Attempts to define “evangelical” often hover between theological definitions from those who self-identify as evangelicals and so-called sociological definitions from those who take themselves to be observers of the phenomenon. Though I don’t think we can make this distinction neat and tidy, let’s work with it as a heuristic starting point. In what follows, I want to make a theological claim for emphasizing a sociological definition.

The recent unveiling of “An Evangelical Manifesto” was an occasion for me to once again express reservations about theological definitions of the term “evangelical” (see here). I have two worries about these normative, theological definitions. First, such theological definitions have a sort of centripetal force about them: they often feel like a conceptual circling of the wagons, intended to de-fine a group by marking off its differences from other groups—and usually from other Christians. In my experience, this almost always ends up being an anti-Catholic move, a repristination of the Protestant Reformation. Now, I don’t mean to say that such theological definitions of evangelicalism are shaped by a rabid anti-Roman Catholicism (though we academics who make claims about a “generous evangelicalism” would do well to attend a few prophecy conferences in order to be reminded of the still-rabid anti-Romanism dispensed by dispensationalist radio preachers and embedded in all those charts hung up in church basements). We have seen a flourishing dialogue between Catholics and evangelicals over the past decade, to the extent that Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom could jointly ask, “Is the Reformation Over?” But the very project of defining and continuing to define “evangelical” should be an indicator that the answer to their question is still, “No.” Theological definitions of evangelicalism assume that there is something about being “evangelical” that is different from being “Catholic,” an older, more ecumenical label that was meant to indicate a commitment to a certain core orthodoxy (as when St. Augustine the preacher would admonish his congregation, “Remember, you are Catholic…”).

This first concern about theological definitions of evangelicalism points to a second: if such definitions are sometimes too narrow, they can also be too broad. For instance, if someone suggests a theological definition of “evangelical” which actually could include Roman Catholics, then one has to wonder just what work the term “evangelical” really does. This tension came to a head when Joshua Hochschild, a convert to Rome, could not remain employed by Wheaton College because the college’s “evangelical” statement of faith was taken to de facto exclude Roman Catholics, despite Hochschild’s assertion that a Catholic could affirm the statement’s primacy of Scripture. If “evangelicals” can be Roman Catholic, we have to wonder why the historic term “Catholic” couldn’t do the same definitional work. So attempts to broaden “evangelical” to include Roman Catholics fail for this reason.

But there is another kind of vague breadth in recent theological definitions of “evangelicalism” that concerns me—namely, the demographic sleight of hand that enfolds Pentecostals, charismatics, and the explosion of “world Christianity” under the label “evangelical.” I worry that there is a covert conceptual colonialism at work here, which lumps vibrant expressions of faith in other parts of the world together with the revivalism behind North American and British evangelicalism. This is painting with a very broad theological brush indeed; worse still, it paints over important differences in practice and implicit theology that serve as more significant identity markers in Christian expressions like Nigerian Pentecostalism. Theological definitions of evangelicalism are, we might say, poorly calibrated: they see certain theological similarities and conclude that we’re seeing the same phenomenon. But I’m suggesting that this is a poor theoretical filter; or rather, we might say that it is a poor theoretical net. Designed to catch “evangelical” fish, it assumes that any fish that get through must be evangelicals. But I would suggest that what “defines” global Pentecostalism is a set of practices—and a tacit theology within them—which is quite different from the Euro-American “evangelical” paradigm.

For these reasons and others, I find myself both skeptical and suspicious of theological definitions of evangelicalism. Such definitions have a normativity about them, which assumes that the doctrinal markers of evangelical Protestantism—marking it off from other Christian traditions—are something worth celebrating and preserving. I think such distinctions and divisions are lamentable. In our secular (or post-secular) culture, we’d do better to encourage all Christians to see themselves as “Catholic” rather than continue to assert a sub-Christian identity.

But does that mean that evangelicalism is left as a free-floating signifier, an empty term that tells us nothing? I don’t think so. Rather, I think it leaves us with something like a sociological definition of evangelicalism. On such an account, what defines “evangelicalism” is not some sort of direct link to the essence of the Gospel (behind most theological definitions of evangelicalism is some sense that “we” are the real Christians), but rather an appreciation that evangelicalism represents a contingent style, a sort of accent within Christendom. It is not simply a “recovery” of the so-called essence of the Gospel and the New Testament church. It is a style that has a history and genealogy that is contingent, particular, and geographically situated. It is a distinctly modern, post-Reformation configuration of Christian discipleship that engendered practices and institutions which closely mirrored the development of what Charles Taylor describes as “the modern social imaginary”—a focus on individual salvation, a valorization of the autonomy of the local congregation, an entrepreneurial spirit that fueled ambitious programs of church and parachurch expansion, a kind of Christian materialism that generated its own markets, and other distinctive features.

What I mean to suggest is that “evangelicalism” is defined by a contingent constellation of practices and institutions that elude theological formulation or definition. This is why I think a sociological definition of evangelicalism is the only viable option. Admittedly, this approach can seem a little fuzzy, on the order of “it takes one to know one.” But here again, Taylor might help us to get a handle on why this is the case: if evangelicalism is not a theology but an imaginary, then that means what “defines” it can never be adequately articulated or expressed in theological formulae. Instead, “evangelicalism” would be a sort of ethos, a sensibility, a contingent set of practices and institutions within which one lives and moves and has her being. “Evangelical” is an identity forged at a level more visceral than doctrinal.

It is in this sociological sense that I own up to being an evangelical, despite all my theological reservations. I still pick up Christianity Today before I pick up the Christian Century or First Things. I get the jokes, jabs, and sly references in the orbit of conservative Protestantism. I’ve taken friends to a Billy Graham crusade and still revere Nonconformist saints like Jim Elliot and Corrie ten Boom. I know the words to Michael W. Smith’s “Friends are Friends Forever” (sung when departing every Bible camp), as well as all the words to Keith Green’s anthems. I still understand the inner workings and issues of evangelicalism better than the labyrinthine machinations of American liberalism or Catholicism. I still feel at home in evangelical circles—if you understand being “at home” like coming back to a small town Thanksgiving dinner, with all its charm and awkwardness, all its arguments and hugs.

For theological reasons, I think even we who self-identify as evangelicals ought to embrace the contingency and historicity of a sociological definition. But even such sociological definitions will need to be better calibrated to the on-the-ground shape of lived religion in evangelicalism. Social scientists observing evangelicalism will want to avoid the red herrings of theological definitions without ignoring the implicit theology—the social imaginary—that is “carried” in the habits and practices of evangelicals. For that reason, I do think there is a sense in which “it takes one to know one;” if evangelicals can put aside their inclination toward theological definitions, they might become critical partners for a more nuanced sociological definition of evangelicalism.