Is Evangelicalism Ending?

Is Evangelicalism Ending? December 26, 2012

Many today are predicting the (even imminent) collapse of evangelicalism. Others, like Brad Wright, show that evangelicalism is flourshing, while others, like Chris Smith, show that while it may be flourishing it is not what it used to be. At work here are two questions that I want to deal with before we go another step:

What is evangelicalism? I have been, am and will stand by David Bebbington and Mark Noll. Evangelicalism is a movement in the Protestant church shaped by differing but clear emphasis on four beliefs: the centrality of the Bible, the centrality of the atoning death of Christ, the centrality of the need for personal conversion, and the centrality of an active mission to convert others and to do good works in society.

Who decides who is evangelical? No one, really. Others, mostly. There is no one who decides who gets to carry the evangelical card but there is a a general conviction on the part of others who is “in” and who is “out.” I have an opinion, and you may have an opinion, and the one with the louder voice or the bigger voice might be the most compelling but … let this be said: God does not equate “Church” with “evangelical.” But because it is a movement, and for some the movement is so important that it is nearly the same as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, it matters deeply to some.

So to you: What is an evangelical?

But what does matter is that evangelicalism is a longstanding movement, it seems to unite millions of Christians in the world, and it is contested.

David Fitch, in his book, The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology, thinks evangelicalism’s influence is more or less over, that it needs to reexamine itself, and that it needs to rediscover what it could be in our world. This book by David Fitch could be one of the most significant studies of evangelicalism in the current academic climate. In some ways, he is doing deconstruction from the inside out.

To begin with, David Fitch believes evangelicalism’s social, cultural and political influence have waned to the point of being a minimal cultural presence.

The theory he will explore in this book is that belief plus practice (of that belief) shapes a community’s disposition in the world, and that means he can infer back from the lack of influence and viability of evangelicalism that it’s beliefs (or its practices of those beliefs) are no longer viable.

So David Fitch is seriously questing for what can be called an evangelical political theology, but he isn’t talking about political parties — instead, he’s talking about how to be a body, a present body, a body of influence for the gospel, in our world.

He believes evangelicalism has become an empty politic, and here’s why: the four (he blends two and three above) beliefs of evangelicalism were fashioned to be a “politic” in modernity and modernity is corroding and eroding and fading. He thinks those four beliefs, framed as they are, are to our culture what “Caffeine-Free Diet Coke” is to a drink: “a drink that does not fulfill any of the concrete needs of a drink” (xxi). So, let me state how David frames the three (blended four) beliefs:

1. Inerrant Bible.
2. Decision for Christ.
3. Christian Nation.

These are “ideological banners” but really are a “semblance of something which once meant something real” (xxii).

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  • AHH

    Interesting that this post is illustrated with a picture of Jerry Falwell, who back in the day would have primarily been considered a “fundamentalist” more than an “evangelical”. Nowadays, those who follow pretty much in Falwell’s footsteps (like Al Mohler) try to define themselves as being at the center of Evangelicalism.
    Maybe this is part of what Fitch is getting at, the fact that in recent decades evangelicalism in the US has to a large extent been hijacked by fundamentalism (which his items #1 and #3 are a part of; #1 having always been a defining feature of fundamentalism while #3 I think took root more in that movement in the 50s).

  • Rick

    The continued “success” (in terms of growth) of various evangelical churches and networks indicate that something is still working.

    Politically, these churches seem to avoid getting too involved, at least in terms of promoting one side over the other. There social/cultural influence, however, is unclear. In some ways they seem to have a more quiet influence (justice, poverty, etc..), yet in other ways they seem more compromising (celeb. culture, consumerism, etc…)

  • Percival

    1. Inerrant Bible – Not for all evangelicals, but authoritative.
    2. Decision for Christ – Yes.
    3. Christian nation – Meaning America? Come on.

    Is he saying that this is what Evangelicalism has become? If so, he seriously overlooks the depth of Evangelical historical roots. He has completely overlooked Pietism, which is what originally separated Evangelicals from the state churches (in Europe) and from the established church hierarchies. Also, Pietism is closely associated with Revivalism. Without these two, there is no Evangelical movement. Furthermore, Evangelicals around the world cannot be squeezed into this stars and stripes mold. And finally, in another 15 years, this political brand of Evangelicalism will be dead in America as well.

    It makes me think that this Fitch is being deliberately obtuse by refusing to recognize that the Evangelical movement has any history older than 1979 and no reach beyond the shores of the US.

  • Percival

    Sorry, “no reach” should be “a reach”

  • Richard Armour

    I consider myself evangelical in the expression of my Christian faith. I accept your 4 emphasis gladly and believe when the Church loses these emphasis the Church will become “Diet Coke”. If Mr. Fitch truly does blend evangelicals down to the 3 simplistic emphasis above, he must believe evangelicals are indeed simplistic rather than dynamic. To believe such a thing you have to lump a whole lot of different people into one group and that just doesn’t fly. How many evangelicals believe this is a Christian nation, or should be a Christian nation? I would say most evangelicals beliefs on that are very complex and nuanced, and can’t be put in one bag. If evangelicals are just a movement, by definition, movements begin and end. But if by evangelical we mean the basic tenants that form the foundation of our faith, those will endure forever.

