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An introduction to evangelicalism

It is useful first to define what is meant by the word "evangelical." There are at least three ways in which the term is used. The first is to define a set of core convictions about the gospel that are a hallmark of the church from its earliest theological formulas. One can speak of a commonality of faith, in which case the evangelical movement as a whole can be traced back to the earliest Christian communities. As John Stott writes in his book on the essentials of evangelicalism, Evangelical Truth:

The three broad Christian schools of thought (Catholic, liberal and evangelical) are not always mutually exclusive, for along with their divergences there are points of convergence. Indeed we rejoice and give thanks that the great majority of Christian believers affirm the Apostles' and the Nicene Creeds and that the majority of Protestants still affirm many Reformation truths. In other words, not all evangelical essentials are evangelical distinctives. At the same time, biblically and historically there are some truths that evangelical Christians have always emphasized and that they see themselves (with due modesty, I hope) as holding in trust for the rest of the church [1].

The second use of the term evangelical comes from the magisterial Reformation. While Luther saw the name evangelical as essential to all of Christianity, and therefore was reluctant to apply the designation specifically to his followers, the term eventually came to signify the Reformation message. Used initially to identify the churches of the Reformers, it is still used of churches stemming from the Reformation.

The third and perhaps most common or popular use of the term evangelical stems from the series of revivals and awakenings.

In line with its reformation heritage, from the eighteenth century onwards, "evangelical" came to be the name applied to specific groups of Christians, irrespective of their denomination, who manifested a particular approach to the gospel and the Christian life. [2]

Too often, the concept evangelical is thought only to refer to a series of doctrinal points. It is true that there are some cardinal points of doctrine that evangelical churches and organizations regard as central. However, as Dave Howard, former international director of the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF), points out, mission and social action are also hallmarks of evangelical identity. [3]

In spite of the apparent clarity with which we can define the term evangelical, we are stymied at some points of doctrinal definition. For example, the doctrinal basis of WEF covers the basics of Christian theology. However, because of the wide ecclesiastical diversity of the evangelical constituency, the confessional statement does not contain the specifics of ecclesiology. [4]

The foundation upon which both the Lausanne Covenant and WEF rest is not denominational. In WEF one can find every type of church polity imaginable. There are churches that are in membership with WEF with extremely high ecclesiological structures and churches with what might be termed low ecclesiological organization.

Therefore, any attempt to define an evangelical position on ecclesiology and mission must at the outset state that it is difficult to define a full orbed ecclesiology that would speak for the whole evangelical movement. Nevertheless, because one cannot say everything does not mean that one cannot say something.

There are certain key elements in the missionary understanding of the evangelical movement, which I will attempt to outline below.

Evangelical emphases in mission

1. Conversion

The central defining aspect of evangelical ecclesiology is that the gospel must be personally applied to the individual. It is important to note that saying it must be personally applied does not necessarily mean it must be individually applied. There is no inherent doctrine that precludes group adherence to the gospel. Here we have in view a cultural situation in which the level of decision-making is the family, tribe, or clan. In other words, people movements are an acceptable category of evangelical conversion. [5]

The main priority in evangelicalism is preparing the ground for the decision to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Historically, that preparation has taken many forms. Bible translation, education (including general education, not just religious education), ministries of mercy (medical work and charity, including famine relief), literature production and distribution, as well as direct proclamation evangelism are all methods that were considered preparatio evangelium.

In the past debate has arisen within evangelicalism over the focus of social action and evangelism. In part this discussion was academic as virtually every mission organization, in spite of its declared interest in proclamation evangelism has found itself engaged in some type of social ministry because of the apparent need of the people whom the organization sought to evangelize and the clear command of Christ to do so. The question usually was presented in a form of either/or whereas in most every case the reality of the human condition made it more of a both/and. There is justification to question whether social services, apart from any proclamation would be considered an adequate evangelical method. However, each case needs to be examined on its own merits. It is arguable that mission work that is only the relief of human needs may be the only means of Christian witness available in some settings. If this were true, then it would be justifiable to continue such a witness rather than to have no Christian wi tness at all.

From another viewpoint, the issue of presence versus proclamation is, from the evangelical perspective, an incorrect antithesis. It is impossible to have a Christian presence during which time the Christian, while not engaging in proclamation evangelism, is not by her or his life witnessing to the reality of her or his faith in Christ. The challenge is to live as Jesus lived, viz, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Christian's witness is one that should demonstrate a trust in and dependence on the Holy Spirit. This witness without apologetics is nevertheless a powerful witness to the reality of the presence of God.

In the final analysis, all evangelism is the witness to the presence of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19).

2. Congregation

The focus on conversion must not obscure the goal that all evangelism and mission has in view, viz, the formation of congregations. The role of mission is not completed until the converts have been organized into functioning units of the visible kingdom of God on earth, the church.

