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Is the Term "Evangelical" Obsolete?

Posted on December 11th, 2009

A friend of mine from Singapore was visiting NYC recently. He is well-respected Christian leader in that part of the world. Over lunch I asked him his view of the American church and evangelicals in particular. He was reluctant to answer, but after some prodding on my part used the following words to describe us- reductionistic, black and white (resistant to nuances and mystery), and more of a civil religion tied closely to culture, than biblical.  I wanted to explore more but our lunch table with family had other more fun topics to talk about.     David Wells was one of my professors I had at Gordon-Conwell in the mid1980’s. In his book, The Courage to Be Protestant, he recommends we abandon the term evangelical because it has outlived its usefulness, arguing that it is now sagging and disintegrating.  He writes: “There have been just too many instances of obnoxious empire-building going on, too much in evangelicalism that is partisan and small, too much pandering to seekers, and too much adaptation of the Christian message until little remains.  Too many of its leaders have been disgraced.  There have been too many venal television preachers.  There are too many of the born-again who show no signs of regenerate life.  For many people, the word “evangelical” has become a synonym for what is trite, superficial, and moneygrubbing, a byword for what has gone wrong with Protestantism.  Those who still think of themselves as being in the tradition of historic Christian faith, as I do, may therefore want to consider whether the term “evangelical” has not outlived its usefulness.  Despite its honorable pedigree, despite its many outstanding leaders both past and some in the present, and despite the many genuine and upright believers who still think of themselves as evangelical, it may now have to be abandoned. If not evangelical, what?…If the word “evangelical” has outlived its usefulness, what is the alternative?  Here, I am flummoxed.  My own labels are too ponderous to be used widely.  I am reaching out for help…  I am nevertheless going to think of myself as a biblical Christian first and foremost, as in continuity with Christians across the ages who have believed the same truth and followed the same Lord” (p. 18-20). For a evangelical theologican of the stature of Dr. Wells to make these statements is, at the very least, quite shocking. I think he may right.  I like the label “biblical Christian in continuity with Christians across the ages” and will continue to ponder that for a while. What are your thoughts?

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