Whither Evangelicalism?

IT’S NOT THE NUMBERS THAT ARE IMPORTANT FOR THE FUTURE.

An article at Religion News Service on the Future of Evangelicalism in America examines (once again) the questions of what lies ahead for an admittedly amorphous movement. The article is really just a teaser for the book the same name, and I say once again because this has been a topic of discussion and research in the recent past. Molly Worthen’s Apostle’s of Reason: the Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism is a good piece of both history and journalism, and chiefly because Worthen squarely faces the question of “What does the term evangelical mean?” Her answer, and that of several others: not much.

Mark Silk, who coedited the book, mentions David Bebbington’s “Evangelical Quadrilateral” in the article, but only to say that his co-editor wanted to stick to that as a working definition, while admitting the “movement” may have outgrown the designations. Much of what Bebbington identified as essential elements of evangelicalism is absent from its current forms. And that is why I agree with Worthen that the label has really come to have no meaning. For many, “evangelical” has more significance to identify a voting block, rather than core theological convictions, and that is a sad fact of evangelicalism’s current state.

Growth in numbers may mean a certain demographic is on the rise, and for evangelicalism in its American forms of today, that’s about all one can say. Numbers are rising in various churches, (“demographically, evangelicalism is holding its own. It has supplanted the Mainline Protestantism as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in America.”) but how has the substance changed?  I wrote previously about evangelical heterodoxy, and I’m sorry to say I don’t see this trend changing. Nor is mysticism or sacramentalism the answer. No matter what moniker we want to wear – evangelical, protestant, seeker – if we aren’t moored to Scripture and to its authority, any future we have won’t much matter.

These concerns aren’t new, but Christians always need to be reminded to hew close to Scripture, and to keep mining the riches of the word of God. It’s only in the word we learn about the Word, Jesus. The need for the Church today is the same as it’s always been. Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, Christ. I recall early in my Christian life, someone asked me what I was looking for in a church. “Good preaching, good music.” I said. This brother answered me in a way that has stuck with me ever since. “How about Christ-centered?” I had never thought of that before, but it made immediate sense. Evangelicals are no more immune to drifting away from their foundation than anyone else. Mature believers know they never outgrow their dependence on the Bible, which properly read, will continually lead them back to Christ.

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