The Crisis of the Evangelical Heart

The Crisis of the Evangelical Heart March 12, 2024

We have a crisis on our hands, and it is the crisis of the evangelical heart. At the center of this crisis is the relationship between the Church and its society. The Church has contributed to making our culture and society, and our society and culture have both enhanced and harmed the effectiveness of Christianity’s expression from one generation to the next.

Richard Niebuhr addressed how the church contributed to making our society in his essay, “The Responsibility of the Church for Society.” Niebuhr argued that the church and its society has had an important but difficult relationship throughout time. When society seems plagued with repeated miseries, the Church has an obligation to enter the misery and minister in that place, weeping along with those who weep and suffering with those who suffer.

H. Richard Niebuhr in Ministerial Gown
H. Richard Niebuhr in Ministerial Gown

This sense of responsibility for the welfare of our culture and society is rooted in scripture and theology, most pertinently evidenced by the Great Commandment to love our neighbor, but also from exilic texts like Jeremiah 29:7: “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” This sense of responsibility for our culture and society ought to be the heartbeat of the evangelical movement.

However, Niebuhr highlighted another reason why the Church has an obligation to society. For its part, the Church is complicit in the making of modern society. He said:

But one highly important root of the sense of obligation is the Christians’ recognition that they have done not a little to make the secular societies what they are. In this respect the modern church is in a wholly different position from that which the New Testament church or even the church of Augustine’s time occupied. The Christian community of our time, whether or not formally united, is one of the great organizations and movements in civilization; it is one of the oldest human societies; it has been the teacher of most of the nations now in existence. It cannot compare itself with the small, weak company of the early centuries living in the midst of secular societies that had grown up independently of it. The American, Russian and British empires as well as the German and Italian, challenge the Church to a sense of responsibility, therefore, which the Roman Empire could never call forth. They were not suckled in their infancy by wolves but nursed and baptized by the Church; it instructed them in their youth and has been the companion of their maturity.[1]

Christians must take ownership and responsibility for their culture and society, and they cannot wash their hands of it. Furthermore, when the culture of their own making, evangelicalism, becomes an unruly child, they cannot simply disown and disinherit it, release it into the wild, and exonerate themselves of blame. Yet, some evangelical leaders have seemingly done so with the unruly child of evangelicalism, which has led us to the crisis of the evangelical heart.

Since the 2016 Presidential election cycle, we have seen increasing rhetoric from leading intellectual evangelical spokespersons that absolves themselves of responsibility for the problem child of evangelicalism, the Christian culture they had been tasked to steward. While many tactics have been employed to do this, a common one is to argue that the evangelical coalition has fractured and fragmented. The cultural fragments they perceive as unsightly are those parts that they jettison. These thinkers perceive themselves as remnant stewards of genuine true Christianity, a past cherished idea and vision that flourished for a time but is now diminishing in its influence. Rather than collaborating across the spectrum of evangelicals to cure its distemper, these folks have attempted to hold the ground at the center until they retreat into the safe ghettos of conservative, confessional affiliations.

One of the techniques used to absolve themselves of responsibility for the cultural disarray of evangelicalism is to emphasize their fidelity to a theological definition of evangelicalism, primarily the Bebbington Quadrilateral, which asserts four values of evangelicals: biblicism, conversionism, activism, and crucicentrism.[2] Perhaps if you were to chat with Bebbington, himself, or one of his own students, you might discover that the Bebbington School only perceives the Bebbington Quadrilateral as a description, rather than a definition. Nonetheless, those who retreat to a theological definitional view of evangelicalism believe that Bebbington’s is the only acceptable definition with which they are willing to concern themselves, and they are ambivalent towards cultural interpretations of the movement. While this tactic is a helpful tell for us to see who and what has been the center of power for evangelicalism, throughout its history, it is also a deeply fraught logical fallacy, one that becomes apparent from the thought of one of their finest minds, the late Timothy Keller.

In Keller’s Center Church, he offered a theological vision for the Church. He argued in the book’s introduction that a theological vision for the Church lies between the doctrinal foundations and ministry expressions necessary to reach a cultural context. He claimed, “Before you choose specific ministry methods, you must first ask how your doctrinal beliefs ‘might relate to the modern world.’ The result of that question ‘thereby form[s] a theological vision.’” To Keller, doctrine leads to a theological vision, which produces a ministry culture and expression. Quite simply, your Church’s theology produces a philosophy, which fashions a culture. “A theological vision is a vision for what you are going to do with your doctrine in a particular time and place.”[3]

Keller believed that a theological vision is fashioned from integrating the reading of one’s doctrine and one’s surrounding culture. Doctrine, theological vision, and culture are entangled with one another. If there is something amiss in one sphere, then the other spheres are affected. Since culture adapts and evolves, then a vision to match doctrine must be restated from generation to generation. “It is critical, therefore, in every new generation and setting to find ways to communicate the gospel clearly and strikingly,” said Keller. He continued, “All churches must understand, love, and identify with their local community and social setting, and yet at the same time be able and willing to critique and challenge it.”[4]

While these principles may be applied to a local ministry, like Keller’s urban Manhattan ministry, these principles might be telescopically employed to analyze and evaluate the doctrine, theological vision, and culture of evangelical Christianity writ large. It is insufficient and irresponsible to claim only a theological understanding of evangelicalism. Evangelical theology produces a vision for society that produces a culture. If evangelical culture has become unruly, it is because its stewards have failed in their task to rightly articulate an appropriate and timely evangelical theological vision that mediates between evangelical doctrine and culture, while also being adopted and practiced faithfully by its evangelical adherents. This failure to do so has caused the crisis of the evangelical heart.

