Trying to paint an accurate landscape of uk evangelicalism is like trying to paint a rainbow using only black and white.
On the one hand, when people talk about evangelicals they talk about lively, often growing, vibrant communities of faith which are getting more and more effectively involved with their local areas, with an increasingly credible voice and influence on public policy.
“I believe evangelicals are coming to their own in the UK,” says Nims Obunge, chief executive of the Peace Alliance. “By this I mean there is a sense in which evangelicals are becoming more conscious of the need to be a visual healing part of a hurting society and are therefore seeking to provide more relevant answers without losing sight of the supremacy of Christ’s purpose and mission.”
On the other hand, people talk of a divided, unpopular group with a bad reputation in the media and an overinflated sense of its own importance, which seeks to influence parliament in a way which only serves its own ends. Within their own circles they bicker about lots of things, while considering that their own ‘take’ on scripture is the ‘genuine’ understanding of the gospel.
So what is the true picture? As Steve Clifford, the newlyappointed general director of the Evangelical Alliance (EA), takes up his post next month, what challenges face him as he tries to represent this diverse constituency?
The scope of this article does not allow for an in-depth analysis. Instead, we have evaluated four key areas for UK evangelical Christians – unity, public perception, political influence and social action – as well as considering how people regard the EA and its choice of Steve Clifford.
Hell, war, Israel, sexuality, women in leadership prosperity, the second coming, atonement, six day creationism vs evolution, whether or not the emerging church is heretical… the list of things which have divided evangelicals isn’t short.
It is not just a simple case of ‘issues’ dividing evangelicals. Tribalism – the withdrawing within tightly-defined camps of like-minded believers - has been long recognised, and seems to be on the increase.
“There is a polarisation often between classic evangelicals and what are called the open evangelical groupings,” says Andy Peck, former deputy editor of Christianity magazine. “There remains suspicion between the groups, with classical evangelicals caricatured as narrow-minded, judgemental and open evangelicals as too broad and in danger of diluting the gospel in favour of good but lesser activities concerned with social action and justice.”
This tribalism, and apparent inability to resolve or agree to disagree on points of theology, has led many to fear for evangelicalism’s increasing fragmentation. “
‘All one in Christ’ has always been a core value for evangelicals, and historically a recognisable distinctive as the grounds for our unity, but I fear we are losing the ground that we gained in the 1970s and 1980s when we honoured and accepted one another’s differences with greater grace across the denominational and organisational divisions,” says David Coffey, President of the Baptist World Alliance.
“With our increasingly separate conferences and publications, the growth of judgmentalism and isolationism is a serious sign of poor health. It grieves my spirit that evangelicals cannot find a greater gospel unity, and I fear we are in grave danger of missing the fullest expression of evangelical cooperation to face the epic challenge of effective mission and evangelism in UK.”
This ‘isolationism’ is not just down to theology and ecclesiology. “Often they are because of personality clashes and disagreements over tactics,” notes Wallace Benn, Bishop of Lewes.
“There is a division between the harder edged and those who wish to be more generous in their partnerships and more relational in their ways of preserving historic truth or achieving change,” says Graham Cray, Bishop of Maidstone. “This division between the more and less sectarian is my greatest concern for us.”
“I wonder whether the culture and colour divide is our primary divide, albeit I know that some are concerned about views on prosperity and healing, but we should get over it and build on what unites us not what divides us,” says Obunge.
Mark Landreth-Smith, a Newfrontiers International church leader, is more positive than others. He argues that evangelical disunity is over fewer issues than we might think and is mostly on issues of style and strategy rather than central issues.
Given the scope of various disagreements, not just over theology and practice, but over relationships, is it unrealistic to hope that evangelicals may be able to unite better in the future?
“[Unity is] only likely when we feel ourselves to be under threat,” says Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden. “But evangelicalism is by its very nature fissiparous. We all know we’re right, and we all want to keep our version of the truth pure.”
However, there have been moments when evangelicals have been united towards a positive goal – such as Soul in the City, Make Poverty History or Jubilee 2000.
