A Tipping Point?

I’ve been saying at this blog for five years that evangelicalism is in the midst of sea changes, and may well crack up. When I first started commenting on the future of the emerging movement, I was asked about its future. At that time I said three things seem like they will happen: (1) some will retreat back into evangelicalism, (2) some will keep on in an evangelical context and work for changes, and (3) some will morph into the mainline. This article, from Tony Campolo’s blog by Jimmy Spencer, suggests there are only two groups: the NeoReformed/NeoCalvinists/NeoPuritans and the Progressive evangelicals. He suggests that some in the Progressive camp will begin to move into the Mainlines. I totally agree with the direction of the progressives — and it’s already happening.

Do you think we are at a tipping point? Are you hearing of any who are morphing into mainline churches?

Here are some lines from Jimmy Spencer, and at the end I will offer one observation:

While this undercurrent has been happening for some time now…
We are reaching a tipping point.

You’ll see two sides soon with a fairly slim middle.

On one side you’ll have the Reformed Conservatives—entrenching and ‘expelling’ folks
On the other side you will see the Progressive Evangelicals—migrating toward work with mainline churches

This thing is going to split wide open.

I’m not saying it is a good or bad thing…but I can tell you it’s coming. It doesn’t have all the vocabulary put to it yet—but it is coming. It has been a bit under the radar for much of the Christian world—but it will spill out into the streets and the media and be a fullblown separation.

We have all felt tremors of this thing coming for a couple years now…
Rob Bell’s book will play a huge part in triggering this split.

This is not just about theology.

It’s about control of the story of Jesus.
It’s about the entire framing of God and The Gospel.

It’s gonna be something we mentally mark
It gonna start something big

It may not be nailing 95 theses on a door…

But it could mark a major shift in how Evangelical Christianity represents itself from this point forward. It could shift the way people think of Evangelicalism—putting young Progressive faces into the public stream that balance public perception. More importantly, it could give young people growing up Evangelical an option to explore. When I was young it never crossed my mind to switch to a mainline church—but had something like a Progressive Evangelicalism been around then— I would have sought it out and supported it.

This may be the future of Evangelicalism—and we may all be witnessing the tipping point

I do think the dispute over Rob Bell’s book will be a tipping point of sorts. The more conservative side and the progressive side are not interested in sitting down to work on a common understanding, a common theology, or a common mission. They are now too far apart.

There is a third way, in the middle, of moderates, who want to work with both sides … but this recent debate may be a huge line in the sand.

The progressives, friends, are morphing too much into what appears to me to be little more than unaffiliated mainline Protestants.

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  • What about Christians who are tired of camps and look for a Christ-like expression of our faith that does not get bogged down in classification, categorization, and debate?

  • jarrod

    “progressives”… is that all we’ve got to offer? Is that the only alternative to the neo reformed? If there is not something deeper, something more courageously faithful, there is only the neo-Calvinists left.

    Scot, I think this is tragic.

  • I think, Michael, that’s what Scot is alluding to with the “third way” camp… I can’t help but think about John Franke’s “Manifold Witness”… this is where I think I fall… would be nice if Scot gives an eval of Manifold Witness sometime…

  • Scot McKnight


    It’s a nice idea. I see such concrete realities only in local churches who are, much more often than not, non-denominational. But there is no world where categorization doesn’t happen. You do realize your question is a form of categorization, yes?

  • Scot McKnight

    Robert, we discussed some of it when it came out.

  • jarrod

    Anybody else feel like their parents are getting divorced? And you’re so sick of mum and dad you just want to go live with your great grandparents?

  • Anna

    I have to say, having just read Bell’s book, I’m surprised at all the controversy. I wouldn’t call him a universalist, for one thing . . . hell remains an option.

    For another, I guess this is because I am coming at this from being raised Catholic and now a mainline Protestant — I had thought of evangelicals as largely unaffiliated anyway, given that so many attend nondenominational churches.

    So even if the theology of many evangelicals is changing, I’m not sure you could call them mainliners, because at least for me, one of the defining notions I have of mainliners is that there is still an institutional hierarchy and tradition there to contend with (for better or worse), whereas I think of many evangelicals as religious freelancers. So “unaffiliated” and “mainline Protestants” seems to me to be an oxymoron.

    But maybe that’s just me . . .

  • 1) I think the middle group is bigger than they think.

    2) I think his terminology obscures what’s really happening (though given it’s Campolo’s blog, the terminology is natural). Specifically:

    “a major shift in how Evangelical Christianity represents itself”

    Um, this is like Mormons who want to call themselves orthodox Christians. Sorry, but there is an accepted definition that precludes you.

    Likewise “evangelical” means something. If people redefine the Gospel, or if they start standing in judgment over the scriptures with (or squint until they can make it more palatable to) their societal mores, they aren’t evangelicals. They’re liberals as much as the mainline denominations. It’s fine if that’s what they want to be, but they’re not entitled the name just because their ancestors were evangelicals.

    This isn’t new. It happens every time. There was the Church, but tradition became more important than scripture and the Roman Catholics were born. Then there was the reformation. But then some found modernism more convincing than scripture and the mainlines went left. Then the evangelicals appeared, and some of them want to follow something other than the scriptures. And it will happen again should the Lord tarry.

  • Glenn Sunshine

    I think this is a pretty likely scenario, and it shouldn’t be a surprise for people who know late eighteenth and early nineteenth century theology. The roots of the mainline denominations are found in the theologia liberalis of people like Johann Semler, whose background and ideas bear a striking resemblance to those of McLaren’s earlier books and some of the other ideas in the progressive camp. When you go to McLaren’s more recent books, he’s moved ahead from the late 18th century into the nineteenth century, following the logical trajectory of his earlier ideas and retreading the road to classic liberal theology. We’re even seeing a recapitulation of the split between the liberal social gospel proponents and the fundamentalist evangelism without social action of the early twentieth century. Historic Christianity has always done both until we hit that split. As a historian, given what I know about what has happened in the past, a split seems inevtable in light of current trends.

  • “Progressive evangelicals” are not “Neo”-anything?

  • Scot McKnight

    Jarrod, didn’t I speak, though, to the third way of moderates?

  • Rod

    As my friend Dru Hart and I have argued, call us minorities when white evangelicals and white emergents stop fighting and invite us to the table.

  • It would help matters some if those who are no longer evangelicals would stop calling themselves evangelicals.

  • If the word “evangelical” were not contained in the name of my (Scot, our) denomination, I would have stopped using it already. It’s been conflated with fundamentalism, and that association isn’t going away. But that’s a semantic issue.

    The bigger problem is whether there will be any room for the moderates you hint at. By our nature, we moderates are unlikely to shout and stake out our ground. But I hope we will remain firm in our commitment to the center, rather than the edges, even if this division widens as Campolo predicts.

  • “This is not just about theology. It’s about control of the story of Jesus. It’s about the entire framing of God and The Gospel.”

    It seems to me that the struggle for “control of the story of Jesus” is deeply theological.

  • Kristen

    But, maybe, there are some trends going the other way too?

    I go to an evangelical church that bends over backwards to be inclusive and a big tent. Now, a big tent is not infinitely big, and we are sometimes not as adept as we like to think we are about embracing a wide range, but we really do try. Still, we’re definitely on the evangelical side of things.

    (A couple years ago we had a yearlong speaker series including both NT Wright and John Piper. For instance.)

    I guess my point is this — I am someone who would unquestionably be in the progressive wing that you’re describing. I like to think I’m broad and open enough to be including the Neo-Calvinist, Neo-Puritan, etc. folks — but in all honesty it’s a struggle and not something I often do well. I can’t say the problem is all with “them.”

    Jimmy Spencer says that when he was young it never would have crossed his mind to join a mainline church, but something like the “progressive evangelicals” — maybe that would have been a possibility.

    A generation ago, it never would have crossed my mind to join an evangelical church. I’d be ensconced with the mainliners. The “progressive evangelicals” change the calculus for me too.