Cultural Evangelical Descriptions Reveal the State of the Evangelical Heart

Rather than attempting to define evangelicals or evangelicalisms, I find it more productive to describe evangelicals and their values from era to era. This helps me monitor the status of the evangelical heart and determine when and where the evangelical heart has been in theological and cultural crisis. One such historical example of evangelicals in theological and cultural crisis includes the Southern versus Northern response to the Civil War and the matter of enslavement (see Noll’s expert analysis of this crisis and a later reassessment by Paul Gutacker).[5]

Evangelicals have a fluid relationship with both their doctrine and culture. They have possessed a profound skill at nimbly pivoting with cultural shifts and adapting to new geographies throughout time. I believe that evangelicals generally trend towards ecumenicity and cultural accommodation rather than sectarianism and cultural retrenchment, or at least this is the case when the evangelical heart is in its healthiest condition.

While I do believe that the headwaters of evangelicalism have been intertwined with the emergence of other early modern phenomena, such as global empire and enlightenment, evangelicals have tended to transcend the limitations and threats that beset empire and enlightenment across time. Needless to say, I have long considered studies that interrogate evangelical theology from the vantage point of its cultural context as appraisals of evangelicals that I deem to be most noteworthy.

Why? I believe that cultural descriptions of evangelicals reveal the state of the evangelical heart and when the evangelical heart is in crisis. While I care much about understanding the evangelical mind, I am increasingly more concerned about the condition of the evangelical heart, especially my own evangelical heart. Cultural descriptions of evangelicalism help monitor when the evangelical heart is in crisis. If we give any due regard to recent assessments of evangelicalism, it would be plain that the evangelical heart is in crisis and too few are taking action to respond to the crisis.

For this reason, I was deeply troubled by John Fea’s assessment, in his Atlantic piece, of Beth Barr’s and Kristin Du Mez’s studies of history. When he referred to their publications as ones that were “woefully flat,” I was flummoxed. The experience I had in reading those two fine pieces of scholarship could not have been more different than his evaluation. Rather, these studies, among others, have exposed and revealed the rot that has led to the crisis of the evangelical heart.[6]

I have met a fair number of white evangelical men, who have conveyed to me their reservations and timidity to purchase and read these books, knowing the social cost that might come with being convinced by their arguments. On the other hand, I have met numerous folks, who have been deeply affected and convinced by their arguments. Those folks counted the cost and willingly paid it because of how those works affected their evangelical hearts.

I believe the popular reception of Barr’s and Du Mez’s work—as seen from the growth of their social influence, their works’ praise from various news outlets, and the manner in which it has struck a nerve and elicited a response from their detractors—overturns the validity of Fea’s excoriating comments to the contrary. Furthermore, his disparaging comments left me even more befuddled because I had personally heard him give praise to these authors for their historical contributions, in their hearing, in at least a couple professional contexts prior to his Atlantic piece.

A Conversation between Kristin Du Mez and Beth Barr
A Conversation between Kristin Du Mez and Beth Barr

I cannot even pretend to know what moved Fea to shift so radically in his perspective towards Du Mez and Barr. After a protracted time of reflection on what actually happened with the Fea Affair, I am still puzzled. Nonetheless, I believe that this event is a microcosm of the sort of radical shifts in perspective that we will see various evangelicals take in coming decades, and how those radical shifts reveal the dire condition and crisis of the evangelical heart.

Thus far, the twenty-first century has been marked as an era of rapid technological change accompanied with tumultuous economic, political, and ecological unrest. For evangelicals to endure this era with an intact ideology and culture, they must be able to fluidly adapt, while being attuned to a theological vision that is consistent with their doctrinal values. A theological vision for effective evangelicalism in this era will be one that offers a ballast for culture and society. It will have a stabilizing affect, noted for its virtue and upside-down kingdom principles rather than turbulent and erratic sensationalism.

Our culture and society needs to be centered on a theological vision that is simple, clear, and profoundly human. A vision like this will keep the heart of culture and society beating in sync with the heart of evangelicals, who should be counted among its chief advocates. Perhaps no better vision can be commended to evangelicals than those virtues Jesus imparted to his listeners at the onset of the “Sermon on the Mount.” In Matthew 5:3 and following, Jesus explained that those who are poor in spirit, empathetic mourners, meek, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and those who both crave righteousness and are willing to suffer for the sake of righteousness will be happy. Undoubtedly, this is a theological vision that has both staying power and the capacity to increase the heart health of evangelicals, if only evangelicals forego supplanting contending cultural values with those Jesus offered to his followers. Sadly, I see too few prominent evangelical voices championing these virtues or demonstrating them. Perhaps, in similar words to Jerry Bridges, we ought to preach these virtues to ourselves daily.

[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, “The Responsibility of the Church for Society [1946]” in The Responsibility of the Church for Society and Other Essays (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 63.

[2] David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730 to the 1980s (Abingdon: Routledge, 1989).

[3] Timothy Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 18.

[4] Keller, Center Church, 22–23.

[5] Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Mark A. Noll, “Missouri, Denmark Vesey, Biblical Proslavery, and a Crisis for Sola Scripture” in Every Leaf, Line, and Letter: Evangelcals and the Bible from the 1730s to the Present, edited by Timothy Larsen (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2021), 97–122; Paul Gutacker, The Old Faith in a New Nation: American Protestants and the Christian Past (New York, Oxford University Press, 2023), 101–42).

[6] Others include, Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019); Beth Moore, All My Knotted Up Life: A Memoir (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2023); Constantine R. Campbell, Jesus v. Evangelicals: A Biblical Critique of a Wayward Movement (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2023); Jon Ward, Testimony: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Failed a Nation (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2023; Timothy Alberta, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism.

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