It is at This stage that things begin to get complicated because the question of congregation formation raises the question of organizational polity. For all the intention of contextualization to use appropriate forms relevant to the local cultural patterns, some vestiges of inherited practices are inevitable. [6] However, regardless of the church order selected or imposed, the end result is congregations that function as "units" of the church universal.

The planting of new congregations has been a long-time goal of evangelical missions. This was seen as the fulfilment of the passage in Matthew's Gospel (28:19-20) to disciple the nations and the implicit meaning of Acts 1:8 where the resurrected Jesus commands his disciples to witness throughout the entire world. [7]

The issue of what it would take to fulfil the injunction to "make disciples of all the nations" has formed the stuff of missionary literature for the last two centuries. Most of the time, the question was framed in terms of when is the missionary role finished? When was a church considered "discipled?" Issues of the training of pastors, theological education, the selfhood of the church in terms of government and financial control loomed large on the missionary agenda. The fallacy was that it was generally assumed that the missionary agencies would be the ones to decide when maturity was attained. An early 20th-century voice raised in protest to this paternalism was Roland Allen. In his writings, Allen argued for an increased confidence in the work of the Holy Spirit in the converts. He pointed out that it was strange for the missionary to think that the Holy Spirit would direct the foreign missionary while the selfsame Spirit could not be trusted to direct the converts. He argued that missionary work often ef fectively stifled the work of the Spirit in leading the church in creative directions that would indicate spiritual maturity. Allen did not expect his work to be recognized for fifty or sixty years, which indeed was the case. The contextualization movement, especially in worship, followed the direction to which he pointed. He also wrote wisely about the corrupting power of money and how missions exercised control by the use of missionary funding. [8]

3. Worship

The above move to allow the church to find its own voice led to a focus on indigenous patterns of worship as a way for authentic Christian life to be expressed in a local setting. Today, it is rare to find an evangelical mission agency that would not recognize the legitimate use of patterns of worship suited to the local culture. [9] This emphasis on worship has led to a re-evaluation of the purpose of mission. Forming congregations that do not have a commitment to vital corporate worship is seen as work that does not reflect the glory of God as revealed in Christ. Therefore, a renewed evangelical focus on worship as the ultimate purpose of mission has come into evangelicalism. [10]

4. Witness

In recent years, increased priority has been placed on the missionary character of local churches that were planted by missionary work. This was a change from the inherited patterns of church development. In those, just as liturgy and worship forms were imported along with the gospel, so were the ministry patterns that characterized the sending countries. As ordained clergy were called on to assume the teaching and preaching functions of congregations, this pattern was seen as normative in all areas of church life. Only properly qualified individuals could attend to the dissemination of Christian truth. [11] Fear of heresy caused missionaries to exercise caution in allowing converts too much freedom.

The professionalism of the missionary led to them requiring professionalism in the congregational leaders. Witness was seen to be the task of the paid worker. Sadly, in the 19th century, this attitude was inadvertently taught by the system of missionaries having paid "native" assistants. [12] Lost was the opportunity of the ordinary person to tell in his/her own words how his/her life was transformed by an encounter with the living Christ.

From the standpoint of history, this development was a most unevangelical stance. Whether one takes the viewpoint of tracing the "evangelical movement" from apostolic times or only from the Reformation, the witness of ordinary believers featured in the spread of the gospel message. As Michael Green says, in the early church the believers "gossiped the gospel." [13] However, one of the dangers to evangelicals is that increased respectability comes at the expense of an increased professionalism and a decline of lay involvement. [14]

The good news is that the concept of lay witness is finding new life. Part of the reason for the demise of lay witness seemed to be in the presumed need for a heavy apologetic to convince secular man of the existence of God. The enemy of secularism was not one that an ordinary Christian could combat. Therefore, it took a trained professional to be able to present the gospel. In the postmodem age, personal opinion is more acceptable, albeit personal opinion cannot be accompanied by a dogmatic claim to have universal truth. Once again, as in the first century of the common era, a testimony of personal spiritual encounter can be evaluated along with other claims of a spiritual nature.

Therefore, the final emphasis of an evangelical missiology is personal witness. Again, personal can be understood in the context of a group but every member of the group must have some understanding of the key elements that the group confesses. It is in the testimony to the personal experience of an encounter with the living Christ that the circle of mission is complete.

An evangelical understanding of the nature and purpose of the church

Given the caveat issued above on our inability to define precisely the polity of evangelicalism, I offer below an outline of ecclesiology. In the broadest strokes, the nature of the church can be described by three terms.

