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The Future of Evangelicalism 2

posted by Scot McKnight

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The Neo-Evangelical Coalition Breakdown

Why has the coalition broken down? I don’t know for sure, but I think the following two are contributing factors:

First, some evangelicals who were nurtured in fundamentalism never really softened enough to be big tent evangelicals. They simply cooperated as long as it was the best American evangelicalism had to offer. Such folks never really were comfortable with or welcoming of the broader reaches of the neo-evangelical coalition, whether it was the charismatics or liturgics or Wesleyans or Anabaptists that concerned them. They have survived and can now be found in more strident forms of a fundamentalist evangelicalism.

Second,
big tent evangelicalism tended toward the reductionistic when it came
to theology because it sought to cooperate for the good of evangelism
and evangelicalism. The more reductionistic it became, the less robust
it could be. Eventually, in my limited viewing of the last forty years,  the
minimalism became too minimal. I point now to one dramatic element of
big tent evangelicalism: the megachurch phenomenon. And here I speak not
simply of big churches but of big churches that did not develop a
robust theological infrastructure. What I mean is this: megachurch
evangelicalism, at times, tended toward a theology that was not much
bigger than God loves you, Jesus died for you, accept him, and get busy.
Anything that smacked of theological robustness or finesse, anything
that demanded theological sophistication, and anything that required
serious study was seen as “extra” or “non-essential” or “for the elite.”
This thin theological foundation, which began in the neo-evangelical
spirit of coalition but which developed into even thinner ways among
some evangelical pastors and leaders, could not handle the challenges of
evangelicalism as it shifted from a genuinely Christian culture into a
postmodern non-Christian pluralism. 

And
I’m not participating here in the all-too-popular megachurch bashing
that I see among some. Instead, I’m contending that megachurches rode
the wave of the coalition and part of that wave was a developing lack of
interest in theological vision.

What
we are seeing in the NeoReformed, in the emerging, and in the
Ancient-Future movements is a yearning for a more robust theological
vision.




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Allan

posted August 11, 2010 at 8:09 am


Two thoughts following your good summary. First, there was another significant motivation in the formation of the NAE under Ockenga; he was very concerned about the influence of the liberal coalition that had formed around the precursor to the Nat’l Council of Churches (known as the Federal Council of Churches). He wanted to counter their impact, and frequently emphasized in his early speeches the raw numbers of participating churches and congregants that the NAE could count on as his movement gained momentum.
Second, from the very beginning there was deep suspicion of theology in the conservative churches. Just take a look at the letters to the editor of the earliest issues of Christianity Today! That same dynamic, but from the other side, can be seen in the always hesitant relationship between the majority of neoevangelicals and the Reformed/Westminster “branch” who saw themselves as the theological “caretakers” of the movement.
Thanks for a good review!



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Rick

posted August 11, 2010 at 8:23 am


Allan #1-
“…from the very beginning there was deep suspicion of theology in the conservative churches. Just take a look at the letters to the editor of the earliest issues of Christianity Today!”
You bring up an interesting point. Forgive me if I have my facts wrong, but was not Christianity Today supposed to be a “deeper” magazine from the beginning (more along the lines of what Books and Culture is now), but had to adjust? In fact, was not B & C launched because they had to lighten CT?



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Tim

posted August 11, 2010 at 9:16 am


I agree with your theological points, but I largely see the more fundamentalist forms of Evangelicalism thriving for reasons that extend beyond theology. I think there is a real problem that few people talk about that Protestant Christians have yet to successfully resolve after the reformation.
The Catholic Church had argued the point that without the binding authority of tradition, chaos would ensue as each individual would form their own conclusions concerning what the Bible did or didn’t say. That of course, is what we have seen with the numerous denominations of Protestant Christianity that have splintered off one another.
But Evangelicalism seems to largely be an exception. There is absolutely no protestant denomination larger or arguably more energized in America today than Evangelical Christianity. And the large majority of Evangelicals affirm “fundamentalist” doctrines when polled.
So why is this the case? Is there another reason beyond theology that might account for this? Well, I think Evangelicalism has offered the only viable alternative thus far to tradition for the masses. The doctrines of Sola Scriptura, Inerrancy, and the approachability and intelligibility of scripture to the churchman all combine to provide a firm foundation to the Evangelical doctrine and worldview. This worldview is one interwoven with stories – stories that bind them together as a community. Stories about who they are, what their mission is, even in large part what the mind of God is. They have certainty and purpose. They have a shared social identity. What could alternative forms of Protestant Christianity, with its emphasis on the necessity for education, nuance, and critical evaluation in theology have to offer people who already are firm in their theology and like it just fine thank you very much?
Evangelicalism, in its most fundamentalist forms, has replaced tradition with a shared story about who they are. And poor theology or not, they won’t let that go easily.



