Two days ago I asked Am I one of Frank Viola’s Beyond Evangelicals? This was based on Frank’s description of four major streams in today’s evangelicalism: Systematizers, Activists, Emoters, and Beyond Evangelicals.
Since then I have given some more thought to this subject, and I have come to realise that there is nothing much new here. In fact, these four streams can be traced back at least a century. So here is my historical perspective on this. I must admit that I am more familiar with some of this history as it has happened here in the UK, but I hope that my insights are also applicable in North America, the prime focus of Frank’s work.
19th century evangelicalism was, I tend to think, relatively uniform. Certainly there were issues within it, but not ones which are of great concern today. But by the early 20th century this monolith started to crack. One major cause of this was the growth of liberal theology within many formerly evangelical denominations and ministries. Liberalism was not new at this time, but this was when it grew rapidly.
In reaction to this many evangelicals became obsessed with preserving sound doctrine and separation from the “world”, and so was born the movement known as Fundamentalism.
Meanwhile on the fringes of the evangelical church another new phenomenon was growing: Pentecostalism. At this period it was not accepted within existing denominations, and so specifically Pentecostal denominations were set up.
Through all this a main stream of Evangelicalism persisted, avoiding Liberalism and rejecting Pentecostalism, but also refusing to follow Fundementalism into the ghetto.
These four streams persisted right through the 20th century. Traditional Liberalism and Fundamentalism both had their day and then started to decline, but their basic perspectives live on. In the second half of the century Pentecostalism began to be accepted in some traditional denominational churches, and so the Charismatic Movement arose. And mainstream Evangelicalism survived, and in some places thrived.
So how do these older four streams relate to the four streams which Frank sees today?
Frank’s Systematizers are basically neo-Fundamentalists. Michael Clawson has today posted at Roger Olson’s blog an excellent essay Neo-Fundamentalism, so I won’t attempt to repeat this material. Michael shows clearly how the people he studies have the same kind of agenda as the original Fundamentalists.
It would be too simple to say that Frank’s Activists are Liberals – especially as this would be read by some as a pejorative comment. Activists are not necessarily people who have abandoned biblical authority in the way typical of liberal theology. But they have left behind some traditional evangelical interpretations of the Bible, and have put more focus on other passages, perhaps on the teaching of Jesus more than of Paul. They would recognise that the Tea Party Jesus is not the real Jesus.
Clearly, Franks’ Emoters are the Charismatics, and the Pentecostals who have now often become indistinguishable from them.
So what is Frank’s Beyond Evangelical stream? And what happened to the original fourth stream, the main evangelical stream? Clearly many things have changed and continue to change within this mainstream. No doubt some of the younger generation have left it for the other streams. Perhaps the main channel is drying up. But it seems to me that Frank is trying to revitalise this mainstream, and claim its leadership for himself, by dropping outdated and unhelpful practices and by giving it a new name: Beyond Evangelical.
Very likely this strategy of Frank’s will meet with some real success, by attracting those disillusioned with the other streams as well as by bringing the best out of those who have remained within the mainstream – and hopefully also by bringing in new believers, as it continues one of mainstream evangelicalism’s defining practices, active evangelism. But Frank should not suggest that his streams are something new which he has identified for the first time. What is new is the name, and perhaps the strategy which goes with it. On that basis I wish it well.