Future of Evangelicalism
Evangelical Tribalism: The Big Sort or The Breakfast Club?
When individual evangelicals attend conferences such as the ones held in April 2010, they see a larger corporate vision of Christian community. But are such conferences truly a comprehensive picture of the kingdom of God, or only a narrow picture of a particular tribal subculture?
Consider the speakers at each of these conferences, the most visible "heroes" and spokespeople for each tribe. Together for the Gospel's speakers included John Piper, Mark Dever, R. C. Sproul, Albert Mohler, John MacArthur, and Joshua Harris. The Wheaton Theology Conference featured N. T. Wright (whose work was the focus of the conference), Kevin Vanhoozer, Jeremy Begbie, Edith Humphrey, Richard Hays, and Markus Bockmuehl. The Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing highlighted Mary Karr, Eugene Peterson, Kate DiCamillo, Stephen Carter, Parker Palmer, Luci Shaw, and Sara Miles. Headlining 4 Days 4 Justice were Soong-Chan Rah, Lisa Sharon Harper, Richard Twiss, Mimi Haddad, Terry LeBlanc, Andrea Smith, and Peter Heltzel. Exponential's speakers included Dave Ferguson, Ken Blanchard, Alan Hirsch, Efrem Smith, Shane Claiborne, Brenda Salter-McNeil, and Francis Chan. On the platform at Q were Tim Keller, Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle, Scot McKnight, Richard Florida, Soledad O'Brien, and David Aikman.
Between these six conferences, at least 209 speakers were featured. Only one person spoke at multiple conferences -- social media consultant Charles Lee, at both Exponential and Q. There tends to be little overlap between the various conference subcultures, and attendees of one are unlikely to hear speakers from others.
Depending on the tribe, a conference might communicate that evangelical Christianity is theologically rigorous and intellectually respectable, or literary and creative, or committed to social justice. No one of these conferences covers everything that the Christian life is all about, but each provides a slice of the overall portrait.
While conferences are helpful for defining each tribe's subcultural identity, they may also have the unintended consequence of fragmenting evangelicalism into competing communities that no longer recognize one another as full brothers and sisters in Christ. If conference attendees self-segregate and develop relationships only within their particular tribe, then people find themselves in largely homogeneous communities where their vision is limited to their tribal emphases. We might find others who are like-minded, but we may not hear countervailing perspectives or alternate voices that could serve to correct imbalances.
In fact, it is possible that the tribalizing impulse within evangelicalism creates a situation where people only feel at home within their own particular subculture and do not feel comfortable in evangelicalism or Christianity at large, let alone other tribal subcultures. Fragmentation creates an environment in which the mere presence of people from other contexts makes people suspicious of more trans-cultural, broadly evangelical, or "ecumenical" settings.
An informal survey of April conference-goers found that many attendees were unaware of conferences other than the one they attended. And those who knew of the other conferences described them in ways that were not always positive. One Wheaton Theology attendee's perception of Together for the Gospel was "very conservative, hyper-Calvinist, negative toward women." A Q attendee described Wheaton Theology attendees as "too smart for normal people." A Together for the Gospel attendee perceived the Calvin Festival as "spiritually devoid of theology" and critiqued 4 Days 4 Justice as having "confusion over the Gospel." A Calvin attendee thought Q participants were "elitist."