Fall is my favorite time of year, and this year I find in it a metaphor for the current identity crisis within the evangelical church. Just as the leaves fall from the trees, so it seems that evangelicalism is falling from its roots.
The most widely accepted definition of historic evangelicalism comes from David Bebbington’s 1989 book, Evangelism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. Here, Bebbington lays out what is known as the Bebbington Quadrilateral, or four characteristics of historical evangelicalism:
- Biblicism, the belief in the Bible as inspired by God and authoritative for the development of faith.
- Crucicentrism, the belief in Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the Cross for sin.
- Conversionism, the belief in newness of life (rebirth) through the personal acceptance of Jesus as Savior.
- Activism, the belief that the gospel is expressed through transformational living and sharing of the goodness of God to others.
Many Christ-followers affirm these four pillars, as do I. The Greek term euangelion means “good news” or “gospel.” Therefore, from a technical sense an evangelical is a person, church or organization that embraces the gospel message proclaimed by Peter at Caesarea Philippi: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. This central message serves as the foundation of Christianity.
Evangelical identity theft
However, in recent decades the term “evangelical” has been hijacked by a much more exclusive group that call themselves “evangelicals,” leaving many on the outside of their circle of acceptance. In addition, inconsistent and at times contradictory definitions lead to very fluid and arbitrary surveys, evaluations and calculations about this elusive group of people.
Hence, there exists a vast group of Christocentric people who agree with Bebbington’s Quadrilateral but who no longer affiliate with the term “evangelical” because of the broader nuances associated with the term. Without centralized leadership from a denominational or organizational body to clarify the use of the term, evangelicalism carries the modern connotation of a label for religious-political conservatives. This results in some distancing themselves from even using the term “evangelical” out of reservation of the impending stereotype associated with its usage.
As some separate themselves or experience excommunication from their mother denominations for not signing a particular statement of faith or failing to hold conservative enough doctrine, it might appear that “evangelicals” are in the season of fall. Numbers are dropping dramatically. Some trends indicate that “nones,” or those with no religious affiliation, are the fasting-growing group in the USA.
“Younger generations are not leaving the church (by and large) because they desire to seek to live carnal, immoral lives.”
Young adults (especially Millennials and Gen Z) are leaving evangelicalism, and their primary reason is the inconsistency between the teaching and practice of the church.
Younger generations are not leaving the church (by and large) because they desire to seek to live carnal, immoral lives. They are leaving institutionalized religion as we have known it for several generations because of a distaste for the unethical behavior within the church. Central to this exodus is that churches are prioritizing and defending their viewpoints on issues more than prioritizing their personal interaction with people.
Attempts to minimize the magnitude of sexual and emotional abuse by clergy, refusal of personal culpability for ongoing systemic racial bias, unwillingness to befriend and be allies for LGBTQ individuals, and inequality for women in the pulpit and the public arena are just a few of the most noteworthy issues. Many may be tempted fearfully to decry, “The sky is falling!”
Is this a season of preparing for future growth?
Yet, all is not lost. Just as nature prepares for winter through the shedding of leaves and a period of dormancy, so the ecumenical church is in a state of preparation for coming growth. Such growth is not likely to come through the often-touted conservative agenda of Christian nationalism. The wedding of the government and the church has proved disastrous throughout human history (from the Spanish Inquisition to Nazi Germany).
“Christian nationalism, which is no more nationalistic than it is Christian, is the single greatest threat to the advancement of the kingdom of God.”
Christian nationalism, which is no more nationalistic than it is Christian, is the single greatest threat to the advancement of the kingdom of God.
Post-evangelicals are “emerging” in a new movement that seeks to reform modern Christendom from this church-state union. Like evangelicalism, the “emergent church” movement is difficult to define. Phyllis Tickle (who died in 2015) is instrumental in recognizing the emergence of new pedagogy and methodology in the church every 500 years and identifying the current emergent movement.
The ‘emergent’ church
While the specific nuances of emergence are still being formulated and fleshed out, a common denominator is the refurbishing and revitalization of traditional liturgy into new, more vital forms. The movement is less concerned with denominational loyalty and hierarchal structures and far more concerned with embracing a wider cross-section of community and collaborative worship and service.
