The Future of Evangelicalism

Today’s post is by Harold Heie, Senior Fellow at the Center for Christian Studies at Gordon College (full bio here). He is the author of Learning to Listen, Ready to Talk: A Pilgrimage Toward Peacemaking,and his interest is in creating respectful conversations on the internet about difficult topics. Below, Heie introduces the latest respectful conversation, “The Future of Evangelicalism.” I have posted on Heie before, and I am very happy that he asked me to be a part of this conversation. The original post can be found here and I am reposting it here at Heie’s request.

I want to invite all my web site readers to follow along and contribute to a new electronic conversation that I will be hosting, starting on May 1, on the topic “American Evangelicalism: Present Conditions, Future Possibilities.” I am guessing that the views that will be expressed on this topic will range from “there is no viable future for Evangelicalism” to “Evangelicalism can have, and should have a vibrant future”. Allow me to conjecture as to why such a wide range of viewpoints may emerge.

It may depend on how one defines some key words and phrases. I will illustrate by reflecting on what are often taken to be three of the pillars of Evangelicalism (drawing on the work of Christian scholar David Bebbington).

The Centrality of the Biblical Record:  Mark Noll has referred to this pillar as “a reliance on the Bible as ultimate religious authority.” But there are narrow and broad views as to what that means. The narrow view is a “Biblicism” that views the Bible as the only source of authority and understanding for the Christian. A broader view, which I embrace, is that whereas the Bible is the primary source and ultimate authority for my understanding of the Christian faith, it is not the only source and authority. Other sources include the Christian tradition, reason, and experience, and knowledge that is uncovered by study in the various academic disciplines.

The Centrality of Personal Commitment to the Christian Faith: Once again, this phrase can be interpreted narrowly or broadly. The narrow view can be called “conversionism;” the view that you aren’t a Christian unless you can point to a time and place when you made a decision to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior (being “born again” at that time). A broader view, which I embrace, is that a Christian is one who aspires to be a “follower of Jesus” by personally appropriating the gift of grace made possible through the person and work of Jesus Christ, and that there is no one prescribed means for such personal appropriation (e,g., it can emerge gradually).

The Centrality of Evangelism: Christians are called to share the “gospel” (the “good news” of restoration made possible by Jesus Christ). A narrow view of such “evangelism” is that the only message we are called to share with all peoples is that God  intends to restore individual persons to a right relationship with God. A broader view of evangelism, which I embrace, is that the “good news” applies to all of God’s creation, not only individuals. The person and work of Jesus Christ are decisive for the restoration of all aspects of the created order, including the natural world and societal structures.

So, whether you think that Evangelicalism can, and should have a vibrant future may depend on whether you embrace the narrow or broad views of the “pillars of Evangelicalism” that I have summarized above, or something in-between.

Of course, what I say above could be all wrong. Thankfully, I have recruited “primary contributors” for this upcoming conversation who have much more expertise on this topic than I do. I can hardly wait to read what they will have to say about present conditions and future possibilities for American Evangelicalism. I invite you to will follow this conversation and contribute your own reflections by submitting comments.

To give you a sneak preview of what is to come, the seven sub-topics that our primary contributors will address (one topic per month, from May through November 2013) are as follows (in the order presented)

  1. Evangelicalism and the Broader Christian Tradition
  1. Evangelicalism and the Exclusivity of Christianity
  1. Evangelicalism and the Modern Study of Scripture
  1. Evangelicalism and Morality
  1. Evangelicalism and Politics
  1. Evangelicalism and Scientific Models of Humanity and Cosmic and Human Origins
  1. Evangelicalism and Higher Education

I am pleased that over 20 Christian scholars have committed to being “primary contributors,” including Vincent Bacote (Wheaton College), Randall Balmer (Dartmouth College), Amy Black (Wheaton College), Jeannine Brown (Bethel Seminary). Peter Enns (Eastern University). John Franke (Yellowstone Theological Institute), Stanton Jones (Wheaton College), Richard Mouw (Fuller Theological Seminary), Soong-Chan Rah (North Park Theological Seminary), Sandy Richter (Wesley Seminary), Sarah Ruden (Wesleyan University), Corwin Smidt (Calvin College), Theodore Williams (City Colleges of Chicago), John Wilson (Books & Culture), and Amos Yong (Regent University). Anytime after May 1, you can contribute to the conversation in a moderated forum by submitting a comment on any posting.

