The Old Coalition Is Passing

Second, big tent evangelicalism tended toward the reductionistic when it came to theology because it sought to cooperate for the good of evangelism and evangelicalism. The more reductionistic it became, the less robust it could be. Eventually, in my limited viewing of the last forty years, the minimalism became too minimal.

I point now to one dramatic element of big tent evangelicalism: the megachurch phenomenon. And here I speak not simply of all big churches but of those big churches that did not develop a robust theological infrastructure. What I mean is this: megachurch evangelicalism tended, at times, toward a theology that was not much bigger than: God loves you, Jesus died for you, accept him, and get busy. Anything that smacked of theological robustness or finesse, anything that demanded theological sophistication, and anything that required serious study was seen as "extra" or "non-essential" or "for the elite."

I'm not participating here in the all-too-popular megachurch bashing that I see among some. Instead, I'm contending that megachurches rode the wave of the coalition and part of that wave was a developing lack of interest in theological vision. This thin theological foundation, which began in the neo-evangelical spirit of coalition but which developed into even thinner ways among some evangelical pastors and leaders, could not handle the challenges of evangelicalism as it shifted from a genuinely Christian culture into a postmodern non-Christian pluralism.

Alternatives and Elements

Hence, the rise of alternatives: first, the ancient-future movement spearheaded by Robert Webber; second, the emergent/emerging movement spearheaded by young thinkers and leaders like Brian McLaren who knew that fundamentalism and the neo-evangelical coalition weren't listening to the youth culture; and third, the revival of Calvinism among the NeoReformed, spearheaded -- almost singlehandedly, I think -- by John Piper and those who flocked to his side. Within this NeoReformed movement is the massive influx of Southern Baptists, who were formerly neither as vocal in their Calvinism nor as concerned with the older neo-evangelical coalition, but who are now undoubtedly a (if not the) major voice in the NeoReformed and fundamentalist awakening among some evangelicals.

If these three movements are genuine alternatives to the older neo-evangelical coalition, there remain yet other elements in contemporary American evangelicalism: classic denominations, like the Evangelical Covenant Church and the Evangelical Free Church; megachurch ministries, which aren't likely to go away anytime soon; and parachurch organizations that are the vanguard of multicultural evangelicalism as well as the keeper of much of what sustained the neo-evangelical coalition.

Throbbing through all of this are more narrowly-focused segments, like the spiritual formation movement, mapped by Richard Foster and Dallas Willard; individual charismatic leaders such as John Eldredge and George Barna; the house church movement; or gatherings like The Q Conference and Catalyst and The Origins Conference, and like the Christian music and concert scene. Other elements include virtual reality, and one dare not minimize the strength (or nonsense) of the internet world of contemporary evangelicalism, and the very sophisticated forms of cultural engagement and intellectual rigor, as one finds in John Wilson's Books & Culture. I suppose one could plot elements all day long.

Fifty years ago, the average evangelical Christian knew his or her pastor, subscribed to a Christian magazine or two, listened to a Christian radio station and its preachers and teachers, and read a few good authors published by trustworthy evangelical publishers. Today the average evangelical is spread across a global array of influences and resources. The average evangelical today is a bricoleur, one who cobbles together his or her theology from a variety of sources.

Put together, the neo-evangelical coalition, what I originally sketched as the third sense of "evangelicalism" today, has fallen apart into a variety of alternatives and elements. Some of these are vying to be the only true form of evangelicalism, while others simply don't even care about the term anymore.


Scot McKnight is a widely recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. He has published over thirty books, and his Jesus Creed is among the most well-trafficked of all Christian blogs. He has a forthcoming commentary on James from Eerdmans (2010). 

8/2/2010 4:00:00 AM
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