What Is Postevangelicalism?

Nov 9th, 2019 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

Most church historians trace the birth of modern evangelicalism to the late 1940s into the early 1950s.  Christian leaders such as Billy Graham, Carl Henry and Harold John Okenga, lamenting the separatism and anti-intellectualism of Fundamentalist leaders, organized an institutional separation from Fundamentalism [the term used to describe leaders who were engaged in the struggle for the control of the mainline Protestant denominations in the 1920s and 1930s.  In every major denomination, the Fundamentalists lost control.]  Wheaton College, Fuller Seminary, and publications like Christianity Today embodied this new evangelicalism.

But modern evangelicalism continued to evolve as a conservative, biblically-centered movement within Protestantism.  About 15 years ago, the “Emerging Church” movement was an example of this development, which in some of its forms anticipated Post-evangelicalism.  Ed Stetzer of Wheaton College and The Billy Graham Center comments: “While the emerging church seems like a distant memory to most, for a period of 10-15 years, it was the most talked about movement in American evangelicalism. Pastors and scholars alike were obsessed with the emerging church—its leaders, ideas, methods, and deficiencies.  At the beginning, for many the emerging church was a collection of reformers asking questions after the rise of the big boomer churches—the Saddleback’s and Willow Creeks—and their intended and unintended impact on church theology and praxis. In the 1990s, these reformers began to question their own willingness to inherit the systems and structures that boomer evangelicalism had passed on to them.”  Stetzer outlines three broad categories within the emerging church movement:

  • The ‘Relevants’ leaders focused on making their worship, music, and outreach tactics more contextual to emerging culture. For the most part, they’re just trying to explain the message of Christ in a way that their generation can best understand.
  • The ‘Reconstructionists’who reject certain organizational models of church embracing so called “incarnational” or “house” models.
  • The ‘Revisionists’who are questioning critical biblical principles and ideas like substitutionary atonement, the reality of hell, and the nature of the gospel itself.  This category was a precursor to post-evangelicalism.

Another disturbing development within the 1990s that helped to foster post-evangelicalism was the linkage between conservative (non-emerging church) evangelicalism and the so-called “Christian right.” Post-evangelicalism is, ostensibly, an effort to address the perceived excesses and abuses of the “Christian right.”   Such excesses, in the post-evangelical view,  include “the prosperity gospel (i.e., that material wealth is an indication of God’s favor); ethnocentrism and nationalism; patterns of scandal, corruption, and materialism among the clergy; an insistence on Biblical inerrancy; and an insular rejection of ecumenicalism.”


Theologian and educator, Albert Mohler, demonstrates that post-evangelicalism had its origins in a movement that began among left-leaning evangelicals in Great Britain.  [In 2019, post-evangelicalism is represented in the ministry and writings of Peter Enns, Rachel Held-Evans and Richard Rohr, among others.  A conference in Denver, the “Evolving Faith Conference” symbolizes this movement and its emphases.]

The center of this new movement is captured in The Post-Evangelical by Dave Tomlinson, an Anglican pastor in London and the former leader of “Holy Joe’s,” a ministry located in a London pub.  Tomlinson and his colleagues hope to launch post-evangelicalism as a legitimate alternative to evangelicalism.  Determined to put distance between themselves and traditional evangelicals, Tomlinson offers his book as a manifesto for the new movement.  “The post-evangelical impulse does not necessarily imply a move away from Christian orthodoxy or evangelical faith,” Tomlinson insists. “Rather it demonstrates that to remain true to a tradition, we must come to terms with a changing cultural context in order to find an authentic expression of that tradition–‘you have to change to stay the same’.” But, as Mohler argues, “Nevertheless, despite Tomlinson’s protestations, post-evangelicalism is a move away from Christian orthodoxy, and the very use of the prefix post indicates that it is not really evangelical either.”  Mohler summarizes the development and theology of this movement:

  • Tomlinson explains that his book emerged from an experience at Greenbelt, a festival of the Christian arts held annually in England. At Greenbelt, Tomlinson heard the phrase “we post-evangelicals,” followed by the qualifier, “whatever that means.” Determined to give content to this new movement, Tomlinson offers his critique of evangelicalism and extends a call for frustrated evangelicals to join the post-evangelical wave.
  • The foundational issues for Tomlinson are cultural and philosophical. He is absolutely convinced that the emergence of a postmodern worldview requires Christians to make a fundamental shift in the way we conceive the Christian faith and the best means of communicating Christian truth. “Post-modernity,” argues Tomlinson, “has become the new context in which the integrity and credibility of [the faith] must be tested.” Rather than critiquing post-modernism, Tomlinson and his allies openly embrace this new worldview. Post-evangelicals, he argues, “are more comfortable with the mysteries, ambiguities, and paradoxes of faith,” and are thus quite at home in the postmodern milieu.
  • Evangelicalism, Tomlinson asserts, “was fueled by the modernist cultural worldview.” His reading of history is established in the primacy of the postmodern over all previous worldviews, and centers its critique of traditional evangelicalism and its supposed dependence upon a modernist concern for absolute truth. Postmodernism is here to stay, the post-evangelicals insist. Evangelicals “are lodged in a cultural time-warp,” Tomlinson accuses, “still interpreting their faith using the language of, and in the shadow of, the modernist ‘big story’.” According to Tomlinson, the post-evangelicals have escaped this trap and no longer try to present the Gospel as a meta-narrative or comprehensive truth claim.
  • At this point the true contours of post-evangelical thought become clear. For traditional evangelicals, he asserts, “truth is rarely seen as problematic.” As Tomlinson explains, post-evangelicals “feel uneasy with such a cut-and-dry approach and find themselves instinctively drawn towards a more relative understanding of truth.” This “more relative understanding of truth” includes an open rejection of absolute truth or the appropriateness of expressing truth claims in propositional forms. According to Tomlinson, “post-evangelicals are less inclined to look for truth and propositional statements in old moral certainties and more likely to seek it in symbols, ambiguities, and situational judgment.”  Post-evangelicals envision Christianity free from all claims of absolute and comprehensive truth, liberated from the Bible’s restrictive moral commands, and severed from awkward claims of revealed truth.
  • Tomlinson dismisses doctrines central to evangelical faith such as a substitutionary or legal understanding of the atonement. Instead, he commends a proposal suggested by Stephen Ross White, who argues that the cross is the ground of reconciliation between God and humanity because it was a demonstration of God’s love, “which always forgives, rather than through a once-for-all event of forgiveness.”
  • What about the Bible? Tomlinson acknowledges: “I think it’s fair to say that post-evangelicals have mixed feelings about the Bible. On the one hand they have immense respect for the Bible and are keen to rediscover its relevance for their lives and world. On the other hand they have a backlog of negative feelings about the way they have seen the Bible used.” Tomlinson offers an immediate rejection of Biblical inerrancy and suggests that the Bible is a form of “symbolic revelation.” According to this understanding, the words of the Bible are not truth “in and of themselves,” but are merely symbols of truth. “We can and should study them, analyze them, meditate on them, and absorb them–but we must not imagine that they are  the truth,” Tomlinson insists.
  • As he draws distinctions between evangelicals and the post-evangelicals, Tomlinson summarizes the shift in terms such as a transition “from propositional expressions of faith to relational stories about faith journeys” and “from the authority of Scripture alone to a harmony between the authority of Scripture and other personal ways God mysteriously and graciously speaks to Christians.” Further, the shift to a post-evangelical mode means moving “from arguing faith to the ‘dance of faith’,” and “from a search for dogmatic truth to a search for spiritual experience.”
  • The post-evangelicals also offer a cultural critique of the evangelical movement. Evangelicals, they argue, are far too comfortable in a middle-class culture and are unthinkingly attached to middle-class values. The real shift in the post-evangelical mind is perhaps most clear on the issues of marriage and the family. As Tomlinson explains, “Christians of all persuasions agree that lifelong, faithful partnerships are desirable. There may be less agreement, however, about whether such a partnership must be state-and/or-sanctioned marriage. The concept of living together without a marriage ceremony has become an accepted social norm.” Tomlinson insists, “many of those cohabiting are Christians as deeply committed to their relationship as any formally married couple–perhaps even more so.”  The church, Tomlinson asserts, should not seek to “police” personal relationships but rather to welcome all persons “as travelers on a journey to and with Christ.”  Mohler:  “The post-evangelicals’ dismissal of marriage as a biblical norm is sufficient proof that this movement is not only “post-evangelical,” but is set against the larger Christian tradition as well. It is certainly true that English-speaking evangelicalism has been far too comfortable in a middle-class culture, and all Christians should struggle with the realities of our own cultures over against the claims of the Gospel. Nevertheless, the post-evangelicals are moving far beyond the Christian tradition and have set themselves against the undisputed teachings of Scripture as held by virtually all Christians throughout the ages.”

See Albert Mohler, “Here Come the Post-Evangelicals” in www.albertmohler.com (20 February 2004); Ed Stetzer, “Thoughts on Recent Movements in Evangelicalism: Part 1, Post Emerging Church Clarification,” Today in Christian History (21 May 2019).

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One Comment to “What Is Postevangelicalism?”

  1. Anita says:

    Thank you again for this helpful post. The last part of the discussion helps to explain a difficult conversation I had recently with a Christian young person. Greatly appreciate your scholarly insights!