An evangelical body, broken for you… into six convenient types
I only had to get as far as talking to my own father to find out I don’t know as much as I think I know about evangelicals. Like, for one thing, evangelicals are not the same as evangelists.
To my credit, they do sound the same, but “evangelist” describes Christians who actively seek to convert others around them, or at least move them closer to a point of conversion. “Evangelical,” on the other hand, describes a distinct set of beliefs that emphasize the significance of four things: conversion, action, the Bible and the cross, says historian David Bebbington.
Public opinion tends to pigeonhole evangelicals as part n’ parcel with conservatives, fundamentalists, born again Christians, over-the-edge fanatics, homophobes and other general crazies. Certainly, it is true that some fanatics are evangelicals, but not all evangelicals are fanatics.
Randall Balmer, for example, writes as a “jilted lover” in his new book Thy Kingdom Come where he explores the relationship between evangelical Christianity and the Christian Right. Balmer is only one of many evangelicals hoping to show that evangelicals aren’t all cut from the same cloth.
As I was trying to come up with a typology of evangelicals it became obvious that these Christian types are interwoven and overlaid with one another. Seems like maybe they are locations, rather than types, that you can wander into and out of throughout your life.
My friend Bethany, for example, explained how in her teenage years she was a Bible-thumping charismatic (“No, I really carried a big Bible around with me,” she insists, “it’s amazing I had any friends”). Then she moved through other more contemplative traditions in her 20s, and now feels like she’s on the edge of a bunch of different communities.
I think it’s important that these types be presented as overlapping, allowing individual evangelicals to find themselves at the boundaries and intersections of several types. In the end it would do violence to re-stereotype a group of spiritual people who have already been homogenized by the media. So here I offer a somewhat fluid spectrum of evangelical Christianity, with the intention of presenting some coherent structure.
1. Fundamentalists (or Conservative Evangelicals)
These are usually what the press is referring to when they talk about “evangelicals” – or who they think they’re referring to. Like many evangelicals, conservative evangelicals are those who “insist on some sort of spiritual rebirth as a criterion for entering the kingdom of heaven, who often impose exacting behavioral standards on the faithful, and whose beliefs, institutions, and folkways compromise the evangelical subculture in America,” says Balmer. They are also known for their defense of the Bible as unquestionable, for their “proselytizing zeal” and for their belief in a “sudden, instantaneous, dateable experience of grace.” The term Fundamentalism can describe any literalistic, moralistic, pietistic – and these days militaristic – way of interpreting faith, explains Balmer.
2. Pentecostal Charismatics
To experience it first-hand, I recently attended a Pentecostal church for the first time in years. After getting over my initial difficulty breathing, I appreciated pastor Don Noble’s sermon about the Holy Spirit. Pastor Noble explained how he grew up as part of a very eccentric group of Christians – in his words, “I didn’t know they were crazy until I was a teenager.”
Noble gave a good example of what many liberal Protestants worry about – a woman in his congregation explained to him how the Holy Spirit guides her in everything she does, including telling her to turn left or right when she’s riding her bicycle. Noble explained how guidance from the Holy Spirit means living like Jesus, but it also means using your God-given brain.
3. Liberal Evangelicals
This kind of evangelical is popularly associated with street preaching, Christian campus groups, missionary work and evangelism. Although both liberal and conservative evangelicals contain Bebbington’s four evangelical attributes (conversion, the Bible, activism and the cross), a liberal approach to life, politics and faith can differ so radically from that of a conservative that Liberal Evangelicals take deep offense at being lumped together with conservatives.
What makes them so different? Liberal evangelicals move away from “born again” Christianese, and are less likely to hold altar calls (though it’s not unheard of). Liberal evangelicals can be distinguished from the above types by their less offensive evangelistic tactics as well as the notable absence of war imagery and militancy in their discourse.
4. Emergent Church (and Vintage Church)
The shift into what some would call the postmodern age has uprooted these Christians and sent them scrambling to find new ways to make their Christianity “relevant” (a key but sometimes nebulous term).
The issue for Emergent types is to assert Christianity in a time when binary ideas like heaven and hell, Christian and non-Christian, spirit and body, male and female are being challenged and seen as too dualistic. Emerging Christians value individual stories more than ascribing to one grand overarching and possibly oppressive “metanarrative.” This allows emergent church Christians to have a new openness to different ways of interpreting the Bible – everyone’s perspective is relevant and should be expressed.
As with so much post-structural and postmodern theory, the emergent gospel tends to come from the top down, drawing analysis from academic discourse surrounding postmodernity. Adherents tend to be internet savvy and have a heavy presence in the blogosphere, which could be deemed inaccessible.
5. Social Justice Folks
In an article in the New York Times, “Rebels with a Cross” (March 2, 2006), John Leland confuses the perspectives of new monastic radicals like Shane Claiborne and The Simple Way in Philadelphia with pop-culture Christians who dig Christian clothing lines (like souldog.com) and skateboard Bible studies.
Although these trends may have in common a young face and a rad new look, social justice Christians are distinct from any old “rebel with a cross” in that they challenge secular (and Christian) capitalist society. These Christians can be found in evangelical communes like Jesus People USA, in small queer-positive emerging church communities, in Catholic Worker communities, in conservative and pacifist Mennonite communities, or in new monastic communities. Despite their varying influences – from liberal, emerging, evangelical or contemplative – what brings this group together is a commitment to living the “social gospel.”
6. Christian Leftists
Although Christian Leftists would not be considered “evangelical” by themselves or the rest of the church, I’ve included them in this typology as a group commonly misrepresented as “evangelical,” much to their and everyone else’s horror.
Most of the people who are referred to as Christian leftists are known for barely hanging on to traditional Christian doctrine.Other than these heretical sound bites, Christian leftists of this sort tend to put major emphasis on social gospel and environmental issues. For example, the recently established Network of Spiritual Progressives represents the spiritual or Christian left in the States. Its vision is to be, in part, “challenging the misuse of religion, God, and spirit by the religious Right” (see spiritualprogressives.org).
This is an abbreviated version of an article in Geez magazine, Winter 2006, by Anna Bowen, who lives in Toronto, Ontario.
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