Whatever Happened to Evangelicalism?

As editor in chief of Christianity Today, I often argued that evangelicalism is not disappearing and that the term evangelical, while controversial and misunderstood in some quarters, was still the best term to describe the movement.  However, after leaving my editorial post as well as moving my primary religious allegiance to Roman Catholicism, I think I have a better understanding of evangelicalism.

It’s like painting a landscape—when you are up close with brush in hand and eyes close to the canvas, you can see some things better.  But when you put the brush down and step back a few feet, and especially as you view the painting as someone seeing it for the first time—well, you gain a perspective you could not appreciate when your nose was on top of your work.  That analogy describes the sense I’ve had over the last few months since I retired.  And I think my Catholicism has helped me see American evangelicalism more clearly, enough to suggest what’s happening to the movement right now.

I write this not as someone who has left evangelicalism with a sour taste in my mouth.  Far from it.  Evangelical faith shaped me in so many positive ways, it’s hard to know where to begin.  Well, that’s not quite true.  I know exactly where it began.

The Evangelical Heritage
Soon after my mother’s conversion, my brother, cousin, and I were dragged to church with her—the Evangelical Free Church in Felton, California.  We’re not talking church lite, but Sunday morning and Sunday evening worship, as well as Wednesday evening prayer meetings.  And of course, Sunday morning included Sunday school.

During one class, the teacher read a passage in which Jesus had commanded something of his disciples—the particular passage and command has long left my memory.  The teacher asked the class of restless junior high kids, “Why should we do what Jesus tells us to do in this passage?”

Various answers came forth, all of which amounted to one version of pragmatism or another: it would be good for us, it would be good for others, and so forth.  The teacher kept shaking his head, saying, those things may be true, but those are not the reason we should obey this command.

When we finally admitted we were stumped, the teacher said, “We obey this command because it was given by Jesus.”

Even at age 13, I marveled at the simple and profound wisdom of this answer. For reasons too mysterious and complex to fathom, this has become an unshakable conviction for me ever since. We obey the teachings of Jesus, and of Scripture in general, because of their divine origin.  Today I recognize how difficult it is sometimes to hear the voice of the Lord in Scripture, as well as how varied our interpretations of what that voice is saying.  But I’ve never been able to seriously doubt that the Bible is the Word of God and Jesus the focal point of Scripture and, naturally, the Word of God in another sense.

Such is one of many gifts evangelical religion has bestowed upon me.  And despite being a journalist of evangelical faith at Christianity Today—thus seeing time and again the seamier side of the movement—I nonetheless have continued to admire evangelical faith.  Just one example.

Today we take it for granted that Christianity is a worldwide religion. But that would have been laughable in 1800, when Christianity was more or less a European religion. Then came the 19th century missionary movement in which evangelicals feverishly worked to take the gospel to the four corners of the earth.  Yes, they made mistakes and sometimes confused Christianity with western culture, but overall more people in more continents know Christ more personally because of those missionaries and their sons and daughters in the faith.

So when I talk about evangelicals today, I often still use the first person plural, “we” evangelicals,” because I still consider myself an evangelical in my personal relationship to Jesus, my belief in the authority of the Bible, and in the need to spread the gospel.  I may be an evangelical Catholic, but I still am proud to be associated with the history and legacy of the mostly Protestant movement.

A Dying Movement
And yet–I have to admit that the evangelicalism that transformed the world is for all practical purposes dying, if not already dead.  The symbol of that was the passing of Billy Graham, who even in old age managed to preach now and then, calling men and women of all ages and many cultures to come into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He was also the glue that held evangelicalism together for so many decades. Unfortunately, the symbol of what evangelicalism has become is epitomized by his son Franklin.

Franklin stands for evangelicals on the right and left who have come to believe that politics is an essential work of evangelical faith.  It started on the left with Jim Wallis and on the right with Jerry Falwell, each of whom have had their disciples and successors. Today too many evangelicals on the right think that to be truly evangelical is to be politically conservative.  And many on the left believe that to be truly evangelical is to be politically liberal.

In this battle, the conservatives have clearly won, as white evangelicals anyway have voted for the Republican presidential candidate by 67 to 81 percent in the last many elections. While the leaders of the Religious Right talk about Israel or abortion or religious freedom, when polled evangelicals on the ground consistently say that the economy (and currently, healthcare) is by far the most important issue to them. They believe, as they have traditionally, that the Republican candidate could improve their job prospects and economic security better than the Democratic candidate.

The identification of evangelicals with conservative politics is in part the doing of the mainstream media, who tend to make everything political. They assume in their reporting and polling that the most important thing about evangelicals is their politics.  A more serious problem is that evangelicals left and right have begun to believe this themselves, as they find it harder and harder to imagine that an evangelical from the other party can be a real Christian.