    Maybe I’m alone — but I doubt it.

  • (Correction to my comment #14—not Campolo but Spencer.)

  • Joel


    I suppose that depends on what you refer to as making the gospel more “palatable”. Some of us think the gospel we grew up with is too individualistic and does not reflect what Jesus and Paul intended. I don’t think the Reformation was the last word on defining the gospel. If this is what you’re referring to, your use of language implies a lack of concern for “The Truth”. Far from it. But it is difficult to have a discussion while being summarily dismissed.

    It’s not easy. My own situation involves a “split” from my parents and desperate cries for salvation for their grandchildren. A plea to return to “a personal relationship with Jesus”. It’s difficult to even converse about faith as it’s a one-way conversation. Basically – return to the faith of my youth or live as a heretic. Meanwhile, I believe I’m finding a more authentic faith. This seems largely reflected in the evangelical church at large.

  • Donald Dayton argued years ago that there are varieties of evangelicalism. To say there are neo-reformed and progressive alternatives is rather narrow. What about Wesleyans, anabaptists, Restorationists? None of these are Calvinist, and many have evangelical connections. I think that the Progressive Evangelicals are hanging out with mainliners, but that’s not really new. The issue is the desire of one group or another to define the boundaries to exclude the others.

  • Robin

    I think it is pretty ill-informed to assert that all you will have is “reformed conservatives” and “progressive evangelicals”. Assuming “conservatives” are one side of the non-universalist split, “reformed” by no means form a majority of the conservative church. Heck, reformed folks can’t even must a majority in the Southern Baptist Convention. We have had more than one convention president in recent years declare Calvinism itself the scourge of the SBC.

    There might be a “conservative evangelical” and “progressive evangelical split, but in reality it will be no different, in substance, from the current evangelical/mainline split. The only difference is that some people with mainline doctrines will call themselves “progressive evangelicals.”

  • EricW

    Evangelicalism has always had two camps/groups:

    1. Those who believe like I/we do, and
    2. Those who don’t.

  • Tony

    Good discussion, but I do not see the supposed split of evangelicalism into two groups, but a splintering into multiple groups. 20th century Evangelicalism was at best a coalition of groups. Maybe that coalition has birthed some new groups that cannot remain coalesced with each other. So what we may see is some new coalition building into 2, 3, or more evangelicalisms (a la Reformation?) beyond the Old Reformed/New Reformed or Emergent/Sojourners or and some other coalitions of the willing.

  • megan

    I don’t think evangelicalism can continue in its current form, but I sure hope the third way/middle group turns out to be a formidable force.

    With regard to the current flashpoint, I’m about 2/3 of the way through Bell’s book. I don’t agree with everything in it, but I do resonant with how he frames things and what he’s trying to do in telling the story of God. In general, I wouldn’t throw my hat in with the “progressives”/mainliners, but if we’re categorizing, I’m probably much further along that line than most of my friends and most of the other members of my church. We love each other, we serve together, and we bear with what differences we have. I certainly wouldn’t trade any of them to find a church or a group of friends that’s more homogeneous.

    I hope we are that local expression that avoids these clashes (and yes, my church is non-denom). But in the back of my head, there’s always a fear that a giant split will eventually force a choosing of sides that leaves us divided.

  • Just a quibble with Jeremy’s language.

    I don’t think the goal should be to “control the story of Jesus.” It’s about the story of Jesus controlling us.

  • Melissa

    This is exactly what was so intriguing to me about Lisa Miller’s interview with Rob Bell. It seemed like she (from an interfaith perspective) was basically saying, “So aren’t you *just* a typical American mainline Protestant” yet Bell wanted to insist that he was evangelical to the bone. I went to undergrad at Moody Bible Institute and graduate school at Wheaton but then did seminary at Columbia (a mainline PCUSA) seminary so these issues are very interesting and personal to me.

    Several friends of mine from the progressive evangelical camp have told me that they have one foot out the door, they just can’t take the church anymore- the sad part is that they honestly think they need to leave Christianity altogether. My response is always, “You don’t need to leave the church, you need to go mainline…You are still a Jesus follower.” Some of them honestly don’t realize that going mainline is a real option. What is fascinating is that even they themselves have bought into the myth that evangelical fundamentalism=orthodoxy plain and simple. These are painful issues to discuss.

  • Jim

    (1) Michael: May your tribe increase. What about folks who are simply trying to follow Jesus in the context of small local congregations and who are building community and reaching out to lost/hurting?

    I’d love to see more discussion on the artifacts of celebrity when it comes to preachers.

    It would suit me if everybody tended their flock and stopped playing to a national stage.

    Or, as I like to put: “Why not shut up and preach?”

  • PSF

    Thanks for this post, Scot.

    I agree that it’s happening, but I wish it were not so. I applaud the 3rd way option! I personally don’t want to support either side of the dichotomy. I read a CT article on John Stott this morning and felt convicted by his words, a challenge both to neo-Reformed and post-conservative/evangelical groups. The whole article is worth reading, but I’ve included a section below.

    (Parenthetically, I would just comment that evangelicals wanting to dissociate themselves from the evangelical movement should first make sure they understand the history of the movement, particularly its founding move away from fundamentalism . . . there really is a rich history from which to draw and claim).
    _ _ _ _ _

    From the article:

    Does it alarm you to hear people calling themselves “postevangelical”?

    “Yes. I don’t know what they mean, but it does alarm me. If you are “post” anything, you are leaving something behind, and I want to know what it is. If it’s our many faults and failures, fine, but that’s not postevangelicalism, it’s post-twisted-evangelicalism.”
    _ _ _ _ _

    For the whole article, go to

    Stott has some great things to say about integrating evangelism and justice, fragmentation within evangelicalism, core versus peripheral issues, and lots more.


  • Richard

    I would concur with Tony in comment 22 that there won’t be two (or even 3) groups in this, especially if we consider the I-everything affect with customization these days. I also appreciate Trevin’s point about letting Jesus’ story control us even though I’m confident, based on what I’ve seen of his writings, that he and I would land on different sides of this “split.”

    I’m not seeing many morph to mainline churches though I do see a greater appreciate for contemplative worship developing (as opposed to high octane worship). I also see some exploring Catholicism.

  • JD

    i feel a split also, though in my neck of the woods its more like old-school, hardline, borderline fundamentalist, conservatives against everyone else. i do see the neo-calvinistic/progressive split, but mostly in my online circles. what about the old-school, hardline, conservatives? where do they fall? could that be a fourth camp, albeit a possibly dying one?

  • PSF

    Oops – forgot to post the link to the Stott article. Here it is: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/article_print.html?id=10904

    I also appreciated Bob’s comment (#19) and had similar thoughts as well. Might those excluded by the neo-Calvinists partner with Anabaptists and Wesleyans as well as main-line. Many emergents (including McLaren) have resonated with the Anabaptist tradition.

    I still vote for a 3rd way though – a renewed evangelicalism.

  • Jason Lee

    But there are larger forces at play that moderate the degree to which coming divide(s) matter. There’s an older cohort that was shaped more deeply by the unifying experiences of big tent evangelicalism. The newer cohort hasn’t had those kinds of experiences … and so as the older cohorts moves into the background and the newer cohort moves into positions of leadership in churches and organizations, the larger evangelical cohesiveness will crumble. But importantly, the pieces of the puzzle will change size. Pentecostals are going to be a much bigger piece (mostly due to high fertility). Traditional mainliners will be even tinier than they’ve been (low fertility and low retention). Many moderate evangelical groups will shrink a bit (low fertility). And conservative evangelicals will probably stay about the same (moderate fertility). Calvinism has taken root in some of the evangelical circles, but these circles are a shrinking piece of the puzzle, nevertheless they seem to at present have a (temporary) place in teh spotlight. However, I may be incorrect, but I don’t think Calvinism has really taken root among Pentecostals…and they’re piece of the puzzle rising in dominance.

