The future of the Evangelical church
By Scot McKnight
professor, author, blogger, and contributor to Patheos.com
Some are announcing the end of evangelicalism, like former evangelical and now anti-evangelical journalist, Christine Wicker. Others, like evangelical sociologist Bradley Wright, describe a movement that is holding its own if not actually gaining some ground. Theologian and author David Wells speaks for many when he contends the theological bottom is falling out of much of contemporary populist evangelicalism, while megachurch pastor after megachurch pastor reveals an optimism that numbers are growing. From a variety of angles, then, the future of evangelicalism is under investigation. What is the future of evangelicalism?
I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet. So I can probe into the future of evangelicalism only on the basis of what I know, see, hear, and sense.
Evangelicalism: What is it?
Perhaps we could begin with some definitions. If we define "evangelical" as those who faithfully sustain the Reformation's central impulses, like justification by faith and the solas, I would contend that evangelicalism will be here for a long time. There are plenty who will keep the Reformation's gospel and theology alive. If we define "evangelical" as those who are faithful to the Great Awakening(s) and revivals of America, who carry on the work of people like Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and D.L. Moody, along with the missionary movement that flowed from that kind of evangelicalism, I would say that movement is sputtering along but is not likely to go away anytime soon. Yet I would caution that the great drive for the act of evangelism has substantially waned on American soil; the promptings that created missionary work all over the world have fallen on dry days. Finally, if we define "evangelical" as the coalition that gathered in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s around such luminaries as Billy Graham, Carl Henry, John Stott and J.I. Packer -- of that evangelicalism, I would say the days are numbered.
The Neo-Evangelical Coalition
More needs to be said about the nature of the evangelical coalition I see falling apart. The evangelicalism that formed in the 1940s and 1950s, more accurately called "neo-evangelicalism," was a reaction to strident forms of fundamentalism, a call to serious intellectual engagement so that evangelicalism could gain both theological and academic credibility again, and a formation of a big tent coalition to work together for evangelism and theological development. By and large, this big tent coalition combined the Calvinist and Wesleyan segments of evangelicalism, found places for Christian colleges, parachurch ministries, missionary societies, and a plethora of magazines and radio stations, and gave a privileged place to evangelical leaders like Billy Graham and Carl Henry.
This big tent evangelicalism did not spend its energies fighting over theological issues so much as it galvanized those energies for missional and theological work. One reason it did not fight theologically is because its theology, although it clearly embraced believers across a wide spectrum, was more or less grounded in a common affirmation of the centrality of the Bible, the necessity of conversion, the clarity of an atonement-shaped gospel message, and an expectation that real Christians were hard at work in local churches, in evangelism, and in community-focused activism.
Now that coalition has all but broken apart, and not just because theology is less central. It is only heritage-rich institutions like Christianity Today, and memories in 50- and 60- somethings that perceive both what neo-evangelicalism was yesterday and what it has become today. The only way the older coalition can survive is if Christianity Today -- and I see no other genuine alternative -- can continue to attract consensus-shaped evangelicalism.
The Neo-Evangelical Coalition Breakdown
Why has the coalition broken down? I don't know for sure, but I think the following are two contributing factors:
First, some evangelicals who were nurtured in fundamentalism never really softened enough to be big tent evangelicals. They simply cooperated as long as it was the best American evangelicalism had to offer. Such folks were never really comfortable with or welcoming of the broader reaches of the neo-evangelical coalition, whether it was the charismatics or liturgics or Wesleyans or Anabaptists that concerned them. They have survived and can now be found in more strident forms of a fundamentalist evangelicalism.
Second, big tent evangelicalism tended toward the reductionistic when it came to theology because it sought to cooperate for the good of evangelism and evangelicalism. The more reductionistic it became, the less robust it could be. Eventually, in my limited viewing of the last forty years, the minimalism became too minimal.
I point now to one dramatic element of big tent evangelicalism: the megachurch phenomenon. And here I speak not simply of all big churches but of those big churches that did not develop a robust theological infrastructure. What I mean is this: megachurch evangelicalism tended, at times, toward a theology that was not much bigger than: God loves you, Jesus died for you, accept him, and get busy. Anything that smacked of theological robustness or finesse, anything that demanded theological sophistication, and anything that required serious study was seen as "extra" or "non-essential" or "for the elite."
I'm not participating here in the all-too-popular megachurch bashing that I see among some. Instead, I'm contending that megachurches rode the wave of the coalition and part of that wave was a developing lack of interest in theological vision. This thin theological foundation, which began in the neo-evangelical spirit of coalition but which developed into even thinner ways among some evangelical pastors and leaders, could not handle the challenges of evangelicalism as it shifted from a genuinely Christian culture into a postmodern non-Christian pluralism.
Alternatives and Elements
Hence, the rise of alternatives: first, the ancient-future movement spearheaded by Robert Webber; second, the emergent/emerging movement spearheaded by young thinkers and leaders like Brian McLaren who knew that fundamentalism and the neo-evangelical coalition weren't listening to the youth culture; and third, the revival of Calvinism among the NeoReformed, spearheaded -- almost singlehandedly, I think -- by John Piper and those who flocked to his side. Within this NeoReformed movement is the massive influx of Southern Baptists, who were formerly neither as vocal in their Calvinism nor as concerned with the older neo-evangelical coalition, but who are now undoubtedly a (if not the) major voice in the NeoReformed and fundamentalist awakening among some evangelicals.
If these three movements are genuine alternatives to the older neo-evangelical coalition, there remain yet other elements in contemporary American evangelicalism: classic denominations, like the Evangelical Covenant Church and the Evangelical Free Church; megachurch ministries, which aren't likely to go away anytime soon; and parachurch organizations that are the vanguard of multicultural evangelicalism as well as the keeper of much of what sustained the neo-evangelical coalition.
Throbbing through all of this are more narrowly-focused segments, like the spiritual formation movement, mapped by Richard Foster and Dallas Willard; individual charismatic leaders such as John Eldredge and George Barna; the house church movement; or gatherings like The Q Conference and Catalyst and The Origins Conference, and like the Christian music and concert scene. Other elements include virtual reality, and one dare not minimize the strength (or nonsense) of the internet world of contemporary evangelicalism, and the very sophisticated forms of cultural engagement and intellectual rigor, as one finds in John Wilson's Books & Culture. I suppose one could plot elements all day long.
Fifty years ago, the average evangelical Christian knew his or her pastor, subscribed to a Christian magazine or two, listened to a Christian radio station and its preachers and teachers, and read a few good authors published by trustworthy evangelical publishers. Today the average evangelical is spread across a global array of influences and resources. The average evangelical today is a bricoleur, one who cobbles together his or her theology from a variety of sources.
Put together, the neo-evangelical coalition, what I originally sketched as the third sense of "evangelicalism" today, has fallen apart into a variety of alternatives and elements. Some of these are vying to be the only true form of evangelicalism, while others simply don't even care about the term anymore.
Scot McKnight is a widely recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. He has published over thirty books, and his Jesus Creed is among the most well-trafficked of all Christian blogs. He has a forthcoming commentary on James from Eerdmans (2010).
August 2, 2010; 12:57 PM ET
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