  • Richard Armour

    BTW, that’s the best picture of Jerry Falwell I have ever seen. If he was alive I would think he picked it out himself. 😉

  • Dan

    As a Christian who believes in the freedom of the church from the state (and vice versa) the thought of a “Christian Nation” makes me feel nauseous. Ron Sider wrote an outstanding book on the political influence of Evangelicals called “The Scandal of Evangelical Politics.” I’d recommend that to anyone interested in this topic, although I also look forward to reading Fitch’s offering.

    I think the decline of a certain kind of evangelicalism in the USA paves the way for a more socially and politically progressive incarnation of the movement, as well as global evangelicalism. I wrote a blog post on this back in April of 2011:


  • If evangelicalism is ending, or fading, it is because of this statement: Christian Nation. Evangelicals, more than any other segment of Christendom, have polarized the world into us and them, politicizing a belief system and creating opponents not to mission or principle as much as identification with political party and perceived agenda. This, more than anything else, ironically, has associated evangelicalism and fundamentalism in the public eye, and served to marginalize both.

  • Nathan

    If it means being constantly lumped in with certain luminaries in Seattle, Louisville and Minneapolis….then we can only hope and pray such a demise would free us to flourish. I don’t want to be part of an evangelicalism that has room for the resurgence of the kinds of voices this movement was expressly seeking to distinguish itself from in the first place. I also don’t want to be part of something known only as a reliable voting bloc for a temporal political party. So…if we can still be “evangelical” without that baggage, then count me in. But that other stuff…not havin’ it.

  • Scott Gay

    I can and do live with the four beliefs. But I ache for a new set of symbols, events, and structures for uniting us that are beyond those of the middle of the last century. I really liked an analogy used by N.T Wright in his 2010, “After You Believe”- he said that worship is the practice of loving God……and that the Christian virtues are the practice of loving neighbor. That ought to relate to bloggers here. So I am strongly in the group who would like to see what people call the right and left( or conservative and liberal) defined as obsolete. And this means an emphasis in two areas. One, a new look at spontaneous and liturgical worship- along the lines perhaps of ancient/future. Or better yet, the Anabaptist impetus toward multi-voiced worship. Two, a re-definition of mission- along the lines of N.T.Wright’s why character matters. I think this includes evangelizing and society, but overarches them, putting mission back squarely in the virtues of God. And calls people to their reflection.

  • Sherman

    I agree that, and agree with the positive centralities of Evangelicalism being the Protestant Bible, the Atonement, personal conversion, and active evangelical mission. But what is not mentioned are the negative centralities of exclusivism and infernalism (belief in and fear of Hell for others, most of humanity).

    The positive centralities have brought life to the greater body of Christ. The negatives though have significantly limited the impact of the positives though, often cutting off evangelicals from the greater body of Christ. It is my prayer and hope that as evangelicalism matures it will grow out of the negatives and grow in the positives.

  • The question of the demise of Evangelicalism seems to come up every few years. Back in early 2009, Michael Spencer at Internet Monk did a 3 part post on the issue, and there has been on-going discussion before and since his posts. I respond today much as I responded back then.

    The demise of pop evangelicalism and a culturally evangelical ghetto would be a welcome relief. That said, I still find a vibrancy in theological Evangelicalism that I cherish and hold as precious; the theology espoused by Carl Henry, Francis Schaffer, and D. A. Carson among others. The strength of the core of this theological Evangelicalism is how it focuses on the Gospel and the foundational orthodox doctrines of the Christian faith. I would even contend that the silliness and craziness we see in pop evangelicalism and the other excesses of the movement have come come from a movement away or an ignoring of the movements theological foundations and roots. In my spiritual life and formation, the Evangelical church has been my spiritual mother. As such, I will always cherish her, warts, wrinkles, and all.

  • Interesting to analyze and speculate where Evangelicalism may be going. I think we can boil down even the 3 distinctives to just one, with benefits for applications being a Jesus-follower (which I consider myself, as a former Evangelical now a progressive, theologically particularly).

    That one core point is the nature of reality (or all we experience and observe): Assuming some kind of God exists, is God “supernatural” (theism), “everything” (pantheism) or “in everything” (pan-en-theism) — the only well-developed options aside from strict materialism/atheism which makes about zero sense. I personally try to get my friends and others who are Evangelicals (or even Emergents) to discuss this and the biblical issues around it… with little responsiveness.

    Although I study and write about psych of religion and spirituality, I don’t yet fully know why people at almost all levels seem to avoid this subject (like the elephant in the room?). I do realize the kind of God one has to conceive of in Process theology (or panentheism) is more complex in terms of guiding the world and interaction with “history” or individuals…. but not too much so for well-educated people IF they are emotionally/conceptually open and not threatened overly by being somewhat maverick socially and theologically. Actually, quite a few Evangelicals, especially younger ones, ARE moving this direction, but the nature of God issue seems to trail rather than lead the process.

