Tag Archives: Evangelicalism

An Off-site Piece (Stephen)

If there are any readers stopping by here still, they might be interested in an essay that I recently wrote for Wunderkammer Magazine. Beginning with last month’s controversy surrounding Rob Bell, it tries to define Evangelicalism as a “reactionary movement” through an analysis of Evangelical history.

Roger Olsen on Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Stephen)

In an insightful blog post, Arminian Baptist theologian Roger E. Olsen has pointed to an intriguing and yet disconcerting shift in the definition of evangelicalism.  Whereas Fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell and Dallas Theological Seminary would have at one time held themselves at a distance from neo-evangelicalism, by the 1980s they were claiming that title for themselves:

The general attitude of most post-fundamentalist evangelicals throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and much of the 1980s was “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” (a motto touted by the National Association of Evangelicals).

Then something changed.  I experienced it first hand.  While I was in seminary Harold Lindsell’s horrible book The Battle for the Bible fell like a bombshell on American evangelicalism.  The editor of Christianity Today declared quite unequivocally that a person could not be authentically evangelical while rejecting biblical inerrancy (as he defined it).  He named names and implied that evangelical institutions should purge themselves of non-inerrantists.

My seminary never had a doctrinal statement that included inerrancy.  Neither did or does the National Association of Evangelicals.  We were satisfied with “inspiration” and “authority.”  But Lindsell scared the grassroots of evangelicals and opened the door to an influx of fundamentalists who now wanted to be called “evangelical.”  (Sometime during the 1980s Jerry Falwell, among other self-proclaimed fundamentalists, began to call himself an evangelical and somehow managed to get the media to regard his as a leading spokesman for evangelicals.)

It seems to me that PERHAPS what held the post-WW2, post-fundamentalist evangelical movement together were two powerful forces: the NAE (founded in 1942 to be inclusive of many different “styles” of being evangelical) and the huge organizational influence of Billy Graham (who was disliked by fundamentalists for his inclusiveness).  Now, both are waning in influence.  How many contemporary evangelicals listen to the NAE?  Many know little about Billy Graham and his influence is minimal (although he is still considered an icon).

In the absence of any central, unifying force(s) evangelicalism is simply fragmenting.

I can vividly remember a faculty member at a Gordon College faculty forum remarking that the Fundamentalist/neo-evangelical battle is over because the Fundamentalists lost and, for the most part, disappeared.  What Roger Olsen has put his finger on, though, is that this is not in fact the case.  Instead, the majority of American Fundamentalists stealthily migrated into what had been the neo-evangelical coalition (with the shift from Billy Graham to Franklin Graham serving as an illustration of this change in belief and tone), using the same name but taking more extreme positions on issues like dispensationalism, abortion, and biblical inerrancy than had the neo-evangelicals of the 50s.

At the same time, the Conservative Resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention led to a situation in which one had to be a Calvinist and a biblical inerrantist to avoid suspicion within that denomination.  Soon after this, Southern Baptists became perhaps the dominant voice within evangelicalism, its center having shifted from places like Chicago and Minneapolis to places like Louisville and Orange County, in large part via the political influence of Colorado Springs.  With no “central, unifying force,” as Olsen calls it, the era of a sane evangelical center seems to have passed.

But What is the Gospel? (Stephen)

[As I note at the end of this post, it is very speculative, and I am mostly just interested to see what others have to contribute either in the poll or in comments.]

Since their origins in the Protestant Reformation, evangelicals have focused on the importance of the Gospel above almost anything else.  If neo-evangelicalism is fracturing today, we would expect to see its account of the Gospel fracturing first.  And this is, I think, what is happening.

As Brett McCracken notes, this past spring two large conferences prominently promoted divergent (though not necessarily entirely contradictory) accounts of the Gospel: While the Wheaton College Theology Conference was centered on the work of N. T. Wright, who promotes a revisionist (no, that doesn’t have to mean “bad”) account of Paul’s notion of “justification,” Together for the Gospel had a conference that aggressively pushed “neo-Reformed” theology, a perspective that owes much to John Piper’s view of justification (about which he and Wright have debated).  And these are only two perspectives.  Here, I think, is a (hopefully) fair summary of the major accounts on offer today in what used to be evangelicalism:

Neo-Evangelical: This is the Billy Graham/Josh McDowell emphasis on human sinfulness, the divine intervention in the form of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, and a joyful and life-changing experience of conversion, of being born again.  Such cultural institutions as “finding Jesus Christ,” the “Four Spiritual Laws,” the “Romans Road,” the “ABC’s of Salvation,” and Gospel tracts are usually associated with this account.  While many who were converted to evangelicalism using this model still hold to this account, few use the traditional methods mentioned above when propagating it.  Actually, most of these people no longer have enough “unsaved” acquaintances to make these methods worthwhile to them.  [James has added that forensic justification is usually assumed as part of this account.]

