No Prophecy, Just Prescription: Solid Theology

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: Evangelicalism. Read other perspectives here.

When I was asked to weigh in on what I judged to be the future of Evangelicalism, my first thought was, "I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet, I'm just a shepherd of college students." Who am I to make such weighty prognostications? By nature I'm averse to engaging in any hard futurology — sounds a bit close to astrology. Beyond that, given the increasingly volatile nature of American discourse around religion and the rapidly changing theo-political scene (Obergefell and its rainbow penumbra), we're dealing with shifting variables whose slopes are slipperier by the day, making mapping a trajectory with any certainty a perilous proposition.

All the same, I'll hazard a few words about the future of Evangelicalism, not as predictions, but as prescriptions for facing the changes we see all around us and their fallout. From where I stand, I'd say there's one main priority Evangelicalism needs to set itself, if it's going to survive the next few years let alone be salt and light for the gospel: prioritizing solid theology.

Evangelical churches, while still going surprisingly strong compared to other traditions in the U.S., have still felt the effects of cultural drift in their pews. This is true both in those who leave, as well as those who've stayed but might as well have left given how much their lives simply mirror the mild narcissism of their American neighbors. I'd argue that's largely because the drift crept into the pulpit a long time ago, where pragmatic, therapeutic methods and messages replaced the weighty truths of God, creation, sin, and salvation, playing right into our dominant culture's expressive individualism and rendering us, as Ross Douthat puts it, "a nation of heretics."

This is a problem because Evangelicals — Christians, really — are, at core, a theological people. In the Old Testament, Israel was united by its confession of the one God with whom they had covenanted to love and worship (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). All its moral laws, jurisprudence, worship, and communal life were grounded in its confession of the nature and character of the God who had rescued them from slavery and darkness (Exodus 20:1-20). The same is true for Christians in the New Testament, whose life flows from its confession of "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father over all who is over all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:5-6). Carrying the name of and responding to the triune God — Father, Son, Spirit — is the Church's raison d'être.

Without an understanding of who God is as well as his works of creation and redemption through Jesus Christ, our moral imperatives and communal life will lose coherence and any semblance of plausibility to our people. This is especially the case with our youth who, whether churched or unchurched, remain shockingly, though understandably, ignorant of basics of the faith. No surprise, then, that they simply walk away, or dive headfirst into the sea of rainbows on Facebook along with their peers. They haven't been given any good reason not to.

Unless you have a strong doctrine of God's goodness in creation, you lose all possibility of speaking of things like "human nature" and corresponding commands connected to it, or the good news of its restoration in Christ. Without a doctrine of God's holiness and his saving judgment on human sin in Christ, you lose the ability to maintain a critical distance (holiness) within the broader culture as a religious community that can actually invite people into something different. People who have no grasp of the importance of God who speaks, the one who freely communicates his goodness to us in Jesus Christ, won't be much for witnesses. On and on I could go. Theology, and especially the doctrine of God itself, is at the core of maintaining our life as evangelicals in the world.

But if that's the case, "How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?" (Romans 10:14). Pastors, and the theologians training them in seminaries across the land, need to recover the importance of maintaining a theologically-focused pulpit. An evangelical church that does not have its eyes squarely focused on the God who called it into being will not be long for this world.