Executive Editor Eric Landry spent several days dialoguing with Michael Spencer, a Southern Baptist campus minister and popular blogger (internetmonk.com and Jesus Shaped.wordpress.com) recognized by many evangelicals as an articulate spokesman for post-evangelicalism. In this issue, we're asking questions about the nature and future of evangelicalism. Here, Michael Spencer helps us understand why so many evangelicals are moving on to a different kind of evangelical experience.
Let's start with a simple definition: What is "post-evangelicalism"?
Nothing is really simple with evangelicalism these days, as one can see from books like D. G. Hart's Deconstructing Evangelicalism, which denies that such a thing as evangelicalism ever existed, to David Wells's recent series of books that put forward an extensive program for saving it.
Both "post" and "evangelical" are, therefore, rather evasive terms. I subscribe to the classic definition of evangelicalism as the evolution of Protestantism that began with the Wesleys, was shaped by Spurgeon, and really defined in the West by Billy Graham: confidence in the authority of Scripture; concern for conversion evangelism and world mission; a vital, transforming personal relationship with God through the Holy Spirit (and normally in the church); and a social application of Christianity that improves society, particularly for the poor and suffering.
By "post-evangelical" I do not mean a personal rejection or abandonment of these distinctives, but simply that many of us who have been born, shaped, and defined by this movement now find ourselves estranged by what evangelicalism has become. We sense that the gospel is in jeopardy, that the role of the Bible is greatly diminished, that a fully nurtured concept of the church and discipleship has been largely abandoned, and that the culture war has replaced a more constructive and compassionate engagement with society.
Post-evangelicalism then, for me and many of my readers/listeners, is a conscious step away from what evangelicalism has become and an intentional effort to find the spirit of evangelicalism again in the resources of the more ancient, deeper, broader, Christian tradition. Many of us look at Robert Webber as the pioneer in this way of relating to evangelicalism. We are critical of evangelicalism, often severely so; but we believe there is great hope for evangelicalism in other places in the Christian tradition and in the deeper roots of evangelicalism itself.
Where are the post-evangelicals going in search of this "more ancient, deeper, broader, Christian tradition"? Are they doing this on their own (or with Wesley-like small groups) in their traditional evangelical churches or are they joining different theological traditions?
It would be a mistake to look for self-identified post-evangelicals organizing under that label. What you will see are some quite serious and growing trends:
(1) Younger evangelical pastors are increasingly looking back to more theological and historic resources for the work of pastoring, and paying less and less attention to denominational headquarters. The competition to imitate successful megachurch growth models has often overlooked the young pastors who are simply not playing that game at all. Look at how many young Southern Baptist pastors are now looking back to the historic roots of their denomination rather than to the latest orders from Nashville for direction. It's quite striking and it is post-evangelical. These younger pastors believe evangelicalism has deep problems and they don't believe the answers are in the next book by the next megachurch success story. They believe the answers are in rejecting the shallowness and trendiness for something of substance.
(2) Thousands of evangelicals are discovering the Christian tradition through the Christian year, the creeds, and exploring liturgy in their own free-church traditions. Thousands of evangelicals have become Catholic and Orthodox, but many thousand more are reading and learning about those traditions and the larger roots of their own. Many of these theological explorers are reading the church fathers as evangelicals under the encouragement of men like D. H. Williams. I know Vineyard pastors who are using liturgy and teaching the creeds. Networks of post-evangelicals like the Ancient-Future Movement are starting to consciously talk in terms of the future, meaning a major step back, rather than just forward.
(3) There is a huge group of evangelicals who have left traditional churches for emerging and missional churches. A lot of Reformed critics tend to misinterpret the emerging church and to caricature it. The emerging church, like it or not, has looked at the evangelicalism of the church growth movement and said, "No thanks." Instead, thousands of people want a church that talks to them about Christian spirituality and not just evangelism and church growth. What they are looking for in the emerging churches-and whether they find it is another story-is something of more substance and authenticity than what evangelicalism has produced in the Rick Warren era. The emerging church is more open to the ancient church than almost any other part of evangelicalism; and while there is an important need for biblical authority and mature leadership to guide these churches from conversation to community, the best emerging/missional churches provide a clear alternative to evangelicalism and a tremendous openness to the larger Christian tradition.