“In the future, evangelicals will feel less need to defend the social order, and feel more liberty to challenge it,” says Jonathan Bartley, co-director of Christian think tank Ekklesia. They will also discover more of the gospel’s political and social dimension, as the Bible is read less from a position of privilege and power, with a desire to control, and more from a place of being a sojourner or alien, with a desire to challenge.”
Aside from that, most commentators did not have any great optimism about uniting an increasingly diverse (some would say fragmented) group of people. For some, there is little purpose in attempting it.
“We are a diverse group who have rarely worked as a united and uniform body over anything,” says Derek Tidball, former Principal of the London School of Theology. “Diversity is not to be feared. Monopolies have their deficiencies. But public criticism of fellow evangelicals, sniping at each other from safe havens of superiority and undermining those who preach Christ genuinely, if differently, from us is unworthy and should be renounced.”
The public perception is either negative or ignorant of what evangelicals are and what they stand for. When the ‘e word’ is mentioned in the public square it is associated with intolerance, homophobia and arrogance.
This is blamed variously on the media’s alignment of British evangelicals with right wing US evangelicals, whose influence is deepened by the globalisation of the media, and the actions of extreme pressure groups in this country which run negative campaigns serving their own interests.
“The actions that grab the headlines are usually the cases where evangelicals try to gain opt-outs from issues of equality and justice, or fight to assert their rights and to discriminate against others,” says Bartley.
If ‘Christians’ are marginalised, evangelical Christians face a double whammy of distrust and are often associated with a narrow, and bigoted expression of faith.
“When evangelicals campaigned for Make Poverty History we aligned ourselves to a very broad coalition, but on issues like homosexuality there is not the same partnership and we appear to be marginalised at a time when the culture is moving to a broader position of acceptance,” says Coffey.
Perhaps worse than being “too known for what we are against” as Broadbent puts it, is the contention by some that there is little public awareness of evangelical Christians at all – they are barely known and so they do not matter.
“Most members of the public don’t know and don’t care about evangelicals,” says Landreth-Smith. “We massage our ego falsely if we think [they do].”
“Outside the church there is no public perception of the word evangelical,” agrees Jacky Oliver, a New Church leader and chief executive of a disability charity. “They give it no thought, apart from its use in management speak where it is used to describe an example of good marketing.”
The negative connotations have led to some discussion about whether the word evangelical (which has become ‘toxic’ in many places according to Broadbent) should be abandoned entirely.
“In the Christian context I prefer not to use the word ‘evangelical’ at all as over the years it has been associated with intolerance, judgmental fundamentalism and people who lack humility or grace,” adds Oliver.
“The word has become misunderstood and synonymous with narrowness,” says Tidball, a long standing member of the EA council, “but it is a wonderful word, for which there is really no substitute and many of us, not least the EA, want to work to rehabilitate it rather than abandon it.”
The two areas which typically dominate the lobbying agendas of evangelicals are personal morality (sex, abortion, civil partnerships and so on) and the more broad idea of ‘defending our own interests’ (such as the religious hatred bill, pluralism, other religious traditions).
Still, while some would say that evangelicals are onlyinterested in lobbying about ‘sex, sex and yet more sex’, there have been moves to adopt a broader agenda, including issues such as fair trade, trade justice and environmental issues.
“Unfortunately, we mostly lobby politicians about defending our own interests rather than issues of social injustice,” says Tidball. “We have rightly expressed concern about changes in private morality but we should have shown ourselves to be as committed to issues of social morality.”
And how effective are they? “We usually think we are totally ineffective, but many, not just the militant secularists, many ordinary citizens who are indifferent to religion, believe we have too much power,” says Tidball.
“We are a minority in a vastly complex secular society whose engines are driven by power and economic interests and seen from that perspective we have a good deal of access to the political powers.”
He and others list the EA and CARE as effective in voicing an evangelical agenda in parliament. “They do not always achieve the public ‘notoriety’ of other Christian groups but they open doors where others close them and produced defensive reactions.”
