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Evangelicalism (Part 1/4)

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist

President & Professor of Missiology


Evangelical and Evangelicalism are good words, often misused.

In keeping with the theme of this blog — attentiveness — the next four weeks we will be attentive to our understanding (and misunderstanding) of Evangelicalism. As Gordon-Conwell begins to celebrate its 50 years of training pastors, missionaries and counselors, I want to reflect back on our beginning as a strong outpost of Evangelicalism in New England.

There was a time that the public knew what Evangelicals were. Liberal Protestants were impatient with us and we were uncomfortable with our social witness. We generated hundreds or even thousands of movements and institutions, including mission agencies, colleges and seminaries like Gordon Divinity School and Conwell School of Theology. We at Gordon-Conwell are deeply rooted in the Evangelical heritage and its various movements. Deeply.


We at Gordon-Conwell are deeply rooted in the Evangelical heritage and its various movements. Deeply.


Books have been written on Evangelicalism. The controversy about Evangelicalism today has generated, I believe, much more heat than light on the subject. Here are some historic characteristics of Evangelicalism, dating back to the revivals of George Whitefield (who died nearly 250 years ago). This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a good start to remind us of our center.

Multi-denominational.

Denominations were the unfortunate mark of Protestantism after the Reformation. The Evangelical revivals reversed the trends of division and lived into Jesus’ prayer in John 17. Evangelicalism united Christians of deep personal piety, but it also separated them from “formal” religion devoid of a personal encounter with Jesus.

Multi-racial.

Evangelicalism is the form of Christianity that connected the Gospel with slave communities, and non-European immigrants. This is why, today, the American Black Church experience is more revivalist than high church, more emotional than stoic, and more low church than high church. Racism still existed, but Evangelicalism (and its child, revivalism) pointed Christendom in the right direction. Slave narratives reflect Evangelical theology in their testimonies.1

Confronted sin.

The Great Awakening was an awakening to our sin. It was the recovery of a deeply experiential Christianity. Preaching pointed to the holiness of God and our lack thereof. Listeners were deeply moved to repent, often with much weeping and remorse. Sin was understood as both social and personal, for the impact of the Evangelical revivals was recorded as changed social relationships.

Scripture.

Evangelicals have always had the impulse to go directly to Scripture to solve both church and social problems. Not the liturgy nor the church hierarchy, but the clear teachings of Scripture are the guide. Thus, Evangelicals have always tended to study the Bible more and had a greater knowledge of the Bible than most other Christians.

More will follow, but this is a good list to begin to reflect about Evangelicalism today. Are we still Evangelicals? Does the press use the word this way? Do these characteristics describe our Evangelical friends? We will look at some of these questions in the next three weeks.

SWS


Scott W. Sunquist, the new President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes a weekly blog, “Attentiveness” which is posted each Monday morning on the Gordon-Conwell web site. He welcomes comments, responses and good ideas.


[1] Here, from the University of North Carolina web site, is a good start to see the Evangelical nature of slave religion: https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh

Attentiveness

Read more from Scott on his blog: Attentiveness.

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