(4) How many evangelicals have simply left evangelical churches all together? No one knows, but there are millions of recently de-churched evangelicals in America. Evangelical numbers are plunging, despite the image of big, growing churches, and it is not all due to the decline of the mainline denominations. Evangelicalism is producing an ocean of the disillusioned and deceived. Hundreds of thousands of evangelical leaders and laypersons are seeing this, and they are no longer blaming these leavers for disloyalty. They are rapidly concluding that our unsinkable ship seems to have a distinct lurch.
Looking in from the outside, some non-evangelicals might conclude that post-evangelicals are just a new generation of evangelicals: rather than joining an identifiable stream of the Christian tradition, they are taste-testing various traditions, finding a particular mix that is meaningful to them. Is this just another example of radical individualism or is something else going on here?
Certainly the post-evangelical movement isn't coalescing around a new tradition or single expression. The young Calvinists would be shocked that I am citing them as post-evangelicals. When I hear a post-evangelical voice like Brian McLaren begin talking as if everyone who buys a particular book is headed to the same conclusions, I deeply disagree. Most post-evangelicals will remain evangelicals and will, as evangelicals tend to do, identify with or start very evangelical expressions of the church. They will have more "commonality" with the larger church, but they will continue being evangelical by going in many different directions in expressing that.
I recently spoke at the Cornerstone Festival, which is put together by many people associated with Jesus People USA in Chicago. In the 1970's, JPUSA was the "cutting edge" of evangelical evolution into the counterculture. Today, that same group-still counterculture to the core-is exploring its roots and connections to monasticism, Catholic spirituality, and the broader Christian tradition, but they are still JPUSA and they are still thoroughly evangelical. As I said earlier, post-evangelicalism isn't the rejection of evangelicalism; it's the rejection of what evangelicalism has become and the conscious decision to repair that from the broader Christian tradition.
If I were a denominationalist or a person strongly committed to one tradition being dominant, I wouldn't be encouraged by the post-evangelical phenomenon. As we say in Kentucky, that cow has already left the barn; i.e., denominationalism is dying right in front of us. Even the past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Frank Page, said that half of the SBC churches would be gone before the middle of the century. That's more than just generational differences. That's a loud announcement that there's something wrong with the way evangelicalism presented itself and its gospel.
Post-evangelicalism is a cafeteria approach and, to a certain extent, it is individualistic. As evangelicals, I think it's important we say that we reject magisteriums determining where Christ has helped his church throughout history and telling us what we can't read. But "radical" individualism? I'd say "no," because post-evangelicals are affirming that the community of the redeemed is much broader than just evangelicals wearing their team colors. It's an intentional broadening of community.
You used to call yourself a Calvinist, but now prefer the term "Reformation Christian." You also prominently feature Lutheran resources (including our friend Rod Rosenbladt) on your website. What is it about the Reformation that you think can or does speak to post-evangelicals?
First, I think everyone has to make a decision about whether the Reformation was necessary or not. With the surge of Protestant conversions to Rome and a parallel surge in evangelical identification with Calvinism, I am glad to say that, at least on some level, this discussion is continuing. It's very important. Fundamental.
I believe the Reformation was a tragic necessity in two ways: it is basically conservative of the gospel, and it adheres to the simplicity of the gospel. That stands in tremendous contrast to Catholicism, the contemporary charismatic scene, so-called "progressive" Christianity, and so on. Reformation Christianity today is the major voice in world Christianity calling for salvation by grace, through faith, by Christ, according to the authority of Scripture. All evangelicalism should be Reformation evangelicalism.
Post-evangelicals need to continually confess the faith. We need the creeds. We need a critical but teachable attitude toward the Reformation confessions. We need to make sure that the gospel is the focus, that the church is derivative from the gospel and not vice versa, and that the confession of the orthodox, historic faith as expressed by the early church and the Reformers occupies the theological center of our journey in the evangelical wilderness. The Reformation solas are the "ark" for those of us who feel we're in a forty-year walk in the desert.
I do feel the Lutheran reformation today has stayed closer to the center, has stayed away from the rush to be relevant, knows how to live with mystery, has much better pastoral skills, and hasn't drunk the Kool-Aid of a Jonathan Edwards approach to solving every possible question with higher and higher speculations. I am pleased that Lutherans are starting to learn how to contribute to the evangelical conversation. It's frustrating, however, that one can't point to a Lutheran John Piper or R. C. Sproul whose resources are readily accessible on the web.
Why does the broader Christian community need post-evangelicals? That is, what do they bring to the discussion that we need to heed and adopt in our particular communions?
