The author of the new book Evangelicalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP) is professor of religious studies at Crandall University in Moncton, a favourite Faith Today columnist, a scholar and author of many books.
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Faith Today: Your book starts by describing a stereotypical evangelical, which is a white, middle-aged, middle-class American pastor. Let’s start there.
John G. Stackhouse Jr.: The main audience for this book will be people who have some image of Evangelicals in their heads. And my guess is the stereotype comes pretty close to what a lot of us think, even those of us who are insiders, partly because of the tremendous American media machine that pumps out images of itself all around the world.
Part of what I tried to do in this book is to show that the farther away you move from the United States, the less that stereotype is true. It’s less true in Canada. It’s really less true in Latin America, and once you start crossing an ocean, it becomes a ghost that quickly disappears.
FT: There’s also pushback against American-style evangelicalism. Why do we even need the word evangelical?
JS: Well, the evangelical label predates evangelicalism. I mean the word evangelicalism comes from evangel, which just means the gospel of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
So in that sense evangelicalism is just "Good News people," and that would mean all Christians, and sometimes it just means if somebody is living out gospel precepts. Someone like Francis of Assisi was called evangelical for that reason in the Middle Ages.
In the 16th century when the Protestant reformers were calling their church back to the gospel, they used the adjective form evangelical quite a lot to say this is the evangelical truth. And because of that usage evangelical just means Protestant in many parts of the world.
What we now mean, though, in English-speaking countries is a kind of Protestantism that emerges into focus in the 18th century. Now, to be an evangelical Protestant is to occupy what I would call the vital middle of the Protestant spectrum.
To our left, we’ve called them liberal Protestants, people whose name means liberty or free. Liberal Christians are free to respect and obey the Bible, but also to take issue with the Bible where they feel it might be racist or sexist or old-fashioned.
Conservative Protestants, on the other hand, feel the tradition they have received from their parents and pastors is the sober truth. And so conservative Protestants simply try to be faithful to the tradition handed down to them.
With evangelicalism, this vital middle, we are respectful, but not bound to tradition. We see ourselves as part of one holy, apostolic, universal Church of Jesus Christ. We feel obliged to Scripture as the very word of God written. And we do, happily, innovate when it comes to finding new and effective ways of doing church and conducting mission.
I suggest evangelicalism occupies this middle of this threefold spectrum. Not everybody agrees with me about that, but I think it’s a way of using the word that makes sense, historically and in a useful way today.
Evangelicals have often been pioneers in new media to get the gospel out as quickly and effectively as we can, and then to fold people into communities of sanctification to help us grow.
When something good is happening, Evangelicals can be foolish about that. Like every other group of people, we can sometimes confuse celebrity for genuine spiritual popularity. But there’s actually a theological principle behind that, which I try to uncover in the book. It’s not just that Evangelicals are chasing after celebrity because of our status anxiety. It’s because we literally think that where the Spirit of God is, the people of God will recognize that, and so we’re deeply populist in that respect.
We’re also very pragmatic. We think the Spirit of God does whatever He has to do, to get done what He wants done in the world. He’ll use anybody He has to use, and He’ll use any means that He has.
So Evangelicals are happy to have an old-fashioned church and we’re happy to have a church that looks like a modern auditorium. We’re happy to preach outside on the street and we’re happy to preach through mass media of any sort. You give us a medium, we’ll use it. Evangelicals have often been pioneers in new media to get the gospel out as quickly and effectively as we can, and then to fold people into communities of sanctification to help us grow. So Evangelicals are the kinds of people who like to preach the old-time gospel with state-of-the-art equipment.
FT: We just can’t help but think, when you say God can use anyone, about all these scandals in the last couple of years. Ravi Zacharias. More recent ones in Canada. Sometimes people use that line that God can use anybody as a kind of excuse. There’s a lot of broken hearts out there from this movement.
JS: Evangelicals are supposed to be Bible people, but we are often showing up to be not very biblical. The Bible portrays very few people who don’t have pretty serious flaws, including leaders in the Bible. Jesus emerges pretty well from the pages of Scripture as He should, but there aren’t very many other characters who do. Daniel, probably. Joseph depending how you read his story. But anybody who gets a fair bit of ink in the Bible ends up showing he’s got feet of clay and maybe more than that.
So if we read our Bibles more carefully, we would see that, yes, God uses everybody He can and uses all sorts of people, and all of them are sinners. But what we also should be learning from Scripture is how leadership can go wrong, how institutions can go wrong. And we’re not very good at that.
Let’s take a look and read the Bible, and see what happens when David finally becomes king. Mostly bad things actually happen when David has been given that much power.