Pentecostal: While they were part of the neo-evangelical coalition, white Pentecostals held to substitutionary atonement as the means by which Jesus is Savior, a means that had been inherited from the Fundamentalist emphasis on the significance of substitutionary atonement (over against the Modernist rejection of this theory).  This, however, was slowly replacing the four-fold emphasis on Jesus as Savior, Healer, Spirit-Baptizer, and Coming King that had marked early Pentecostalism.  Now, though, some Pentecostals are drifting more fully into something like neo-evangelicalism while others are diverging.  For those who are diverging from this stream, the Gospel looks like a manifestation of the Spirit’s power and the reenactment of New Testament church life than like the emphasis on forgiveness from sin.  As a result, pursuit of a better life and use of God as a good-luck charm of sorts (don’t be so quick to judge) are characteristic of the decreasingly evangelical wing of Pentecostalism.

(Neo-)Reformed: As Christianity Today says, they are “Young, Restless, Reformed.”  Unflinchingly dogmatic (not always a bad thing), this faction is largely inspired by John Piper and emphasizes the glory and sovereignty of a God who elects for salvation those whom He (yes, He – it’s very important) wishes to elect.  For these people, “justification” is forensic; it is a court-room scene in which Jesus is made the substitute for the elect.  This perspective has much in common with the magisterial Reformation, but it was less well-represented for some decades during the neo-evangelical coalition.

Emergent: No one is really sure what this is, so I use it as a “catch-all” for those who are intentionally moving beyond neo-evangelicalism.  This “movement” includes the vagueness of Brian McLaren’s approach, the revisionism of N. T. Wright’s nature-saving, society-transforming emphasis on human cooperation with God, and the deep digging of Robert Webber’s return to the liturgy of the ancient church.  For these people, the Gospel is too big to be narrowed down to substitutionary atonement or a three-step prayer; instead, they emphasize process and a holistic approach that sometimes lends itself to a lack of clarity about beliefs.

So do you fit into one or more or these categories?  Take the poll below, and feel free to comment if you don’t fit into any category or if you object to the way I’ve described one or more of them.

The Kids are Alright (James)

“[A] group of positive fundamentalist intellectuals began organizing a move away from dispensationalist emphases. …they recognized that it would be necessary to build on fundamentalism’s claim to stand in the broad tradition of Augustinian orthodoxy, rather than to promote the more narrow dispensationalist teachings of recent invention.  They also deplored fundamentalism’s emphasis on personal ethical prohibitions at the expense of a positive social program…They were embarassed, furthermore, by the anti-intellectualism that had come to be associated with dispensational fundamentalism, which had been promoted primarily through Bible institutes and pragmatic popularizers.”  (Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, George M. Marsden, p. 72)

So George Marsden describes the origins of the Ockenga, Graham, et al. Evangelical coalition, and so mutatis mutandis, could we describe the stirrings in Evangelical young people today which some fear will rend Evangelicalism.

(1)  Unsatisfied young Evangelicals want to find Jesus outside of the now narrow-seeming evangelical box and appreciate “Augustinian orthodoxy” wherever it can be found (the phrase’s patristic ring is an added bonus), with some seeking to move into extra-Augustinian, Eastern territory.  They strive to find true expressions of Christ that are yet further removed from Fundamentalism and its reaction to modernity which doomed it to be modern itself.  They also by and large deem dispensationalism a failed theology, if it ever even reaches their attention.  One qualification to be made to this general description is that while many seek to move within the whole stream of “Augustinian orthodoxy,” a number seem to be content with ressourcement only of particular Protestant teachings, thereby becoming more entrenched in their denomination rather than finding an openness to a wide range of theological expressions of the Gospel.