  • PJ Anderson

    Too often fundamentalism gets lumped in with evangelicalism. Sometimes because folks who are actually fundamentalist (MacArthur, Mohler, Driscoll, etc) try to identify with evangelicals.

    The mainstream of evangleicalism isn’t like these fundamentalists and are, instead, more centrist on a whole range of issues. They just don’t get press or visibility because they are often too concerned with ministry than politics. Honestly when I read stuff by doubters like Fitch and even Davidson-Hunter I genuinely see a failure to interact with the more mainstream elements at s deeper level. Individuals like Gabe Lyons, Erwin McManus, Rachel Held-Evans, Peter Enns, etc always get short-shrift in these works. As I read Fitch I generally recognize a lack of scholarly acumen as opposed to someone like Mark Noll or Martin E Marty.

    Frankly, I don’t see how the only segment of Western Christianity that seeing growth, and in some places unparralleled growth, can be seen as shrinking or ending. Mainline Christianity is what is dying along with tired, old fundamentalism. Evangleicalism is continuing the grow. It isn’t ending.

  • Marshall

    I don’t think that “Christian Nation” equates at all with Bebbington’s fourth point. Establishment religion is antagonistic to an individual decision. And if the nation did generally accept Christ-centered values, there would still be a continuing need develop those values as actual programs in touch with actual people.

  • Werner Swart

    Here in Argentina, and I think most of Latin America, evangelicalism remains very strong and growing due to the different emphasies you site and its effect on those within the Roman Catholic majority who have no “evangelical” practice or theology. It will still be here for a long time. Being from Africa, I can also say the same for Africa because of its effect on animism and withcraft. Your question may be valid in the Northern hemisphere but not on the southern?! I am thinking out loud.

  • Steve Sherwood

    Isn’t the point that Fitch is trying to make not what evangelicalism SHOULD be or AT ITS BEST is, but what it increasingly has become functionally reduced to? To the degree that it has come to be those 3 things, I think he’s on to something in raising his concern. I suppose the question, then, is to what degree does evangelicalism look diverse and robust and to what degree does it look narrow, and rigid as those three distinctives suggest? I teach at an evangelical university, and I would say I see a good bit of both, and depending on the day, go back and forth as to which seems to hold sway over the future.

  • bob c

    Evangelicalism is Protestant and Modern. From Protestants it takes a love of the Bible, a deep divide between Justification and Sanctification and a distrust of tradition; from Modernism it takes a lack of adornment in either ritual or thought, and a quest for certainty which is rooted in the infallible nature of the Bible.

    Contemporary culture is a collage. Culture is not a monolith transferred from one generation to the next, but is continually assembled anew from available pieces. As this mindset invades the Evangelical church, how will the structures arranged around the notions of certainty and infallibility survive? It is hard to see that happening.

  • Rick

    Dan Kimball linked to an article categorizing protestants, and in which the author says:
    “Now what is important about this spectrum is noting where the future growth of the Protestant tradition will come from. I believe that all signs and trends show that the two movements on this spectrum that will ultimately dominate the Protestant stream of Christian faith over the next 40-50 years will be the Reformed Evangelicals and the Neo-Evangelicals, who I believe will ultimately win out over the Reformed movement because of its commitment to orthodoxy and progressive missiology and practice.”

    In addition, Scot is mentioned in one of those categories.

  • The reason evangelicalism is thriving numerically and collapsing theologically is because it’s become a projection of suburban values. It’s a religion for people who believe in the total depravity of everyone else so they move to a place where there aren’t any “gang-banger” kids in their neighborhood schools and they go to a church where all their social needs can be met in a single building so that they don’t have to risk blending in with the surrounding heathen population. The escapism that creates suburbia blends very nicely with “The world will hate you if you’re really my disciples” and a premillennial “eschatolology.”

  • Evangelicalism’s glory was that it stood for Jesus Christ. It’s shame is that it has wandered from Him.

    It is time to forsake Evangelicalism and return to Christ.

  • I think Fitch’s first reducing Evangelicalism to these three points is the major flaw of his book, and produces a biased result which is only true for parts of Evangelicalism.

    “Christian Nation” is (a) a very recent development, and (b) a very parochial development (US only). Evangelicalism is wider and more diverse than that.

    I also question Fitch’s (and several other authors’) metrics in measuring the influence of Evangelicalism. I don’t believe that the calling of the church is to have a political influence identifieable or ascribable to it; after all, the church is not primarily a political party or movement. Its influence is to be through the lives of its members, and it doesn’t matter whether it (the church) gets credit for anything political.

    On the other hand, to those who say that Fitch conflates Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, with people like Mohler and McArthur labeled as Fundamentalists, I would say that Mohler and McArthur are pretty much where Evangelicals were in the 1950s, when the movement began to distinguish itself from Fundamentalism, and some of today’s Evangelicals, like Rachel Held-Evans, would not be recognized as such by the Evangelicals of th 1950s.