1. Converted

From a biblical viewpoint, the church exists as the body of Christ. (Eph. 4) Therefore, the church exists for God. The church and, by extension, the local manifestations of the universal church are the visible expressions of God's activity in redeeming humankind. It is always a mistake to place the boundaries of the kingdom of God as co-terminus to the church. We do not fully know where God is working or even how he is working in his creation. In one sense, we can have, as an objective, the aim to discover where God is working, and concentrate our energies in those areas. This was the focus of several theological initiatives of the 20th century. The problem is that we cannot always as clearly discern the work of God in areas outside the guidelines that are suggested in the Bible.

The desire of God is clearly stated in I Timothy 2:3-7:

This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was home at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. (RSV) Therefore, it is in keeping with the will of God that humans be introduced into the body of Christ that is his church. Evangelical ecclesiology in all its forms stresses the need for a relationship with God through Christ in the context of the church. The Holy Spirit is the agent of regeneration. The Spirit is also the sign and the promise of our eventual transformation to be recreated and fully redeemed beings.

While the polity of different churches would vary on their view of the rites of incorporation, a common feature of all evangelical churches would be an insistence on a regenerate membership. Some type of conversion or transformation from the condition of rebel to the state of adoption as a child of God is the sine qua non of Christian membership. It is typical of the evangelical movement that in even pedo-baptistic churches; the actualization of the faith is a moment to be celebrated.

2. Connected

The second element of an evangelical ecclesiology is that there is a connectedness to other Christians. This is particularly true in the local assembly where the sense of fellowship is (or should be) a hallmark of the congregation but it also signifies a participation in the wider church. The evangelical doctrine of the church stresses the local manifestation of the universal church but, at the same time, understands that the local group is a part of something very much larger. The sense of the church triumphant no doubt varies from locality to locality and perhaps continent to continent. Cultures that have a greater reverence for ancestors often have a stronger sense of the presence of the saints who have won their rest. However the understanding of the church as a worldwide fellowship currently on earth is a powerful incentive to pray for and support the churches that face a more difficult situation. The suffering of the church in many parts of the world has mobilized Christians as perhaps never before in C hristian history. Mass communication makes it possible to be informed in a matter of hours when Christians around the world undergo persecution or suffer disaster.

3. Concerned

It is being one with the church around the world that continues to lead to missionary involvement and charitable assistance. Evangelicals understand that the church is one and that they are under obligation to care for the members of the one family of Christ. The two arms of evangelism/mission and social concern are evident in the practical ecclesiology of the evangelical churches. Through the relief and development agencies, the mission of compassionate care is conducted in the name of believers assisting other believers. [15] It would be inaccurate to portray the evangelical churches as only concerned for believers. Much of the relief work of the churches is conducted among people of other faiths. Most of the refugees settled in North America by World Relief (the relief and development arm of the WEF affiliated National Association of Evangelicals in the United States) is done for people who are not connected with any church. World Relief was active in resettling families from war-tom Bosnia and Kosovo, the majority of whom were Muslim.

Evangelical ecclesiology at the service of mission

The priorities of the evangelical missionary enterprise (conversion, congregations, worship, and witness) are the very elements that sustain the ecclesiology of evangelicals. If you like, one can regard the mission-church enterprise as a circle. As the mission progresses it produces churches that have at their centre the values of a converted, connected and concerned body of believers, who then continue their evangelical mission to reproduce themselves.

(*.) Dr James J. Stamoolis is the executive director of the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Fellowship. He has previously served as a missionary in South Africa, a staff worker with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, and as Graduate Dean of the Wheaton College Graduate School.


(1.) Stott, John, Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity and Faithfulness, Downers Grove, IL, Inter Varsity Press, 1999, p. 11.

(2.) Tidball, Derek J., Who are the Evangelicals? Tracing the Roots of Today's Movements, London, Marshall Pickering, 1994, p. 12. Tidball is a great guide to understanding the historical roots of the evangelical movement.

(3.) As David Howard points out in his history of the evangelical movement's attempt to form an organizational unity, The Dream that would not Die (Baker, 1986), while doctrine is important to evangelical identity, it is not the only hallmark of what it means to be an evangelical:

"Those known as evangelicals have always held to the centrality of certain basic beliefs related to salvation. Harold Lindsell summarized these as: "(1) man's sinful condition before a holy God; (2) man's need for salvation; (3) the revelation of the grace of God in Jesus Christ; (4) the authority of the inspired Scriptures; (5) the necessity for a birth from above or regeneration; and (6) justification through faith alone, apart from works".

While all evangelicals have held the above beliefs, it is important to note that evangelicals have also been known for their social concern. This was especially tine during the 19th century when men such as William Wilberforce (1759-1833), Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885), and others led the fight for such social reforms as abolition of slavery, child labour laws, justice for the poor, alleviation of the condition of the insane, improved housing for the indigent. These men were all evangelicals whose personal beliefs in salvation by faith alone in Christ were unquestioned.

