Evangelicalism is committed to evangelism-that is, the proclamation of the gospel in the full confidence that it contains something God-given that will enable it to find a response in the hearts and minds of men and women. Evangelism is natural to evangelicals. "The church," wrote Emil Brunner, "lives by mission as a fire lives by burning." Evangelism is something intrinsic to the identity of the church-not an optional extra, but something that is part and parcel of its very being.

To give such an emphasis to evangelism is thus to recognize both the inherent rightness of the gospel and its intrinsic attractiveness. That attraction is supremely the person of Jesus Christ. It is a "pearl of great price," something that is recognized to be worth seeking and possessing, and whose possession overshadows everything else. Evangelicalism thus fosters an attitude of expectation-an expectation that the gospel will be a delight and joy to others. This is coupled with a systematic endeavor to uncover the ways in which the inherent appeal of the gospel can be best articulated, in the certainty that this appeal rests on a reliable and responsible historical and theological foundation.

It must be stressed that there is no question of altering the gospel to make it more attractive. For evangelicalism, that is the supreme error of liberalism-doing violence to the gospel itself in an attempt to make it more easily acceptable to modern culture. The issue is ensuring that the gospel is preached faithfully for all it is worth, without the misrepresentations that cause offense to so many.

Many secular writers respond to this emphasis on evangelism by reaching for the nearest cliche and writing of "Christian imperialism"; others suggest that the churches have become obsessed with marketing their product, presenting evangelism as some kind of religious public-relations industry.

Both these comments are deeply revealing of the failure of an increasingly secular society to understand the primary motivation for evangelism. The fundamental motivation for evangelism is generosity-the basic human concern to share the good things of life with those we love. It does not reflect a desire to sell or dominate; it arises from love and compassion on the part of those who have found something wonderful and want others to share in its joy. It is, as the old adage has it, like one beggar telling another where to find bread.

A central task of evangelism is to make Christianity credible in the modern world. The area of Christian thought that has dealt with this matter is apologetics-the "defense of the faith," to give a rough translation of the Greek word apologia, used in 1 Peter 3:15. A good working definition of apologetics would be "the attempt to create an intellectual climate favorable to Christian faith" or "a concern to enhance the public plausibility of the gospel." In the past, apologetics has been a significant aspect of the ongoing mission of the church, to which evangelicals have made a contribution.

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Yet the situation in which the Western church finds itself has radically changed, with the dawn of a post-Enlightenment world. The rise of the movement usually called postmodernism is a telling sign of the loss of confidence in reason and "modern" ideas and values in today's culture. The rise of postmodernism reflects the seriously eroded credibility of a universal rationality once regarded as central to "liberal" theological method. As liberal commentator Eugene Borowitz remarks, "Liberalism lost its cultural hegemony largely because of the demythologization of its allies, universal rationalism and science. At one time we thought them not only our finest sources of truth but our surest means to human ennoblement. Today the sophisticated know that they deal only in possible 'constructions of reality,' and the masses sense that they commend ethical relativism more than necessary values and duties."

Liberalism has thus lost its credibility in the area of apologetics; that mantle has passed to evangelicalism. And evangelicalism is becoming increasingly confident in its presentation of both the truth and the attractiveness of the gospel.

However, for many people, a concern with "truth" has become irrelevant. The first question people tend to ask these days is not "Is this right?" but "What will this do for me?" The rise of what Tom Wolfe called the "Me Generation" has necessarily led to a focusing of apologetics on the relevance of the gospel to the needs of individuals. This person-centered apologetics aims to remain faithful to the gospel while ensuring that it fully addresses the contemporary situation.

But we do not need to throw away Christianity's claims to truth in light of this cultural development. We just need to realize that it is now bad tactics to major on the truth question. If we are going to get a hearing in today's culture, we need to be able to show that Christianity has something relevant and attractive to offer. The bonus is that this attraction is securely grounded in God's self-revelation, not invented yesterday in an effort to get a hearing in the marketplace. Thus we may commend the attractiveness of Christianity while resting securely in the knowledge of its truth.

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One factor that has crippled attempts at collaboration among mainline denominations has been the issue of "denominational sovereignty." This term was coined by Francis Potter at the 1944 Golden Jubilee of the Foreign Missions Conference of North America to refer to the struggle of various Protestant denominations to dominate any cooperative movements of which they participated. Within both the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches (NCC) in the United States, the institutional interests of the denominations are fought over, often with a ferocity that alarms their constituent members. In addition to its commitment to an outdated liberal theology that nobody seems to want anymore, the NCC has to cope with the strident ecclesiological claims of its constituent churches. It is little wonder that the NCC has seemed to lurch from one crisis to another.

In part, the success and attraction of evangelicalism rests on its relative immunity to such squabbles. Evangelicalism has been no stranger to controversy; yet the fact that it is not a denomination in itself has allowed evangelicals of all kinds to see themselves as committed to something that transcends denominational divisions and rivalries. An evangelical inside a mainline denomination, for example, will feel a far greater sense of affinity with fellow evangelicals outside that denomination than with fellow members of that denomination who deny or challenge central aspects of the Christian faith.

