being activist-centered, which would include living the Christian life, evangelizing, and helping those in need.
I hold to all of the above. Therefore, I am an evangelical in the historic sense. But going “beyond evangelical” means asking some incisive questions like . . .
*In what sense is the Bible authoritative? And how exactly does a person hear and encounter God through the Scriptures? What’s the main point of the Bible . . . the grand narrative?
*How is a person converted? And what does conversion give an individual? What does it include?
*What happened at the cross exactly? How does Jesus’ death save us? Does His death on the cross do more than just forgive sins? If so, what?
*How should Christians present the gospel? What is God’s central mission exactly? And what does the Scripture teach concerning how we are to fulfill that mission? (I predict that the question “What exactly is the Mission?” is going to define the missional church conversation over the next five years. This is always assumed . . . grossly so. So hide and watch.)
Fourth, those of us who have moved “beyond evangelical” have expanded the evangelical quadrilateral with four additional notes.
- Christ-centered – a recovery of the Bible’s consistent and razor-sharp emphasis that Jesus Christ is supreme, preeminent, sovereign, the center of biblical revelation, and the practical, living head of the church. In today’s evangelicalism, countless religious “themes” and “subjects” have replaced Christ as the centrality and supremacy. My message Epic Jesus: The Christ You Never Knew illustrates and expands what I mean by “Christ-centered.”
- Resurrection Life-centered – what stands beyond the cross is the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection means so many things. It means the beginning of the new creation. It means the triumph of God over all things, including death, His greatest enemy. But it also means that God’s people can live in the foretaste of our future resurrection, participating in its life and power here and now. It means that Jesus Christ is still alive, can be known, and has come to live out His resurrected life in and through us. Learning to live by the indwelling life of Christ in a corporate context and all that it involves is a missing note in modern evangelicalism. (The latter is focused on imitating Jesus as an individual through one’s own efforts.) Living by the life of Christ also means being radically sold out to Jesus without being legalistic on the one hand or libertine on the other.
- Body Life-centered – the typical evangelical holds to the idea that the Christian life is an individual pursuit. “Church” is something Christians attend in order to be motivated to go out and serve as an individual Christian and live a strong individual Christian life. But those who have gone “beyond evangelical” believe that the church is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, Christ existing as community. Church is not a denomination, a service, or something you attend. It’s the experience of the body of Christ, a la, “body life.” In fact, the Christian life doesn’t work outside of a local, shared-life community that’s meeting under the headship of Jesus Christ as His body on the earth. Consequently, how a local church functions and expresses itself is eminently important.
- Eternal Purpose-centered – God has an eternal purpose, or grand mission, that provoked Him to create. That purpose goes beyond the saving of lost souls and making the world a better place. God’s purpose transcends evangelism and social action (both of which are focused on meeting human needs). The eternal purpose is primarily by Him, through Him, and to Him. Meeting human needs is a byproduct, not the prime product.
Contemporary evangelicalism in America is essentially a reactionary movement. As a result, it has produced an “us” vs. “them” mentality.
Those of us who have gone “beyond evangelical” have moved on from the early 20th-century fundamentalist vs. modernist debate that our forefathers passionately fought . . . a fight that continues to rope many contemporary Christians into today, some 100 years later.
This fight leaves people with a false choice between left or right. The alternative direction of “forward” doesn’t appear on the radar screen.
Those who are “beyond evangelical” have moved on from that battle to discovering, exploring, and displaying the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
(How often do you hear that language in evangelical circles? The vocabulary we find in books like Ephesians emerged from a living experience. An experience that is available to Christians today, though it be rarely found.)
I am not alone in observing the trend of moving “beyond evangelical.” Before his passing, Michael Spencer famously wrote about the coming evangelical collapse. Scot McKnight has written prolifically and intelligently on the present crisis that evangelicalism faces and the pressing need to reshape it. David Fitch has also written on the subject (though more for an academic audience). And a host of others have as well.
Note: The entire “Beyond Evangelical” series (including this post) has been compiled into an 80-page eBook with many new chapters added. Click the banner at the very bottom of this post to learn more about the book and order it.
 The middle structure of evangelicalism collapsed long ago (as early as Harold Lindsell’s The Battle for the Bible), leaving only the left wall and the right wall of the building. This collapse distorted the evangelical response to the rise of postmodernism by forcing it into the mold of the modern left vs. the modern right. In this regard, the “new Reformed” and “Emergent” movements are really as modern as the fundamentalist vs. liberalism groups that preceded them. For this reason, neither one is capable of salvaging evangelicalism. In addition, the third direction of “forward” is not based on the idea that evangelicalism needs a better theology. It’s instead based on the question of how the Christian faith is to be lived out in its proper context, that is, as a kingdom community discovering and displaying Christ. The scourge of evangelicalism is that it has centered itself on making correct propositional statements rather than on a way of living in, through, and for the Lord Jesus in a shared-life local community.
 The Anglican evangelical scholar Alister McGrath stretches his definition to six hallmarks, but Bebbington’s quartet is much more popular. The Reformed Canadian John Stackhouse uses six also, but they are different from McGrath’s. American historian George Marsden adds a fifth element to Bebbington’s list: transdenominationalism. All of this just underscores the fact that the term “evangelical” has become a clay word. Donald Dayton in his The Variety of American Evangelicalism rightly points out that the variety within evangelicalism defies a single description. It should also be noted that historians trace evangelicalism back to the revival movements of the 18th and 19th centuries under George Whitefield, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards. Others trace it back to the Reformers.
 Winston Churchill said that Britain and America were two countries separated by a common language. The same can be said about the evangelical camp. Using the same terms does not equal agreement on their meaning.
 Jesus Manifesto is dedicated to this note.
 Pagan Christianity, Reimagining Church, and Finding Organic Church are dedicated to this note. Also the messages Vantage Point and Who is This Woman? Books by other authors listed in the Church Life Shelf also address it.
 From Eternity to Here is dedicated to this note. Also the message entitled The Eternal Purpose. Books by other authors listed in the Mission of God Shelf also address it. I realize that Calvinists will equate what I’m saying in this last point to be reduced to “the glory of God.” But there’s something higher in God’s heart that He is after, and “glory” is often misunderstood.
 Another aspect of evangelicalism, though often unspoken, is that it builds its theology on the basis of apologetics. This raises an important question: should our theology be built on apologetics or on the intention to know God in Christ and live by His life?
 Evangelicalism’s social, cultural, and political influence has waned greatly and continues to do so. The popular perception of evangelicals should also be noted. Many view “evangelical Christians” as closed-minded, judgmental, self-righteous, condemning, hypocritical (deeming their own sins as less serious than that of others), unloving, and plagued by internal hostility and conflict (they often attack their fellow brethren). This is yet another reason why many Christians are moving “beyond evangelical.”