So we really do need to read our Bibles better and say, "Yes, God uses leaders who are flawed, so let’s make sure we have institutional structures that expect leaders to be flawed. And we’ll try to keep them from falling to pieces and falling off their pedestals, and we won’t make the pedestals all that high."
I think it’s important Evangelicals see ourselves as not conservative or liberal, but we’re trying to truly be gospel people.
We really do need to understand better what our own Scripture tells us about realism in human nature, including in our own leadership.
FT: Are Evangelicals and conservatives the same thing?
JS: I think it’s important Evangelicals see ourselves as not conservative or liberal, but we’re trying to truly be gospel people. Now of course, self-righteousness lurks in the bushes here, you know, and self-aggrandizement. "We’re gospel people. All those other Christians are something else." And that’s too bad. I would see this as aspirational. What we hope to be are gospel people.
F. F. Bruce, the great evangelical New Testament scholar of a previous generation said, "I don’t want to be conservative or liberal. I want to be right." I want to get the Bible right, I want to do what Jesus wants me to do, and I don’t really care what label it has. I just want to do what the Lord says.
And that’s what I think has guided evangelicalism. At our best, we have simply not cared very much about where we happen to land on somebody else’s spectrum of left and right.
So it seems to me that contemporary evangelicalism should not simply be so worried about what’s to our left that we drive as quickly as possible into the ditch on the other side of the road. The point is to keep the car on the road, and to pull to the right is just as big a mistake as to pull to the left.
Just because the culture currently is pulling to the left in Canada doesn’t mean we should simply steer hard to the right. Just like our American friends need to be careful that just because their culture is pulling them to the right, they shouldn’t simply look to everything on the left as being a good idea.
We have to keep our wits about us and keep our eyes focused on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, and not on any particular political program, and not confuse that with the Kingdom of God. There’s always a critique and there’s always something to affirm in some kind of political program. Evangelicals, I think, are as free as anybody, including our liberal friends, to say yes or no to any particular political or cultural spectrum on which we find ourselves.
FT: With the growth of evangelical churches in the Majority World, will we see North American evangelicalism positively impacted by churches from the Global South?
JS: I think we’re beginning to feel it in a couple of ways. At the major evangelicalism conference held in Lausanne in Switzerland in the 1970s, it was people from Latin America who largely held the white Brits’ and Americans’ feet to the fire and said, ‘Evangelism is crucial to our mission; and it includes caring for the poor and the needy and living out the creation mandate to make the world better. We never should have left that aside.’
Evangelicalism is always about the whole gospel, not just the gospel of getting people converted and on their way to heaven. In the global Anglican communion, we are seeing Evangelicals in Africa push back against liberal tendencies. Where our liberal friends want to bless the postcolonial Africans, to their dismay they’re finding postcolonial Africans don’t want to join them in a progressive cause for sex and gender minorities quite the way they do.
The shadow side of that is that some fairly strident Americans have stirred up quite a bit of trouble in Uganda and a couple of other places, to encourage a pretty repressive regime against same-sex brothers and sisters. Evangelicals need to stand against that.
FT: How about the ex-vangelical movement? Can you unpack that?
JS: Every movement attracts people and it loses people. There’s no news there. People got excited about Whitefield’s preaching and then they weren’t excited anymore. They joined the Methodist small groups in the 18th century and then they didn’t like them anymore.
So there’s nothing really very interesting about that, except we live in a time where all sorts of things get amplified because of the megaphones available to all of us through social media.
Yes, people are turned off because of the plastic nature of evangelical popular culture, but I mean people my age were turned off by that in our 20s and teens as well. When we had the Bible bookstores full of Jesus junk, you know, crosses and fish stuck on every darn thing. That was really pretty idolatrous, horrible stuff we lived through for a while there. So there’s always a way to take offence because there are always people doing stupid things, and there are always people doing wrong things.
Social media loves whatever is the newest bad thing to get upset about … the point is we shouldn’t judge a movement by its bad proponents, but by its best ones.
Social media loves whatever is the newest bad thing to get upset about. I think the point is we shouldn’t judge a movement by its bad proponents, but by its best ones. If you’re going to leave evangelicalism, leave it because you really don’t like what John Wesley stands for and you don’t like what the Salvation Army does, and you don’t like what World Vision is up to, you don’t like what Tim Keller is saying or you don’t like what Tom Wright does. You should be leaving it because you genuinely don’t like evangelicalism. Don’t leave it because some idiot is calling himself an Evangelical and doing dumb things.
Take a look at where it’s at its best and then make your decision from there.
FT: Thank you, John.
Listen to the full interview that Karen Stiller and Bill Fledderus had with John G. Stackhouse Jr. at www.FaithToday.ca/Podcasts.