But the real points at issue run much deeper than this and center on the role of charismatic leaders and the necessity of a specific church structure for ensuring salvation of church members. By playing down the importance of denominational allegiance, evangelicalism is able to maximize the use of charismatic gifts among its leaders-gifts that would probably be suppressed within mainline denominations. The importance of this point may be appreciated if we consider the situation in Latin America, where evangelicalism is making huge advances at the expense of the Roman Catholic Church. One of the reasons for this, as David Stoll explains, is the rise of charismatic leaders: "Whereas evangelical structures provide ample room for the power of personal charisma, enabling new leaders to organize their own, equally legitimate churches, the Catholic structure of appointment from above is calculated to keep charisma under strict control, if not stifle it altogether. It is not hard to see which system will prosper at a time in history that ruptures old social bonds and forces personal initiative. Evangelicals can break away and remain evangelical, but Catholics who reject the authority of their clergy may well become evangelicals."

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It is at this point that the second factor noted above comes into the equation. Evangelicalism insists that it is not necessary to be a member of a specific denomination in order to be saved; it is necessary only to repent of one's sins and believe the true gospel. The Roman Catholic Church, however, generally remains committed to the more restricted idea that it is necessary to be a member of the "true church"-which, historically, it has identified as itself-in order to be saved. Although the Second Vatican Council softened this position significantly, the maxim "Outside the church there is no salvation" continues to have a deep impact on Catholic reflection.

Evangelicalism rejects the idea that "the church" can in any way be equated with one ecclesiastical body. The true church is found wherever the gospel is truly preached and truly received. Denominational allegiance is clearly of less than ultimate significance; the criterion of being saved has nothing to do with which church or fellowship one attends, but with whether one has heard and responded to the gospel. In an age in which social mobility has emerged as a major cultural force, evangelical ecclesiology has proved to be a winner.

Let me stress that I am not for one moment suggesting that this evangelical view of the church was formulated in an opportunistic manner, with an eye to benefiting from this development! I am simply pointing out that this long-standing aspect of evangelicalism happens to meet up exactly with a significant current in the global cultural changes of our times.


The picture sketched here runs the risk of being too optimistic, perhaps even unrealistic at points. There are a number of serious matters of a more negative nature that need to be addressed. While evangelicalism has considerable attractions and strengths, it also has its darker side. The following areas could be noted:

Borrowed spiritualities.

The powerful thrust of major evangelistic campaigns runs the risk of being dissipated unless those who come to faith are kept in faith by every proper means of spiritual nourishment, encouragement, and guidance. My concern is that evangelicals have not paid anything like the necessary attention to this major theme of Christian life and thought. It has depended on the insights of others, while ignoring its own rich resources. It is time to throw off the cult of dependency and move toward the development and rediscovery of spiritualities that will complement the great evangelical emphases on the sufficiency of Scripture, the centrality of the death of Christ, the need for personal conversion, and the evangelistic imperative.

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Guilt trips and burnout.

A deficient understanding of the Reformation doctrine of "knowledge of sin" has led to defeated Christians who suffer from guilt trips and burnout. There is a real need to develop authentically Christian understandings of self-esteem that challenge the secular view of self-sufficiency and affirm our dependence on God-without destroying a person's self-worth in the presence of God.


It is no secret that many people are alienated from some forms of evangelicalism by what they regard as its intensely dogmatic attitudes. Dogmatism is probably best defined as "a refusal to allow disagreement or doubt." The problem has two aspects: the emphasis it places on certainty, which causes difficulties for those experiencing doubt; and the kinds of things that some evangelicals choose to be dogmatic about, for which, in reality, there are a variety of evangelical options available (for example, how to relate to mainline Protestantism, the precise way the authority of Scripture is stated and defended, the place of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, the role of women in the church).

Personality cults.

Trust in God can easily become muddled with trusting someone who claims to speak, with authority, on his behalf. The problem concerns the personality cults that grow up around leading figures in the evangelical world. There is a real danger of scandal and disillusionment here.

I happen to believe that these weaknesses can be corrected and that the outcome of such a process of correction will be enriching both to evangelicalism and to Christianity as a whole. Yet evangelicalism has been reluctant to acknowledge its darker side, giving the impression that it will listen to none save its friends.

Evangelicalism has now gotten past the stage when it needs to be defensive about everything. Its survival seems assured; its next task is to get itself into shape for expansion and consolidation.

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My belief is that evangelicalism will gain the intellectual and spiritual high ground within Western Christianity during the next generation-but it will do so only after a thorough shakeout, in which some of its less desirable and theologically dubious aspects have been purged and the necessary attention paid to its emerging weaknesses. Evangelicalism needs to shed its ghetto mentality and become more involved with the real world as it prepares to expand still further.

The threats to evangelicalism are real-but so are its opportunities and its resources. The challenge is this: can evangelicalism cope with sustained growth, increasing intellectual sophistication, and growing acceptance within the churches? Or will it lose sight of its distinctive ideas and emphases? If we can appreciate the genuine attraction and distinctiveness of our beliefs, we can go some way toward ensuring the future well-being of the movement in particular, and of the Christian faith in general.


Alister McGrath is research professor of theology at Oxford University and Regent College, Vancouver, Canada, and principal of Wycliffe Hall. He is the author most recently of Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity (IVP), from which this article was adapted.


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