    None of this is a value judgement. High fertility is not necessarily good. Yet the degree to which Christians on the more highly liberal theological end of the spectrum can avoid the numerical free fall of the UMC, EC, etc… well, I’ll just say it sure looks as though the highly liberal groups are resting places on the way to non-affiliation. Moderate Christians can either have more kids or do a better job of retaining young people.

  • Aaron

    Scot – you represent the third way for me. I do not fit in the neo-reformed camp or the main line liberal camp. So the third way has been an increasingly tough place to be. Thanks you so much for everything you do Scot! Without guys like you promoting this third way in evangelicalism I don’t know what I would do!

  • John W Frye

    We should not trip over “who controls the story of Jesus.” When I became a Christian I was taught that fundamentalists controlled the story. Everyone else was either apostate or waffled. When I went off to Bible college, I read J I Packer, John Stott and C.S. Lewis and other non-fundamentalists and learned that fundamentalists did not control the story. I left that theological ghetto. I moved into the larger city called evangelicalism. Currently I do think the neo-Reformed resurgence will be a loud voice in the split, but not by any means the majority. They will be a ghetto group. It’s too soon to even know what “story of Jesus” the newest progressives are concocting. That is a wait and see for me. But I heartily agree that there will be more choices within evangelcalism than neo-Reformed and loosey goosey progressives. But I don’t like the label moderate. Sounds too much like mediocre.

  • Randall

    I have thought for about 5 years that we are having a reformation of the church but the funny thing about it to me is there’s a group that idolizes reformation that is fighting it tooth and nail. It isn’t nearly as much fun living it as it is to read about it in history and treat it as a neat, clear, and intellectual discussion. When my grandchildren talk about the reformation with me in say 2030, we won’t be talking about the 16th century. There are several gospels floating around here that all claim exclusivity and appear to my humble mind to be contradictory to each other. This book by Rob Bell just gives voice to what all of us already knows. We can all have fellowship and shared life; but, it won’t be around highly systematized theories of the Gospel.

  • EricG

    I made the switch from an evangelical to a mainline church about 2 years ago for some of these reasons. The bad rap against the mainline by some evangelicals is undeserved in many instances. My PCUSA church preaches the gospel, emphasizes evangelism and discipleship, promotes spiritual disciplines, recognizes the authority of the Bible, and is entirely orthodox. (It is interesting that I’m in a church that adopts Reformed theology, but that doesn’t carry some of the neo-fundamentalism of the neo-Reformed).

  • Bob Brooke

    No! We’re not morphing into anything. There will always be evangelicals in God’s church who, like the newly saved Samaritan woman from the well (John 4), ran to tell all who would listen what the “living water” of Jesus’ had done in her life. That’s what the mainline of Christianity has always, and will always, be about.

  • I’m wondering the ‘third way’ of the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement (non-prosperity gospel). I don’t disagree with the post, except that the largest and fastest growing arm of Christianity was left out entirely. We have often referred to ourselves as a third way, though not necessarily a middle way.

  • Jason Lee

    But EricG, such orthodox Mainline churches are becoming all that’s left of shrunken denominations such as pcusa. Churches like yours will likely remain(although really managing slower decline). But they’re now a teeny tiny piece of Protestantism in America. Whether for good or ill, the conservative Protestants and especially the Pentecostals are the emerging players.

    If we broaden our scope to the whole of the American religious landscape, what’s on the horizon is a large increase in Catholicism (due to immigration and fertility, not conversion) and fringe Christian groups such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  • I agree with other here that Fundamentalism is not equal to Reformed/Calvinism. There are lots of conservative Baptists/Arminian/Holiness folks who could be called Fundamentalists, but very few of them would affirm “Limited Atonement”. These are people who strongly believe that Jesus died for everyone.

  • BR

    I think there are more then two camps in evangelicalism. What we may be seeing is those who can speak and write the loudest drawing lines in the sand, building fortresses. I can see that there are the two groups; the NeoReformed/NeoCalvinists/NeoPuritans and the Progressive evangelicals. And that the Neo-Reformed types seem to be defining who is in or out. But I think there is a large middle group that doesn’t probably even know about the two options; who live and work in churches that have bigger tents and are focused on worshiping God and proclaiming the gospel. If you move beyond the US, you would probably see a vastly different sense of what church looks like and what is important to those folks.

    Also to me I observe that the folks in the Neo-Reformed camp are very vocal and have a strong bent to writing a lot of blogs, books, sermons and such and this can amplify the message. In this day of the internet it is quite easy to write a lot of words about an issue. Some of those folks live to write. (DeYoung felt the need to write a 10,000 word review of Love Wins). I think there is a high visibility with people posting on the net and writing books, speaking at conferences and such.

    Think of what it would be like 30 years ago for a pastor to say write a review of a book like Bell’s. Maybe he would write something out long hand and then have the church secretary type it up and proof it and type it again and then maybe photocopy it or maybe use an old fashion mimeograph machine to make multiple copies and mail it to folks. Probably only a handful of copies. Back then you didn’t have the vehicle like you have today to instantly publish your views for all to see. I think this amplifies the noise level and skews what is going on within the larger evangelical church by focusing on a handful of folks who are speaking out.

    I understand the tension, particularly for those folks who find themselves in churches that might be moving towards the Neo-Reformed camp. You sometimes tend to overreact and feel you have to counter this by going too far in the opposite direction in reaction to what you see around you.

    I hope and pray that the “middle” can hold and grow.

  • EricG

    Jason Lee, it is undeniable that *some* mainline churches are dying, and the denominations themselves will need to change in significant ways (some are already doing so). But there are some very strong mainline congregations that are thriving, and will continue to do so. And, of course, a recurring theme in the Bible has been what God can do when things look bleak in human terms.

  • BradK

    Following on Robin’s post in #20, are Southern Baptists not considered evangelicals? If so, the SBC is certainly neither Neoreformed nor Progressive, so that blows up the 2 category paradigm. If not considered evangelical, then where do Southern Baptists fit into the picture? I don’t see the denomination as largely fundamentalist (though some would like for it to be.) As the second largest Christian denomination in the U.S. after the RCC, the SBC fits somewhere, right?

    Wait…the SBC is Mainline, right? 😉

  • This is why some of us have followed the journey all the way back…to Rome. I have found great solace and truth in the arms of my mother, the holy Catholic Church. However, odd as it may sound–I still cherish a deep love for my father: Protestantism. I owe a debt of gratitude to both. The divide is not so wide that love cannot bridge it.

  • Dean

    Fits me to a “t”… a moderately progressive evangelical who gravitated to a mainline fellowship because the favored mouthpieces of the Evangelical movement were becoming more and more entrenched in non-Creedal rigidity and functional sectarianism (those who disagree with their position are heretical).

  • E.G.

    Michael #1 said:

    “What about Christians who are tired of camps and look for a Christ-like expression of our faith that does not get bogged down in classification, categorization, and debate?”

    I agree. Frankly I think that there will be a (narrow) middle way consisting of Anabaptist/Wesleyan types that can’t bide the theological wars inspired by the neo-Calvinists nor the seeming lack of theological rigor of the mainline.

    I hope that this middle way is marked by a generous spirit, both in terms of orthodoxy and actual practice. In other words, I am hoping to see the wide-tent, world-caring evangelical church reignite. Neither of the two other expressions really represent evangelicalism to me. One misses the good news of reaching out to those in need, the other misses the good news of the simple biblical gospel message.

    And both fight with each other too much. The middle way will avoid that fight and, hopefully, focus energy on doing the Lord’s work instead.

  • What empirical evidence does Spencer have to back up his claim? Campolo has been predicting a split for about 30 years and it hasn’t happened yet.

  • I am a charismatic postconversative evangelical and am very tempted to join the United Methodist Church. But there’s just so much baggage there.