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EricG

posted August 11, 2010 at 10:35 am


My initial reaction to this post was that it is hard to maintain a big tent if you place a larger emphasis on theology. But on reflection, I think Scot is right. With a greater respect for the great theological traditions of the church throughout the centuries, there could still be a diversity of views, but a deeper theological grounding. I think that is part of the intent of the Ancient Evangelical Future movement referenced in the post. Having grown up in evangelical circles without much understanding of theological thinking outside my tradition, in recent years I personally have had a strong desire to go deeper, and to understand what orthodox believers throughout the centuries have been thinking. (On a somewhat related point, some of the emerging church movement could be seen as an attempt to recover historical spiritual practices).



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Kenny Johnson

posted August 11, 2010 at 10:44 am


My first church (about 10 years ago) was a church within a church. The “big church” was a mega church in style if not numbers (about 1500). I don’t want to pick on them too much, but from my memory, I’d agree that there wasn’t much theological sophistication there. Most of what I know (even core doctrinal issues like the trinity, Christology, etc) came from personal study, not from the church. Most sermons were topical and many bordered on “self-help” — e.g. “How to Be a Better . . ” husband, father, employee, etc. Sunday school and small groups certainly offered more depth.
But this phenomenon doesn’t seem to be only at large churches. I think its largely an after-effect of the seeker sensitive movement. My current church does a much better job at teaching the Bible and theology — in sermons, small groups, and our summer “theology lounge.”



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Bill

posted August 11, 2010 at 11:28 am


Seems like a tough way to go whichever way you go. Where is the balance between attractional – with the resulting downplay of theological concerns (otherwise why the reductionist strain) and maintaining a robust Gospel? As well, the newer movements may be in a similar dilemma I suspect, though the danger with those movements is smallness in size, which then raises the risk of insularity. So it would seem some form of big tent is crucial.



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Ken McMilliam

posted August 11, 2010 at 11:52 am


I’m of the opinion that as well meaning Christians we often focus too much on the external, and not near enough on the eternal. People want something authentic. It’s not about the size of the church, or it’s activities, or political beliefs, or even theology. It is about relationship. A personal relationship with a loving God. The church needs to lead and encourage it’s folks to develop a oneness with Christ. I’m currently reading a new book entitled “Confessions of a Pray Slacker” that has strongly challenged me in this area of my life. Just some food for thought.



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Allan

posted August 11, 2010 at 12:40 pm


Rick,
Yes, I believe you are correct. Carl Henry was the founding visionary of CT, which was encouraged and given a public face by Mr. Graham. That effort to provide some place for theological reflection and depth was what raised the hackles of those early letters to the editor. It is difficult for us to imagine, I guess, how deeply suspicious of higher education some of those early conservatives were.
In fact, CT couldn’t pull it off, primarily for financial reasons, and had to re-think its approach. I don’t know all the factors that led to the creation of Books and Culture, but I know that even today Books and Culture is still fighting an uphill battle, losing money every month. Huge thanks to Harold Smith, current publisher of CT, and others who think this is a publication worth fighting for! (Here comes the plug: give it a try!)



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bill (not evangelicalmonk)

posted August 11, 2010 at 1:12 pm


Tim I composed a long message to you back on future-1, Only to realize we have gone on to future-2
Please go “back to the future” 1 if you have time.