Others claim that evangelicals have little influence on public policy.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think [they] are especially influential here,” says John Drane, a professor of applied theology. “Big claims are made by some organisations, but they seem hard to either verify or justify. And where evangelical organisations and individuals have made a difference, it has almost always been in partnership with other Christians.”
Even when politicians court evangelicals, it gives some people grounds for scepticism. “I think we are kidding ourselves,” says Broadbent. “Both Labour and the Tories are wanting to use us for their own ends. They are courting Steve Chalke and the black majority and international churches, but public policy is rapidly becoming more secular.”
“A lot of evangelicals like to think that they are influential, and a lot of money is taken from evangelical churches and individuals and spent on political initiatives and campaigns,” says Bartley. “I have seen a great deal of it wasted unnecessarily and it makes me very angry. Anyone who claims to be influential probably isn’t. Nor is it desirable to try and identify the influential evangelicals, or create influential evangelicals. The gospel calls us to a new way of thinking and engaging politically. It demands first and foremost that we are faithful witnesses, and warns us of the quest for power.”
The attitude of evangelicals towards social activism has changed in recent years, resulting in much more concentrated enthusiasm for a variety of projects, from partnering with local authorities to delivering services to campaigning for trade justice.
The effect of the two Lausanne Conferences in 1977 and 1989 and the writings of John Stott, who spelled out the reasons why evangelism and social action were indivisible, had a huge impact. Since Lausanne there has been a steady growth in social awareness and involvement. It is now generally accepted that mission should be holistic and social action is rarely seen as part of a liberal agenda, or as a ‘social gospel’. Some conservative evangelicals remain suspicious however, in particular that the social action agenda is being followed too rigorously and diminishing the proclamation of the gospel.
Cross-denominational social action projects, or ‘word and deed’ missions, such as Hope08 and Soul in the City have seen thousands of churches get involved.
The long term effectiveness of Hope08 in particular remains to be seen (Hope08 has partnered with Theos to produce an independent evaluation to assess this) but for many, the initiatives represent a new attitude towards social action – that it is an essential part of the faith, and not an added extra.
“[They] represent a real shift and show that evangelicals are serious about this,” says Benn. “Both Soul in the City and Hope 08 have been positive and helped galvanise Christians and made what Christians are doing more visible to local people including civic leaders.”
He says that he is not a fan of what he describes as “Steve Chalke’s theological shifts”… but he is “a great fan of Chalke’s social engagement” through academy schools, Faithworks and other community-based work.
So while there is much to be encouraged by, and social action provides a platform on which evangelicals from diverse tribes can stand together, it ought to be noted that evangelicals still tend to be selective about the sort of things they will get active about. For example, Drane says they are more likely to be moved by poverty for example than international genocide or the environment. There is also a tendency towards starting separate programmes and organisations, rather than “being salt and light in the wider marketplace of ideas and activism, where they might actually be able to make more of an impact.”
The role of the Evangelical Alliance
So what role does the Evangelical Alliance play in all of this? Will the appointment of Steve Clifford have any significant impact on the UK evangelical landscape? Some see his appointment as significant for a number of reasons. Clifford is from the charismatic tradition, and highly regarded for his ability to bring people together to work with Soul in the City and other cross-denominational social action initiatives.
His appointment is a “signal that the EA is about relationships and activism – working together,” says Broadbent. Many commentators also point to his gift for mediation and his desire for evangelicals to be united.
“He is a person that likes to process decisions and remain objective. This will mean that he will be excellent at dealing with conflict and hopefully assist a united EA voice,” says Oliver. “He is energised by taking the message of salvation of society and individuals beyond the walls of the church across all denominations. I anticipate this will mean that the EA has an even stronger emphasis in this area and might well engage or partner in a new way with denominations who have not historically linked with the EA.”
“Steve is a listener, a man of integrity and presence. He will work hard to bring evangelicals together,” says Landreth-Smith.
