Is Evangelicalism Dying?

Duisburg, Veranstaltung mit Billy Graham

Billy Graham in Duisburg, Germany, 1954.  Bundesarchiv, Bild 194-0798-29/Lachmann, Hans/CC-BY_SA 3.0

Recently apologist Hank Hanegraff converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, joining the exodus of prominent evangelicals to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. Ed Stetzer, in a column in Christianity Today, noted the attraction for many thoughtful evangelicals of the liturgy and sense of authority and unchanging belief when belief seems to be a “choose your own adventure” story for evangelicals and many Protestant churches are trimming their belief sails to the winds of culture.

A friend of mine, who has recently converted to Catholicism described the evangelical church as “fading away” and that it will probably not exist in 50 years. His judgment was that were this to occur, the movement won’t be missed. I’ve been thinking about his remark all week. You see, both in terms of the organization I work with, and the church where I worship, evangelicals are the “people” within the larger Christian family with which I am identified. And truth be told, I am unashamed of the core distinctives David Bebbington and others have said mark this movement within the larger Christian family: a focus on the work of Christ, the authority of the Bible in our lives, the need for conversion, and a commitment to live out our beliefs in action. I should also say at the outset that I both deeply respect and learn from believers from these other parts of the Christian family, as I hope they might from our part of the family as well.

If there is anything that is dying, it is white, boomer evangelicalism. The evangelical movement globally is rapidly growing, particularly the Pentecostal segments of it. In the U.S., ethnic minority churches are rapidly growing and they share the theological convictions, if not the ethno-cultural trappings of boomer evangelicals. There has been a great deal of commentary about white evangelicals since the presidential election. What I think it all really comes down to is that large swaths of the white evangelical church have exchanged gospel power for political clout and have associated themselves with partisan politics rather that the impartiality of the gospel. We’ve forgotten our own conversions and what it was like to be lost…and found, and we’ve become indifferent to others or even judgmental. The Bible is often simply the launching board to justify whatever we want for ourselves or want others to do. Crosses are just part of the “Jesus junk” we adorn ourselves with and we think little of this as the place where God’s love and justice meet. Activism is going to political rallies and posting yard signs.

I know this is sweeping and there are many exceptions. I had a chance to visit with some of them on Thursday. They are bright, talented graduate students. They were simply talking about the Christian community of which they are part. It is diverse in majors and the ethnic background of people and they love that and want it to be even more true. They love to read and think deeply about the Bible and not beat others over the head with it but rather do what it teaches. They love conversations with those who differ from them–that is the nature of grad school. They love Jesus and each other. They care about the poor in their midst. Several worship in a church in a rough area of town that is a “food desert” and they are dedicated to serving the people there. They encourage me to hope and pray for better evangelical days ahead. And their example makes me want to do all I can both to encourage them and call the evangelicals of my generation to repent and to recover.

  • To repent of our political captivity and to recover our prophetic calling.
  • To repent of our forgetfulness of our lostness and the wonder of being found by Christ and to recover our sensitivity to the least, the last and the lost.
  • To repent of our “solo scriptura” approach to the Bible where each of us are our own pope and we read into the Bible what we want. Will we test our reading against the creeds, the confessions, and how our brothers and sisters from other classes and cultures read the same text?
  • To repent of sin management and censoriousness of others and recover the sense that we are all equally in need of the work of Christ at a cross that brings down the privileged and raises the powerless.
  • To repent of our culture wars and to recover a sense of culture care that seeks to preserve and strengthen what is good, and to bring healing to what is broken.

I mentioned earlier how I learn so much from Eastern Orthodox and Catholic believers and the rich resources of this part of the family. At the same time, I would entertain the humble hope that there are riches within the evangelical part of the family line, and that it would indeed be a tragedy for this to die out. As sad as the break of the Reformation was, it led to reform in all parts of the church. The evangelicals who came from this fomented a missionary enterprise, that despite its imperfections, brought the light of Christ to many people, who in some cases are now re-evangelizing the West. Even as evangelicals have played a key role in the modern day fight against human trafficking, so also they led the fight against slavery. In the world of the university where I work, I’ve seen a generation of Christian researchers arise coupling academic rigor and Christian thought in fields as diverse as philosophy, education, and technology.

I do think there are things in evangelicalism as it has developed over the past 40 years that deserve to be laid to rest. But I would also suggest that to talk about a branch of the family dying is a regrettably sad, and even cruel thing. I wonder if a better conversation might be one where we seek to learn from the best of each part of the family. Will we heal the rifts of the Great Schism, or the Reformation? I doubt it. But we might begin to draw closer as we pray and wait for the Great Return when all wounds and rifts will be healed, and a single, pure and spotless Bride will greet her Lover. Come, Lord Jesus!

 

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