(2)  Though a good number of young Evangelicals will inherit the lifestyles of their parents, most active and thoughtful Evangelical young people assume the necessity of making social ethics more central to their lives and faith.  Witness the rise of ‘creation care,’ ‘intentional living,’ and ‘social justice.’  Evangelical youth desire a consistent ethic and are at times willing to cross political lines and forgo cultural practices to embody one.  Perhaps most importantly, there is an ever-strengthening critique of the American bourgeois lifestyle.  While few readers of Wendell Berry will become truly agrarian, even those that don’t will have recognized the dangers inherent in suburban life.  (This trend extends beyond Evangelical youth.)  The frightening thing, of course, is that when service becomes more palatable than proclamation, and it is for many or most young Evangelicals, we can forget the necessity of our euangelion.

(3)  Perhaps the most obvious continuity between the Evangelicals described by Marsden and those that concern us here is a disappointment with anti-intellectualism.  Those institutions connected with the beginnings of the Evangelical coalition (identified by Marsden as Dallas, Fuller and Gordon seminaries, and Gordon, Moody and Wheaton undergraduate) thrive, exposing students, as Barbara mentioned in the last post, to The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and mending it.

It seems that, if anything, today’s young Evangelicals’ discomforts with Evangelicalism are expressions of the very traits that characterize and animate the coalition.

At Least I’m Not A Fundamentalist (Barbara)

There was a time when I was instructed to mistrust anyone who called herself a Christian but did not attend the right kind of church; that is, our kind of church. The kind of church where more than sixty members was nearly unheard of, where the mourner’s bench was the most important facet of the church building, where old time religion was properly preached and preserved in generations of sweat, tears, and shouts. That time is over a decade past now, but I lived it for more than a decade. This tiny ‘denomination’ of sorts was certainly fundamentalist, but the label of “evangelical” does not quite fit; its members and leadership would shudder at the thought of being associated with any group besides their own.

I tell that story because it provides necessary context as to my sustained appreciation for the best evangelicalism has to offer. During my time at Flagship Evangelical College I certainly shared some of the misgivings expressed by fellow peers regarding the ugly side of evangelicalism. But those misgivings, while legitimate, seemed so very slight and at times downright trivial in comparison to my early church rearing. Had my family remained in that church, enrolling at Flagship would have been out of the question, if for no other reason than Billy Graham, the “liberal” evangelist, earned his degree there. Whereas to most of my college peers the pursuit of “integration of faith and learning” was a given, to me it was a novelty, a liberating force. In fact, my former church affiliation would not hesitate to ostracize even the most narrow-minded of evangelicals at Flagship.

I do not study charts and statistics and polls of evangelicals; somewhere around eleventh grade honors pre-cal I fell off the mathematics train. In other words, do not expect me to be throwing out percentages left and right in my blog posts. For now I am content with settling into my new life at seminary and observing the manifold stripes of evangelicalism and other ‘breeds’ of Christianity present in this context. And if in the process I happen to convert fellow seminarians to a great love for the thought of Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, then so be it. They can thank me later (or immediately, if they’re wise).

Merchants of Eternal Life (Stephen)

Recently, Brett McCracken has offered an insightful Wall Street Journal opinion piece (found via First Thoughts).  After laying out the dire situation that evangelicalism faces among its younger generation (“70% of young Protestant adults between 18-22 stop attending church regularly”), he rightly ridicules the tendency to try to seem cool or use shock tactics such as Mark Driscoll’s addressing of the topic “Biblical Oral Sex.”  To be blunt, no younger post-evangelical is fooled by such cheap pageantry – or, at the very least, a vanishingly small percentage are.  As McCracken indicates, we’ve seen it all before.  In youth groups, we were often the ones who were desperately trying to make God cool, so we know the game already.

Toward the end of the article, McCracken wisely quotes David Wells (from The Courage to be Protestant):

And the further irony is that the younger generations who are less impressed by whiz-bang technology, who often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.

If you eliminate the cross in exchange for Power Point presentations, in other words, you will have given away what little credibility you had.  As for McCracken’s solution, I found it both convincing and unconvincing:

If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular. It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It’s because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched—and we want an alternative. It’s not because we want more of the same.