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Matt Edwards

posted August 11, 2010 at 1:21 pm


Interesting thoughts, Scot. I think we underestimate how much unity can come from a common theology, and how difficult it is to sustain genuine community with a “big tent” approach.
I see this at my own church. I serve at a non-denominational church, and people come here from all backgrounds. Our doctrinal statement is divided into two parts–one called “What we believe” and the other called “Our teaching.” The “What we believe” section is simple–the Nicene Creed. We say, to be a member of our church, you have to believe this. If you don’t believe it, you are welcome to be here, fellowship with us, and explore, but you are among us as a guest.
The “our teaching” section is a collection of where the other teaching pastor and I fall in the major categories of systematic theology. He went to Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, I went to Dallas Theological Seminary, so the section is very similar to the doctrinal statements of those two schools. But, we emphasize that these are secondary issues and you don’t have to agree to be a member of the church. We appreciate the diversity and we want to be a “big tent.”
We taught through 1 Corinthians this past year, and had the opportunity to hit on a lot of major theological issues. I drew the short straw and had to teach 14:1?25. The “our teaching” section of our doctrinal statement says that we teach cessationism.
When I preached on 1 Cor 14:1?25, I explained both the charismatic and cessationist takes on it, and why I am a cessationist. I said something along the lines of “I can only teach the Holy Spirit as I have experienced Him, and gifts like speaking in tongues and prophecy have not been a part of my spiritual experience, or the spiritual experience of any of my mothers and fathers in the faith. If the ‘sign gifts’ are a normative part of the Christian experience today, then my experience has not been normative and I have nothing to say on the topic. But I don’t feel like that is the case.” I gave biblical and historical evidence for the position I took, but admitted that I could be wrong.
The fallout from this sermon was shocking. I had no idea how many people in our church were from charismatic backgrounds and who either had never heard of cessationism or didn’t know that that’s what we taught. Since it’s a secondary issue to us, we don’t talk about it that much. But, there was no way around it in 1 Cor 14, so we did.
Sometimes it’s annoying to me to see the new Calvinists treat their theological system as a synonym for orthodoxy, but I am jealous of their unity. I am starting to think that it is impossible to achieve that kind of unity without a similar commitment to a theological system. But, the more I study the Bible, the more I appreciate theological diversity. Where do I go from here?



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kevin s.

posted August 11, 2010 at 1:21 pm


I think the reformed camp was quicker to take up the theological mantel because the essence of Calvinist theology holds an immediate, tangible appeal to logic. It also broadly departs from the standard “seeker-based” paradigm in ways that are at once manifestly substantial and personally relevant.
For many, it becomes a starter kit for establishing a theological paradigm. Some continue to adhere to it, while others make different choices.
At the same time, we are starting to see decisions from mainstream denominational leadership codifying the drift from scriptural values. This, I think has nudged evangelical churches to be more explicit about their theology.
Within my church movement, we are starting to see more exploration of theological concepts, accompanied by more expository teaching. 20 years ago, our growth was spurred in part by dejected Catholics. We are now in a good position to unite with those awakened by the apostasy of the mainline denominations.
The tent will remain large and well populated, but will seem somewhat less inclusive. That’s fine by me.
Building a coalition around theological weakness was an untenable novelty act. If you believe everything, you believe nothing. I see a biblical call to make disciples, not to incorporate as many opposing ideas about scriptures as possible.



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Michael W. Kruse

posted August 11, 2010 at 1:32 pm


“What I mean is this: megachurch evangelicalism, at times, tended toward a theology that was not much bigger than God loves you, Jesus died for you, accept him, and get busy. Anything that smacked of theological robustness or finesse, anything that demanded theological sophistication, and anything that required serious study was seen as “extra” or “non-essential” or “for the elite.””
Bingo! One of the key reasons I departed for the Mainline world.



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T

posted August 11, 2010 at 2:02 pm


Matt,
I empathize with you and your story. Thanks for sharing it. I’m not cessationist, just so you know my perspective. But your summary of your own talk jumped out at me: Do you really only teach from scripture what you’ve experienced?



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Matt Edwards

posted August 11, 2010 at 3:00 pm


T,
Good question. I don’t know if that came out the right way.
One of the things that I am reacting against in my own expression of faith is the systems that present tight, logical explanations of “how Christianity works” that don’t play out in real life. I got tired of preaching sermons based solely on theory and not on practice. I try to preach an authentic spirituality based on what is real rather than a theoretical spirituality based on what I think it ought to be. Does that make sense?
When I was in seminary, I took a class on Christian counseling. On the first day of class, we were assigned a paper to write, due the next week, on “how people change.” The gist of the paper was, “If someone walked into your office and said something like, ‘I am addicted to pornography. How do I change?’ What would you tell them?” We all wrote the papers and then received a new assignment–we had to pick something about ourselves that we wanted to change, and then apply our own advice for the rest of the semester. Then, we wrote a new paper on the same topic.
I found during that semester that the answers I was giving people did not line up with my experience of how people actually changed. This was the beginning of my departure from Calvinism. (I am still mostly a Calvinist, I just disagree on a few important points.)
I am thoroughly committed to the Bible as the source of our theology. I traded my twenties for a better understanding of the Bible. But I am also committed to giving people real answers based on God as I have experienced Him.