There are few reasons for optimism in evangelicalism today, but the post-evangelical impulse does give me optimism in several ways.
First, I believe it signals a more constructive engagement with the larger Christian tradition, and there is much that those traditions can gain from evangelicals. Look at what the influx of Protestant converts and influence has done positively in the Roman Catholic Church going back to the charismatic movement and coming down to Vatican II and beyond, especially in regard to Scripture. The same can be hoped for the mainline Christian traditions. I recently spent a weekend with forty ministers from mainline, liberal denominations, listening to one of the great post-evangelicals of our time, Eugene H. Peterson. I was deeply impressed that evangelicalism has exactly what so many of the mainlines need, and many evangelicals can be enriched from the more conservative attitude toward liturgy and the Christian tradition found among the more moderate to conservative mainlines.
Secondly, evangelical scholarship is just beginning to engage with Patristics and liturgy in a serious way, and the potential results excite me. John Colwell is a professor at Spurgeon's College and has written a wonderful book exploring the traditional Roman Catholic sacraments from a historic Baptist position, especially acknowledging Spurgeon's more robust use of the Lord's Supper in worship. This kind of engagement is happening through the Ancient-Future Movement, post-evangelicalism, and among young evangelical academics and theologians in many places. They will bring their distinctive evangelical impulses to the reading of church history and make it possible for non-evangelicals and evangelicals to drink from the wells dug by their fathers and mothers.
But, finally, I believe evangelicalism itself always runs the risk of its own self-destruction, as Roman Catholic Louis Bouyer pointed out, by placing so much emphasis on "one man, God and a Bible." There is the danger of rejecting the wisdom, depth, and connections of the broader Christian tradition and being consumed in a kind of radical individualism that leaves little place for the gathered church community. Our ahistorical, pragmatic temptations as evangelicals have been having their way and now the most visible pastor in America is a motivational speaker with almost a hostile view of the gospel. Post-evangelicalism can apply the brakes to this race for the cliff and can help steer us back to the roads we foolishly abandoned.
As one whose own life and ministry have followed a post-evangelical track, what "road hazards" have you identified and warned other post-evangelicals about?
I'm sure that Bob Webber knew "Evangelicals along the Canterbury Trail" needed a sequel to address those who would leave evangelicalism for Rome and Orthodoxy. Rome and Orthodoxy are aggressively evangelizing discontented, thoughtful Protestants, and doing so very successfully because of the resources they have in the broader, deeper tradition than most evangelical churches can begin to provide. If you are part of the post-evangelical experience, then there is a calculated risk that you will decide it is easier to just ride the elephant rather than try to carve it up into a sandwich. Conversions to Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy are common, and they yield some impressive results, as a tour of First Things or Touchstone magazines will reveal. But if, like me, you are permanently opposed to compromise on the issues that make Protestantism necessary, you will know what it is like to be under constant barrage.
Evangelicalism itself is a mess, with a mixture of its best and its worst aspects often coexisting in the same churches. Many churches are still caught up in the fundamentalist mindset that caused evangelicalism to draw some lines in the first place; and if you are caught off the fundamentalist ranch, you may be shot as an outlaw. Particularly, liturgy, creeds, and any mention of the Catholic tradition can bring a severe reaction from many places in evangelicalism that are trying to solve the problems in the family by labeling-purges and microscopic issues of loyalty. If you aren't a supporter of that approach, be prepared to receive luggage as a lovely parting gift.
But the primary hazard is simply the wilderness experience itself. Many of us are not able to find a church community to identify with unless we want to drive absurd distances. Many of us have family situations that are still defining our church identification by children's programming and music. Some of us simply feel we need to be in the evangelical wilderness so we can hear the voice of God rather than the din of the evangelical circus. So, as any reading of the comments at my blog will reveal, many post-evangelicals are alone and feel isolated and homeless in evangelicalism. If you are fortunate enough to have real world conversation partners in this journey, be grateful.
No bio information available for this author.
Issue: "Evangelicalism's Winter?" Nov./Dec. 2008 Vol. 17 No. 6 Page number(s): 48-50
You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. We do not allow reposting an article in its entirety on the Internet. We request that you link to this article from your website. Any exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by Modern Reformation (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: This article originally appeared in the [insert current issue date] edition of Modern Reformation and is reprinted with permission. For more information about Modern Reformation, visit www.modernreformation.org or call (800) 890-7556. All rights reserved.