While this is absolutely right, I don’t think that evangelicalism can offer this.  Instead, Wells’ vision of historic Protestantism may be necessary, since evangelicalism’s connection with marketing ploys runs deep.  If nothing else, the Fundamentalists were advertisers, and, from Billy Graham to Rick Warren, neo-evangelicals have likely been better at selling things than at anything else.  As we might be finding, though, you can’t really buy or sell eternal life in the long-term.

Classical Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism: An Introduction (Stephen)

Even in academic circles, the terms “evangelicalism” and “pentecostalism” are used almost interchangeably at times.  (For example, see the way the esteemed sociologist of religion Peter Berger does so here.)  While this is defensible in some contexts (e.g., many African contexts in which practically all Christians are pentecostals), in the US it is not entirely a given that pentecostalism ought to be considered a sub-sector of evangelicalism.  If such a notion seems crazy, that is mostly because the neo-evangelical coalition constructed its mythology in such a way as to make the inclusion of pentecostalism within evangelicalism both tautological and desirable for all concerned.

In order to understand pentecostalism, we first have to divide it into its three major branches: 1) Classical Pentecostalism, 2) Charismatic renewal, and 3) Third Wave or Neo-Pentecostalism.  While the first of these is most closely aligned with evangelicalism, the second is rarely considered evangelical, and the third is a mixed bag.  When defining each of these three branches, some history is important.  Here, I will address the first of these branches.

At the beginning of the 20th century something new called “modern pentecostalism” began.  At the same time, this was not something entirely new; instead, it was part of a recurrent series of renewals within Christendom and was the direct fruit of movements that began in the 18th century.  For Classical Pentecostalism to happen, it needed the precedents of the American Great Awakening, at which point the New Light Presbyterians adopted revivalist methods and (Arminian) Wesleyanism rapidly grew on the American frontier.  As such revivalism became a fixture in American life, such Bible-driven movements as German Pietism and the 19th century Holiness movement blended with more strictly evangelical movements such as the Keswick higher life emphasis to produce spiritual fervor and desire among low church Americans.

As believers saw a discrepancy between their own lives and the spiritually alive New Testament church, they began praying for the gifts of the Spirit, particularly tongues (which Acts seemed to indicate was the evidence of Spirit-baptism), in order to be equipped for missions work.  In Topeka, Kansas on the first day of the 20th century, Charles Parham and a group of Bible school students claimed to have experienced this gift of tongues.  By 1906, a media spectacle arose in a mission on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California, as gifts of tongues, healings, conversions, and an urgent mission to save souls before the end of the age caused fervor in visitors from many locations.

Although they were loath to organize into denominations, within a decade most of these revivalists (who by then had planted churches around the world) had banded together into denominations that we now know as the Church of God in Christ, the Assemblies of God (not a denomination, but a “cooperative fellowship,” as they call it), the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), and the Foursquare Church, among others.  While these denominations all traced their roots to Azusa Street, they divided both along racial lines and according to their precise schemes of the order of sanctification and spiritual filling.

Because Baptists and Presbyterians, among others, made a habit of violently expelling them from towns in which they tried planting churches, Classical Pentecostals had tense (if not outright hostile) relations with the Fundamentalists of the time.  Even though they ended up taking their formal doctrines largely from the Fundamentalists, in practice they emphasized a unique blend of Scripture interpreted through the lens of experience, attempting to apply Scripture in a consistently New Testament fashion.  (Here and in the next paragraph I am indebted to Bill Oliverio’s dissertation on Pentecostal hermeneutics, with any errors being my own.)

By 1940, though, white Classical Pentecostals (in particular the Assemblies of God) underwent a massive shift in the direction of white evangelicalism.  As Paul Alexander chronicles, the AG went from being a prominent pacifist denomination, with thousands of conscientious objectors, to joining in the nationalist fervor that followed World War Two and becoming a part of the fiercely militaristic culture of American evangelicalism.  Furthermore, as Harold Ockenga scrounged for members of a new moderately fundamentalist coalition, the National Association of Evangelicals, he desperately appealed to the Assemblies of God.  Although the AG was the majority constituency of the organization early on, later they gained extraordinarily as well: “NAE membership subsequently identified Pentecostals as evangelicals and removed the cult status with which some observers had labeled them.”  By 1960, the AG had tacked on a biblical inerrancy clause to its Statement of Fundamental Truths, and unique aspects of Pentecostal practice, such as female ministers, began to fade in the midst of a pursuit of respectability.

