Yes, you are right: Evangelicalism is “all over the place.” It includes the old-timers who like hymns and who think tattoos are verboten, and young folks who think grunge music is Spirit-led and who wonder if a one-hour service on Sunday morning is what church is even about. Your concern about what you call the “right-wingers” is mine, and I want to explain where we are today in light of the last fifty years. Some define evangelicalism in narrow terms — only the Reformed really count — while others see it as a patch-work quilt of all sorts — Baptists and Methodists and free churches and charismatics and Wesleyans and emerging groups and house churches.
I’ll give you the big picture first: we are at a fork in the road. Within the next decade or so, we may be forced to choose.
I came of age in faith in the hey-day of the Jesus People of the 60s and 70s. American evangelicalism at that time wasn’t even called “Evangelicalism.” It was mostly Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism owed its origins to the last part of the 19th Century and the early part of the 20th Century, and left a legacy. That legacy gathered all its steam around two themes: defending the orthodox faith and fighting against all those who questioned anything near that orthodox faith. Many of us, and I was one of them, were “fighting fundies.” Bring up things like evolution or the authorship of Isaiah or miracles, and you were likely to get the emotions charged up.
In the 70s, however, that all changed. It actually began sooner, but the subtleties can be left alone for now. The new movement that broke free from Fundamentalism’s feistiness was called Neo-evangelicalism, and the powerful center of that movement was the magazine Christianity Today and leaders like Carl Henry, Billy Graham, and Harold Ockenga. It wanted to be less strident, less hostile to culture, and it wanted to interact more positively with culture and be more intellectually respectable, and (mostly it seems to me) it wanted to create a positive image of the Church instead of a combative image. Neo-evangelicalism, which quickly became simply “evangelicalism,” became a significant movement in the USA.
There was a hope that a chastened fundamentalism — or a new kind of evangelicalism — could bring together Christians of all sorts — Presbyterians and Lutherans and Methodist and Baptists and other free church types. So, we found lots of hope in groups like the National Association of Evangelicals. This meant we’d have to cooperate with one another and to do that we’d have to compromise a bit and learn to focus on the essentials (and not the non-essentials that divide us).
In the 80s, when President Reagan came onboard, evangelicalism awoke to its potential power as a political block and it also began to pick up again some of its Fundamentalist combativeness. It discovered its strength and has not looked back — nor has it looked to side to see that many Americans stand aghast at a church block that so clearly identifies itself with a political party. I’m afraid to say, though, that some leaders became infatuated with this power and they are beginning to splinter that neo-evangelical coalition.
Many in the evangelical church today want to “clean house” by pushing out those who don’t believe exactly as they think — and not all of the concerns are with the essentials. And the house cleaning seems to be concerned with issues that tie culture and church together — they are concerned about which political party one votes for, where one stands on abortion and stem cell research and homosexuality, and they routinely declare which candidate is the most sacred. And they are concerned about women in ministry and megachurches and how much doctrinal diversity we can handle — and they think that nearly every variation leads to a slippery slope that will end up in apostasy or (worse yet) being a liberal. A clear sign of this is that I’m hearing more and more about denominations that are tightening up their doctrinal statements. This kind of rhetoric reminds me of the old days of Fundamentalism. These folks don’t want evangelicalism to be “all over the place.” They want it to be like an energetic child in one place: to sit in one place and just be quiet.
In fact, they lead me to think that the fork in the road we are facing is that we will have to choose whether we will be evangelical moderates in the coaltion of neo-evangelical line of thinking, or whether we will turn back to fundamentalism to create a kind of neo-fundamentalism.
I do hope there is a meeting of minds between these big forces, but my own dim lights about the future lead me to think there will be significant split in the groups that flowed out of neo-evangelicalism. Those who will be hurt the most will be the moderate evangelicals who will lose their friends to neo-fundamentalism or the conservatives who will not have the courage to keep their focus on essentials and let the non-essentials be non-essential.
I’m sorry to be leave you with this story as it is, but it is the story we find ourselves in. You asked me where the emerging movement fits into this “all over the place” evangelicalism, and I’ll get to that in my next letter.