Emergence centers on missional living by moving the church from the center of society to the margins. Proponents of the deconstruction and reconstruction of faith emphasize the value of embracing diverse Christian traditions and the greater union of cooperation across denominational lines. Many in the movement are reaching out to those who are scarred by their former experiences in local churches and denominations. They advocate for relational witnessing over the more aggressive evangelistic proselytizing. They tend to embrace sacred rituals and mysticism in worship and political/social activism in practice.
Collaborative growth occurs through transparency of testimony, prayer and connection. The Bible takes on flesh as Jesus followers live out the stories, teachings and principles of the Scripture. The emergent church movement appeals to an “ancient-future” way that seems to be effectively reaching the post-modern culture of ex-evangelicals — especially among younger generations.
“The Bible takes on flesh as Jesus followers live out the stories, teachings and principles of the Scripture.”
Six ways to survive
The pandemic is a tragic and deadly disease that has killed nearly 5 million people worldwide. Amidst its devastation, the coronavirus may be the catalyst for reevaluation of the methods we use in the church. As “winter” approaches and evangelicalism falls, Christians and faith leaders are wise to consider and reflect on the following:
Celebrate the past. Celebrate what evangelicalism has been and the vast array of color it provided for much of the past century in Western Christianity. Just because change is needed to reach the current society does not mean we should lessen what our journey teaches us and has accomplished for the kingdom.
Embrace the ancient traditions. One thing the emergent church is teaching us is that we can learn a lot about our faith by returning to its historic roots and the lasting traditions of the early church leaders. Consider ways to incorporate ancient traditions into your current liturgical practices at home and at church.
Invite cross-cultural and multi-denominational engagement. Denominational lines are blurring as Christian communities collaborate with other churches in the local community and beyond. Partnering with other churches and parachurch organizations in the collaborative ministries of caring for the oppressed and needy in the community breathes new life into the stagnation of the local church. We are better together as we unite in serving all people and validate the image of God in every human being.
Befriend people who are different than you. For too long, local churches have relied on the unchurched to come to the doors of the sanctuary. Many never will return to the church on their own initiative due to painful past experiences, accurate or inaccurate perceptions of being unaccepted, or a fear of the unknown. Jesus calls us to go out into the world and befriend others, just like Christ did. We are called to follow Jesus and befriend people — all people. So, if you are cisgender, get to know someone who identifies as transgender. If you are Christian, befriend a Muslim or Hindu. Reach out and befriend someone who is homeless, an orphan or an elderly widow at the nursing home without family. You will be blessed by your new friendship.
Be open to new approaches. Rather than bemoan the dormancy of the past methods that no longer are effective, we should look ahead to the “spring” of emergence and the new opportunities it offers us to reach the world with new methodologies and a refreshing spirit. We all can learn if we remain teachable. New approaches do not warrant a change to the gospel, but Jesus’ love can blossom into innovative ways to unite us all together.
Focus on the individual. If we continue to try to treat people as statistical data on a church profile, we miss the beautiful encounters that come from personal engagement. Embrace the diversity of getting to know others who are on your street, in your workplace and across your community. Spend time with each other. Ask about their life story. Get to know their journey. Become the presence of Jesus in their path. Your job is not to win them to the kingdom, save their souls or convert them to Christianity; you simply get to journey with them in their pursuit of faith and represent Jesus in the conversation along the way.
Evangelicalism may be in a season of fall, but the kingdom of God continues to emerge. Political and religious kingdoms rise and fall; they will not last forever. Yet God remains enthroned as King of Kings.
The kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus still saves, and the Spirit of God is on the move. May Jesus-followers respond to the movement of the Spirit as we prepare the way for the coming of the eternal kingdom, a kingdom that Jesus said was in the midst of his people.
Patrick Wilson serves as senior pastor of Salem Avenue Baptist Church in Rolla, Mo. He is a graduate of Baylor University, earned two master’s degrees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Logsdon Seminary.