While theologians in the Society for Pentecostal Studies began to question the notion that Pentecostalism is a subset of evangelicalism during the 1970s, today most of that organization is (to varying degrees) in open revolt against the alleged evangelical captivity of Pentecostalism.  On the ground, though, two contrary dynamics seem to be in play: 1) White Pentecostals are becoming nearly indistinguishable from white American evangelicals, which is a matter of great concern to older Pentecostals who see distinctive Pentecostal identity and practices as endangered.

2) Immigrant or ethnic Pentecostalism is both rapidly growing and, for obvious reasons, not always remaining closely associated with the culture of American evangelicalism.  Such Pentecostals are often more closely linked to Third Wave Pentecostals, a conglomeration of more recently formed churches that strongly emphasize charismatic gifting.  Similarly, African-American Pentecostals were never integrated into the neo-evangelical coalition and tend to associate either with the Third Wave or with “the black church” more than with white evangelicals.

As much as white evangelicalism can numerically benefit from the addition of white Pentecostals, one has to remember that white North American (including Canadian) Pentecostal churches are (as far I have heard) the only sector of Pentecostalism that is shrinking.  Consequently, this sector will not halt a potential numerical decline among American evangelicals.

Why Evangelicals Are Not the New Mainline (Stephen)

In a recent interview with Timothy Dalrymple (found via Joe Carter), historian Rodney Stark (an interesting fellow, but odd if only in that he has a book called The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success) makes some pretty astonishing claims about American evangelicalism, claiming that it has replaced the old mainline churches in the US.  While the numbers seem on his side, I believe that he is horribly mistaken and blindly triumphalist in his claims (though he is largely right about mainline Protestant denominations).  Unfortunately, many evangelicals are likely to buy his erroneous claims, not only because they sound appealing, but also because they cohere with the experience of an older generation that saw the movement of people from mainline denominations into evangelical churches first-hand.

For one thing, Stark repeatedly claims that people were disenchanted with mainline churches because of far-left politics among clergy and denominational officials.  While such officials were certainly left-leaning at times (though how many thousands of conservative rural pastors did not fit into this category?), they were probably less so in the late 20th century (during the largest numerical shift) than at other points in US history.

For example, the progressive evangelicals of the 19th century brought down slavery and eventually won voting rights for women and the prohibition of alcohol, not to mention their numerous social reform initiatives.  While I could be mistaken, I don’t recall ever hearing about an exodus from their churches as a result of these social and political endeavors.  Similarly, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone say that they left a denomination because of communist sympathizers.  Although it is possible that this happened, Stark gives absolutely no evidence for it, instead letting his personal disdain for left-of-center politics drive his opining.

On another issue that he brings up, the use of technology in church liturgies, Stark first meticulously sets up a straw man: Somewhere out there, people think that evangelicals are technologically backwards.  (If anyone still does believe this, they should read Joel Carpenter’s account of 1920s-40s American fundamentalism to be disabused of this notion.)  As far as I can tell, the New Yorker-reading crowd has gotten more than a few journalistic glimpses of fog-machine-using, head-banging evangelical mega-churches on the Colorado frontier – perhaps too many, given the fact that the vast majority of US evangelicals (and Protestants in general) attend relatively small churches that struggle to keep up with such carnival festivities.

But let’s just suppose that Stark didn’t invent this notion “that conservative religious people are hostile and uncomfortable with technology” out of thin air (let alone attribute such a notion to “intellectuals”).  If we do so, it seems that he has developed a fool-proof method of discerning doctrinal orthodoxy:

If you led me blindfolded into a church, and I didn’t know whether it was a liberal or conservative church, then you ripped off my blindfold, I could tell you instantly whether it was a liberal or evangelical church. Are there hymn books in racks on the back of the pews? If there are, it’s a liberal church.  Conservatives got rid of that stuff long ago, because they know we don’t sing real well with our chins on our chests, and we spend too much time leafing through the hymn book.

By evangelical, he seems to mean everything from Joel Osteen on up.  At the end of the day, Stark is not concerned so much with doctrinal orthodoxy as with beating up on liberals, who are ignorant and wrong about every conceivable thing.  As a result, he even makes the assumption that the use of technology is a nearly unmitigated good – without, again, bothering to even give a reason why that is so.

