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What Is an Evangelical?

The term “evangelical” has become one of the major spiritual buzzwords of our time; and though it began as a term describing a movement of largely nondenominational, culturally aware Christians decades ago, its definition has become increasingly harder to nail to down. In recent years, the prominence of evangelicalism has led to its major involvement in national politics, and its somewhat broad definition has led to many sub-movements that still (at least informally) carry the name “evangelical.” But recently, a group of leaders met to change all that. This summer, 40 pastors and evangelical leaders including John Piper, D.A. Carson, Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll hosted a small conference attended by just a few hundred people to test their ideas about defining evangelicalism.

This week, Christianity Today ran a story about the conference, and according to their article, the event was purposefully small, serving as a testing ground for new ideas about the evangelical movement. “The Gospel Coalition” met at a two-day conference (which was mostly promoted through grassroots blogs and word-of-mouth publicity) to discuss what direction the evangelical church is heading.

One of the primary goals of The Gospel Coalition was to draft foundational documents that clearly spelled out a confessional statement and a Bible-based call to ministry. Carson explained to CT that this statement would help decipher what evangelical leaders are actually following—a more traditional understanding of the term. "There are lots of people today who call themselves evangelicals, who no evangelical would have recognized as such 50 years ago," Carson said in the article. "And partly because of the drift toward postmodern epistemology, there is less and less sense of the need for a center."

A common theme of the conference was the widely varying directions that some offshoots of the evangelical church have taken, the thought being that if a center point was drawn, the different directions that sway from the middle would be easier to identify. On his blog, Mark Driscoll described the group’s purpose. “The hope was to redefine a clear center for evangelicalism more akin to that previously articulated by men such as Francis Schaeffer, John Stott and Billy Graham.”

And though the Preamble to “The Gospel for All of Life” statement, which is now posted on the coalition’s website, doesn’t specifically mention the loosely defined “emerging” movement, it seems easy to speculate that parts of the movement were in mind when the group discussed what Carson referred to as “the drift.”

According to the actual statement, “We have become deeply concerned about some movements within traditional evangelicalism that seem to be diminishing the church’s life and leading us away from our historic beliefs and practices. On the one hand, we are troubled by the idolatry of personal consumerism and the politicization of faith; on the other hand, we are distressed by the unchallenged acceptance of theological and moral relativism.” For followers of the evangelical movement, it isn’t hard to recognize the subtle references to past failings by evangelical leaders and conservative concerns about some newer ministries.

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And though not all evangelical leaders may agree with the somewhat conservative theology of parts of the The Gospel Coalition statement (it comes from a Reformed perspective and has an emphasis on male church leadership), the overall tone of much of the document seems to be a more positive call to unity and not one of just division. The leaders say that the goal of the group is to serve the Church and not to consolidate influence. The statement reads, "If we seek service rather than power, we may have significant cultural impact.”

The next official meeting of The Gospel Coalition isn’t until 2009 (though their website contains more frequent updates), and up to this point, publicity over the initial conference and the statement that it was birthed out of has been relatively low. But as the group plans their 2009 conference, The Gospel Coalition may become a more prominent influence in the world of evangelicalism.

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