“What Is an Evangelical?” (Redux)

Bebbington-Evang-Modern-BritainA week or so ago, I posted a link to John Fea’s blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home, in which the Messiah College historian shared some thoughts on the definition of the term “Evangelicalism.” And even though I posed the question, none of my readers shared their thoughts on the other characteristics they might add to the term.

Now, Fea is tackling this question once again by reporting on two sessions he attended at the recent Conference on Faith and History. (I’ve blogged about my own involvement in this conference here.) In a three-part post, Fea recapped “Defining Evangelicalism at the Conference on Faith and History.” Those posts are available herehere, and here.

I’d encourage you to read the posts in their entirety. In the first two, leading historians of religion — including Darren Dochuk, Molly Worthen, and the indefatigable Mark Noll — share their thoughts on the so-called Bebbington Quadrilateral, a four-part characterization of Evangelicalism first developed in his 1989 book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain that has become a standard definition in historical communities.

In the third post, scholars of American religion reflect on the significance of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, a kind of travelogue of religion scholar Randall Balmer’s “journey into the Evangelical subculture in America” (as the book’s subtitle declares). All of the scholars point out how Balmer’s more journalistic account of Evangelicalism in America differs from the more scholarly treatments (by people like Bebbington). A different understanding of Evangelicalism, they suggest, emerges when the concept is examined “in real life” rather than from a scholarly distance.

The posts are so full of rich insights that it’s hard to recap them in a post such as this!

Nevertheless, this excerpt might entice you to read the posts in their entirety:

For example, the college where I teach–Messiah College–is certainly evangelical in essence, but it is also diverse enough–both in terms of student body and faculty–that it does not seem to identify with “evangelicalism” in the way that a place like Wheaton College might identify with the term or the movement.  While some of our students and faculty might find a theological and ecclesiastical genealogy in the organizations and churches affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals or Christianity Today or Billy Graham, others come from Anabaptist, Pentecostal, theologically conservative or moderate mainline Protestant, or even Roman Catholic backgrounds.  Messiah is a very evangelical place.  It strongly adheres to the authority of the Bible, the belief that Christians should be sharing their faith and addressing social problems, the centrality of the Cross, and the need for conversion (although not everyone would completely endorse a belief in the New Birth).  But is it part of a movement known as “evangelicalism?”  Maybe.

Readers: What do you think of these attempts to define (or re-define) “Evangelicalism”? Share your thoughts below!

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The 2014 Annual Meeting of the Brethren in Christ Historical Society

Worthy-of-the-Calling-2Last night, the Brethren in Christ Historical Society released Worthy of the Calling, a book of biographies to which I contributed a full-length biography of Luke and Doris Keefer.

Readers of The Search for Piety and Obedience know that I’ve been working on this project for a long, long time. I realized at last night’s even that it’s been almost four years — just slightly less time than I’ve been married to my wife! It’s certainly the most consuming project I’ve undertaken thus far in my career, and it’s gratifying to see the finished product in print, finally.

Here are a few pictures from last night’s event, most of them borrowed from the Brethren in Christ Historical Society Facebook page. (Since I was part of the program, I didn’t have much time to snap photos!)

Dr. Morris Sider introduces the new book of biographies.

Dr. Morris Sider introduces the new book of biographies.

AnnaRuth Sider shares a few words about her biography of brother and sister-in-law, Harvey and Erma Sider, long-time missionaries and  administrators in the Brethren in Christ Church

AnnaRuth (Sider) Osborne shares a few words about her biography of brother and sister-in-law, Harvey and Erma Sider, long-time missionaries and administrators in the Brethren in Christ Church

Me with fellow authors AnnaRuth Osborne and Beth Mark

Me (center) with fellow authors AnnaRuth Osborne (left) and Beth Mark (right)

Congrats to my fellow authors, Beth Mark and AnnaRuth Osborne, and many thanks to our dauntless editor, E. Morris Sider, for his work in making this publication a reality!

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TONIGHT: Annual Meeting of the Brethren in Christ Historical Society

And the release of Worthy of the Calling, the book to which I contributed a biography of Luke and Doris Keefer. (For a quick catch-up, see my coverage of the book and of the Keefer biography here, here, here, here, and here.)

The event begins at 5:30pm. According to the spring 2014 issue of the Historical Society’s newsletter:

The authors and editor will all participate in the program. Members of the Historical Society will receive a free copy of the biography at the annual meeting, while copies of the book will be mailed to members who are unable to attend. The book will also be available for sale to non-members who attend the meeting.

I’m looking forward to seeing the book in print for the first time. I’ll be certain to share a photo or two from the evening here at the blog!

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The Summer and Fall of Book Reviews!

yoder-together-work-lordOne of the reasons I haven’t made as much progress on my “Born-Again Brethren in Christ” project as of late (like I mentioned yesterday) is because of the numerous book reviews I’ve been working on this summer and fall. I’m hoping to post a bit about these reviews in the coming weeks.

For now, here’s a short list of the books I’ve been reading and writing about since July:

David R. Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism. The review will appear in Reflections, the journal of the Missionary Church Historical Society.

