Friday, March 13, 2009

the future of evangelicalism

Time magazine's photo essay on "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals" is distinguished by people that really aren't evangelical at all. If this defines evangelicalism, it is in serious trouble. Time's coverage of the 'new Calvinism' of Generation X may prompt some concerns too.  Someone has been blogging on their expectations of significant decline for evangelicalism over the next 10 years and "that within two generations of where we are now evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its current occupants". The blogger is eschatologically optimistic but not optimistic for evangelicalism.

He gives as his reasons:
  • Evangelicals have lost the culture war and will be damagingly identified with this.
  • "Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people the evangelical Christian faith in an orthodox form that can take root and survive the secular onslaught".
  • "Evangelical churches have now passed into a three part chapter: 1) mega-churches that are consumer driven, 2) churches that are dying and 3) new churches that whose future is dependent on a large number of factors. I believe most of these new churches will fail, and the ones that do survive will not be able to continue evangelicalism at anything resembling its current influence."
  • "Christian education has not produced a product that can hold the line in the rising tide of secularism."
  • In a strongly secularist environment we can expect "evangelical ministries to take on a less and less distinctively Christian face in order to survive".
  • "Much of this collapse will come in areas of the country where evangelicals imagine themselves strong. In actual fact, the historic loyalties of the Bible belt will soon be replaced by a de-church culture where religion has meaning as history, not as a vital reality. At the core of this collapse will be the inability to pass on, to our children, a vital evangelical confidence in the Bible and the importance of the faith".
  • A major aspect of this collapse will happen because money will not be flowing towards evangelicalism in the same way as before.
What will be left as a result? 1) an evangelicalism greatly chastened in numbers, influence and resources and far from its doctrinal heritage including the gospel, 2) a remaining majority of Charismatic-Pentecostal Christians faced with the opportunity to reform or become unrecognizable, 3) an invigorated minority of evangelicals committed to theology and church renewal, 4) a marginalized emerging and mainline community and 5) an evangelicalized segment of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy 6) the death of fundamentalism 7) the death of large parachurch organisations. One blogger comments here .
This analysis must at some level owe a lot to Francis Schaeffer's book published in 1984, The Great Evangelical Disaster. The great evangelical disaster was "the failure of the evangelical world to stand for truth as truth. There is only one word for this -- namely accommodation: the evangelical church has accommodated to the world spirit of the age". It was a fairly to stand for Scripture (abandoning inerrancy) unequivocably and to stans against cultural decline. He wrote "we can expect the future to be a further disaster if the evangelical world does not take a stand for biblical truth and morality in the full spectrum of life". The following comment was incisive "It does seem to me that evangelical leaders, and every evangelical Christian, have a very special responsibility not to just go along with the "blue-jean syndrome" of not noticing that their attempts to be "with it" so often take the same forms as those who deny the existence or holiness of the living God. Accommodation leads to accommodation-which leads to accommodation..." It was a call to arms that was only partially heeded. Other subsequent writers such as David F Wells and Michael Horton have been more critical that evangelicalism is selling out completely on all of its historic principles.

How do you define evangelicalism? The historian David Bebbington gives it a largely doctrinal definition: crucicentrism [substitutionary atonement], conversionism, biblicism [the sole authority and inerrancy of the bible], and activism. This only fits in the loosest of senses that would blur any distinction with Barthian theology, for instance. 

D. G. Hart, in Deconstructing Evangelicalism argues that evangelicalism is "a minimalist account of the Christian faith" and "a concept that has obscured more of Christianity than it has revealed and should be abandoned as a separate religious identity". He also queries whether it can be properly defined and therefore really exists as a distinct movement. A very insightful series of articles 'Evangelical or Reformed' by Rev. H.M Cartwright in the Free Presbyterian Magazine covered this question, the first article is here (scroll down to p.213) with further articles in subsequent months .
We need those who have an understanding of the times. How do these observations fit within the total purpose of the history of redemption? Jonathan Edwards' book  which has that title shows how the millennium is the goal of redemptive history. It is the purpose towards which God in providence is directing history. 

He wrote "We have all reason to conclude from the Scriptures, that just before this work of God begins, it will be a very dark time with respect to the interests of religion in the world. It has been so before preceding glorious revivals of religion: when Christ came, it was an exceeding degenerate time among the Jews; and so it was a very dark time before the Reformation. And not only so, but it seems to be foretold in Scripture, that it shall be a time of but little religion, when Christ shall come to set up his kingdom in the world. Thus when Christ spake of his coming, to encourage his elect, who cry to him day and night, in Luke xviii. 8 he adds, "Nevertheless, when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" Which seems to denote a great prevalency of infidelity just before Christ's coming to avenge his suffering church.—Though Christ's coming at the last judgment is not here to be excluded, yet there seems to be a special respect to his coming to deliver his church from their long-continued suffering, persecuted state, which is accomplished only at his coming at the destruction of Antichrist. Then will be accomplished the following passages, Rev. vi. 10. "How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth." and Rev. xviii. 20. "Rejoice over her, thou heaven, and ye holy apostles, and prophets, for God hath avenged you on her."

It is now a very dark time with respect to the interests of religion, wherein there is but a little faith, and a great prevailing of infidelity on the earth. There is now a remarkable fulfilment of that in 2 Pet. iii. 3. "Knowing this, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts." And so Jude 17, 18. "But, beloved, remember ye the words which were spoken before of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; how that they told you there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts." Whether the times shall be any darker still, or how much darker, before the beginning of this glorious work of God, we cannot tell."

Lachlan Mackenzie of Lochcarron in his essay on the delusions that shall probably prevail prior to the millennium also spoke of a darkness so great that "it is to be feared that the Protestant Churches will be greatly eclipsed". "Darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people".

But to encourage you to pray for the hastening of the days when the knowledge of the glory of the Lord shall cover the whole earth as the waters cover the sea, read Edwards on the millennium.