The Collapse of Evangelicalism and its RenaissanceEvangelicals, Religion — By Dustin R. Steeve on March 12, 2009 at 1:09 pm
Recently I have been thinking much about Evangelicalism. I call myself an evangelical. I was born into an evangelical family, raised at an evangelical church and attended a (mostly) evangelical school. I’ve been to the camps, read a lot of the literature, and since a young age have been passionate to defend my evangelical beliefs. Yet, despite being steeped in evangelicalism for 21 years, it was not until I came to Torrey Honors at Biola University and exposed to the rich, intellectual tradition of Christianity and the “big ideas” that shaped Western and Christian thought that I actually came alive to the goodness, wonder, and profundity of Evangelical Christianity.
So I had to ask myself, what was it that I was steeped in for so many years? What is Evangelicalism? What are evangelicals teaching their kids? Does Evangelicalism have a future?
It turns out, I am not the only one asking these questions.
Over the past several months, thoughtful authors have released a spate of essays addressing “evangelicalism.” To help others think through the questions I raised, I’ve collated some of the most insightful.
Defining and Defending Evangelicals and Evangelicalism
About a year ago philosopher and author JP Moreland wrote a concise essay where he gave a solid definition of “evangelical” that I think people can really hold on to. According to Moreland, Evangelicalism at its core is defined theologically. Quoting Roger Olson, Moreland gave five characteristics that defined evangelicals. In brief, they are (1) biblicism, (2) conversionism , (3) centrality of the cross, (4) respectful evangelism and social action, and (5) deep respect for Christian history and tradition.
Also released a year ago was the “Evangelical Manifesto” penned by thought leaders in the evangelical movement. Like Moreland, the authors of the manifesto defined “evangelical” in theological terms. According to them, “evangelicals are Christians who define themselves, their faith, and their lives according to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth.”
Where Moreland “sums up” evangelical beliefs with a few broad terms (like biblicism), the manifesto dives deeper to dredge up for plain viewing the bedrock theological beliefs of evangelicals. Both documents place an emphasis on the evangelical’s call to do social good. However the manifesto does good work in walking the fine line between emphasizing social good without falling into the trap of either liberal revisionism or conservative fundamentalism. This work was important since it anachronistically “responds” to some recent critiques levied against the evangelical movement.
Intriguing Thoughts and Critiques of the Evangelical Movement
The hot place to start this section is with Michael Spencer’s recent series of posts discussing the coming evangelical collapse. Spencer published his essay at the Christian Science Monitor, but re-published the unedited (and more interesting) version at his blog. Spencer cuts to the chase. Citing what he sees as a rapid exodus from the evangelical church, Spencer sums up the problem of evangelicalism as: (1) Evangelicals being tied too closely to conservative politics; (2) evangelicals’ failure to educate the young in deep, Christian beliefs (versus deep cultural beliefs); (3) the problem of evangelical churches either being (a) mega and consumer-driven, (b) dying, or (c) “emergent” with a tenuous future; (4) a christian education system that is mostly incestuous (my word not his); (5) the prominence of religion in the south being a matter of cultural form more than faith; (6) the financial loss that the evangelical church will incur once the boomer generation becomes the primary donor base.
Above all, Spencer seems to be critiquing what he sees as a loss of a meaningful, theological core within mainstream evangelical churches. As a result of the loss of this core, he predicts that the evangelical church will dramatically decrease in numbers and significance in the next 25 years and he suggests that the Southern Baptist Convention will be “exhibit A” in submitted evidence for his claim. He points to Charismatic-Pentecostals and the good work of some very theologically minded, young reformed pastors (I wonder who he could be thinking of) as the future of the evangelical movement. With his predictions delineated, Spencer offers a number of thought provoking conclusions that are worth mentioning. Spencer believes that (1) the orthodox and Catholic churches will become more “evangelicalized” as a result of the collapse of evangelicalism and (2) that there will be a collapse of the seminary system and a growth in the house-church movement. I encourage you to read all his posts to see why Spencer arrives at those interesting conclusions.
