Understanding the Evangelical Tradition

I was brought up in a fairly fundamentalist Free Church Evangelical tradition which was very suspicious, not to say, dismissive of non-Evangelical traditions. Over the years I have come to understand and value other traditions – Central, Catholic, etc.  But I have had to work on it and it has been an enriching experience. Our time in Jerusalem afforded a very much wider experience of other traditions, including the Orthodox. When I joined the Church of England, Anglican Evangelicals were a minority – sometimes an oppressed minority. Now they are the largest and most dominant tradition within the Church of England. For some years, the majority of ordinands have been Evangelical. However I have not infrequently noted how those not in the Evangelical tradition sometimes don’t understand that tradition and can be suspicious of it.

In recent years I had the valuable experience of ministering within a Benefice which is of a Central tradition and I tried to respect and maintain that tradition.  For example, I love the Sung Eucharist and I find the ritual meaningful and helpful. However, whilst maintaining that Central tradition within the Benefice, we did, for mission reasons, seek to provide a variety of worship for the variety of residents. What in fact happened was that one of the two churches developed into an Evangelical Church. This is partly because a good number of Evangelical Anglicans and Free Church Evangelicals joined and, in fact, become the dominant influence within the church. I can immediately think of 14 such people without really trying.

Here is an outline of the emphases of the Evangelical tradition.

A strong emphasis on the Authority of Scripture

The majority of Anglican Evangelicals stress the inspiration of Scriptures by the Holy Spirit but not Biblical inerrancy (that there are no mistakes at all in the original manuscripts of Scripture). But there still is a fundamentalist stream mainly within Free Church Evangelicalism which might hold to inerrancy or even Creationism. The majority of Evangelicals would not be creationists but a sizeable minority would hold to biblical inerrancy.  It is important to remember that there may be such people (possibly even creationists) in the congregation, therefore it is important to be sensitive when dealing with these issues and so not to cause unnecessary upset or anxiety. I am not a creationist but if I were expounding Genesis 1-3 I would tend to say there are different interpretations: some believe the creation story is literal (and God certainly could have created the universe in six days, or even six seconds!) Others believe the six days are long periods of geological time. Others believe that Genesis is not interested in how God created the world but in why he created it. Genesis 1-3 is full of theology put in symbolical form so it could be understood by a wide range of people over the centuries. In any case it is the Word of God conveying his truth to us.  On the rest of Scripture I would stress that it is inspired by the Holy Spirit, while not avoiding problems with the text.

A strong emphasis on the Exposition of Scripture

Evangelicals major on taking a biblical passage and expounding it chapter by chapter, perhaps referring to the original languages, relating it to the rest of Scripture. Such expository preaching is majoring on the meaning of the text and relating it to life, it starts with and is governed by the text, not current events, needs etc. Evangelical lay folk tend to have extensive Bible knowledge and Evangelical colleges major on getting to know and to expound the biblical text.

Hence there is an emphasis on a daily Quiet Time: a time of Bible reading and prayer. 

A strong emphasis on the necessity of personal conversion

 Evangelicals stress a personal experienced of conversion to Christ – either one which can be pin-pointed or that happened more gradually.  The important thing is a current clear awareness of a personal relationship with Jesus, with God.  It includes a sense of assurance of Salvation, i.e. confidence of eternal life because of Christ’s death and resurrection and the promises of Scripture to those who trust in him. Anglican Evangelicals would see this conversion as a flowering of the promises made at baptism.

There is thus a fundamental distinction between believers and unbelievers. Either a person has put their trust in Christ or has not.  However there is an understanding that some may have faith and be “in Christ” but are not able to verbalise their faith.

A strong emphasis on Evangelism

Because of this fundamental distinction between believers and unbelievers, the emphasis on the necessity of a conscious personal relationship with Christ and the emphasis on having assurance of eternal salvation, evangelism is a very high priority amongst Evangelicals.

