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by Mark Galli


Evangelicals: Fragmented and Thriving

The history and future of evangelicalism as a movement.

A few years ago, I joined the local Young Life Committee. Our job was to raise money and prayerfully support the work of the local Young Life leader, whose job was to meet unchurched high school students and eventually introduce them to Jesus.

The committee was composed of a variety of church-committed people—Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, Evangelical Free. Some of our churches had vibrant youth groups, others did not. But we all recognized that as vital as the local church is, it doesn't do all things well. Comparatively speaking, Young Life does very few things well. But in one area, it shines—it has a stellar track record at helping kids who would not darken the doors of a church meet Jesus Christ for the first time.

And so this disparate group of churchgoers gathered regularly to pray and to plan for this unique ministry. We no doubt exemplified traits that would suggest to scholars that we were "evangelicals," and few of us would have shunned the label. But that's not what we were about. We were just some church people who wanted to make sure unchurched young people in our community heard about Jesus, and we thought this parachurch ministry did a good job at that.

This is the heart of evangelicalism: It arises out of the church. It is local. It is voluntary. It is purposeful. It is driven by love of Jesus and concern for those who don't know his love. It is the dimension of evangelicalism that scholars are wise to keep in mind when they talk about "the evangelical movement."

Darryl Hart, in Deconstructing Evangelicalism, seems to recognize, at least now and then, that this is the real evangelicalism. But here, as in so many books in this genre, the term evangelicalism tends toward abstraction that confuses as much as it clarifies. Ironically, Hart, who argues that "evangelicalism" is indeed an abstraction, seems unable to escape the abstraction for long.

This is not to dismiss his largely cogent analysis. I never hear or read Hart without coming away stimulated. ...

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