  • S.J. Gonzalez

    First of all, Scot, thanks for the blog. Though I disagree with some of your views (I’m Calvinistic in my soteriology!) your blog has been a blessing to me. It’s helped me stay in the faith.

    Saying that, some observations.

    The first is that in Miami (where I was raised and live), these things are irrelevant. Nobody cares about post conservatives or post liberals or post anything. Rob Bell is irrelevant. Brian McLaran is Brian who? Those are not the issues here. Miami’s mostly Catholic. Or post Catholic. The Protestants we do have, the ones who love Jesus alot (even the ones in the Mainline churches, yes) are dispensational fundamentalistic Arminian Baptists.

    Of which I am not one. I attend a PCA church, so…

    The Neo Reformed (I’d rather call them the New Calvinists since Neo Calvinism reminds me of Kuyper) are not a presence in Miami. They exist, sure, but they’re not a presence. We have one Acts 29 church here and one Sovereign Grace church. Most of the popular churches here are non denominational (Calvary Chapel Kendall) or Pentecostal/Charismatic.

    And in the middle of all this theological argumentation, all I can think is “This is irrelevant to Miami”.

    I think the issues facing Evangelicalism, or at least the reason we have this problem, is what Chaplain Mike said. We’ve forgotten what the Church is and what she does.

    And to be fair, I wonder if this split between the New Calvinists and proggy evangies is accurate. I think it’s more complicated then that, at least in Miami.

    Plus as a person who considers himself Reformed, I get along more with the moderates that I meet (plus I enjoy reading IM and Jesus Creed more then say, Desiring God) then with the New Calvinists. They’re too sure about what they believe…

    … plus the “Old” Calvinists (read: Presbyterians) are very humble, gracious, and loving.

    Just sayin’.

  • E.G.

    I’d also add that many of my friends are Calvinists, but not of the “neo” variety. They are either folks in very traditionally Calvinist churches (Christian Reform or Presbyterian) or have chosen that theology but are not about to bash people on the head with it.

    Those, too, are going to be out in the cold on this.

    In terms of the more “celebrity” figures in that bunch, I’d mention folks like Tim Keller and Francis Chan.

    It’s easy to forget, with all of the generally yelling and screaming coming from the neo-Calvinists (Piper-Calvinists, as some call them), there are folks that adhere to that rich tradition, but who don’t despise anyone who does not.

  • Jason Lee

    BradK: SBC is part fundamentalist (see P. Patterson at SWBTS) and part Neo-Reformed (see Al Mohler et al) and part Saddleback et al.

  • Jason Lee


    While there may be some exceptional Mainline churches out there, the Mainline trend for quite some time now is a free-fall of dwindling numbers. For exhibit A see the new data from the National Council of Churches’ 2011 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches:

    Mainline churches reporting declines in membership are United Church of Christ, down 2.83 percent to 1,080,199 members; the Presbyterian Church (USA), down 2.61 percent to 2,770,730 members; the Episcopal Church, down 2.48 percent to 2,006,343 members; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. down 1.96 percent to 4,542,868 members; the American Baptist Churches USA, down 1.55 percent to 1,310,505; the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), down 1.08 percent to 2,312,111 members; and the United Methodist Church, down 1.01 percent to 7,774,931 members.

    By the way SBC is down too. 3rd year in a row I believe.


  • Working on a post about this for Monday – from the perspective of a young evangelical at her wit’s end with evangelicalism.

    When your commitment to your faith is challenged each time you raise questions about homosexuality, biblical interpretation, science, heaven and hell – you start get the idea that this isn’t the place for you. It seems to me that evangelicalism is for people who have answers, not for people who have questions. It’s for people who want to dig in their heels, not people who want to go exploring.

    My generation doesn’t need answers to all of our questions, just a safe place to ask them.

    For this reason, those mainline churches are looking more and more appealing to us. At least we can be honest there.

  • Scot,

    I see the overall point Spencer makes, but think it may die the death of a thousand qualifications. For one thing, there are many iterations within the rather hardened categories he supplies: the “Neo-Reformed” and “Progressives” are hardly monolithic. Keller’s outworking of life and doctrine is quite a bit different than Mohler’s.

    Observations about big-picture trends are interesting and do reflect some truth, but at the end of the day, I find many of them to be a bit simplistic and overstated.

  • I feel you, Rachel.

    I’ve been trying to make dialog with the more conservative evangelicals since i left that end of the spectrum a few years ago. But the latest dust-up over Bell is showing that there’s a dialectic problem. (The comment sections on my blog are rife with that…)

    If anything, the neo-reformed movement is turning MORE fundamentalist. It’s becoming separatist.

  • I don’t see too many of my former progressive emergent colleagues running to the mainline because they don’t care for the bureaucracy. Before I joined the neo-reformed, I tried a mainline route and it was a nightmare.

    I do see many of my neo-reformed friends wanting to go to war and that’s a shame. In my own church, I preach what I believe but our membership covenant is broadly evangelical. I hope we continue to dialogue without either side being dismissive or nasty but maybe I’m just a gullible, communion cup half-full kind of guy!

  • S.J. Gonzalez

    Well, rather, the fundamentalists are becoming Calvinisticish.

    I see a Catholicity in Reformed theology. That’s how I’ve always understood the Reformed faith, well not always, but recently. That’s why it’s called “Reformed” theology. It’s a continuation of proper Christian doctrine. I’m not saying that’s what it is, but that’s how Reformed theology conceives itself and in some ways I find it to be true.

    Anyway. Mohler, Schafer, Piper, Taylor, et. al. are quite the fundamentalists. When you give fundamentalists a worldview as comprehensive as Calvinism (and it is a worldview), things get dangerous.

    Plus alot of the New Calvinists are Baptists. For some reason or another, Baptists are quite notorious for being right about everything. I mean, they’re not always right, but they are always right. They’ll let you know too.

    Saying that, I’ve met my fair share of fundamentalists in all branches of the Christian faith, left and right, Catholic and Protestant, etc.

    So yes Jason in post 54, I think it’s the other way around.

    The strange part is that I still consider myself a conservative Evangelical =/.

  • For an analysis similar though not identical with the above, check out “Who Moved My Gospel?” posted a couple of days ago at godswordourwordsandtheworld.blogspot.com

    Lee Wyatt

  • Rachel,

    “My generation doesn’t need answers to all of our questions, just a safe place to ask them.”

    In what way is this different than a turn toward the old “anti-intellectual pietism”?

  • Jennifer

    I’ve been in Evangelical churches all my life…was really impacted by the emergent movement, and am now Anglican. Several of my friends seem to be on the same path.

  • Watchman

    I commented on Campolo’s blog when this article by Spencer was originally posted. And, my response remains the same. I hope Jimmy Spencer’s assessment is wrong. Just what we need… more division within the Body of Christ. But, unfortunately he is right.

  • Clark Dunlap

    Thanks John (msg 33) for relegating me to the spiritual ghetto. Jesus, too, came to the poor. Thankfully there have been many fundamentalists, Calvinists and evangelicals who have focused on letting the Bible deconstruct them than going the rout of the neo/post/evangelicals and emergents who try to do this pomo deconstruction of Jesus and the Bible.

  • Richard

    The situation in Australia is similar but has distinct differences:

    1) A large percentage of evangelicals, both non-conformist and mainline, now attend charismatic/pentecostal churches. In some cases whole congregations (particularly Baptist) have evolved to be of the megachurch/charismatic bent. They are largely disinterested in hard doctrine and prefer to be practical in their evangelism.

    2) A strong neo-reformed group remains within some of the mainstream protestant camp, and many of its churches are attracting non-conformist evangelicals because of solid preaching and doctrine. However, a couple of these denominations are at breaking point due to hassles with liberals who control much of the hierarchy.

    3) Those remaining in shrinking evangelical congregations are either experimenting with emerging church methodology out of desperation or dying of old age. Some of the experimenters are having success and those that do are not liberal or universalist.