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T

posted August 11, 2010 at 5:55 pm


Matt,
Thanks. I’m actually a big proponent of moving in the direction you’re talking about. We do need to integrate our biblical theories with experience more expressly and thoughtfully in the conservative evangelical world. Very cool experiment by your professor; I wish every seminary did several things like that. One of the results of doing the series on Wesley’s Quad for me has been to highlight the role that experience can and should play in forming our theology; it probably also made me more aware of your comment.
Interestingly, even in high school before I’d had any opportunity to see or experience any of the sign gifts (which came later), I had a hard time buying the cessationist arguments. I’ve said many times since then that it was my Baptist upbringing with its high view of scripture that was, as you say, “the beginning of my departure” from cessationism, but my own experience put the nails in the coffin.
But I think most folks make the call on that issue, in either direction, based primarily on their experience. It’s always interesting to me, though, when folks coming more from the “sola scriptura” perspective say as much. This is the area above all where it seems that tradition (small, local “t”) and experience really carry the day, for conservatives as much as anyone, which seemed to be the thrust of your talk. Maybe it’s actually that way with most issues, and this issue just makes it more obvious. Anyway, I know this was a little off topic from the post, but thanks for interacting. Email me at tnflaw at bellsouth dot net if you would like to discuss more. If you don’t mind, I’d like to, maybe, use some of this discussion in my final post in the Quad series on the role of scripture in forming our theology.



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EricG

posted August 11, 2010 at 7:59 pm


Kevin S — “the apostasy of the mainline denominations”? That’s a pretty serious accusation to make against a group that includes a lot of variety — and it is false stereotype. And why do your comments repeatedly make insults? See, e.g., your comments yesterday. To say the least, it is not a Christ-like way to treat your brothers and sisters.



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Scot McKnight

posted August 11, 2010 at 8:31 pm


KevinS, Eric’s accurate and he’s following the right path: broadbrushing and swiping off the table the entire mainline as apostasy is irresponsible and inaccurate.
By the way, I got a greek word in my captcha and had to refresh it.



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RJS

posted August 11, 2010 at 8:39 pm


What Scot? You don’t have Greek on your keyboard?
I have ”



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RJS

posted August 11, 2010 at 8:42 pm


Well I had a heart captcha with less than 3 – but I can’t get it to print in the comment (worked in the captcha though)



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Michael W. Kruse

posted August 11, 2010 at 9:34 pm


As a PCUSAer, and therefore a Mainliner, I think it is really a low blow to call us apostate. We have so little to fall away from in the first place. ;-)



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Ben Wheaton

posted August 11, 2010 at 10:32 pm


But Scot and RJS (and EricG),
The mainline church contains and in many cases is governed by at the least rank heretics, and tolerates actual apostates in their midst far more than they do evangelicals in their midst. Frankly, I think that the mainline is far more fallen than Evangelicalism. But it’s not really my business.



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EricG

posted August 11, 2010 at 11:26 pm


Ben — you’ll get no debate from me that *some* in mainline churches have abandoned orthodox belief. John Shelby Spong isn’t the only one, and it is a problem. But broad statements like yours don’t make sense to me. The person whose post is immediately above yours, for example, is one of the people who participates in “governing” a mainline denomination, and he is by no means a “rank heretic.” Neither is Adam Hamilton, pastor of one of the largest mainline churches in the U.S. who has posted on this blog in the past. I think you’d be surprised to learn how much moderate mainliners and moderate evangelicals have in common.
As for who is better, evangelicals or mainliners, I wouldn’t engage that debate — we’d just end up debating with stereotypes, which doesn’t seem profitable to me.



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kevin s.

posted August 11, 2010 at 11:42 pm


“The mainline church contains and in many cases is governed by at the least rank heretics, and tolerates actual apostates in their midst far more than they do evangelicals in their midst.”
My point exactly. And yes, it is a serious accusation.
There are those who are fed up with it, and are moving on, which isn’t to say there aren’t churches within the mainline denominations doing their best to uphold scripture. I hope the latter group is successful, but you can’t deny the fact that there will be those who opt not to fight the good fight, and for valid reasons.
The Presbyterian church is in the midst of fighting precisely this battle. Will many Presbyterians find homes in evangelical non-denominational churches? Certainly, yes.



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Travis Greene

posted August 11, 2010 at 11:56 pm


Matt Edwards,
Thanks for your story, and I appreciate the way you bifurcate “beliefs” and “teachings”, but if you don’t mind my asking, why do you have to have some kind of official teaching on the sign gifts at all? If you’re ready to place it in the nonessential category, why say “we believe this” when obviously some of your people do not? If this is the first time it’s come up, it’s obviously not been a problem for your church to have theological diversity on this issue.