Clifford is relatively unknown in the wider world outside evangelical circles, which could be seen as a big advantage. “He has a blank sheet and is not tainted by preconceptions about what he stands for personally,” says Drane. “So it’s up to him to create an identity.”
For some, the role and direction of the Evangelical Alliance will have a key role to play in the future of evangelicalism.
“One of my central expectations for the EA has always been that the tribes of evangelicalism need a secure family home where they can meet and the EA is equipped uniquely to provide this home,” says Coffey. “This ministry of the EA has been neglected in recent years and we need to restore the kind of gatherings that were convened by the EA in the 1970s and 1980s. We need a table where the tribes can gather to encounter and honour the diversity that exists.
“I hope that Steve Clifford and his team will continue to hold to the vision of an EA whose voice will be heard in the public square,” he adds. “But I also hope they will bring a fresh vision for the central importance of building a broader coalition of the tribes which can serve to strengthen the evangelical voices (plural) we can present to the wider world. The EA should not imagine it can always make one statement that speaks for all evangelicals. There is strength sometimes in acknowledging to one another and to the wider world that evangelicals are united in Christ and the primary doctrines of the faith, but there is legitimate diversity of opinion on some of the major social and political issues of the day.”
It’s a complex, messy and difficult set-up, and achieving a more united, positive and glorifying movement of evangelicals rests on more than Steve Clifford’s ability to do his job. The huge goodwill towards him from many wings of evangelicalism will set him in good stead, but these loyalties will be tested when he has to make tough decisions.
What does it mean to be evangelical?
David Bebbington’s definition of the characteristics of evangelicals found in 'Evangelicalism in Modern Britain' is helpful and much quoted.
Biblicist: Through the scriptures, the God who is objectively ‘there’ has revealed universal and eternal truth to humankind in such a way that all can grasp it.
Christocentrist: God’s eternal word became human in the historical man Jesus of Nazareth, who definitively reveals God to humanity.
Crucicentrist: The good news of God’s revelation in Christ is seen supremely in the cross, where atonement was made for people of every race, tribe and tongue.
Conversionist: The truth of the gospel must be appropriated in personal faith, which comes through repentance – that is, a discernible reorientation of the sinner’s mind and heart towards God.
Activist: Gospel truth must be demonstrated in evangelism and social action.
What we fight about
The issues which currently divide evangelicals include:
• Atonement: Sharp disagreements about penal substitution triggered by the publication in 2003 of The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann.
• Creation: Three main opposing views with hot and sometimes harsh debate between supporters of six-day creationism, intelligent design and theistic evolution.
• Emerging church: A catch-all title to describe a disparate group of emergent/post-evangelicals. Are their teachings refreshing, based on careful new scholarship and culturally relevant, or dangerous, heretical and a sellout to postmodernism?
• Escatology: Wide variety of views held about the second coming of Christ and the end times.
• Gifts of the Spirit: ‘Cessationists’ believe the gifts tongues, prophecy etc died with the apostles. Pentecostal, charismatic and others believe gifts can be asked for and used as described in the New Testament.
• Hell: Are the ‘lost’ destined for eternal punishment in a literal lake of fire? Or will their souls be obliterated and cease to exist? Most controversial and most would say heretical, is the universalist view (everyone gets ‘saved’ in the end).
• Israel: Often sharply divided views among evangelicals on an appropriate response to the modern nation of Israel in its ongoing conflicts with Palestine and other Middle Eastern nations/groups. This comes out of differing views about the place of the Jews and the nation of Israel in God’s future plans, and interpretation of prophetic scriptures.
• Scripture: All evangelicals look to scripture but hold different views about key passages, the infallibility of scripture and its interpretation and application.
• Sexuality: Large majority hold to the view that sexual acts outside of a marriage between a man and woman are sinful – regarded by most as the orthodox and biblical stance. Some softening of opinions about homosexual acts and heterosexual cohabitation.
• War: Pacifists base their views on Jesus’ statements about peacemaking and non-retribution, while advocates of ‘just war’ theology also point to God’s Old Testament call for Israel to war against its pagan neighbours.
