June 23, 1999
What Do Evangelicals Believe?
-- Edith Blumhofer
What do evangelicals believe? Is it possible to lay bare the doctrines that stand at modern evangelicalism's core? As evangelicals become more adept in the arena of public life, the beliefs that animate them assume greater public relevance. While it is easy to discover evidences of evangelical style or proclivities in many Christian groups, it is not simple to state precisely what contemporary evangelicals hold in common.
Earlier this month, a group of evangelical leaders addressed that circumstance in a statement of evangelical affirmations and disclaimers. The fruit of a year-long endeavor funded by the Lilly Endowment, the statement appears as a supplement to the June 14, 1999 issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY (Volume 43, No 7). It is endorsed by some 100 invited signers representing diverse denominational and racial constituencies. As interesting as the affirmations in the statement are the disclaimers, which identify what the signers perceive as the most ominous trends or confusing tendencies within contemporary evangelicalism.
For over a decade, a growing body of evidence has suggested that evangelical beliefs in the pews were changing. Evangelicals have been quick to embrace new forms--megachurches; contemporary music; drama teams; cell groups. Embracing the new, especially in a culture more taken with spirituality than with doctrine, can easily jeopardize historic beliefs. As Steve Kloehn noted in the June 11 CHICAGO TRIBUNE, "Doctrine is not terribly popular in most religious movements these days, and systematic teaching of religious belief has sagged across the spectrum. In evangelical Christianity, those trends have been compounded by the emergence of megachurches and parachurch movements, which attracted hundreds of thousands of followers with an approach that was light on intellectual demands." The decline of Sunday schools, fewer worship services, and the substitution of celebration services for catechesis have taken their toll. For some, if the point is to be "slain in the Spirit," theological precision may be deemed a waste of time and effort. The substitution of worship choruses for hymns has removed another source of metaphor and doctrinal statement. A highly mobile population often opts for churches on the basis of specific programs or worship style, with less concern for the theological tradition and creed than for the meeting of felt needs.
In the midst of internal challenges and social change, evangelicals have been drawn into conversation and cooperation on public matters with new partners. On social issues, they may work side by side with Catholics and Jews. The National and the World Councils of Churches have manifested interest in dialogue and common cause with evangelicals on public issues. Various evangelical constituencies participate in formal dialogues with Roman Catholicism. It seems to some that modern evangelicals need to revisit doctrine. Not only might doctrinal clarification address internal mayhem, it might also strengthen identity as evangelicals cooperate with others to address public issues.
The issuing of the document will be followed by a series of promotional events. Such documents require adaptation before they influence popular evangelical opinion. The significance of this one will depend on what its endorsers do with it after signing their names. In the meantime, those who need a handy statement of modern evangelical belief have a place to turn as a starting point. To understand evangelicals' public stances, don't ignore the disclaimers.