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Matt Edwards

posted August 12, 2010 at 2:19 pm


Travis,
That’s a great question–one that I raised when I was preparing the sermon. Who, exactly, is the “we” in the “we believe/we teach”? The congregation is elder led–we don’t have one senior pastor who calls the shots. Not all of the elders agree 100% on all of the issues.
We used to have a brilliant man on staff who left to do doctoral work at Cambridge and is now teaching OT Theology at a seminary. My gut tells me that he wrote the “what we believe” document because he was the one who had thought through the issues in the most depth. So, the “we” was probably “him” and everyone else who (rightly) looked to him as the most informed with regard to biblical theology.
But he’s not a member of our church any more!
Frankly, I don’t even agree with everything in the document. My eschatology is different. But, I make it a point to submit to the authority of my community when I teach, so I don’t teach stuff that is against the doctrinal statement. I raised the question with the elders of who the “we” represented because I wanted to know exactly who it was I was submitting to. I still don’t know.
Honestly, I think all that we can say about the “our teaching” section is that this is what people can expect to be taught on Sunday morning. It really says nothing about how many people in the congregation, or even how many of the elders, actually believe what is being taught.
You raise an interesting question about why have a “our teaching” section at all. I wasn’t around when the document was created, but I think it may have been made so that people would know ahead of time what was going to be said on Sunday morning–perhaps even to avoid what happened with the tongues issue. If only people read it . . . .
My church was birthed in the late 1970s, in the same year I was born. I have been here since 2006. The founders were frustrated with denominationalism and church splits over theological minutia. It was created to be a “big tent” church, and that remains one of the core values of the congregation. There are certainly benefits of this approach, but there are also drawbacks.



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Travis Greene

posted August 12, 2010 at 3:24 pm


Matt,
Thanks for your response, it clears some things up. I was under the impression you helped generate the “our teaching” section. It’s different coming into a situation where there is already some document or agreed-upon teaching, and you’re quite right that sometimes you just have to submit to the authority of the place God wants you. Sometimes we have to look to our communities to believe for us, when we don’t have the faith. And Christian communities need to be about something, have some kind of communal values that mark them as a people, which I think your church is right in restricting to the creed.
But I question the value of even striving for uniformity on issues like speaking in tongues. There is a certain kind of strength that can come from shared belief, but I think it’s actually a rigid brittleness. I find that with extremely long faith statements, the relative importance of various articles gets flattened. If the Resurrection and the Trinity and cessationism and complementarianism and no alcohol are all bullet points on the same list, it can be easy to simultaneously elevate controversial/nonessential issues and subtly de-emphasize things central to the gospel.
It is possible to build a truly theologically diverse community that is nonetheless unified in mission and worship. I think the constant exposure to other viewpoints and experiences strengthens, rather than weakens faith.
But, as you say, all churches are responding to their history and I think frequently what seems unhelpful now was generally a brilliant solution to a situation that no longer obtains. And we’re always balancing pros and cons, whatever we do.



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John W Frye

posted August 12, 2010 at 3:24 pm


Matt,
I also am a DTS grad (’75) and I worked my way from cessationism to non-cessationism. I record that journey in my book *Jesus the Pastor* (for which Eugene H. Peterson wrote the Foreword). We can be evangelical non-cessationists, and not be in the classic charismatic and Pentecostal camps. D.A. Carson’s *Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12 – 14* really helped me (and my church at the time).
We’re in the age where “Love God, Love People” (the Jesus Creed) wins the day!



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Alan K

posted August 12, 2010 at 5:24 pm


Great conversation. A good anecdote to add: My NT prof in school, Gordon Fee, used to tell the story of how one day he was reading some of those nasty letters to the editor in an early edition of CT. One letter in particular he remembered where the writer said in condescension to CT “I’d rather be a hot fool than a scholar on ice any day!” Gordon realized that there were two other options that the letter didn’t mention–a fool on ice and a hot scholar. That letter was foundational for Fee deciding to pursue an academic career to become a world-class biblical scholar with pentecostal fervor.



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Andy D

posted August 16, 2010 at 12:49 am


Re #24 “why do you have to have some kind of official teaching on the sign gifts at all?”
I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to host a worship service where both those who want to use their ‘sign gifts’ and those who don’t even believe in them will be pleased! :)



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