Looking Toward 2000, Where will Evangelicalism Be Then?

James Montgomery Boice
Tuesday, August 7th 2007
Sep/Oct 1997

When I returned to the United States from theological studies in Switzerland in 1966 to work as an assistant editor at Christianity Today, I found that it was a time of rising influence for evangelicals. Christianity Today was itself part of the resurgence. Led by founding editor Carl F. H. Henry, the magazine was mounting an effective challenge to the liberal churches and especially to the liberal theological thought-journal, Christian Century. Evangelical churches were also growing, and they were emerging from their comfortable suburban ghettos to engage selected aspects of the secular culture. A decade later Newsweek magazine would call 1976 “the year of the evangelical.”

It was also a time of decline for the mainline churches. I was part of one of these denominations after leaving my work with the magazine to begin a pastorate at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in 1968, and I spent some effort trying to understand what was happening to the major denominations. I concluded that they were trying to do God’s work in a secular way and that they were declining as a significant religious force as a result. The older churches were pursuing the world’s wisdom, embracing the world’s theology, following the world’s agenda, and employing the world’s methods.

The Worldly (Liberal) Churches

In earlier ages of the Church, Christians stood before their Bibles and confessed their ignorance of spiritual things. They even confessed their inability to understand what was written in the Bible apart from the grace of God through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. They sought the wisdom of God in Scripture. But this ancient wisdom had been discarded by the liberal church with the result that the reforming voice of God in the church through the Scriptures was forgotten.

The world’s wisdom. This had three sad consequences for these churches. First, church leaders were uncertain about what to believe and do. This was usually covered up. But it was true, and it explained why so many people were beginning to desert these churches and turn to conservative churches instead. People are not attracted to churches that do not know what they believe. Second, the liberal churches were embracing the outlook and moral values of the world. Since there was nothing to make them distinct, they ended up being merely a pale reflection of their culture. Third, they made decisions based not on the teachings of the Bible but as a response to the prevailing opinions of the time, what I called the wisdom of the fifty-one percent vote. Business was conducted by consensus, and it was always a worldly consensus. I learned that if Christians throw out a transcendent authority, an earthly authority will always take the Bible’s place.

The world’s theology. The mainline churches had also adopted the world’s theology. This theology is easy to define. It is the view that human beings are basically good, that no one is really lost, and that belief in Jesus Christ is not necessary for anyone’s salvation, though it may be helpful for some people.

In this approach, many of the old biblical terms were retained, but they were given different meanings. Sin became not rebellion against God and his righteous law, for which we are held accountable, but ignorance or the oppression found in social structures. The way to overcome it was by social change, new laws or revolution. Jesus became not the incarnate God who died for our salvation, but rather a pattern for creative living. We were to look to Jesus as an example, but not as a divine Savior. Salvation was defined as liberation from oppressive social structures. Faith was becoming aware of oppression and then beginning to do something about it. Evangelism did not mean carrying the gospel of Jesus Christ to a perishing world, but rather working through the world’s power centers to overthrow injustice.

The world’s agenda. In the liberal churches the words “the world must set the agenda” were quite popular. They meant that the church’s concerns should be the concerns of the world, even to the exclusion of the gospel. If the world’s main priority was world hunger, well, that should be the church’s priority too. Racism? Ecology? Aging? Whatever it was, it was to be first on the minds of Christian people.

The world’s methods. The final capitulation of the mainline churches to the world was in the area of methods. God’s methods for the church are participation, persuasion, and prayer, all converging on Word and Sacrament. I will return to those matters later in this article. But these three methods, particularly persuasion and prayer, were being jettisoned as hopelessly inadequate and what was proposed in their place was a gospel of power, politics, and money. I saw a cartoon in The New Yorker at about that time that got it exactly right. Two Pilgrims were coming over on the Mayflower and one was saying, “Religious freedom is my immediate goal, but my long-range plan is to go into real estate.”

The Worldly (Evangelical) Churches

What has jolted me in recent years is discovering that what I had been saying about the liberal churches at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s now needs to be said about evangelicals, too. Can it be that evangelicals, who have always opposed liberalism and its methods, have fixed their eyes on a worldly kingdom and have made politics, marketing, and money their weapons of choice for winning it? I think they have. A few years ago University of Chicago church historian Martin Marty, always a shrewd observer of the American church scene, said in an interview that, in his judgment, by the end of the century evangelicals would be “the most worldly people in America.” His statement was on target, except that he was probably a bit too sanguine. Evangelicals have already fulfilled his prophecy, and it is not yet the year 2000.

The world’s wisdom. Evangelicals are not heretics, at least not consciously. If we ask whether the Bible is the authoritative and inerrant Word of God, most will answer affirmatively. But many evangelicals have abandoned the Bible all the same simply because they do not think it is adequate for the challenges we face at the end of this century. They doubt it is sufficient for winning people to Christ, so they turn to “felt-need” sermons or entertainment or signs and wonders instead. They do not think it is sufficient for achieving Christian growth, so they turn to therapy groups or Christian counseling.