For Evangelicals, evangelism is so presenting the crucified, risen Christ in the power of the Spirit that people are challenged to respond personally to him and to trust in him, accept him, commit their lives to him. There are other aspects of mission, e.g. the other four of the Five Marks of Mission:

  • “To teach, baptise and nurture new believers”
  • “To respond to human need by loving service”
  • To reach out to the community in caring and social ways
  • “To seek to transform unjust structures of society”
    • e.g. Christian Aid, TEAR Fund
  • “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the earth.”
    • Conservation, recycling etc.

Some of these may, through the establishment of personal contact prove to be “pre-evangelism” but they are not in themselves evangelism. In terms of outreach, all these four priorities are secondary to the first of the Five Marks of Mission, namely, “To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.”  Water Baptism alone does not make a person a Christian. It needs to be accompanied by personal faith.

Evangelism, for Evangelicals, is “preaching for a verdict.”  It is encouraging people to respond personally and, where appropriate to say a prayer of commitment, alone or with the Christian doing the evangelism (perhaps with that person leading them in a  prayer).

Evangelicals will seek to take every opportunity to proclaim the ABC of the gospel (see, for example, the outline of the Gospel I produced for the housegroups) e.g. at Baptisms, Weddings and Funerals, festival service – Christmas, Easter, etc. And they will also seek to include such a brief outline even in sermons which are not primarily evangelistic, for the benefit of any person, perhaps a visitor or someone weak in the faith, who may be present.

An emphasis on simple but dignified Ritual

Many people make the mistake of thinking that all Evangelicals are casual, light-hearted, happy-clappy and have no sense of awe and reverence. This may be true of some but it is not mainstream Evangelicalism.  Many Evangelical clergy wear robes. I actually prefer to do so. They strive to combine humour and solemnity, relaxation and awe. However, they abominate parsonical voices and other religious affectation. Evangelicals do not appreciate jokes about God or Scripture or other holy things. They also avoid coarse language: it is not part of Evangelical culture as it is in some more Catholic circles.

Evangelicals are suspicious of complex or altar-centered ritual. I am not and I appreciate the moderate ritual we followed at our more traditional church, but it is not in harmony with mainstream Evangelical culture. Hence we discarded bowing to the altar (i.e. reverencing the cross) and servers. Evangelicals do value Holy Communion and prefer to refer to the Holy Table rather than the Altar.

An emphasis on Corporate Intercession

Prayer groups are important in mainstream Evangelicalism.

An emphasis on every-member ministry

The priesthood of all believers is emphasised in Evangelicalism. Hence clericalism is unpopular. It does not mean that there is a low opinion of the ordained ministry but that any hint of sarcerdotalism (the absolute necessity of priestly ordination and a priestly intermediary with God) is frowned upon.

Open Evangelicals

The largest Anglican theological colleges are all Evangelical – Oak Hill, Ridley, Trinity and St John’s Nottingham and the latter two, and to some extent Ridley, are more “open-evangelical” rather than conservative or even fundamentalist. In other words, they are more open to new ways of approaching Scripture and to grappling with problems of faith. I would regard myself as an Open Evangelical, with an affinity with Central Churchmanship although I used to be more of a conservative Evangelical.

To summarise:

An Evangelical congregation, while respecting other traditions, should strongly emphasise:

The Authority of Scripture

But allows freedom for questions and sensitive but honest facing up to difficulties of interpretation

The Exposition of Scripture

The necessity of personal conversion

Evangelism

  • Emphasising the necessity of a conscious personal relationship with Christ and having assurance of eternal salvation,
  • encouraging people to respond personally and, where appropriate to say a prayer of commitment, alone or with the Christian doing the evangelism (perhaps with that person leading them in a  prayer).
  • Taking every opportunity to proclaim the ABC of the gospel at occasional offices, festivals such as Christmas or Easter, even in sermons which are not primarily evangelistic.

A simple but dignified Ritual

Corporate Intercession

Every-member ministry

© Tony Higton: see conditions for copying on the Home Page