• Women in leadership: Depending on how you interpret passages in the NT, some limit women’s ministry roles, others allow women to preach/teach, and to positions of church authority; elders, ministers, bishops etc.
Dawn of a new era: Interview with Steve Clifford
Steve Clifford, the new general director of the Evangelical Alliance, talks to John Buckeridge about his take on the evangelical landscape
JB: How do you view the evangelical scene that the EA wants to represent?
SC: It depends on your own personality type - I’m definitely a cup half full person rather than a cup half empty type. I look across the evangelical landscape and the church as a whole, and there’s so much to be encouraged by. I’ve spent the last year as chair of the Hope 08 initiative which has given me fantastic opportunities to travel around the UK and hear some of the wonderful stories. It seems to me that the church is finding fresh confidence; it’s positioning itself right at the heart of community. It’s confident in communicating the good news of the gospel but also expressing that through all kinds of actions and social initiatives. There’s lots of health and life.
Many consider that evangelicals are more diverse, more fragmented, than ever. So, servicing the members of the Evangelical Alliance will be a really difficult task.
There have always been challenges within evangelicalism. There is a diversity of theological perspectives and philosophies of ministry that bring tensions between us. However, the things which unite us are far greater than the things that divide us.
What does ‘Joe Public’ think about the word ‘evangelical’?
A few years ago I had questions about whether the word ‘Evangelical’ was worth fighting for. I am convinced it is, but we do need to invest into that word some heart and passion so that we’re not known as the ones with the pointing fingers but with outstretched hands and maybe with dirty hands, through our involvement in some of the difficult situations within our community. Young people regard ‘evangelical’ as a verb, rather than a noun. The very fact they see it as a verb breathes fresh life into it.
So you don’t think some equate the ‘E word’ as meaning a homophobic bigot? You don’t think that the tide has gone out so far that the word can’t be reclaimed?
I’m sure there are some people who feel exactly that way. We’ve got to work hard; we’ve not always been good at communicating. We have often come over as the negative ones, the ones who have always got something to complain about, obsessed with sex and homosexuality. I actually don’t meet a lot of evangelical Christians that are like that so sometimes we’ve not done ourselves favours in the way that we’ve presented ourselves in the media. There are certain evangelicals who turn up with the pointed fingers and it creates an angle for a press story. I think that’s sad. I don’t think it fairly represents the vast majority of evangelical Christians across the UK. A recent Tearfund survey identified two million people who were happy to identify themselves as evangelical Christians. That’s a good figure, we have an important contribution to make.
You’ve mentioned your involvement with Soul in the City and Hope 08. How do you evaluate the attitude of most evangelicals to social action?
I think that there’s been quite a shift. A few years ago there were those who were strong on action and there were those who were strong on word. Often they didn’t really communicate well. In recent years there has been a whole host of initiatives where God has been bringing these two things together and I think it’s a marriage made in heaven.
Do you feel that evangelicals have credibility within political circles because of the ways they get involved in local communities?
Recent research by Gweini has established that 97 per cent of all voluntary services offered in Wales are from the faith communities. This translates to £102m worth of community engagement, done on a voluntary basis, per year. The vast majority of this is provided by the churches in Wales. If you extend that across the whole of the United Kingdom that is a phenomenal amount of work that is being contributed, week in and week out. For example, if you take the church out of the youth work that is being done in the UK, there’s very little left.
Some evangelicals will be disappointed that the EA has appointed someone from a charismatic tradition.
I understand people’s concerns in that area. I have a history of working across the church and have friends who would happily own the term ‘conservative evangelical’ and I have a deep respect for them and all they contribute into the life of the evangelical community. I do hope that all wings of the church will feel that I’m there and able to represent them. I want to take some time in the first few months, when I’m in post to go and visit leaders across the evangelical community and to do a lot of listening and praying together.
Watch the full version of this interview on Premier.tv
To read more on ‘evangelical tribes’ read the article Evangelicals United? by Andy Peck from the January 2008 issue