It feels like a subterranean roiling has finally burst to the surface. For a long time dis-ease has been working its way through evangelicalism. Faultlines of “race,” gender, and culture have threatened volcanic explosion—and for some it’s happened.
We’ve been feeling the effects of evangelical realignment at least since the emergence of affinity networks that broke the boundaries of longer-standing denominational lines. That realignment quickened as older evangelicals steeped in culture wars lost the respect of younger evangelicals hungering for a new way to be faithful in this riotous culture. Add the cultural and political turmoil of the last three years—police shootings of African Americans, sexual-assault allegations, child sex-abuse scandals—and it’s as if someone flipped the tables of easy alliance.
Then came the 2016 election, which seemed to feature every deep anxiety suffered by diverse members of the fragile evangelical alliance. The morning following the election, suspicion, accusation and recrimination sauntered right into the sanctuary, shouldering their way between worshipers who previously delighted in God’s grace together. For some, all that’s wrong with evangelicalism at large became a property of their particular local assembly. What could be leveled at the broader movement became the criticism of local churches with names and faces.
I didn’t know what was happening the first time I encountered strong reactions from members who read something I wrote about evangelicalism and assumed I “was talking about them.” They were and continue the be the furthest thing from my mind when writing about evangelicalism, the way my wife is not in view when I write or speak about marriage. I listened. I tried to understand. I puzzled over it all. Then I realized some Christians make no distinction between the larger evangelical movement with all its warts and their own local churches with all their brothers and sisters.
But “evangelicalism” is not every church and every church is not “evangelicalism.” The ability to distinguish between the two may be the one thing that preserves the fraying unity of many local congregations.
When I think of evangelicalism, I do not think of Anacostia River Church (ARC), my family, with individuals I love and serve. Their stories I know. Their burdens I help to carry. Their needs inform my prayers. Their celebrations prompt my own. The members of ARC are too particular to be subsumed in a nondescript evangelicalism.
“Evangelicalism” is an amorphous, anonymous, faceless movement. Like all coalitions, it combines disparate parts around a limited agenda. Like all coalitions, the parts may have identities quite distinct from the whole. Like all coalitions, the competing parts threaten the cohesive whole. Like all coalitions, evangelicalism may not last—at least not in its pre-2017 iteration. So a critique of evangelicalism is no critique of any particular local church.
So I’m learning to make this distinction clear. I’m learning not to assume everyone has this distinction in mind. I’m hoping everyone will be able to distinguish their church from the movement as whole. I’m hoping that not because I want to discourage local churches from reflecting deeply on what the flaws of the broader movement mean for them, but because I want individual Christians to see the very real grace of God at work in their church families. What may be true of evangelicalism may not at all be true of the man, woman, boy or girl singing next to you on Sunday. Distinguishing the two may help us to love.