  • John W Frye

    Clark (#61),
    You’re welcomed. Enjoy the ghetto.

  • Ryan

    I think you are on to something here Scot, but more at the seminary and pastoral level.

    While there seems to be a widening gap between camps in evangelicalism, this has largely had little effect on most evangelical churches.

    For all the books, articles, gatherings, websites, and seminary events that emergent-type leaders held, their impact on planting or guiding churches has been rather small. Most emergent church plants have remained small either because of methodology, or other factors.

    I could be wrong here, but MHBC is the only emergent megachurch really out there. Most of the other megachurches are of the Willow Creek, Saddleback, North Point, Missional Reformed streams.

    The NPP highlights this as well. While this is hotly debated and exciting topic for seminaries, pastors, and those connected to the blog world, the average evangelical Christian would look at you quite puzzled if you were to ask about NT Wright or NPP. Could this change? Yes, but the impact is not what we all who read and write blogs think it is.

    Look at most megachurches and you see they remain fairly traditional in theology/orthodoxy, even if their methods are quite modern.

    So I sense this division you speak of Scot, just feels more pressing for those of us who read and write blogs, stay abreast of the latest theological controversies and such. But most of evangelicalism is not any where near the division I see you speaking of. That does not mean they won’t be 15 years from now as the matters being debated at seminaries continues to trickle down to the pew.

  • Mary Ann M.

    I have been sensing a change in the wind for a long time now. Personally, I think the enemy likes the debates and in-fighting between denominations; it keeps us fighting each other and our witness to the world remains sullied. I think people are looking for a God that is bigger than that. Most don’t give a hoot about Calvinism, Wesleyism, Arminianism, or any other -ism. They care about knowing Jesus and how He can help them. It is only the theologians and seminarians that care much about “theology” and putting God into a nice neat package. Cynical? Yes. I am very cynical of the current evangelical church that I belong to.

  • Thomas Newell

    I think you are overstating the importance of emergent voices Scot. Kevin DeYoung in his review of Love Wins offered these words which I think fit the situation perfectly.

    “The emerging church is not an evangelistic strategy. It is the last rung for evangelicals falling off the ladder into liberalism or unbelief.”

    We have seen how this story goes: emergent leader plays coy with theological beliefs, then airs them all out in a book, and slowly fizzles from the evangelical stage into the mainline world (see McLaren, Pagitt, and Tony Jones). Each one I think thought they would have a more profound effect on changing evangelicalism, but when they made their move they looked over their shoulder and realized that no one was really following them.

  • James

    To create groups and associate negative labels seems a bit prejudice-like to me. It affirms certain views and at times we want to propogate those views.

    For example, some non-Christians may see Christians as being like the Westboro folks, a prejudice that has been affirmed throughout the media. Do we like that?

    It seems we’re doing the same.

    We can have names for certain groups and movements, but I just don’t like when negative labels are associated with any of them. Unconsciously we may do it but, it feels a bit like gossip… wanting to create a bad name for someone to bring them down.

  • James

    I also want to say, if you think the ‘neo-reformed’ seem to be firmer in their beliefs, maybe it’s also because it’s quite hard to grow up in an environment where most do not believe in hell, etc.

    I think what makes leaders like Piper and Driscoll seem a bit more strong and even harsh in their beliefs is because it’s almost like they use it as a defensive technique. You gotta hold strong to your beliefs and fight for them if you want to openly teach about things like hell in today’s society.

    Otherwise, the other thing you can do which is what I do is just never talk about it because it brings too much ridicule.. I never bring up hell, cuz it’ll mean I’ll have to sorta fight for it.. something I don’t want to do.

    It’s like a young teen who just came to the faith but has a lot of non-Christians friends. The only way to hold onto your faith is to fight for it and that sometimes leads to zeal that may seem harsh.

  • Brian Considine

    Only two choices? I don’t think so. And, frankly I’m not interested in either of the two being offered. Like the political spectrum most people reside comfortably in the middle. The neo-whatever-they-want-to-call-themselves are simply becoming a more visible fringe in this age of the blogisphere and bolder in speaking out. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, prophetic voices are needed, but so is discernment. Making unfounded prognostications like Spencer does with statements like, “You’ll see two sides soon with a fairly slim middle,” simply lacks discernment. Classifications aren’t ever as clear cut as Left-Right/Reformed-Progressive. A small minority of people reside at the fringe, on either side, (as an example politically only about 15% of the U.S. population consider themselves progressive, while we remain a center/right nation). I would wager that very few “Christians” are even aware of this debate, this “something big” as it’s not effecting their lives or their religion and most Church leadership is too busy bailing water these days to pay much attention. So before we jump to any conclusions based on the importance of a Rob Bell book as akin to Luther nailing his thesis to Wittenburg church door, or a psuedo-prophetic article by Jimmy Spencer declaring “a new split” we might do well to pause and consider. If Scot is right and the two sides aren’t willing to come to a table to discuss our common faith, then shame on those leaders, they do a great disservice to the cause of Christ in the world. It’s not about us, remember? So perhaps now is a good time to take a few deep breathes, spend some time in prayer, mediate on the Word, and realize Jesus is still on the throne, it is His Church, and He will do with it as He deems best, which is to make His Bride ready, whatever tumultuous changes may be needed to make it so. “Christ is all,” friends, let’s focus on that.

  • Everyone likes the polarity of two choices… I know marketers do…

    I see more though.

    Die hard Arminians (the over 50 and think Calvin is the devil kind).

    Progressive Arminians who will either go non-demonational or find homes in the more conservative Anglican church.

    Tea Party Arminians who are confused, angry, and may just become Calvinists because it’s better than those silly Emergent folks.

    There are the really post-emerging post-emergents that have already passed go on the mainline church steps, collected their 200 dollars, and aren’t looking back until they hit the gold streets of Boardwalk baby!

    There are the missional folks who are okay with going to your church just as long as you don’t serve donuts and instead give the money away to the poor of Burma.

    There are all kinds of hipster Christians that don’t care where they are as long as it has free wi-fi, a barista, and pipe Sufjan Stevens and Innocence Mission through the speakers.

    There are all kinds of directions we can go!

  • Kenny Johnson

    I haven’t read any of the comments yet, but wanted to comment. I’m currently part of an Evan Covenant Church. Our church is made up of “conservative” and “progressive” Evangelicals. We have people who are Young Earthers and those who support evolution. Those who are egalitarian and those who are complimentarians. People on the political right and left. And from what I’ve seen over the last 6 years is a church that respects diversity (including in thought). There’s no watchdogs or doctrine police. We have a common goal: Jesus. Sure, we share other common beliefs — like that living out the Gospel includes helping the needy. We see mission as both social gospel and evangelism. But I see no reason why there won’t be more churches like ours. Ones where Calvinists and non-Calvinists, progressives and conservatives, work together for the Gospel of Jesus.

  • Jeremy

    For most of those who post on this blog (including Scot) who are trying to promote big tent evangelicalism, I rarely hear anything good with respect to the Neo-Reformed. Whether you want to admit it or not, there are very few who are truly trying to forge a third way. You are not carving out a legitimate center when you have nothing good to say about one side. A third way needs to be distinguished from just another group pulling in another direction. What unity at all do you share with the Neo-Reformed when all you do is criticize them?

  • RJ Walker

    >>There was the Church, but tradition became more important than scripture ….

    From my reading about early Christianity, there has never been “the church” – at least from a theological point of view – compare the views of such as Origen in Alexandria and those of the Antiochian school of the first few centuries.

    I’m far from expert on this, but it’s my experience that human nature wants to there to be some pristine, uniform past where everyone thought alike. What humans want and what the reality was are usually different, though.

  • Charlie Clauss

    I am in the camp with many above who reject the two camps offered.

    As a Lutheran turned Episcopalian who has “met Jesus” in ways my modernistic scientific alter ego can’t quite explain, I am more interested in seeing others come to know that God loves them. And that love can only be grasped in the light of the Cross.

