Thoughts on Evangelicalism Past, Present, and Future… Part 6
Our brief look backward at the roots of evangelism has brought us to the last two decades. I think like almost any period in history there are encouraging and discouraging elements… reason for optimism and reason for pessimism. For me, the last two decades have been more of a cause for optimism than pessimism.
The main cause for optimism is growth of the Reformed side of evangelicalism, combined with the weakening of the evangelical populist side that had dominated conservative Protestantism for most the 20th century.
There are several factors that have contributed to the weakening of the populist group. First, the populist group had grown to borrow heavily from the culture-at-large, namely, from consumerism and from the methodology and structure of the corporate (capitalist) business world. The paradigm of the 150-300 person local church became a thing of the past and the megachurch with slick production, smooth communication, and programs for kids of all ages. Pastors became de facto CEOs. Attendees were/could be anonymous. Community was based on affinity groups based on generation or interest. Upon first glance, it appears to be what the culture wanted… Diet Jesus: little/no accountability (or church discipline), worship where that draws attention away from self, preaching that is heavy on story and light on the challenging words of the Bible. I am painting a rather pessimistic picture of the megachurch movement here, but I think in many examples it is more than fair. In my view, this kind of church model cannot be sustained and will either die a slow death or ultimately implode.
Another factor contributing to the weakening of evangelical populism is the death of classical Dispensationalism. When Y2K came and uneventfully passed it was the final nail in the coffin of classical Dispensationalism. Surprise, surprise, God doesn’t follow the Gregorian calendar or your end-times charts. Between no seminary teaching classical Dispensationalism anymore and Y2K this led people to start thinking differently about the millenia and drinking from different wells, reading a bit more broadly.
I think real Christians want real preaching of the Bible, with real community, and to make a real impact where God has them. I think this desire has led to a large scale movement away from evangelical populism towards churches with
expository preaching, church discipline, historic confessions, and smaller size. These churches are almost unilaterally Reformed in their lineage. I think the resurgence in Reformed theology is primarily not a Presbyterian movement (that is nothing to diminish the real growth here), but predominantly Baptist. This is due in large part to the influence of John Piper, Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll, and several others. The Baptists have their roots in the Puritans who had deep roots in Reformed Theology. This resurgence is not without its weaknesses and we shall talk about this later.
One of the more nefarious aspects of evangelicalism in the 20th century was the neglect of the everyday mission field of America. We have already explored why evangelicals receded from cultural engagement as a equal and opposite reaction against the imbalances of the Social Gospel. However, evangelicals were equally imbalanced in not engaging the culture with words and deeds. In the last twenty years we have seen a resurgence in churches caring for the cities that they live in by seeing them as a mission field. I think the missional church movement has been by-and-large very positive (minus the more radical emergent church voices).
There has been a resurgence in Christians making diverse solid music, see: Thrice, Cool Hand Luke, Blindside, Appleseed Cast, Denison Marrs, Reach Records, Reformed Rap, Sufjan Stevens, and Mineral. In addition there has been a resurgence of Christians making good art, across multiple mediums, see: Makoto Fujimura, Marilynne Robinson (also here), and Darren Doane. There has been a resurgence in Christians in academia: Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Rodney Stark, Dallas Willard, Phillip Johnson and James Davison Hunter.
This concludes our look at the past of evangelicalism… up next, we will at some potential future trends.