Do Evangelicals Have a Future?
It's an American pastime to speculate about the future around the New Year. And it's an evangelical pastime to take stabs at defining the movement. A recent Touchstone magazine symposium of evangelical leaders offers a little of both.
Touchstone pulled together an eclectic group of contributors: Russell Moore, Denny Burk, John Franke, D. G. Hart, Michael Horton, and David Lyle Jeffrey. Horton offers the most provocative observation about the movement's theological character. "Ironically, [evangelicalism] is a largely anti-creedal, anti-theological movement that has nevertheless defended the Fundamentals enshrined in historic Christianity more faithfully than many creedal and confessional denominations."
It's hardly fair to call a movement shaped by Carl Henry "anti-theological," but Horton's point finds support on a popular level. Otherwise Henry and Mark Noll and many others would not have needed to issue calls for academic engagement. Franke, an unusual choice for this conservative group in a conservative magazine, says evangelical theology has matured. Looking toward the future, he foresees a breakthrough. Perhaps those calls have been heeded.
"In the middle of the last century, very few evangelicals were highly respected in the broader world of biblical studies, F. F. Bruce being a notable exception," Franke says. "Today evangelical biblical scholars are among the best in the world. They are prominent in the Society of Biblical Literature and produce high-quality academic books and journal articles that demand attention in the guild. I think a similar development has started to take place in the discipline of theology more recently, and I expect that, in time, evangelical theologians will enjoy the same widespread reputation as evangelical biblical scholars."
Even taking into account these accomplishments, evangelical theology faces no shortage of challenges at present that will shape the movement's future. Burk cites one of the most obvious deficiencies. "The first generation of neo-evangelicals were theological trailblazers, but the generations that followed have tended to be led by managerial types who are more prone to pragmatism than to theological and devotional rigor," he says. "Thus, evangelicalism has shifted away from its doctrinal distinctives and has increasingly become more of a market brand than a doctrinal flag."
Indeed, a common concern about cultural captivity unites these evangelical leaders. That's no small feat for a movement that sometimes can't even define itself. Speaking in 2006 at the 50th-anniversary celebration for Christianity Today, John Ortberg and John Huffman likewise looked ahead and feared that evangelicals have imbibed too much of their surroundings. To some extent this is inevitable, and culture will shape theology. "I think the most significant thing evangelicalism as a whole fails to fully appreciate is the ways in which our theological and biblical interpretation is always a contextual enterprise," Franke writes. "Evangelical theology, conservative or postconservative, has been thoroughly shaped by its participation in the dominant North American cultural trends."
Consumerism and relativism stand out as dominant cultural trends that seriously threaten the future of evangelical theology. When evangelicals over-contextualize their message in response, they strip the gospel of its transformative power. "To begin with, in our competition to be culturally 'more relevant than thou,' we have often forgotten that 'what you win them with is what you win them to," Jeffrey says. No few problems with discipleship can be traced back to this problem. The Baylor University professor goes on to observe, "Perhaps it is not too much to say that our 'old, old story' has been too frequently overshadowed by the glitzy show-biz media we have tended to use to proclaim it."