Beyond Evangelical streams: a historical perspective

Frank ViolaTwo days ago I asked Am I one of Frank Viola’s Beyond Evangelicals? This was based on Frank’s description of four major streams in today’s evangelicalism: Systematizers, Activists, Emoters, and Beyond Evangelicals.

Since then I have given some more thought to this subject, and I have come to realise that there is nothing much new here. In fact, these four streams can be traced back at least a century. So here is my historical perspective on this. I must admit that I am more familiar with some of this history as it has happened here in the UK, but I hope that my insights are also applicable in North America, the prime focus of Frank’s work.

19th century evangelicalism was, I tend to think, relatively uniform. Certainly there were issues within it, but not ones which are of great concern today. But by the early 20th century this monolith started to crack. One major cause of this was the growth of liberal theology within many formerly evangelical denominations and ministries. Liberalism was not new at this time, but this was when it grew rapidly.

In reaction to this many evangelicals became obsessed with preserving sound doctrine and separation from the “world”, and so was born the movement known as Fundamentalism.

Meanwhile on the fringes of the evangelical church another new phenomenon was growing: Pentecostalism. At this period it was not accepted within existing denominations, and so specifically Pentecostal denominations were set up.

Through all this a main stream of Evangelicalism persisted, avoiding Liberalism and rejecting Pentecostalism, but also refusing to follow Fundementalism into the ghetto.

These four streams persisted right through the 20th century. Traditional Liberalism and Fundamentalism both had their day and then started to decline, but their basic perspectives live on. In the second half of the century Pentecostalism began to be accepted in some traditional denominational churches, and so the Charismatic Movement arose. And mainstream Evangelicalism survived, and in some places thrived.

So how do these older four streams relate to the four streams which Frank sees today?

Frank’s Systematizers are basically neo-Fundamentalists. Michael Clawson has today posted at Roger Olson’s blog an excellent essay Neo-Fundamentalism, so I won’t attempt to repeat this material. Michael shows clearly how the people he studies have the same kind of agenda as the original Fundamentalists.

It would be too simple to say that Frank’s Activists are Liberals – especially as this would be read by some as a pejorative comment. Activists are not necessarily people who have abandoned biblical authority in the way typical of liberal theology. But they have left behind some traditional evangelical interpretations of the Bible, and have put more focus on other passages, perhaps on the teaching of Jesus more than of Paul. They would recognise that the Tea Party Jesus is not the real Jesus.

Clearly, Franks’ Emoters are the Charismatics, and the Pentecostals who have now often become indistinguishable from them.

So what is Frank’s Beyond Evangelical stream? And what happened to the original fourth stream, the main evangelical stream? Clearly many things have changed and continue to change within this mainstream. No doubt some of the younger generation have left it for the other streams. Perhaps the main channel is drying up. But it seems to me that Frank is trying to revitalise this mainstream, and claim its leadership for himself, by dropping outdated and unhelpful practices and by giving it a new name: Beyond Evangelical.

Very likely this strategy of Frank’s will meet with some real success, by attracting those disillusioned with the other streams as well as by bringing the best out of those who have remained within the mainstream – and hopefully also by bringing in new believers, as it continues one of mainstream evangelicalism’s defining practices, active evangelism. But Frank should not suggest that his streams are something new which he has identified for the first time. What is new is the name, and perhaps the strategy which goes with it. On that basis I wish it well.

7 thoughts on “Beyond Evangelical streams: a historical perspective

  1. Hi Peter,

    I too was thinking of this much since I saw the other post yesterday. In fact, I had a good time of meditation on it today mowing the lawn (great time to think without distraction!).

    When I was thinking, my thoughts basically were that the church is so much more than is visible. I truly think that the majority of the church doesn’t fit into the ‘activist’ categories of the first three (ie, they have a point to get across). And so whilst a look around Google might make you think the church was limited to the activists, reformed and charismatics, There is in fact so much more.

    But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
    (Romans 11:4-6 ESV)

    The Church of God in reality is hopefully getting on with what God has called each of them to do. It is dealing with the daily issues of life and death, of eating and bills, of serving and worshipping, and is not seen by the ‘mainstream’ because it does not yell – it just does what it is being called to do.

    (I’m not saying some of these others have not been called to do what they are doing – but that they are the minority).

    Anyway, thanks for the post and opportunity for thought.


  2. Hi Peter,

    As Part I (and some of Part II) indicate . . .

    1) what I’m calling “beyond evangelicals” (for lack of a better term) aren’t “mainstream” by any means. They are in large part ignored by the mainstream/establishment evangelical world.

    2) there is no “leader” or any one trying to “claim leadership for themselves” for this tribe (or whatever one wants to call it). It’s not a “movement” either, just a growing view among younger Christians. I may be one small voice among others articulating some of the 4 themes that are important to them, and my blog seems to be *one* point of contact for such folks, among others. The other streams also have abundant blogs as points of contact.

    3) Nothing was said to indicate this is “new” . . . as I don’t believe it is. Deitrich Bonhoeffer, T. Austin-Sparks, Watchman Nee, Stanley Grenz, and many others in the past would fit nicely into my definition of “beyond evangelical” (or whatever one wants to call it). What is perhaps new is that this tribe is increasing in number and become harder to ignore, perhaps because of the Internet.

    There will be more said about it in the rest of the series that, I hope, will make things more clear and make it harder for ideas to be “read into” the posts. 🙂 We’re only into Part II. 🙂

    Christ is ALL,


    Psalm 115:1

  3. Hmmm…What if I reject Charismania but am still a believer in Jesus’ shed blood for my sins…What category do I fall under?

  4. Doug, I think if you “reject” almost ANYTHING that makes you a Systematizer. Activists and Emoters, and probably also Beyond Evangelicals, tend to tolerate and accept almost anything as a valid alternative approach. But a major hallmark of a Systematizer is intolerance.

    I will respond to Frank later.

  5. Frank, thank you for commenting here.

    First, I didn’t mean to suggest anything wrong about your leadership. You have identified a stream which is rather lacking structure, and are offering it some of the direction and leadership which it needs. These straying sheep have found a shepherd.

    Thank you for pointing me back to your Part I, which explains a bit more about your Beyond Evangelicals. But I still find it hard to distinguish this stream from the better parts of mainstream evangelicalism, those who haven’t strayed into one of the other streams.

    While it is excellent that you are calling people back to being Christ-centred, resurrection life-centred and eternal purpose-centred, these have surely been central in principle to mainstream evangelicalism. Those who have abandoned them have tended to drift off into the other streams. Being body life-centred is perhaps something more novel, although it was found in early Methodism.

    Yes, mainstream evangelicalism is in crisis. That is partly because of a number of issues it has failed to face. So I understand you not wanting to identify yourself too closely with it. But just as neo-Fundamentalism is similar to Fundamentalism but not directly descended from it, and the Charismatic movement has become like Pentecostalism but without joining it, so, as I understand things, your Beyond Evangelicalism is something of a resurrection of the best parts of mainstream evangelicalism.

  6. Peter,why do you call me intolerant? Because I reject the foolishness of people barking like dogs and so-called “holy laighter”??

  7. Doug, perhaps “intolerant” is too strong, but in the world today, for better or for worse, to reject anyone else’s opinion is considered intolerant. The politically correct thing to say is that they are welcome to their own opinions and practices, which are as valid as anyone else’s, but you personally choose not to follow them. And among Chrstians it is only Systematizers who don’t tolerate but reject that attitude.

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