    I do think that getting straight about the “truth” of Jesus is important. I love the give and take of the late night dorm room discussion (and the Bell vs DeYoung match sometimes sounds much like those dorm times).

    But I chuckle at the phrase “It’s about control of the story of Jesus” because I think Jesus is in control of the ‘story of Jesus.’ He has shown Himself quite capable of sorting very hard things out. At the risk of a trite cliché, how much of this is more about we humans and less about God?

    I don’t mean that we should take the Quietest route – God does work through our actions. But I don’t think we have given near enough thought to our governing assumptions about how much responsibility we carry and how much God can do “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

  • Scot McKnight

    Jeremy, you are right. I am harder on the NeoReformed, though I’ve never taken them to task the way I reviewed Brian McLaren or Spencer Burke. (Would you agree with that?)

    On the rarely comment, what I have observed is that perspective shapes what you see: for instance, I have reviewed positively a number of things written by NeoReformed, but that is forgotten by the NeoReformed. All that seems to be remembered is Pesky Calvinists comments. And, you’d be surprised how many have said they are tired of my currying favor to the conservatives! I get e-mails about this often, esp when it comes to politics. I’m reviewing on a regular basis right now the book by Keller … he’s in that group.

    I carry on regular communication via e-mail with several of those who are in the NeoReformed/NeoCalvinist camp, and don’t have bad relations with any of them that I know of — other than we groan about one another’s views.

    Coalition, for me, doesn’t mean agreement but willing to work with those folks on common mission etc.. I see very little cross-work in these matters today, very little. That is why I think we are at a tipping point.

    Evangelicalism has broken into tribes.

  • We lack non-divisive language.

    It’s inherently (at this point) impossible to try to have this conversation without a steamer trunk full of labels and divisions. So much of the actual argument over Bell currently is how he won’t declare what camp he’s in, and that he won’t use the code language that various camps expect, and so he’s playing coy.

    We have, in our various groups, assigned all sorts of possessive language to Christ and to his ministry, and we use it to shape a worldview which must be prosecuted in a specific way.

    And then we wonder why every generation, we run into more divisions.

  • Vicki

    Scot – this part of your post was the most helpful thing to me…

    This is not just about theology.
    It’s about control of the story of Jesus.
    It’s about the entire framing of God and The Gospel.

    Those three phrases help me to express what I was struggling to name. Thanks for the post!

  • As an evangelical United Methodist pastor, we have some baggage… but it doesn’t include that of fundamentalism. I would urge people to think about the local congregations more than the denominations. The mainline denom’s have such large umbrellas theologically, you may have a good shot at finding the combination of evangelical and mainline commitments within a local church that you’re looking for.

  • The glorious middle way will be drowned out by the blathering authoritarians on both the right and left.

  • AHH

    I agree with those who have pointed out that there will continue to be a lot of Christians (even among Protestants) who don’t fall in those two camps. There are tons of non-Reformed conservatives, tons of charismatics & pentacostals.
    For Third Way categorization, I like and identify with the phrase “postconservative Evangelical”. Which I believe was coined by Roger Olson (an Arminian) but can be claimed by those of us with Presbyterian leanings.

    Unless I missed it, I’m surprised nobody has mentioned one source of this, which is that many who would have been called “fundamentalists” in the past have claimed the label “evangelical” for themselves. 20 or 30 years ago I think Falwell, MacArthur, and Mohler would have primarily been labeled as fundamentalists, but as that term fell out of favor they adopted “evangelical” which was originally used for those leaving fundamentalism behind.
    So the center of gravity of those who call themselves Evangelical has moved to the right less due to a shift in the overall landscape than due to the number of fundamentalists newly claiming a place in the tent.

    Finally, David Opderbeck is on a comment fast but if he weren’t he might point us to his recent, typically insightful, blog post that is relevant to this discussion:

  • RCB

    “Evangelicalism has broken into tribes.” ~Scot McKnight~

    Great line! As a very liberal, universalist Christian, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Since we’re finite creatures contemplating the infinite it’s what I would expect. I think it really means we’re all very serious about who God is and how we should/could/might relate to our Creator. There is room in our really, really big tent for all of you — and your personal orthodoxy is just that, personal. We’re a friendly happy lot. Welcome!!

  • One thing I do know is that Jimmy Spencer has come a long way since punching Kurt Busch in the face several years back.

  • I struggle to imagine what Evangelicalism looks like going forward. But I still want to be a part of it.

    This post has my thinking this…the only reason I consider myself Evangelical is because I graduated from an Evangelical seminary. But I still want to be a part of it.

    I don’t think my church or my movement requires evangelicalism of me? Even though, if I laid out what I believe, many would consider me Evangelical. On the other hand, some, would vote me out! But I still want to be a part of it.

    The last two weeks has been discouraging for me. I can barely stand to watch (but can’t look away) when the Neo-reformed crowd does what they have done with this Rob Bell thing. It is embarrassing. If this is what evangelicalism is, I don’t think we can move forward. But I still want to be a part of it.

    Sometimes, I think those of us who are what Robert Webber called the Younger Evangelicals should just leave. But when it all comes down to it, I am like Rob Bell and want to keep the label. There are going to be some in Evangelicalism that are going to push and shove and bully us, telling us we are risking our salvation by letting Brian McLaren and Robb Bell and Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones (and whoever else gets marked with the scarlet letter) write and speak to us, but I think it’s worth sticking around.

    I still want to be a part of it.

    But, I’m not going to stop asking questions. And hard ones too. Ones that might lead you to believe I’m a heretic!

  • Guy Wilson

    I tend to agree with Ryan (#64) that most of this debate and strugle are among bloggers and theologians, vs the ongoing body of Christ. And I am conficent that Jesus is fully in charge of His story. Though I am a Wesleyan leaning conservative evangelical, I sometimes think there is no one at all, much less a movement or group, that quite believes as I do. I find a wonderful plethora of evangelical views ande am never quite comfortable anywhere, but like Chesterton, always ready to to debate with a reasonable sense of humility and humor. I tend to find over time that the latest book and most recent arguments are small ripples in the sweep of the everlasting gospel. However, no matter how orthodox some mainline churches tend to be, they will continue to decline while they fail to decry the horror of abortion and treat the scripture as a multiple choice they can take or leave. Have fun with the debates. but don’t let the love of the brethern be lost along the way. Every view and every camp has its own falling short of the truth of God.

  • I am just shocked it took 81 comments before someone mention NASCAR—hence the typical use of Jr. in my name. Have enjoyed the discussions everyone is having.

    When I say ‘camps’ in my mind I see two basic coalitions of peoples. Not necessarily denominations or anything firm. Thanks for everyone who has added to the discussion.

    My article was simply my attempt to put vocabulary to what I see unfolding.

  • Christ is for unity in his family. It is an inherent character trait of the Blessed Trinity and a witness to the world when we love one another in word and deed (vs. mere lip service). But if his family is not seeking unity, maybe another Great Schism is necessary to strip away all the decaying layers of facade that exists beneath our labels.

  • Phil

    So discouraging… Are there really only two ways? It seems like the so-called “mainline” denominations quit believing in anything about a century ago, while the Evangelicals married themselves to a conservative political vision that looks more like Americanism than Christianity.

    Are these truly our only two alternatives? God help us!

  • I’ve certainly seen the beginnings of this in my own social circle (not too generalize too much from my limited experience, this is purely anecdotal). I, and many in my close circle of friends, were raised in the Evangelical church, and a huge number of us have moved over into the Anglican/Episcopal Church.

    Heck, when Todd Hunter, who was head on Vineyard churches, becomes a Bishop in the Anglican Church…

  • Jeff

    How truly sad that Christianity has to constantly be redefining it’s self. Christianity acts more like a corporation than a Religion, always looking for a new sale’s pitch. Jewdaism and Islam don’t fall into that trap.

