The Future of Evangelicalism

I invite all my web site readers to follow along and contribute to a new electronic conversation that I will be hosting, starting on May 1, on the topic “American Evangelicalism: Present Conditions, Future Possibilities.” I am guessing that the views that will be expressed on this topic will range from “there is no viable future for Evangelicalism” to “Evangelicalism can have, and should have a vibrant future”. Allow me to conjecture as to why such a wide range of viewpoints may emerge.

It may depend on how one defines some key words and phrases. I will illustrate by reflecting on what are often taken to be pillars of Evangelicalism (drawing on the work of Christian scholar David Bebbington).

The Centrality of the Biblical Record:  Mark Noll has referred to this pillar as “a reliance on the Bible as ultimate religious authority.” But there are narrow and broad views as to what that means. The narrow view is a “Biblicism” that views the Bible as the only source of authority and understanding for the Christian. A broader view, which I embrace, is that whereas the Bible is the primary source and ultimate authority for my understanding of the Christian faith, it is not the only source and authority. Other sources include the Christian tradition, reason, and experience, and knowledge that is uncovered by study in the various academic disciplines.

The Centrality of Personal Commitment to the Christian Faith: Once again, this phrase can be interpreted narrowly or broadly. The narrow view can be called “conversionism;” the view that you aren’t a Christian unless you can point to a time and place when you made a decision to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior (being “born again” at that time). A broader view, which I embrace, is that a Christian is one who aspires to be a “follower of Jesus” by personally appropriating the gift of grace made possible through the person and work of Jesus Christ, and that there is no one prescribed means for such personal appropriation (e,g., it can emerge gradually).

The Centrality of Evangelism: Christians are called to share the “gospel” (the “good news” of restoration made possible by Jesus Christ). A narrow view of such “evangelism” is that the only message we are called to share with all peoples is that God  intends to restore individual persons to a right relationship with God. A broader view of evangelism, which I embrace, is that the “good news” applies to all of God’s creation, not only individuals. The person and work of Jesus Christ are decisive for the restoration of all aspects of the created order, including the natural world and societal structures.

So, whether you think that Evangelicalism can, and should have a vibrant future may depend on whether you embrace the narrow or broad views of the “pillars of Evangelicalism” that I have summarized above, or something in-between.

Of course, what I say above could be all wrong. Thankfully, I have recruited “primary contributors” for this upcoming conversation who have much more expertise on this topic than I do. I can hardly wait to read what they will have to say about present conditions and future possibilities for American Evangelicalism. I invite you to will follow this conversation and contribute your own reflections by submitting comments.

To give you a sneak preview of what is to come, the seven sub-topics that our primary contributors will address (one topic per month, from May through November 2013) are as follows (in the order presented)

1. Evangelicalism and the Broader Christian Tradition

2. Evangelicalism and the Exclusivity of Christianity

3. Evangelicalism and the Modern Study of Scripture

4. Evangelicalism and Morality

5. Evangelicalism and Politics

6. Evangelicalism and Scientific Models of Humanity and Cosmic and Human Origins

7. Evangelicalism and Higher Education

I am pleased that over 20 Christian scholars have committed to being “primary contributors,” including Vincent Bacote (Wheaton College), Randall Balmer (Dartmouth College), Amy Black (Wheaton College), Jeannine Brown (Bethel Seminary). Peter Enns (Eastern University). John Franke (Yellowstone Theological Institute), Stanton Jones (Wheaton College), Richard Mouw (Fuller Theological Seminary), Soong-Chan Rah (North Park Theological Seminary), Sandy Richter (Wesley Seminary), Sarah Ruden (Wesleyan University), Corwin Smidt (Calvin College), Theodore Williams (City Colleges of Chicago), John Wilson (Books & Culture), and Amos Yong (Regent University).

Anytime after May 1, you can contribute to the conversation in a moderated forum by submitting a comment on any posting.

[For an elaboration on the above reflections, including the citations for the scholarly works noted above, see my essay “What Can the Evangelical/Interdenominational Tradition Contribute to Christian Higher Education” under the “Publications” icon on this web site]