[For an elaboration on the above reflections, including the citations for the scholarly works noted above, see my essay “What Can the Evangelical/Interdenominational Tradition Contribute to Christian Higher Education” under the “Publications” icon on this web site]

  • Mick Pope

    Excited about this conversation. As an eco-theologican (see I’m particularly pleased to see evangelism as seen as including the creation, or what it called eco-mission.

  • unkleE

    The “broad” approach to these 3 emphases corresponds approximately with the way my thoughts have been moving this past few years, for what that’s worth. I believe it is a stream that is gathering strength, though I am mindful of the saying in scientific circles that progress is achieved “one funeral at a time”, so I won’t be holding my breath just yet. Thanks for posting this.

  • Jim V

    I tend towards the broader views expressed by Dr. Heie, with one exception: “The person and work of Jesus Christ are decisive for the restoration of all aspects of the created order, including the natural world and societal structures.” I’m always reluctant to make the claim that Christ’s work will restore “societal structures.” I’m skeptical of the attempts to create Utopias – Christians have tried and failed many times over (City on a Hill, anyone?). I just don’t know if that is really what Christ is calling his followers to do and I cringe at the prospect that history will repeat itself. I do believe that we are called to do good in our society, but I worry that seeking redemption of society is a fools errand.

    • Jesse Reese

      Your point about Utopias is spot-on, but I don’t think that is what this author is referring to, but rather the idea that the hope for transformation and restoration that is in Jesus is not simply an individualistic affair. Nobody should simply argue a fatalistic line on such issues as criminal justice or poverty, for instance, on the basis that Christ came to redeem individuals from their sins but the world and its structures are hopelessly fallen. The answer to these lines should be NO, Jesus has the power to restore every aspect of human existence, nothing can be segmented off (especially not as a convenient means for the powerful to ignore oppression).

  • Rob

    This will be a good discussion. I would tend toward the broader view on items 1&2, but on Evangelism – to herald good news … to go and make disciples and teach them all I have commanded. This seems strained at least if not ridiculous. I can proclaim good news of redemption to a rock or my dog (who is a believer … she believes I am god) or a tree about to be cut for timber. But if I do that long enough I will be committed to some institution worse than an independent fundamentalist seminary. It seems clear from scripture that redemption applies to all of creation and God will bring that ultimate redemption. But evangelism or making disciples is a message clearly intended to be shared with individuals by individuals.
    Look forward to all these discussions and growing in grace and knowledge. I’ll encourage my pet rock to follow along too.

  • Chris Bradley

    Evangelicalism or any other form of Christianity will not bring order to the world as it it was in the times of the Old Testament or perhaps the creation. This is because, we people fail to realize that each and every one of us plays vital role in the restoration process. We should not rely solely on the efforts of churches, its leaders, and the groups under it. We must rely on our faith that everything is possible. Despite the bad things that we see and hear, let us always remember that there is always light in the dark and sun after the rain. Negativity is simply a bad attitude that we must throw away for it benefits no one. It only creates confusions and wrong beliefs. In the end, it will also destroy hope – a thing that God always extends to us through His love and grace.

    • Craig Vick

      As an advocate of being positive it seems to me you’re terribly negative about negativity. I prefer, in the name of being positive, to sing the praise of negativity. It has the power to sharpen and strengthen. It can tear down decayed and flawed self evaluations and leave room for real growth. It reveals, rather than creates, confusions and wrong beliefs. It destroys false hope.

      I agree that Evangelicalism should move forward in full awareness of the grace and power of our Lord. Negativity is a valuable tool in that endeavor. Being self critical is key to our progress.

  • Craig H Robinson

    How does one share the good news with the non-individual creation?

  • John Henry

    I’ll follow this conversation. I’m very interested.

  • Jacob McNeese

    The future of Evangelicalism looks uncertain to me. When the fact of evolution (which can be a faith shaking issue) and the historical criticism of the Bible( which in my experience is far worse) finally hit Evangelical Christianity in full, many people are going to lose their faith. As a recovering fundamentalist who is still trying to figure out what to believe, I know how devastating these issues can be to a seemingly strong faith ,but I also know that there will be many Evangelicals who do there best to work through them. I feel like there may be hard times ahead for Evagelical Christianity, and I don’t what it’s going to look like once it comes out the other side.