  • Jeff (no. 89), your comment is short-sighted, I’m afraid. Yes, Christianity does indeed need to keep re-definining itself, just as we believers do. If you think Islam and Judaism don’t do so, you’re mistaken. Why do you think there are factions with Judaism? Orthodox, Reformed, Neo-Orthodox, Secular . . . Same with Islam. I agree that marketing Christianity in terms of a sales pitch is problematic, but redefining might not be so much about marketing as it is about identity.

  • gingoro

    Do you really see Tim Keller as part of the neo Reformed? To me Keller seems much more a traditionally reformed evangelical. Some of Keller’s books I find helpful whereas Piper’s books never got to first base as I could not manage to finish even one of them. As someone who is Christian Reformed, I tend to lump the neo Reformed into the same grouping as the hyper or totally reformed like RC Sproul.
    Dave W

  • Scot McKnight

    Gingoro, perhaps the clearest way to see the NeoReformed (my friend says I should be using NeoPuritan) group is The Gospel Coalition. Keller’s at the heart of that organization, and so I see him as a part of the Calvinist resurgence taking place all over the globe.

  • Scot, while I haven’t had time to read the comments, my question is this: I’m new to the ECC (a worship pastor) and wonder where you see the ECC in the midst of all this. I see the whole “via media” theology and feel a bit of hope when I hear you mention the “third way” category, but I wonder if our denomination will be able to pull that off … what do you think?

  • Tripp Fuller

    I think this may be pretty true Scot. Personally and among many of the ‘progressive’ type emergents the Mainline has been nice. We don’t get in trouble over social issues, they are generally supportive when you turn ‘Christian action’ into missional living, & they have been very open to a minister who is a Trinitarian who even affirms the resurrection. It is nice to not feel the need to watch my theological back (& be the conservative in the room), but I don’t know how long it will be attractive. I have yet to fin the substitution of the centering prayer for Bible readIng and prayer or ending sermons without explicit challenges.

  • “I am just shocked it took 81 comments before someone mention NASCAR—hence the typical use of Jr. in my name.”

    I’m here to serve. 🙂

  • Scot McKnight


    The ECC is moderate evangelical (in balance — there are more progressives and more conservatives in the mix). It is a great model for what evangelicalism could be as a third way.

  • I come at things from the edge-of-mainline instead of the edge-of-evangelical end of things. I agree they’ll probably be able to find congregations within the mainline that will be a home. I’d love to see these new ‘Progressive’ believers take part in activities of the local Councils of Churches, anti-poverty activities, and give the mainline a fresh take on worship and devotions.

    But I am someone who was driven from the main mainline. One of the reasons has to do with the ‘progressive’ label – it already has a specific, and thoroughly Left, meaning among mainliners. That means that ideas from free enterprise are treated with suspicion – a real problem as more of us have more of a role in our own employment, and learn firsthand about how base-level economics really works. It means buying into a different set of conspiracy theories about their opponents — I already see this in blogs and Facebook postings by people I’ve come to respect on other matters. (Those conspiracy theories have a wee bit more reality at the moment, mostly because of a vindictive GOP in the House, but the moment will pass and most ‘conspirators’ will prove to be just people with a different outlook.) The new Progressives are also looking into a lot of things they weren’t allowed to before. Unfortunately, that means saying, ‘wow, did you hear what Crossan/Spong/Borg/etc. wrote? It sounds so good!’. But the ideas that came out of the cutting edge of the left-mainline are often speculative and poorly-supported. Instead of dialoguing with the world, they joined the same side of the table and worked with the same presumptions as the world-as-it-is. Which leads to the results the world-as-it-is wants us to have. (Hint: there is a reason New Progressives find a comfy home in the HuffPost, and it’s not all good.) The mainline embraces much that deserves tolerance but not embrace. Progressives are rejoicing in finding out that much they were told about the Bible wasn’t so. But the things they’re being told now about the origins, purpose, and role of the Bible aren’t as true as they first seem to be, either, and that there have been evangelicals all along who held to sounder ideas than the ones they grew up with.

    The worst thing is the negative, ‘off to our own tents’ attitude more and more Progressives have toward traditional evangelicals (and even true-blue fundamentalists), essentially disowning them as not being followers of Christ. But that is a stereotype, and one that feeds into everyone else’s negative stereotypes. Stereotypes are absolutely *always* wrong, because they’re supposedly designed for groups but they so poorly fit the persons in them (a lesson from the ‘progressive’ civil rights movement). And negative stereotypes never fail to generate hate. Never. (Another civil rights lesson.) So it is an essential part of the task that we be aware of that and take the opportunities to counter those stereotypes and kill any broad conspiracy talk.

    There’s so much I want to say, because the new breed has made me and other Christians think, feel, and reconsider. I want to link hands with them as Christian brothers. But I hope they don’t lose the heart of their Evangelical heritage, which is the relationship with God, the love of Jesus, the call to spread the good news of *Jesus* to all so they become disciples, and the roots of their beliefs and behavior sunk solidly into the Bible (but in a more real and honest way). It’s what’s most needed by the mainline Protestants you’re gravitating toward, not to mention the rest of humanity.

  • Steve L.


    When you consider this growing division do you see parallels between the present situation and debates between Jonathan Edwards and Charles Chauncy? Do you think it will play out in a similar way over the long-term? Middle ground is always difficult to find when two-party systems develop such as the New Lights & Old Lights.

    Steve L.

  • One a side note…
    One of the guiding principles in ecumenical-type discussions (which I think can be applied to discussions within evangelicalism) is to allow the dialogue partners to define themselves. Here progressives got to be “progressives” rather than neo-liberals, for instance. I’m familiar with Bob Robinson’s comparisons between Neo-Calvinists & Neo-Puritans but I’m unaware of anyone who describes themselves as a Neo-Puritan. I suppose I may be splitting hairs but maybe Neo-Puritan shouldn’t be used if no one uses that to describe themselves. Some progressives like to call themselves “heretics” as a badge of honor but it would be inflammatory if I were to use Neo-heretics rather than progressives when describing them.

  • One last note: I remain surprised at how long this has taken since the main figure in Evangelicalism, Billy Graham, stepped into retirement. Without its formative figure being active, I thought its parts would fall apart in all directions. In a way, the way it’s going is better than I thought would happen.

    Let’s pray together about this whole mess.

  • Guy Wilson

    It seems to me these are the same discussions that were taking place 30 years ago. dressed up with new lingo, seemingly borrowed from the poicital spectrum: Neo, progressive, liberal, conservative, third way, mainstream, fundamental. We hardly know just what the language means in the moment. For evangelicals there are bedrock fundamentals of the faith that unite us in Christ…the rest we can speculate, devfend and argue in love, and go where our faith leads us to live them out. I love it when young Mormon missionaries whip out their ultimate evidence of Christian apostacy: denominations! I tell them therein lies our strength and freedom, our constant dialog and correction. Meanwhile, I tend to be more concerned about our response to the heavy marching feet of two militant political-economic-totalitarian religions – Islam and Marxism. The false messiahs are on the rise again, and we best find unity in Christ to articulate and propogate our answers to these false teachings.

  • Late to the party here. I still hold out hope (and pray for) an eventual resurgence of an evangelical coalition.

    I pray it will include both Reformed and non-Reformed evangelicals.

    In order for it to happen, I think we will have to settle the central question: What is the Gospel? The new coalition will have to integrate substitutionary atonement (which was at the heart of the old coalition) with the Kingdom of God motif (which has come more-and-more to capture the evangelical conscience in the past 30 years).

    One could argue that Carl Henry even planted this seed with his “Uneasy Conscious” and once this seed had fully flowered and evangelicals became more aware of kingdom theology, it led to divergent views about what the gospel is, which is the driving the crackup we’re seeing today.

