Long before there was evangelicalism, before there was even such a thing as Christianity, there was good news.
As the earliest Jesus followers wrestled with exactly what it meant that this prophet from Nazareth had been crucified and resurrected, what was clear was that his life meant good news for the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the oppressed.
People like themselves who lived and died under the merciless rule of the Caesars.
That good news wasn’t just an ethereal hope for life after death. It was good news for life here and now on earth as it is in heaven.
The old order of things was passing away. The poor were being made rich. The prisoner was being set free. The kingdoms and principalities that had oppressed the world had been conquered. All things were being made new, and these people, these followers of the Way had been invited into this new creation regardless of who they were, where they came from, what language they spoke, what gender they were or how much money they had stored away for a rainy day.
It took a while for the word to spread, but once it did, this open invitation to life in the kingdom of God, this good news, spread across the world like wildfire, trampling boundaries real and imagined as it transformed the lives of those who said “yes” to the Way of Jesus.
As the Way of Jesus coalesced into Christianity and Christianity eventually wedded itself to the empire, the following centuries were, well, less inspiring — to put it mildly.
The kingdoms of earth anointed themselves the kingdom of God, and even after reform and counter-reform, the people of God weren’t finished committing a whole host of atrocities in the name of Jesus that were anything but good news.
That history may have laid the groundwork for the state of Christianity today, particularly evangelicalism in the United States, but it didn’t make that state inevitable.
For one thing, and this is a very important thing to remember, evangelicalism is not Christianity. That is not to say evangelicals aren’t Christians. Rather, Christianity is not exhausted by the tradition and beliefs of evangelicalism, as much as many evangelicals might want to believe otherwise.
“Christianity existed long before there was a stream called evangelicalism, and it will continue long after that stream has dried out.”
Christianity existed long before there was a stream called evangelicalism, and it will continue long after that stream has dried out.
Even now there are many who are sounding the alarm that the stream has nearly run dry. This, of course, comes as no surprise to anyone on the outside looking in who can see clearly that white American evangelicalism hasn’t simply wedded itself to the empire, it has all but replaced Jesus with Trump and Trumpism in all the ways that ultimately matter.
Which is why evangelicalism isn’t dying. It’s already dead.
Sure, there are still plenty of evangelical churches meeting on Sundays and that will continue to meet for years to come. Some will even welcome new members, although those members almost certainly will be transfers from other churches or lost sheep returning to the fold.
Because there is no one outside the church, no one who grew up away from Sunday school and the fear of hell, who has any interest in what the church has to say anymore. And who could blame them?
Evangelicalism as a tradition started out as so many things do, with noble intentions. There was good news to be shared — that death wasn’t the final word and life here could be lived like life in the kingdom of God.
Now contrast that with the “news” folks outside evangelicalism hear coming from American evangelicalism regardless of whether or not Trump’s name is ever invoked:
- People who love the wrong gender are going to hell.
- People who love God the wrong way are going to hell.
- People with the wrong gender are going to hell.
- People who don’t believe the right list of doctrines are going to hell.
- Women who dare to speak in church are going to hell.
- Anyone who questions the Bible is going to hell.
- Anyone who brings up racism is a troublemaker and should be silenced.
- Anyone who is so desperate they flee their home for the chance at a better life in another country is a criminal, rapist, murderer or drug dealer.
- Anyone who follows a different faith is a potential terrorist and is doomed to hell.
- Anyone who is poor has only themselves to blame and should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps instead of relying on others for help.
- Medical care is only for those who can afford it.
- The planet is ours to destroy.
The list goes on and on and on. How, exactly, is any of that good news?
Why, exactly, would you want to join a group of people who believe such things?
Now, if you identify as evangelical you may be shouting: “That’s not me! I don’t believe any of that!” or “Not my church! That’s not our message!” But here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter. You may be an exception, but your defiant cries long ago were drowned out by a multitude of other voices.
Whatever good news there may still be clinging on to life behind the baptistry or in the fellowship hall of a faithful local church has long ago been drowned out by the chorus of bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, racism and hate that has come to define evangelism in America in the eyes of those outside the church.
“For those on the outside looking in, there is no good news coming from the church.”
Which is why the feelings or beliefs of those inside evangelicalism who may disagree with the above “news” is ultimately irrelevant. Evangelicalism is about the message being proclaimed. It’s right there in the name: euangelion, the Greek word for “good news.”
For those on the outside looking in, there is no good news coming from the church. They have no interest in joining what, to them, appears and often is a cult of arrogant and bigoted people who want to silence women, ignore the climate, pretend like racism doesn’t exist and damn everyone to hell who doesn’t agree with them.
There is nothing good about that news.
Which is why evangelicalism isn’t dying. It’s already dead.
Because it has no more good news to proclaim, at least none that can be heard beyond the stained-glass windows.
That doesn’t mean Christianity is dead. Far from it. There are many corners of Christianity that are flourishing in many healthy and life-giving ways, both in America and around the world.
But American evangelicalism is an old wineskin that long ago lost its ability to carry good news. And without that good news, there is nothing left to proclaim and no reason for evangelicalism to exist.
Zack Hunt lives in Nashville. He is an author and speaker. He’s a graduate of Trevecca Nazarene University and Yale Divinity School. He is the author of Unraptured: How End Times Theology Gets It Wrong.
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