Another great characteristic of evangelicals since the 18th century has been a strong missionary vision. Many of the great missionary movements of the 19th century, which Latourette called "The Great Century" in terms of missions, were led by evangelicals. Their commitment to proclaim the evangel to the uttermost parts of the earth was prevalent in all their conferences, their writings, and their statements of faith" (pp. 1-2).

(4.) WEF Statement of Faith:

We believe in the Holy Scriptures as originally given by God, divinely inspired, infallible, entirely trustworthy; and the supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct... One God, eternally existent in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit... Our Lord Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, His virgin birth, His sinless human life, His divine miracles, His vicarious and atoning death, His bodily resurrection, His ascension, His mediatorial work, and His Personal return in power and glory... The Salvation of lost and sinful man through the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ by faith apart from works, and regeneration by the Holy Spirit... The Holy Spirit, by whose indwelling the believer is enabled to live a holy life, to witness and work for the Lord Jesus Christ... The Unity of the Spirit of all true believers, the church, the Body of Christ...

The Resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life, they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.

(Capitalization and punctuation as in the original. This statement was adopted in 1951 and remains unchanged.)

(5.) In saying this, I am aware that some who would call themselves evangelicals would be uneasy with this concept. However, I would maintain that a mono-cultural insistence on individual decisions is a cultural factor, and not a biblical requirement. In fact, there appear to be group or family decisions in the scriptures (Acts 16:15, 31-33). Further, such insistence demonstrates that the line between evangelicals and fundamentalists is perhaps fuzzier than either side would like to admit. It would be more a characteristic of fundamentalists to insist on individual personal decisions.

(6.) In a very interesting editorial comment in the April 2000 issue of Mission Frontiers, Ralph Winters asks some provocative questions about what new forms of Christian expression might look like in predominantly Hindu or Muslim areas.

(7.) Bosch, David, Transforming Mission, Maryknoll, Orbis, 1991, points out that each era of the church took one specific text as the missionary text of the Bible. "By the end of the 19th century Matthew 28:18-20 had completely superseded other verses from Scripture as principal 'mission text.'" (p. 341) Bosch credits the evangelical William Carey as the impetus behind this change.

(8.) Roland Allen's work is most easily accessible in Missionary Methods, St. Paul's or Ours? (Several editions and publishers, currently in print from Eerdmans, 1960).

(9.) Though, strangely enough, in some evangelical churches in North America contemporary worship using drums and guitars is still seen by the most conservative elements as an unholy compromise with the standards of a decadent culture.

(10.) See Piper, John, Let the Nations be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Books, 1993. Piper argues that "Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is." (p. 11) Piper uses an eschatological perspective to motivate missionary work. The theme of the nations bringing their praise to God (Rev. 7:9-10) is becoming a powerful motivating force in propelling congregations to be involved in mission. The eschatological concerns, especially the concept of everlasting punishment for those outside the church where the saving work of Christ was applied, were a powerful missionary motion in the renewal of mission interest from William Carey onward. Recent challenges to the concept of eternal punishment have surfaced from within the evangelical ranks as universalism, conditional immortality, and punishment of a limited duration are discussed as "evangelical" options. The focus on worship in heaven in a sense bypasses the last two of these positions by looking at what is be ing offered to the Triune God by believers rather than focusing on the destiny of the damned. See the articles on "Eschatology," "Hell," and "Millennial Thought" in the Evangelical Dictionary of World Mission, ed. by Scott Moreau, Grand Rapids, Michigan 2000.

(11.) David Bosch is again perceptive in his comments on the watchword: "the evangelization of the world in this generation." Bosch correctly notes that the focus was on material and scientific tools that would enable the task of evangelism to be accomplished. "Fundamental to the American exponents of social Christianity was the conviction that the social salvation that the world stood in need of would come via Western techniques and culture. Curiously enough, it was not really different among pre-millennialists. Both strains were, in several respects, more Western than Christian." (Transforming Mission p. 325) One wonders if we are in danger of falling prey again to the lure of technology as we continue in the electronic age.

(12.) See Nevius, John, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, reprint edition by the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1958. Nevius, an opponent of what he calls the Old System of employing nationals, argues persuasively for a concept of every member mobilization.

(13.) Green, Michael, Evangelism and the Early Church, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans.

(14.) I am aware that I am guilty of over simplification, as this focus was never totally lost in evangelicalism. Many congregations and para-church ministries emphasized the ordinary witness. However, there is in every organization a tendency to increased professionalism. Unfortunately the church is not immune to this phenomenon.

(15.) It might be useful at this point to note that when the earthquake struck Kobe in January, 1995, African Christians at Daystar University (Nairobi, Kenya) collected an offering to send to their fellow believers in Japan. The interesting thing is that the university was in the midst of constructing a library from donations raised in Japan for Daystar.
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Publication:International Review of Mission
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jul 1, 2001

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