The world’s theology. Like the liberals before us, evangelicals use the Bible’s words but give them new meaning, pouring bad secular content into spiritual terminology. Sin becomes dysfunctional behavior. Salvation becomes self-esteem or wholeness. Jesus becomes more an example for right living rather than our Savior from sin. People are told how to build happy marriages and rear nice children, but not how to get right with an offended God.

The world’s agenda. The world’s major agenda-forget world hunger, racism or ecology-is to be happy, happiness being understood as the maximum amount of personal peace and sufficient prosperity to enjoy it. But is that not the bottom line of much evangelical preaching today? How to be happy? To be content? To be satisfied? Far be it from us to preach a gospel that would expose people’s sins and drive them to the Savior.

The world’s methods. Evangelicals have become like liberals in this area, too. How else are we to explain the stress many place on numerical growth and money? That many pastors tone down the hard edges of biblical truth in order to attract greater numbers to their services? Or that we support a National Association of evangelicals lobby in Washington? Or that we have created social action groups to advance specific legislation?

Or consider evangelical rhetoric. Evangelicals speak of “taking back America,” “fighting for the country’s soul,” “reclaiming the United States for Christ.” How? By electing Christian presidents, congressmen and senators, lobbying for conservative judges, taking over power structures, and imposing our Christian standard of morality on the rest of the nation by law. But was America ever really a Christian nation? Was any nation? And does law produce morality? What about Augustine’s doctrine of the two cities that meant so much to the Reformers? Will any country ever be anything other than man’s city? And what about America’s soul? Is there really an American soul to be redeemed? Or fought over?

When you put these contemporary evangelical characteristics together it is hard to escape feeling that today’s evangelicals sound much like the old Christian Century that Christianity Today was founded to oppose. And as for Christianity Today itself, it is a lot like the Christian Century was, though with far less theological content.

Resurgence of the Reformation Churches

Yet the situation is not altogether grim, in my opinion. In 1975, seven years after I left Christianity Today, I wrote an article for the magazine titled, “Is the Reformed Faith Being Rediscovered?” At that time only liberal churches were declining. Evangelicals were still going strong. But I noted within Evangelicalism a significant return to Calvinistic and Lutheran theology by those committed to the doctrines of grace as summarized in the Reformation standards: the Book of Concord, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, the Canons of Dort, the Belgic Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism. I suggested that this was a promising sign for the future.

Calvinistic seminaries were growing, including the newly established Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. There was an upsurge among Reformed Baptist churches. Reformational study centers were getting underway. In Philadelphia we had just launched the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology which has continued now for more than twenty years and has been replicated by others in many different settings across the United States. In 1975 I was looking to these Reformational movements to be the theological core of a revitalized Evangelicalism. They have continued, growing stronger and even more influential nationally.

The Onslaught of Modernity

What I had not foreseen in 1975 was the onslaught of the modern age. The dominant philosophy of today’s generation is relativism, the rejection of absolutes which Allan Bloom decried in his best-selling book on the decline of American higher education, The Closing of the American Mind. And hard on the heels of philosophical relativism came the militant attack on beliefs or values of any kind, known popularly as “postmodernism.”

The effect of modernity on the churches is interesting. On the one hand, evangelicals appear to have succumbed to the spirit of the age. Several decades ago, when the conservative rebirth was getting underway, evan-gelical churches and other evangelical organizations were held together by variations on a typical evangelical “creed” or statement of faith. It usually had about twelve points, starting with a few statements about God or the Scriptures, asserting the deity of Christ, stressing belief in miracles, including the resurrection of Jesus, mentioning evangelism or the missionary task, and concluding with affirmation of Christ’s visible bodily return and the final judgment. The statements usually bypassed any thoughts about the nature or importance of the Church, avoided any reference to the Sacraments, and never stressed the sovereignty of God in salvation or the inability of human beings in an unsaved state to respond to the Gospel apart from God’s prior grace.

In spite of their glaring weaknesses, especially when compared to the great confessions and catechisms of the Reformation, these evangelical statements worked fairly well at holding evangelicals to a supernatural gospel and to certain nonnegotiable essentials. But evangelical strength actually lay in the fact that the people involved knew more of their Bibles and had deeper theological understanding than their creeds or confessions suggested. And the culture was not militant then either. Many people, even if they were not actually Christians, held to something like a Christian worldview.

However, in a secular and increasingly hostile culture, we are now finding that even mild evangelical consensus statements are inadequate. Christians need a robust, full-orbed theology with a great view of God and an informed focus on the doctrines of God’s grace in bad times. For all its apparent strength, Evangelicalism was weak at the center, and the result has been capitulation to the world’s wisdom, theology, agenda and methods, as I noted earlier.