Matt Anderson recently shared many of Spencer’s observations. In his post “The New Evangelical Scandal,” Anderson cited a mass exodus of (especially) intelligent evangelicals, many of whom were moving to Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Among the reasons Anderson cites for young people leaving the church is a lack of “authenticity” within the church. More importantly, according to Anderson, young evangelicals feel a lack of a solid, unifying core to evangelicalism. The success of the book Blue Like Jazz is, in Anderson’s opinion, a quintessential illustration of the lack that young evangelicals say they feel and the shallowness of thought that these disillusioned evangelicals are mired in. And who can blame them? Anderson wonders if any of them have ever read the writings of John Wesley, Andrew Murray, or A.W. Tozer. Incisively, Anderson wonders if evangelical leaders like Rob Bell or Rick Warren have read these great forefathers of evangelicalism either. And that seems to be precisely a deeply resonating point of both Anderson and Spencer’s essays: when it comes to evangelicalism, there seems to be no theological “there” there. So to fill in the hole of a theological identity, evangelicals are grafting themselves in the deep heritage of the Orthodox or Catholic churches, identifying themselves through their own work and thoughts and finding a community of like minds, becoming secular / agnostic and ignoring the hole, or moving to the fringes of evangelicalism hoping that rigorous reformed doctrine or spiritual gifts will save them from their identity crisis.
Responses to the Critiques of Evangelicalism
Senior Managing Editor of Christianity Today Mark Galli weighed in on Spencer’s critiques. Galli’s attempted to shift focus away from the social elements of evangelicalism that Spencer believes has corrupted the movement, namely the involvement of the majority of its members in pro-life, pro-traditional family causes, and to refocus the conversation on the religious core of evangelicalism.
Galli eschews theological characteristics of evangelicals like those outlined by Moreland and the Evangelical Manifesto. Instead, Galli defines evangelicalism as a “religious mood.” According to Galli, Evangelicalism is, “a spiritual sensibility that includes pessimism about human nature, a longing to be converted from the worst of our selves, mystical moments when Jesus Christ is experienced, a conviction that nothing can be redeemed without suffering and that resurrection is ultimate reality, and a passion to make a difference in the world.” This mood is big enough to rightfully be felt strongly by advocates of monasticism to Billy Graham. Most importantly, this mood is as fundamentally a part of human existence as the problem of evil and the need for salvation. As a result, evangelicalism transcends any socio-political / cultural phenomenons that may be impacting evangelicalism’s most current expression in the culture – in this case, the evangelical church in America. If the evangelical church collapses, evangelicalism will live on, probably in some new form.
The Coming Evangelical Renaissance of Thought
I am optimistic there is a renaissance on the horizon; a renaissance of evangelical thought. Contra Galli’s perspective, which I understand to be a move away from association with doctrines and ideologies, I think that there is a rising contingency of evangelical intellectuals who will lead their peers to a deeper, richer, more connected and whole view of their life and the faith that guides it. Without turning this post into a critique of Galli, I think his view of the situation is the most horrifying. I think what Galli fails to realize is that it is precisely the perception that evangelicalism is little more than a mood that is making it unappealing to people. If evangelicalism is merely a sensibility to which one holds strongly and from which one judges the world, how can one be sure their sense of things is accurate? What if another of their “sensibilities,” namely some sort of cultural sensibility, comes into conflict with their religious sensibility? What evidence can one offer to defend the truth claims rooted a religious sensibility? When Paul claimed that salvation comes through faith in Christ alone, was that merely his sense of things? No. I think that Galli’s statement is my “exhibit A” evidencing the decline of intellectual seriousness among evangelical leaders.
I look around me and observe people who long for something deeper than merely a church camp “high” or consoling words to make one feel like they have God. People want to know God. They want to know Him not in His totality, but to know him in the way that He has designed us to know him: through faith and by evidence. They want to know their beliefs are sensible, reasonable. And I think that they have every natural right to want that, it is a natural desire created by God, an integral part of the human design.
I propose there is a coming a renaissance of evangelical thought. I cannot give definite form to this movement, but I see organizations like Veritas, Wheatstone Academy, even my own Torrey Honors and I see a revival of thought among young evangelicals. I see them deeply appreciating the evangelical, Christian tradition. I share lectures by Dallas Willard or Mars Hill Audio Journals with my friends and I see a spark of faith turn into a flame. This is my story. It’s a transforming, enlivening experience – one that has been sustained far longer than any summer camp high, one that has outlasted every “5 steps to a better life” church program. I am young and still learning, many of the renaissance leaders are. Nonetheless, these evangelicals are out there, are doing things, and (I am optimistic) represent an important yet unconsidered variable in the 10 year predictions of insightful men like Mark Spencer. I think this variable is a likely game changer, Lord willing. ‘