We’ve also bought into this in another way: for a few decades now, we’ve come to believe that if we’re not engaged in social justice or cultural change, we’re no longer relevant.  As a result, we’ve started to let the agenda of the world determine the agenda of the church, and we’ve sidelined evangelism and church renewal as a result.

I saw this transformation at Christianity Today in the hiring process.  Starting in the 1990s, candidate after candidate said the one thing they were most interested in was not evangelism or spiritual renewal but bringing cultural analysis is to bear in CT.  And when we had brainstorming sessions for what to cover in CT, for every 10 ideas about reporting on this or that social justice ministry, there might be one that argued for an article on evangelistic outreach.

Another troubling sign is our efforts to put evangelicalism into the service of politics.  We saw this most disturbingly when an Evangelicals for Trump rally was held in January 2020.  In describing themselves in that way, they had become just another political interest group, taking the great name of evangelical, with all its rich theological and gospel history and meaning, and putting in the service of a political candidate.   What’s really troubling to me is that instead of decrying this coopting of the term evangelical for political gain, the evangelical left has only mirrored this tragic move when they recently formed a group called “Pro-Life Evangelicals for Joe Biden.”

Whatever Happened to Evangelicalism?
This to me is the clearest sign that we have forgotten our first love.  By this I mean two things.  The first is something I have written about in When Did We Start Forgetting God?  In that book, I argue that we’ve become less interested in a deep personal relationship with God for ourselves and others and more in doing lots of good things for him in his same.  The second is our loss of interest in evangelism and church renewal.  In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say that our fascination with social amelioration and political activism has watered down the evangelical faith to the point that it looks little different than mainline Christianity.

We’ve forgotten that the genius of evangelical faith was its singular focus: spiritual renewal.  “You must be born again” was preached to individuals and to whole churches and denominations, from George Whitefield and John Wesley to Charles Finney to Dwight Moody to Billy Graham, in the first and second great awakenings to the circuit riders to local Baptist revivals. The focus was clear and simple: “You must be born again and enjoy a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, who died for the forgiveness of your sins and the promise of eternal life with him.”

The hymns of the movement drove this home. From:

He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me
along life’s narrow way.

To:

In the sweet by and by
We shall meet on that beautiful shore
In the sweet by and by
We shall meet on that beautiful shore

What Denominations Are For
Now, let me be clear–or maybe a little confusing at this point. I absolutely believe that Christians take their place in the public square.  To love our neighbors, we must work for their well-being and for justice in our political and social commitments.  Christians should not run away from culture but dash right into the middle of it and do whatever it takes to show forth the love and righteousness of God.

And yet they should do that as Baptists, as Presbyterians, as Lutherans, and Evangelical Free, and so on and so forth.  They should do that in church structures that require them to work together, that can hold them accountable, that can help them speak from platforms that have historical and doctrinal integrity, in church structures that strive to live out the whole counsel of God.

And in these denominations and church structures, one prays that there will be a particular group with a particular passion—to win the lost for Christ, to bring ongoing spiritual renewal to their churches.  That’s their passion; that’s their mission; that’s their calling.  They are, if you will, not unlike a Catholic order, like the Franciscans or Dominicans or Carmelites or the Catholic Worker movement.  The Franciscans are known for their poverty; the Dominicans for preaching and teaching; the Carmelites for intimate prayer, Catholic workers for social justice.  And while each of these has been modified over the years to embrace other concerns, at their heart and in their history they are known for one thing. And that one thing is a great blessing to the larger church and to the world.

The mistake of evangelicals in our generation is that we want to be all things to all people and do everything that a denomination is called to do—discipleship, social outreach, encouraging the arts, neighborhood food closets and homeless shelters, tutoring programs, prayer, worship, and on it goes, as well as evangelism and spiritual renewal.

As a result, evangelicals today no longer have a laser focus on evangelism and spiritual renewal.  The current people called evangelicals have become nothing more than a group that have a common history but have lost the vision that explains so much of their influence in previous generations.  As a result, they will fade away, as will the very term: We’ve seen a recent sign of that: the group Evangelicals for Social Justice, founded by one of my heroes, Ron Sider, has just renamed itself as Christians for Social Justice. This strikes me not only as an appropriate name change, given my argument above. But it also a sign of things to come for all groups who currently identify as evangelicals.

That being said, I don’t believe that what evangelicalism has historically stood for will ever die.  In every generation, the Lord raises up some Christians to whom he gives the charism of evangelism and spiritual renewal.  What they will be called in the future, who knows. But if church history is any teacher and if the Lord is one on whose words we can depend, the gospel of the forgiveness of sins and spiritual renewal will continue to be preached and spread to the four corners of the world, and it will be carried by men and women who in a previous times were called Waldenians, Lollards, Hussites, Pietists, New Lights, and most recently, evangelicals.

 

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