    I think if we could integrate kingdom w/o obscuring atonement, it would settle the fears of some (not all) of the neo-Reformed, incorporate the legit corrections of kingdom theology and create a way of telling the gospel that unites many evangelicals, regardless of whether you’re Calvinistic or Arminian or Unsettled in your application of soteriology

  • To be clear: the article that I wrote over at Red Letter was NOT intended to describe what things would eventually look like—but to simply say that there is enough erosion of conversation, framing of the story of Jesus, and ideas of practice that collaborations and the ability to actually have conversations has begun to break down. Evangelicalism seems to have “progressive” and “conservative” coalitions of people—and I that I thought this book could be an event that triggered an actual landslide type shift shift in the landscape of Evangelicalism

    I never intended to draw a picture of exactly what coalitions would look like, who would be where—or even if there would be only two sides. Just that something would take place!

    That I think Evangelicalism has reached a tipping point and this book could shove things into something very new. I do realize ALL of this is cyclical and nothing really new. But isn’t almost everything?

    I do have some thoughts on how it will look in more detail—but really thought that was TOO speculative—and not practical enough. So I just left it as it was. I do have specific opinions on how things will shape up that I may share at some point.

    Btw, this was just a Facebook note I posted that got picked up by my friends at RedLetter and churchleaders.com and then spread over here and other places—it was NEVER intended to be my exhaustive thought about the whole thing.

    It is just some honest and simple observations from a guy who grew up evangelical and is now trying to put vocabulary to what he sees in happening.


  • …and of course Scot has been talking about the underlying tensions (and erosion of collaboration) for several years.

  • gingoro

    Thanks I see what you mean. I had never heard of the Gospel Coalition until today although I have heard of a few of their 2011 conference speakers and have read a few of their books. Back in the 80s I would have seen many of those speakers as being evangelicals but on the border with fundamentalism or as fundamentalists.

    Neo-Puritans sounds like a better name than neo-reformed.
    On issues like women in ministry, social concerns, origins issues etc most of them seem a long way towards the right of the church I happily attend.
    Dave W

  • A few things I see below the surface in most of the erosion/division/break-up/collapse/end of evangelicalism posts & comments: 1) a seeming hopefulness/thankfulness that this break-up is true so that 2) the close-minded, backward fundie NeoReformed/Calvinst crew can be marginalized outside the “evangelical” camp and into the “fundamentalist” camp and 3) progressive evangelicals can finally be seen as the new, nice, moderate, socially acceptable face of evangelicalism. The break-up is welcomed so progressive evangelicals can lay claim to the title “evangelical.” I’m way off on this? Maybe but these are my thoughts when I continually witness the YoungRestlessReformed, NeoCalvinist folks being portrayed in a negative light in these discussions.

  • I dunno. Maybe I’m in the wrong crowd or something but most of the blogs I’ve been reading have been questioning both sides in the Rob Bell / John Piper kerfuffle. Maybe that’s because I hang out with a lot of neoAnabaptists, who’re not inclined to jump when either the neoCalvinists or neoLiberals cough. When I hear talk like this of choosing between sides I think, why would I want to choose either? Why are people looking at this in such a mono-dimensional way? I’m also inclined to wonder how much is a localized American issue, to wonder what, if any, impact this will have on world Evangelicalism.

  • alison

    I’m morphing from Bible Church to Anglican. But it’s taken 50 some years and I’ve made several stops in between. I’m still too judgmental, but I have come far and I appreciate the patience that God and everyone who knows me has shown.

  • Jeremy

    I prefer to avoid the confined categorization, though I’m not sure there is a way to articulate it without making a value statement. I’ve been thinking for years that there is a reformation and a counter-reformation movement going on. Ironically, it’s the Reformed folks largely filling out the counter-reformation side. That terminology shows my hand a little, but it’s more than just Emergent/mainline vs. neo-Calvinist or the breakup of big tent evangelicalism into smaller camps. It seems to me that it’s really more “purity” vs. “hybrid.” Those who want to keep to current orthodoxy as they see it and those that want to blend the best of that with the other branches of Christian thought.

  • Scott

    …and some will return to a tradition that predates both the reformation & the medieval period (without losing sight of their contributions) all the way back to the first century tradition of the way of Christ and the apostles, helping their churches to focus on the critical elements of the faith which are not bound by time, culture or to any one particular existing theological tradition, and yet still avoid ecumenicalism because of their focus on the Pauline mission in it’s strategic nature, the corresponding household order, and type of and training of leaders. But then that move doesn’t necessarily have to do with responding to the evangelical crisis.

  • in this discussion, don’t forget another large group … the “unafiliated.” According to the recent Pew survey, the fastest growing religioin in America is the “unafiliated” category. I think it is likely that a huge number of “evangelicals” will just simply stop going to any church and just try to follow Jesus at home and in the work place or at Starbucks with 2 or 3 friends.

  • I suppose I could be labeled as a progressive evangelical. Our congregation has partnered with other neighborhood churches (United Methodist, Presbyterian -PCUSA, Lutheran – Missouri Synod, Wesleyan, Church of Christ, Mennonite, and a non-denominational black congregation). That mainliners are in this group, that our group focuses on social ills in our community, that we partner with non-profit groups, this could make us progressive.

    For our particular churches – mainline, evangelical, independent – we all ascribe to Christ. I’ll admit that there is probably divergence on how we articulate the gospel – Romans Road versus Luke 4. But even then, we complement each other rather than compete. Interestingly, the Lutheran, Wesleyan, and Church of Christ are the most hesitant to partner fully.

    I like the kind of evangelicalism that can build a coalition for the sake of the gospel, learn from each other’s doctrines, and be a blessing to the community. An observation: those that are the most dogmatic about their doctrines will probably have the hardest time partnering in the coalition.

  • Scot, Doesn’t Phyllis Tickle’s ‘The Great Emergence’ seem like an apt description of the swirl we are engaged in right now? Rob’s book may be ‘today’s fishwrap of the blogosphere’ but it will fade into the background soon. Something will replace it and then be absorbed in the same way. Shifts are gradual but their trajectory is predictable.

  • Jeff Lintz

    The author of schism is always Sin and corruption. There is nothing new under the sun. See Tower of Babel.

  • Jeff Lintz

    For those who believe that the battle for doctrine doesn’t influence the rank and file: History tells us different. The influence always trickles down– Profound originalist; concurring intellectuals; academia; the arts; common culture communicators; mass at large. Also remember, as Christians, how we follow Christ is contingent on who we think Christ is. I knew a college chaplain who believed he followed Christ but the violence and atonement of the cross was anathema to him. He fed the hungry, but encouraged a healthy young woman to have an abortion; an act which I feel could only come by rejecting the atonement. He said he was a Christian. The problem isn’t the debate. The early Church when it was more or less monolithic did the hard work by debating and producing the early Creeds and the Cannon. The question should be asked whether the current debate is a basic one. Is it as important as the one which spurred the Reformation? Otherwise, we should quit bickering.

  • I’ve noticed a number of people commenting here making the assertion that what is described in the Spencer article as ‘Progressive Evangelical’ is not Evangelical at all. As someone described well by the article’s definition for that ‘group’ I would be interested to know how you define the term ‘Evangelical’ if you believe this group cannot use the term?

    Since what is most often described as ‘liberal’ involves the denial of any scriptural authority, denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, denial of Jesus as the ‘gate’ of salvation, denial of a personal God etc etc I cannot call myself ‘liberal’ so I am keen to hear definitions for ‘Evangelical’ since I may not ‘fit’ there and according to some, may be using the term when I shouldn’t 🙂 My gut feeling is that what you’re wanting to categorize as ‘Evangelical’ is actually ‘Fundamentalism’ which could be argued to fit into the evangelical camp but is not representative of the whole.

  • By the way – I’m not American – I live in New Zealand, a largely secular society and I am part of the Wesleyan Methodist denomination here… a young movement affiliated to the Wesleyans of Australia and the USA but with a unique history that emerged out of the liberal New Zealand Methodism of the end of the last century as the Evangelicals lost their voice within the Methodist denomination here.

  • Yes!