Duane C. S. Stoltzfus, Pacifists in Chains: The Persecution of the Hutterites During the Great War. The review will appear in Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture.

Nathan E. Yoder, Together in the Work of the Lord: A History of the Conservative Mennonite Conference. The review will appear in Mennonite Quarterly Review.

Jonathan M. Yeager, Early Evangelicalism: A Reader. The review will appear on H-Pietism.

Look forward to some reflections on — and perhaps even the reviews of — these books in the coming weeks and months!

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Last Chance to Register for the 2014 Sider Institute Conference!


Today’s the last day to register for “Who’s In? Who’s Out?: Rethinking Church Membership in the 21st Century,” a conference co-sponsored by the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College and Fresno Pacific University Biblical Seminary.

The conference will be held Oct. 9-10 at Carlisle Brethren in Christ Church. Registration for the full-day conference (on Oct. 10) costs $30 and can be completed online. Pastors in the Brethren in Christ denomination can earn lifelong learning credit for participating in the conference.

For more information, contact siderinstitute@messiah.edu.

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Born-Again Brethren in Christ: Week #13 – Slowing Down

busyClick here for some background on this post.

After last week’s good progress on the manuscript, this week I spent almost no time on “Born-Again Brethren in Christ.” This means I’m back where I was during the early weeks of this project. It’s not for lack of desire to finish this project (although I must admit that I’m growing weary of constantly thinking about the Brethren in Christ and Evangelicalism). Mostly I’m slowing down because I need to speed up on other things: the upcoming Sider Institute study conference; other projects at Messiah College and Mennonite World Conference; and home stuff.

What does this mean for my essay? Will I have time to work on it in the coming weeks? I certainly hope so. The manuscript is sitting in a folder on my desk; a Post-it note covered in still-unanswered research questions is tacked to the front of the folder. If I’m going to do this project well, I’ll need to spend some more time in the archives in addition to spending time in front of the computer screen.

Stay tuned!

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Examining Brethren in Christ Theological Identity

National Director Alan Robinson speaks at yesterday morning's Theological Study Group meeting at Messiah Village (Mechanicsburg, Pa.).

National Director Alan Robinson speaks at yesterday morning’s Theological Study Group meeting at Messiah Village (Mechanicsburg, Pa.).

Yesterday morning I attended my first meeting of the Brethren in Christ Theological Study Group. I did not know this group even existed until recently! From what I can tell, it’s a local, grassroots gathering among Brethren in Christ pastors (and some laypeople) in Pennsylvania to discuss pressing theological issues. According to Bob Verno, the pastor of West Shore Brethren in Christ Church and one of the Theological Study Group conveners, this group has met sixteen times since it got its start in 2010. Interesting!

Yesterday’s gathering took place at Messiah Village, a Brethren in Christ-related retirement home in Mechanicsburg, Pa., and focused on “Renewing our Theological Identity: What It Means to be Brethren in Christ Today.” Presenters included:

  • Curtis Book, peace and justice coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee East Coast, who argued that the Brethren in Christ theological tradition is primarily shaped by a “core” Anabaptist ecclesiology and Wesleyan soteriology;
  • Heather Brickner, life groups pastor at Carlisle Brethren in Christ Church, who described theological values — peace, community, simplicity, and others — that position the Brethren in Christ well for ministry among millennials; and
  • Alan Robinson, Brethren in Christ U.S. national director, who encouraged the Brethren in Christ to rethink some of the simple assumptions that have dominated our conversation about theological identity, particularly our simplistic understanding of Evangelicalism as a tradition.

I found everyone’s presentations to be stimulating, and agreed with much of what I heard. In particular, Alan’s challenge to re-think the definition of Evangelicalism resonates with much of my own thinking on the matter, and reinforces my own argument about the more complex ways that the Brethren in Christ have related to Evangelicals throughout our history. We Brethren in Christ would do well to recognize that Evangelicalism has at times been attracted to our Anabaptist-infused understanding of discipleship and community. Yet at the same time we need to heed the advice of the late Luke Keefer Jr. to be “Evangelicals with a difference” (in much the same way we’ve been Anabaptists, Pietists, and Wesleyans “with a difference”).

I felt that Curtis’ presentation, with its focus on defining our identity as Anabaptist ecclesiology and Wesleyan soteriology, was compelling from a confessional perspective but not wholly convincing from a historical/theological perspective. Given my strong feelings about the potential for Pietism as a “usable past” for the Brethren in Christ (which I’ve explained here and here), and given the fact that Wesleyan Holiness theology came to the Brethren in Christ from the American Holiness movement and not the Pietist-influenced Methodist tradition, I can’t accept Curtis’ basic assertion that Wesleyanism offers the Brethren in Christ the full soteriology that we embrace in our current doctrinal statement. But I agree with his broader contention that the Brethren in Christ need to re-assess our Wesleyan tradition in order to access the rich resources of Christian holiness.

I hope that these conversations can continue in other venues — venues that allow us to include more Brethren in Christ folks in the conversation.

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