Three Futures for Evangelicalism in America

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

There are three possible futures for American Evangelicalism. These diverse destinies depend upon the moral, social, and theological convictions of the communities and leaders of the different streams. They also represent patterns found in three centuries of American Evangelical history.

American Evangelicalism has never been a uniform subculture. The term "Evangelical" denotes adherents of historic Christian faith within a Protestant ethos. Synthesizing the insights of historians George Marsden and Mark Noll, the Great Awakenings that gave shape to the evangelical ethos between 1730 and 1840 focused on five key attributes: 1) biblical authority and inspiration; 2) affirmation of historic creedal theology; 3) the necessity of personal conversion; 4) commitment to local and global evangelization/missions; and 5) integration of personal piety and public charity and engagement in making the world a better place. Yet there were diverse reactions to the Awakenings: 1) retrenchment and rejection of new experiences and ideas; 2) revision of the faith itself, including questioning cardinal doctrines; and 3) renewal leading to reform and revival of biblical faith.

The fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the early 20th century further complicated matters for defining Evangelicalism. The retrenchment response was seen in the "fighting fundamentalists" rejection of the new National Association of Evangelicals, racial integration, and other "compromises." Revisionism was represented by liberal Protestants who continued to question evangelical theology and many of the conservative habits and social mores of conversion-centered evangelicals. Renewal was found in an evangelical willingness to embrace Pentecostals and Charismatics (albeit somewhat gradually) and global missionary expansion.

The tumult of the 1960s and 1970s further divided evangelical believers along sociopolitical lines, with Moral Majority conservatives opposing the initiatives of anti-war, anti-capitalist progressives, represented by groups such as Sojourners Fellowship. Once again there was retrenchment, revision, and renewal. Heirs of fundamentalism sought to reify a Christian America. Revisionists began talking about "Third Millennium Christianity" and questioned some long-held opinions. Renewal advocates embraced the Jesus Movement, Charismatic Renewal, Concerts of Prayer, and other revivals of piety from the late 1960s to the 1990s.

In the last two decades, Evangelical Christianity in America has been under assault, with recent Supreme Court decisions undermining some of the last vestiges of Christian civil influence. As of 2015, it is not an exaggeration to declare the end of Christendom in the U.S. and the cultural "exile" of devout Christians of all traditions. The fragmentation of Evangelicalism theologically and culturally continues, along with deep cries for spiritual renewal and unity.

So what are the possible futures for evangelicals? Distilling history and discerning hope, there are three major pathways that mark the future. These are not armed camps in opposition, but circles of conviction and praxis that are permeable and often intersect.

Retrenchment takes several forms. At the extremes are retreat and survivalism, with calls to go "off the grid" and detach from the larger culture. Retrenchment will foster institutional separatism, with alternative cultural, educational, economic, and social networks, along with a call to "separate" from a world awash in sin. Believers in this category are not uniform in their beliefs and practices and they are not misogynists or racists. They represent eschatological and ethical streams that are part of two millennia of church history.

Revisionists vary from communities looking for a synthesis of historic Evangelical theology and new social mores to more radical reformulations of the faith itself. There is a serious "battle for the Bible" within these networks. Some embrace theological liberalism and argue for reading the Bible through 21st-century lenses. This leads to embracing new definitions of family, gender, and sexual morality. The decline of the West is embraced as appropriate justice for the sins of capitalism and colonialism. Those that wish to retain the historic faith yet demonstrate compassion and openness to other religions and LGBTQ advocates face particular challenges in biblical hermeneutics and calls for repentance. There is also an unconscious disdain for Global South Evangelicals that refuse to compromise on scriptural authority and gender and marriage issues.