So these various personal antipathies prevent Stark from focusing on a real story here: As sociologists have argued for some time, more conservative and demanding religious movements (from the LDS to the AG to the newly-conservative SBC) do better numerically simply because they believe in something, whereas more doctrinally and socially loose movements (and congregations) usually end up declining before long, for obvious reasons.  Thus, Stark observes that in Jamestown, North Dakota there is now a large Assemblies of God church and a flourishing Nazarene church while the mainline Methodist and Presbyterian churches are fading into insignificance.

But this by no means points to a continuing evangelical renaissance that will result in mainline status for a loose coalition of free churches, if only because they are just that.  As Stark remarks, non-denominational evangelical churches are, after the SBC, the second largest group of Protestant churches in the US today.  What he fails to note is the fact that the old mainline was the result of frantic ecumenical mergers, as more conservative and revivalist churches (such as the rapidly-growing Baptist and Methodist movements) and immigrant churches (such as Reformed and Lutheran churches) rapidly joined forces.  By the mid-to-late 20th century, virtually the entirety of mainline Protestantism was united within several large denominational structures, usually one for each expression (e.g., the PCUSA as the only significant mainline expression of Presbyterianism).

In contrast, neo-evangelicalism always remained a loose coalition, with the NAE serving as nothing more than an umbrella for now-moderate fundamentalists.  With the rise of non-denominational churches and the decline in influence of para-church Religious Right organizations like Focus on the Family, what cohesion was there is now dissipating.  Perhaps in the wake of overwhelming numerical growth evangelicalism has fallen victim to its own success.

Whereas a previous generation could be fairly confident that a Bible college was virtually the same thing in most contexts (though the Pentecostals could be a bit different from the usual fare); today, evangelical higher education has splintered into a variety of unique offerings: Calvin on the Reformed left, Eastern on the generically-evangelical left, Biola on the center-right, Baylor in an odd Texas mix – and that is only within the realm of liberal arts schools.  Similarly, the Christian music scene is no longer the province of Fanny Crosby or even Keith Green, instead ranging from Over the Rhine to Michael W. Smith to Jason Upton to Paramore.  If you said “who?” when reading the name of any of those major Christian musical artists, then you’ve made my point.

Because American evangelicalism has gotten so numerically large without any institutional unity (unless you really think that the NAE provides such unity), its disintegration into various factions is both inevitable and presently happening.  If you say that the Holy Spirit will provide such unity by bringing a mighty revival, you’re likely a Pentecostal.  If you say that the Gospel is a sure intellectual foundation for men of God who will lead, you’re likely Reformed.  If you say that it doesn’t matter anyhow because we’ve got to be absorbed in the process of reforming our belief and restoring creation, you’re likely emergent.

Although these differences have been latent for some time, the cultural and political demise of the neo-evangelical coalition has made them evident once again, showing the work of Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, and Edward J. Carnell to be only a temporary truce.  Consequently, there is no new evangelical mainline, and even the numerical success of the movement will likely be fleeting, presaging a devastating decline within one or two generations.

As Stark conveniently fails to mention, while the mainline churches are declining because they are old (to put it bluntly), evangelical churches are not young: They are merely younger.  In the face of rising secularism, Christian America is demographically doomed (on this, see for example Christian Smith’s research on “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”), so evangelicals would do well to not gloat in ephemeral successes while US culture takes the last steps toward secular hegemony.

Evangelicalism is Dead, and We Have Killed It (Stephen)

Right now this blog has three contributors; to get things going, each will present his assessment of the current state of Evangelicalism. Here’s Stephen’s take:

Like Nietzsche’s “God” (a fill-in for ontological stability, social cohesion, and moral structure), evangelicalism was a fragile thing; we really didn’t know that it was going to leave so quickly, but now we are left picking up the pieces.  As I build my initial post here, arguing (like the other contributors) for a particular take on the question, I will list both characteristics of neo-evangelicalism as it grew into its own cultural matrix and ways in which these characteristics have been and are being irreparably eroded.  [I should make clear here that I am talking about American evangelicalism and about not its relatives in the developing world, which, though related, are usually culturally distinct in important ways.]

