What is the Future of Evangelicalism?

David Neff
Thursday, November 6th 2008
Nov/Dec 2008

As the articles in this issue of Modern Reformation suggest, evangelicalism is experiencing a change in seasons: former evangelical statesmen are passing from the scene, new evangelicals don't seem to rally around the same issues and ideas as their forefathers, and it's increasingly difficult (if it was ever really possible) to identify clearly what an evangelical is. If you have any warm feelings at all about evangelicalism, you want some answers: Where is evangelicalism going? Who better to turn to for answers than the individuals whose lives and work helped create and shape evangelicalism. Modern Reformation is honored to include the reflections of these evangelical leaders, pastors, and scholars as we seek to understand our own time and the future of the evangelical expression of Christianity.

In 1949, a cautious pastor reluctantly invited a spirited young evangelist to hold a New Year's Eve revival service in Boston's Mechanics Hall. No one expected much to come from it, but urged on by Charles E. Fuller and Allen Emery, the well-established pastor Harold John Ockenga arranged for 31-year-old Billy Graham to speak at the 6,000-seat public hall and then to preach for another eight days at the Park Street Church. Everyone was astonished when crowds filled the hall and hundreds were turned away.

The suspicious Ockenga was converted that night-not to Christ, but from skepticism to a conviction that a productive partnership was to be had with the rough-hewn evangelist. That alliance bore much fruit, including Gordon-Conwell Seminary and Christianity Today magazine.

These two men symbolized something fundamental about the emerging neo-evangelical movement: It was to be a partnership between church and parachurch. That partnership turned out to be a tricky tango in which it was never clear who was supposed to lead. For the most part, the evangelical movement of the last six decades has been dominated by parachurch leadership. In the process, parachurch expertise, flair, and flash have unwittingly made many pastors believe they are untalented and that local ministry is dull.

Parachurch dominance should not surprise us. A pastor's calling is first and foremost local, while parachurch organizations often begin with grand and global visions. Youth for Christ provided the perfect soil in which Graham grew his global vision. Park Street Church had a bigger vision than many congregations, eager to influence New England for Christ, but it was still firmly planted on the border of Boston Common, and it would fail in its mission if it did not have an impact on its city.

Nevertheless, some pastors and their churches are called to become leaders on a regional, national, or global scale. Despite their differing gifts, entrepreneurial pastors like Donald Grey Barnhouse, John R. W. Stott, Bill Hybels, and (even) Jerry Falwell were all able to nurture institutions with national and international impact.

As I consider the future of this movement I inhabit, I believe it is time for pastor and congregation, rather than parachurch leadership, once again to take a more prominent role.

One signal of the movement's ripeness for church-based leadership is the way Rick Warren has been hailed as the new Billy Graham. He is the most visible pastor in America, even though he doesn't have a television show. His first goal was to be a stable pastor, staying in one congregation for forty years. His first big book was not addressed to a general audience, but was written to encourage pastors to focus on the fundamentals of the church's calling. He was beloved of thousands of pastors long before he was exposed to a broad public. When he expanded his ministry into areas of social concern like poverty and HIV/AIDS, he built his strategy on pairing well-resourced American churches with sister churches in needy contexts.

TIME's David Van Biema proposed Warren as the next Billy Graham, although he focused on Graham's role as pastor to the nation and its political leaders. Warren now exerts such influence across the evangelical movement that he is set to take on the Graham-like responsibility of lending or withholding blessing from new directions and initiatives.

Another signal of our ripeness for church-based leadership is Tim Keller's emergence on the national scene. Keller has had a long, faithful, and effective ministry in Manhattan, and did not really aspire to be a national figure. He majored on the majors and paid attention to the cultural milieu in which his church ministered. But he has now begun to take on a more public role as a shaper of evangelicalism because pastors across the country want him to share his understandings of local church ministry. Now the national newsmagazines take note when he speaks, and The Wall Street Journal has recognized his apologetic writing as the most successful of the C. S. Lewis wannabes.

Somewhere far distant on the ecclesiastical spectrum from Warren and Keller is the "conversation" called emerging or Emergent. Amidst all the ferment, hype, and postmodern mystification, there is a clear commitment to the recovery of what it means to be the church. Parachurch institutionalism has been off-putting to a lot of postmoderns. But the idea of living out the mission of God in community is the lodestar of the movement. Its leadership is pastoral and its fundamental expression is in the life of local church communities.

With this resurgent emphasis on church, why do we need parachurch partners? Because churches and pastors are generalists who need to be resourced by specialists. When Rick Warren first proposed his church-to-church "P.E.A.C.E. Plan," he spoke as if doing development work in Africa was a simple matter of mobilizing the resources and connecting the people. This disturbed World Vision President Rich Stearns, who exclaimed to the Christianity Today editors, "Relief and development work is rocket science!" Warren has since learned that lesson. Even Saddleback needs parachurch skills and vision.

Nevertheless, in the evangelical dance, the church is starting to lead again. Let us bless God for it.

Thursday, November 6th 2008

“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
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology