The Renewal Of Evangelicalism

Apr 16th, 2022 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

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I became a Christian in 1972 and began a focused, committed walk with Jesus in 1973.  As my wife and I surrounded ourselves with Christian friends, we studied the Word of God, sang worship choruses and prayed together.  One of the worship songs we sang was “We are One in the Spirit” by Peter Scholtes: “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord”. . . “We will work with each other” . . . and “We will walk with each other.”   The chorus proclaimed, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.”  I doubt that anyone would seriously declare that this chorus reflects evangelicalism in 2022.  Evangelicalism is a fractured movement at war with itself; a movement often reflects bitterness, recrimination, discord and division—not love.


What do the terms evangelical or evangelicalism mean?  Historically, these terms have had doctrinal or theological content.  Historian George Marsden writes of evangelicalism as a “conceptual unit that identifies a broader set of groups possessing common traits.”  He specifies five salient beliefs:  “1) the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of Scripture; 2) the real, historical character of God’s saving work reported in Scripture; 3) eternal salvation only through personal trust in Christ; 4) the importance of evangelism and missions; and 5) the importance of a spiritually transformed life.”  British historian David Bebbington similarly characterizes evangelicalism as having four doctrinal characteristics (called the “quadrilateral”):  1. Conversion; 2. The Bible, “the belief that all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages.”  3.  Activism, or the dedication of all believers, especially the laity, to lives of service to God, especially in sharing the message and taking that message far and near; and 4.  “Crucicentrism,” the conviction that Christ’s death on the cross provided atonement for sin and reconciliation between sinful humanity and a holy God.”

Historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University, in his book Who is an Evangelical?, argues persuasively that evangelicals cannot be defined by their race, political party, their ecclesiastical history or their religious culture.  As with Marsden and Bebbington, evangelicals must be defined as those who agree with doctrinal truths.  As he surveys the history of evangelicals, he correctly includes large numbers of black Christians, along with growing numbers of Hispanic Pentecostals, all of whom share the same foundational doctrinal positions.  Thus, to be an evangelical in the United States in 2022 with the doctrinal focus affirmed above does not mean that an “evangelical” is a mere subset of the Republican Party.  Evangelicalism is a racially diverse movement defined not by politics but by theological truth and the life-transforming Gospel.

Columnist David Brooks, who testifies of his conversion to Christianity in his recent book, has analyzed both the current evangelical discord but also the movement within evangelicalism to renew and reform itself.  Here are a few of his salient observations:

  • “This is what has happened over the past six years to millions of American [evangelical] Christians. There have been three big issues that have profoundly divided them: the white evangelical embrace of Donald Trump, sex abuse scandals in evangelical churches and parachurch organizations, and attitudes about race relations, especially after the killing of George Floyd . . . Of course there is a lot of division across many parts of American society. But for evangelicals, who have dedicated their lives to Jesus, the problem is deeper. Christians are supposed to believe in the spiritual unity of the church. While differing over politics and other secondary matters, they are in theory supposed to be unified by their shared first love — as brothers and sisters in Christ. Their common devotion is supposed to bring out the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
  • “Over the past decade or so, many of the country’s most celebrated Christian institutions were rocked by a series of horrific scandals. If you’re not evangelical, you may not know names like Willow Creek Community Church, Ravi Zacharias or Kanakuk Kamps. But if you’re evangelical, these are large presences on your mental landscape, and all have been destroyed or tarnished in recent years by sexual abuse allegations. The former leader of another prominent congregation, Mars Hill Church, has been accused of abuses of power.  Power is the core problem here. First, the corruptions of personal power. Evangelicalism is a populist movement. It has no hierarchy or central authority, so you might think it would have avoided the abuses of power that have afflicted the Roman Catholic Church. But the paradox of decentralization is that it has often led to the concentration of power in the hands of highly charismatic men, who can attract enthusiastic followings. A certain percentage of these macho celebrities inflict their power on the vulnerable and especially on young women . . . Then there is the way partisan politics has swamped what is supposed to be a religious movement. Over the past couple of decades evangelical pastors have found that their 20-minute Sunday sermons could not outshine the hours and hours of Fox News their parishioners were mainlining every week. It wasn’t only that the klieg light of Fox was so bright, but also that the flickering candle of Christian formation was so dim.”
  • “Part of what’s happening amid this turmoil is that people are sorting themselves into like-minded political tribes. ‘If you had told me that people would switch churches because of masks, I would have been like, ‘That’s ridiculous,’ says David Bailey, whose group Arrabon does reconciliation work across a series of divides.  But it’s happening, and it’s not just normal bickering. What Mindy Belz [formerly of World magazine] notices is that there is now a common desire to pummel, shame and ostracize other Christians over disagreements. That suggests to me something more fundamental is going on than a fight over just Donald Trump.  Institutional rot has been exposed. Many old relationships have been severed. This is a profound moment of turmoil, pain, change and, while it’s too early to be sure, possible transformation.”
  • “Amid the storm, new coalitions are gradually forming, across many different kinds of Christians, among those whose eyes have been opened, who are rethinking old convictions, who are meeting and mobilizing in the hopes of renewing the evangelical presence in America . . . Hints of Christian renewal are becoming visible . . .  I’ve watched a lot of evangelical Christians . . . [who have] broken from the community they thought they were wed to for life. Except for them it wasn’t God that failed, but the human institutions built in his name. This experience of breaking, rethinking and reorienting a life could be the first stage in renewal . . . If breaking ranks and rethinking is the first stage of renewal, bearing witness is the next. There are now many, many people who refused to be silent about abuses of power . . . The next stage in the renewal is what you might call the social reorganization of American Christianity. Denominational differences are becoming less important. People who used to be in different silos have been prompted by the turmoil to find one another and seek common cause . .  . There can probably be no evangelical renewal if the movement does not divorce itself from the lust for partisan political power. Over more than a century, Catholics have established a doctrine of social teaching that helps them understand how the church can be active in civic life without being corrupted by partisan politics. Protestants do not have this kind of doctrine.  Those who are leading the evangelical renewal know they need one.”
  • “. . . lately a much clearer understanding of what needs to happen is emerging. The most detailed agenda I’ve seen has been produced by Tim Keller, the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Tim is a friend of mine, but a lot of other people would agree that he has one of the most impressive and important minds in the evangelical world. Tim laid out for me an ambitious agenda to renew this community:”
  1. The Christian Mind Project. Expand by a factor of 10 the number of evangelicals in graduate schools and the professoriate in order to make the community more intellectually robust.
  2. A renewed church planting effort. Old churches merely attract pre-existing Christians. New churches attract new believers. Keller says Christians need to plant 6,000 new churches a year.
  3. New campus ministries. Decades ago, many young people found faith via dynamic evangelical organizations for students, such as InterVarsity and Young Life. That field has been allowed to stagnate.
  4. Protestant Social Teaching and Racial Justice. Catholics have a public theology . . .  A Protestant version is needed, something which the Sermon on the Mount and the Epistle of James champion powerfully.
  5. Faith and work. Faith is not just for Sundays. Keller suggests there should be more education programs on how Christians can integrate their faith at work and in the world.
  6. A strategy for reaching the post-Christian world — how you evangelize people who have never had any contact with faith and don’t share the same mental concepts.
  7. Spiritual formation. As Keller puts it: “We need to really redo Christian education. Completely.”

Evangelicalism has survived division before. “Karen Swallow Prior said something that rings in my ears: ‘Modernity has peaked.’ The age of the autonomous individual, the age of the narcissistic self, the age of consumerism and moral drift has left us with bitterness and division, a surging mental health crisis and people just being nasty to one another. Millions are looking for something else, some system of belief that is communal, that gives life transcendent meaning.  Christianity is a potential answer for that search, and therein lies its hope, and the great possibility of renewing its call.”

See Thomas S. Kidd, Who is an Evangelical?  The History of a Movement in Crisis;  Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be, ed., Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington, George M. Marsden; and David Brooks, “The Dissenters Trying to Save Evangelicalism From Itself” in the New York Times (4 February 2022).

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