Warren Cole Smith is the associate publisher of WORLD Magazine. He is the author or co-author of several books, including A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church and Prodigal Press. We asked him to give us 10 things he wishes everyone knew about evangelicals.
1. Evangelicals share a common belief.
Being an evangelical actually means something doctrinally and theologically, namely that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Evangelicalism is not, or not merely, a demographical subset or sociological tribe. An evangelical is someone who both believes and wants to share with others this evangel, this good news.
2. Jerry Falwell wasn’t the first evangelical.
In fact, when Jerry Falwell started out, he wasn’t an evangelical, but self-consciously fundamentalist — and there was (and is) a difference. Church historian Phil Johnson credits William Tyndale with first using the word “evangelical” in 1531, when Tyndale wrote this: “He exhorteth them to proceed constantly in the evangelical truth.” The great Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More used the phrase a year later to describe Tyndale and other Protestant Reformers. The great missionary movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were evangelical in character — think of the great evangelical statesman William Wilburforce, who fought against the slave trade in Great Britain.
In short, evangelicalism has a long history and is not a recent suburban American phenomenon.
3. Not everyone who calls himself an evangelical is an evangelical.
We have an old saying in my part of the South: “Just because my dog sleeps in the garage, that doesn’t make him a pick-up truck.” Just because a blogger calls himself (or herself) an evangelical doesn’t make it so. You don’t have to vote Republican or go to a particular church, but you gotta believe in that stuff in #1 above, or you’re something else. Beware of “progressive evangelicals” who claim to speak for evangelicals but who, upon examination, reject core doctrines that evangelicals find essential.
4. Most evangelicals do not go to suburban megachurches.
Megachurches grab the headlines, but of the nearly 300,000 churches in the country, less than 2,000 of them have more than 2,000 in regular Sunday morning attendance. The overwhelming majority of new churches in America are small, evangelical churches with an average attendance of less than 200. The average church in America has less than 300 people. We don’t have rock bands, we don’t have light shows and smoke machines, and we don’t have celebrity pastors. We marry, we bury, we baptize, and we try to love our neighbors as ourselves. What you see on television is not who we are.
5. Evangelicals are generous.
Virtually every reputable study, from Arthur Brooks’ book Who Really Cares? to the annual Empty Tombs, Inc. survey on church giving to the work of sociologist Bradley Wright, comes to the same conclusion: theologically conservative evangelical Christians give more money to charity than do theologically liberal Christians and non-Christians. And they don’t just give to evangelical Christian organizations. Liberals and non-Christians talk a good game when it comes to income equality or “social justice,” but evangelicals, not Episcopalians, are keeping the food banks of America alive.
6. Evangelicals love LGBTQIA people.
We are not homophobes. We are homophiles. Our churches welcome LGBTQIA people with the same message we present to all others: “Come as you are . . . but leave transformed.”
7. Evangelicals love the arts.
Ok, it’s true: our music mostly sucks. And so do our movies. At least, the music and movies we’ve made for the past 30 or 40 years. But not all of it, and it hasn’t always been so. I’m astonished and inspired when I see Kent Twitchell’s massive murals of Jesus on the public spaces in Los Angeles. Or Makoto Fujimura’s remarkable abstract expressionist paintings in chic Chelsea art galleries. Or hear anything by Bach.
Sure, contemporary evangelical writers, musicians, and artists are producing a lot of kitsch, but so are non-Christians. (You can’t blame the Kardashians and Honey-Boo-Boo on evangelicals.) And I predict that 100 years from now, if the Lord tarries, Christians will be singing Keith Getty’s and Stuart Townend’s “In Christ Alone” in the same churches that continue to sing Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and perform Handel’s “Messiah” at Christmastime.
8. Evangelicals are pro-science.
I support this assertion by noting that the rise of the scientific method and some of the great technological advancements of Europe correspond with the rise of evangelicalism in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. In our own day, Frances Collins (who leads the National Institutes of Health and led the Human Genome Project) is open about his Christian faith.
Evangelicals have endured the slanderous label of “anti-science” in recent years because of our skepticism about politically correct theories regarding the origins of man and climate change. In these arenas and many more, evangelicals joyfully go where the science takes us. But when ideology hijacks science — that is, when the pursuit of a point of view outruns logic, history, data, and reason — we rightfully object, and so should all who love pure science.
9. Evangelicals value quality education for all.
Because evangelicals operate most of the private schools in the country, and because most of the nation’s two million homeschoolers are evangelical Christians, we are often accused of being anti-public education and of having abandoned the public schools. That is simply not true.
For one thing, I state the obvious: evangelicals whose children do not attend the schools still support them with our tax dollars even though 100 percent of those dollars go to other people’s children. Secondly, most Christian schools I know about are generous with scholarships for those who would not otherwise be able to afford the school.
But the key point is that evangelical commitment to quality education for all means we do not support the government having a monopoly on education. The real threat to quality education for all is the near monopoly of the government-run education system, not the small-but-vibrant private Christian and homeschool sector. Private Christian education and homeschooling are the way up, not the way down.
10. Evangelicals are diverse and tolerant.
Evangelicals have never been, and are certainly not now, old white Americans. By some estimates, China has 30 million evangelical Christians. Some countries in Africa and South America have evangelical majorities. Here in the U.S. you can find millions of Hispanic evangelicals. That diversity is the result of — and has led more deeply into — a culture of tolerance evangelicals don’t get credit for.
No one values the free and honest exchange of ideas more than evangelical Christians. The Bible teaches evangelicals: “Come, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). We take that idea seriously. However, evangelicals believe mere tolerance is a low standard for those called to the much higher standard of love. Tolerance says, “Put up with those different from you.” Love says, “Help them achieve God’s highest and best.” (See #6 above.) Further, evangelicals see nothing tolerant in an ideology that brands any and all dissenting ideas as “hate speech.” Neither do we believe that tolerance demands us to view all ideas, beliefs, or behaviors as equally true and valid. Evangelicals believe some ideas are good and true and some are bad or false. Saying so does not make one a bigot.
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