The attempt to provide an adequate definition for the word “evangelical” for the North American (aka USA) context may be impossible at best. Simply see the wide range for what constitutes “evangelical” in Toward an Evangelical Public Policy: Political Strategies for the Health of the Nation if you doubt me.
However, in my own experience, I have found at least one common element: the role of the conversion experience. Now, do not consider this an argument against a notion of conversion, response to a call, or simply a radical paradigm shift with a supernatural bent. Rather, this questions the conversion experience construed as the arbiter for Christian existence. But what does this mean “the arbiter for Christian existence”? It means that your identity and story is one of conversion, and simply conversion — to give an account of faith is to give an account of one’s conversion from unbeliever to believer.
Simply put, in the evangelical church, you must have a conversion story because it has been made the locus of Christian identity. The testimony has not only developed its own genre, away from simply testifying, but is recited as the badge of membership. Now, while the missional character of testifying is fine if properly understood, I would argue that there occurs a profound brokenness in the Christian life that employs the conversion experience as the meta-category.
Think of the Christian life this way. You’re at a theme park. You’ve arrived and entered through the gates — you’ve had your conversion experience because you’ve now moved within the specific boundary of Christianity. However, no matter how may times go on a ride, eat the food, or play a game, imagine trying to frame everything as if the primary category for experiencing the theme park is the decision to go through the gate, rather than the enjoyment of the twirling ride (the christoform life one is supposed to lead now).
Or think of the Christian life in another way: a significant relationship, you know, boyfriend, girlfriend, fiance, spouse, partner, whatever. How often does one talk about the beginning? Well, it isn’t unusual to do so, while it might be odd to do so a lot. However, “the arbiter for Christian existence” would be more than simply reflection on ‘getting together’, but that every decision of your relationship, or the everyday life the relationship, would be viewed through the decision to go beyond that first date.
This backward looking, as far as I see it right now, makes the Christian life flat. Some might call it a bare life. Much happens beyond the conversion, indeed, if one understands the Christian life as becoming more like Christ, then the true arbiter of Christian existence is Christ and those around you in the same pursuit. We should not let a broken sense of mission warp how we should understand our movement towards the divine telos. We cannot stay as babes on milk. The christoform life is not thin! The christoform life matures within divine plenitude.
Therefore, we should also not confuse the call to return to your first love with making the conversion experience the primary category for the Christian life. If anything, we are called to be like him, and if that occasionally requires a return or a first conversion, so be it.
If I am right that American evangelicals on the whole do have this conversion primacy implicit in their theology, I don’t want any of it. There is a reason why evangelical kids are growing up and out of the evangelical church that is so dependent on conversion stories as the locus of Christian life. You can only evangelize your already Christian flock so many times.