Consequently, I will portray neo-evangelicalism as a movement that c. 1942-2008 inherited the mantle of fundamentalism (and of the longer tradition of Anglophone evangelicalism, with roots in German Pietism, British Wesleyanism, and American revivalism) only to watch that mantle dissolve into thin air.  As a result, we now see the spiritual heirs of Billy Graham and Carl Henry left in much the same situation as were American Fundamentalists after the devastating Scopes trial: Without a cultural home or a persuasive political outlet.  Only this time, the silence will be permanent: There will be no evangelical resurrection because the cultural preconditions for neo-evangelicalism and its spiritual forebears have dissipated; whatever comes next will only bear a passing resemblance to the neo-evangelical coalition.

1. Conversionism: At the heart of evangelicalism has always been the free church and revivalist emphasis on personal decision to follow Christ and to accept his substitutionary atonement.  But, as many of the remaining evangelicals among us often lament, sermons about the necessity of salvation from sin, let alone about hell, are becoming rare.  Because of the recent cultural bent toward absolute religious tolerance, even people who believe in exclusivist accounts of human salvation (accounts in which some, even most, will suffer eternally in hell) are reluctant to bring this up.  Despite the hostility directed toward the “seeker sensitive” movement, almost all conservative Protestants in the US are now seeker sensitive whether they like it or not, hesitating to bring up theological convictions that may deeply offend others.

2. Religion in the Public Square: This hesitation is the result of a massive shift in the location of the “public square” in American life.  Whereas the 1954 addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance to the US flag captured the mood of a nation in which at least the appearance of Christian piety was demanded of its leaders, by 1992 (500 years after Columbus’ journey) remorse about the treatment of Native Americans had shifted the playing field such that any party could take offense and receive compensation in social capital (not that this was entirely a bad thing).  This feeling of guilt toward the non-white other was accompanied by a religious de-centering away from the evangelical and mainline Protestant core of American religious life.  Regardless of the continued numerical dominance of Protestantism, it seemed that common decency forbade too robust a Protestant presence in American public life.  Although civic religion was nothing new, it used to be more explicitly monotheistic (Judeo-Christian, as they say) and to lend itself to an assumed common foundation in vaguely Protestant Christianity as a least common denominator.

3. Cultural Authority: In a related manner, what Upton Sinclair’s Elmer Gantry failed to do to the continued cultural authority of God, Jesus Christ, the Bible, and ministers was gradually done by a wide array of cultural actors.  Within evangelicalism, televangelist scandals, residual fundamentalist rigidity, and rejections of scientific consensus on issues like biological evolution made enough of a combined impact to lighten the weight that was formerly ascribed to the claims of evangelical Christians.  Furthermore, the sexual revolution (and other cultural shifts), along with disappointment toward the cultural establishment involved in Vietnam and Watergate, had the effect of moving American culture away from residual respect for social (including religious) authority.

4. Political Friction: While we cannot uncritically accept claims that young people are leaving evangelicalism because of its connection (since 1978 or so) with the Republican Party, the fact that evangelicals joined with Catholics on issues of human life and sexuality has caused some friction.  And it is not that young (post)-evangelicals are pro-choice or even rabidly environmentalist on the whole.  Rather, the previous generations who were associated with neo-evangelicalism (more or less those who voted for Ronald Reagan) imbibed a whole host of cultural and political assumptions – worldview garnish, if you will – that are anathema to the generation of evangelicals who cast their first votes for Barack Obama.  These shifts in cultural assumptions range from the turn to multiculturalism during the early 90s (which today’s young post-evangelicals experienced as children) to a lack of fear regarding nations on other continents among people too young to remember any Soviet leader before Gorbachev.  Of course, not all young evangelicals are Democrats or even politically left-leaning, but the lens through which they filter political drama is markedly different from that of their parents (e.g., even mildly racist humor is seen as utterly unacceptable); this phenomenon is linked to the alienation of young people (who once heavily preferred Reagan and George H. W. Bush) from the Republican party.

