"That Hideous Strength" Is Evangelicalism's Text for the Future

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

At the heart of American Evangelicalism has always been an unhealthy alliance between the two types of Americans that Wallace Stegner has described as "boomers" and "stickers." Boomers are the industrialists, the progressives (in the general sense of believing in inevitable social progress, not the more specific political sense), the people who move from work to work, always in motion, always growing, always trying new things in hopes of earning more money or "advancing" society. Stickers are the Hobbits of the world, the people committed to a small way of life who tend to be less concerned with abstractions like "social progress" or even "economic growth," which is a kind of abstraction as well.

For most of our history and certainly since the Second Great Awakening we have attempted to blend these two approaches, mixing an emphasis on revival, innovative techniques for preaching the gospel, and for growing churches with a desire to retain our commitment to basic Christian orthodoxy and piety. Whether it is George Whitefield, Charles Finney, Billy Sunday, Bill Hybels, or Mark Driscoll we evangelicals, like any good marketer hawking a product, have always had a talent for Americanizing our faith to suit the tastes of our target audience.

That alliance, however, is now collapsing. The boomers outside the church, who have always been averse to limitation, have now decided that even the natural design of our bodies should not limit our sexual expression just as their industrialist predecessors of the 19th century decided that the natural design of creation should not inhibit their ambition or wealth. And so the American business world has become one of the places most hostile to traditional Christian orthodoxy. This explains why "liberal" companies like Apple as well as more "conservative" companies like Walmart had the same reaction to religious freedom bills adopted in Indiana and Arkansas. Today's boomers have discovered that orthodoxy is bad for business. And so they have turned on orthodoxy.

The result of this will be that it will become more and more difficult for American evangelicals to cozily nestle in with the bourgeois bohemian establishment in modern America as they will increasingly be forced to choose between faithful Christian practice or their place in the mainstream world of middle-to-upper class Americans. As my friend Matthew Anderson noted on Twitter the other day, we will soon find out who the serious leaders of Evangelicalism are.

By necessity, this will also force a hard choice upon evangelicals. Though we have always had a foot in both the boomer and sticker worlds, the boomer side has been consistently winning out since the early 1980s when seeker-sensitive churches first began to emerge. Prior to that time Evangelicalism had tended to be a more poor to middle class tradition, plugging away on the margins of society while the mainline occupied the mainstream. It was in the 1970s and '80s that we began to be richer and part of the economic establishment. As a result of this shift we have become less and less familiar with the sticker tradition. In the years to come that will have to change as the business world becomes increasingly hostile to orthodoxy and as our legal system follows suit.

This, in turn, will require a reimagining of family life, church life, and daily Christian living as the many accommodations we have made to the boomers will have to be walked backward due to limited economic opportunity as well as more explicit hostility to orthodoxy in our primary social institutions. The attractional model of church growth first developed by Bill Hybels and then transformed for millennials by Mark Driscoll will have to be replaced by an ecclesiology that forms rugged Christians deeply shaped in the Gospel and capable of resisting the many challenges we will face in the years to come. That will mean fewer laser light shows and rock concerts and more Psalm singing and weekly communion. Choices about dual income households and schooling for children will also need to be reevaluated because of the emerging order that has set its face against orthodoxy.

Note that this is not a call for retreat. We should pull back from certain institutions that we probably should never have gotten involved with in the first place — such as, I think, our nation's public schools. But what I am describing is less about evangelicals retreating from the public square and much more about them being thrown out. For our part we must continue to create hospitable communities where the Gospel is preached, where sinners are welcomed, and the Christ life is practiced. This is not at all a call to take our ball and go home, but rather a series of sober predictions at how the world outside the church will see us in the years to come and an attempt to articulate what our response to that forced marginalization must be.