What about the Reformed churches, those I saw to be emerging in new strength more than twenty years ago? Here the situation is quite different. The glory of the Reformation theology has always been its ability to withstand whatever secular culture confronts it. It was formed in crisis-first in the early church in the battle of the apostles and their successors against Greek and Roman culture, and later in the Reformation period by men like Martin Luther, John Calvin and others who opposed the theological corruptions of the Middle Ages. Many of today’s Reformed churches are accommodating in similar ways to the evangelical ones. But some, rather than being swept away by secularism, are proclaiming the truths of the Gospel more effectively than ever and are becoming an increasingly attractive option for people who are hungry for genuine spiritual reality in our times.

Two of the criticisms traditionally leveled at the Calvinistic churches have been their lack of evangelistic zeal (“Why evangelize if God is going to save the people he wants to save anyway?”) and their lack of social concern (“Don’t Calvinists have a theology of the head rather than a winsome gospel of the heart?”). Those criticisms perhaps were justified partially at times for some Reformed people. But they are increasingly unjustified today as many of those in Reformed churches are reaching into the hard areas of our society to win forgotten people to Christ, establish strong churches and then reach out with concern for the needs of the community beyond their own walls.

Mission to the Cities. One striking characteristic of the Reformed churches in recent years is a newly discovered concern for America’s inner cities. For a long time evangelical churches were abandoning the cities for the nicer, safer and more affluent suburbs. In fact, the older evangelical churches have largely completed their suburbanization. Few white evangelical churches remain in the larger inner cities. But Reformed churches are strong in many cities and are forging ahead in others.

One example is Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. With the encouragement of the church planting agency of the Presbyterian Church in America, a former professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Timothy Keller, moved to New York in the late 1980s to plant a church there. New York is a notoriously difficult mission field. But this effort not only succeeded, it thrived, and it did so by a serious effort to teach authentic New Testament Christianity to urban people. Today, Redeemer Church meets in the Hunter College auditorium in central Manhattan, draws 1,900 people on Sunday mornings, and is in the process of planting daughter churches throughout the metropolitan area. One such church is in Greenwich Village. Another is in Westchester County to the north. These churches are joining with Korean and largely African-American congregations to establish a Metropolitan Presbytery.

Keller traces racial problems to pride which flows from attempts at self-justification. “The theology of Christ’s totally sufficient work for our salvation removes that pride,” he says. “People use the strengths of their culture-group to feel superior to others. But the Reformation message, if it is believed and practiced, destroys this false superiority.”

We have experienced the same type of growth at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, where I still pastor. Tenth is an old church, founded in 1829. It is in the very center of the city, with no parking and with all the obstacles associated with inner-city work. But Tenth has grown consistently for decades and is today overflowing its seating capacity, attracting 1,200 people on a Sunday morning. We sponsor an inner-city high school, have an extensive evangelistic work with internationals, and support strong outreach and service works for children living in project housing, street people, homosexuals, and those who are dying of AIDS. The facility is filled throughout the week.

Racial Reconciliation. About the same time that Keller moved to New York City to begin the work there, a pastor by the name of Randy Nabors began a new work in an inner-city black neighborhood of Chattanooga, Tennessee. His goals were: 1) faithfulness and obedience to the Bible, 2) changed and discipled lives, 3) the joy of worship and the faith response of the people, 4) numerical growth, and 5) the impact of the church on the community. This racially mixed church has grown to an attendance of 800 on Sunday mornings, has established daughter churches in St. Louis and Orlando, and is moving to plant a church in another location in Chattanooga’s inner city soon.

In the Chicago area Covenant Presbyterian Church, a solid Calvinistic ministry, is carrying on a work with young urban professionals from its base in a newly reclaimed Polish Catholic Cathedral. It is headed by a man named David Williams. Looking to the city from the western suburbs, the College Church of Wheaton is funding an innercity church planting effort led by David Helm, one of the church’s associate pastors who has a burden for the city. Helm is looking to plant a large number of churches in Chicago over the next decade. Last summer a former black pastoral assistant from Tenth Presbyterian Church named Kevin Smith moved into Washington, D.C. to establish a Reformed African-American church in that city.

Toward the Year 2000

In my 1975 article for Christianity Today I asked the question “Will the Calvinists carry the field?” That is not the way I would ask the question today for it pits those who stand by the Reformation doctrines against other evangelicals. The battle is not against them but for the survival of Christianity in a secular and anti-Christian age. Today I would ask, “Can the Reformation churches show the way?”

I think they can. And they are doing so. If they hold to a full-orbed Reformation theology and do not compromise with the culture around them, as the evangelicals for the most part have done or are doing, these churches will grow stronger even as the evangelical movement goes the way of the liberal church before it, not vanishing but becoming increasingly insignificant as a religious force. And those who are dissatisfied with the shallowness of the evangelical movement will leave it for something more authentically Christian and will swell the Reformation ranks.

Reformed people must remember that in the spiritual battles of our time our weapons are not the world’s weapons. The weapons of the world are political power and money. Our weapons are: 1) participation in the world, not in an escape from it; 2) persuasion, attempting to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 10:5); and 3) prayer, since even the best arguments will fail to persuade unless the Spirit of God opens the minds and hearts of our hearers and gives them grace to receive the Gospel.

Tuesday, August 7th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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