5. A Decline in Institutional Commitment: As James noted below, younger evangelicals usually no longer identify with specific denominations.  Even those who do, though, do so apologetically and with the understanding that their particular denomination is by no means perfect in its beliefs or history.  Although one could look for exceptions among the neo-Reformed wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, even there a new ecumenical irenicism (at least toward fellow conservative Reformed evangelicals, though usually farther reaching) has taken hold.  So it is, for instance, unlikely that the younger generation would have taken the step of banning Southern Baptists who have spoken in tongues from serving as SBC missionaries (while the generation in power did just that) – even neo-Reformed folks are sometimes charismatic.  At the same time, the trend away from institutional attachment mirrors a broader trend in American culture, as Robert Putnam famously argued has occurred in Bowling Alone; organizations have little hold on us even if we wish that they did.

6. Media-Driven Fragmentation: This phenomenon has prevented the preservation of the neo-evangelical coalition in the wake of the decline of institutional commitment.  Although we might be optimistic in light of the apparent ecumenical orientation of many younger evangelicals, this mostly holds true among the college-educated set and even there is not unanimous.  Instead, evangelicals (who once held to a least common denominator theology and a cohesive political perspective) have divided into multiple tribes, each with their own media outlets and conferences.  There is no longer a standard-bearer such as Christianity Today that can act as the undisputed and objective referee among the various factions.  As Scot McKnight notes, conferences such as the N. T. Wright extravaganza at Wheaton College and the Together for the Gospel gathering this past year (let alone the multiplicity of emergent and Pentecostal/charismatic conferences that you haven’t even heard about) act as focal points of distinct tribes within what used to be evangelicalism.  Now, though, they have less and less in common, not even agreeing on what “the gospel” is.  This is a clear sign of the demise of neo-evangelicalism as a cohesive cultural or social entity, whatever its claim to theological truth may have been (back when it existed).

Is Evangelicalism? (James)

Right now this blog has three contributors; to get things going, each will present his assessment of the current state of Evangelicalism. Here’s James’ take:

I remember, in my first weekend at Flagship Evangelical College, assessing potential friends by their criticisms of the typically Evangelical Sunday service at the local Bible church. This one didn’t appreciate the worship team’s high production values. Another had issues with the crypto-Republicanism. A third—well, you understand. A heightened version of this game revolved around church camp horror stories.

My fellow students had inherited and adapted the trope of speaking of their denomination in the manner “I was raised this or that.” Unless, perhaps, you were attending an Anglican church, the statement of being raised in a certain denomination was not followed by an affirmation of one’s present denominational affiliation. If not affiliations outright, named affiliations were passé. I’m not entirely sure why.

Given its universality, many must have assumed this manner of speaking unthinkingly. For most, save a number of Baptists and Pentecostals, the coyness was not due to shame of their upbringing (though few students I knew felt the need to remain in churches of their home denomination). Most did seem to be averse to denominational commitment, either desiring to stay light on their feet during these years of intellectual and spiritual growth, or simply following the script of finding oneself and making one’s own decisions as a young adult, this script of course modified so that the answers found remained within Christianity.

The chief reason a change in denomination was desired was that no one seemed to think their church had it all. Integrity was sought by joining one’s low church experience to liturgy, or escaping one’s parents’ cessationism in a charismatic setting. It was never thought that one’s denomination could be alright. And, apart from the orthopractical woe of holding to a statement of belief—apparently a problem obvious to any young Evangelical, it was inconceivable that one would assent to another’s prescribed beliefs. In our theological youth, we expected perfection and had little taste for the scandal of denominational particularity.

Were we Evangelicals? In spite of our shirking denominational labels, and whatever our cleverly obscure Facebook “religious views” were listed as, and however much we may have wished to be post-Evangelical, none of us would doubt the term’s accuracy and helpfulness in describing our common faith. (Once, when discussing Evangelicalism with a group of visiting Catholics, given our knowledge of our churches’ flaws [in this encounter with the Other, we finally learned to call them “our” churches], we Evangelical students were amused with the Catholics’ eagerness to be counted as Evangelical, but ultimately glad for their company.)

I believe ‘Evangelical’ serves as more than a snapshot of a group at one point in time. For me, it describes a certain people, now moving in a particular manner. Though we were all dissatisfied with our ecclesial lives (perhaps the appropriate Protestant disposition), my classmates and I were all remedying them in a similar range of ways, in close social proximity, judging by similar commitments.

I will discuss what I see as our similar means, stomping grounds and values in (a) future post(s).