There will of course continue to be vibrant congregations that define themselves as evangelical, but fewer and fewer as the years go by, I think. Most churches that would claim the label have abandoned their historic mission, and the historic Christian faith, no matter what their explicit theological formularies might say. (This, for instance, is simple idolatry, served up straight, no chaser.) As my old friend and long-time colleague Mark Noll has long contended, evangelicalism at its heart a renewal movement within orthodox Christianity, and such renewal will continue — but not in the forms that some of us have grown accustomed to over the past half-century. Renewal will need to find new strategies, new institutions. Some corpses can’t be revived.
He buttresses his assertions in an excellent follow-up post:
[The intellectual life of young evangelicals is] shaped by forces altogether outside of Christianity: as I have frequently commented, our current power/knowledge regime is far better at catechesis than any churches are. But insofar as the Young Evangelical Mind is shaped by forces within Christianity, those almost never involve the local church. The minds of young evangelicals are shaped overwhelmingly by music and stories — I have tried to sketch the emergence of the latter development in this essay. In general, evangelical churches have not understood the intellectual formation of their congregants as part of their mission. As always you reap what you sow — and when you fail to sow…
The bit about how we are shaped by music and stories particularly struck me because it is absolutely true and incredibly distressing. Evangelical music is mostly “music that sells well”, which generally means that it is a watered-down version of music that was popular 5-10 years ago full of easily digestible concepts that fit tidily into a worship service while also stirring sufficient emotion to feel good. There is plenty of great music out there, but it’s usually outsold 10-to-1 by the shlocky stuff. Our stories (if they’re even true!) tend to either be hyped-up persecution narratives, frank exhortations to pure voluntarism, or some combination of both. No wonder evangelicalism is having such a hard time.
Our intellectual formation is pretty hit-and-miss; if you even got any intellectual formation growing up, it was more likely than not to be paint-by-numbers “apologetics” dedicated to teaching young people how to win particular debates against other perspectives, rather than how to think. Even though “worldview studies” often fell into this trap, I think it still has a lot of merit because many people who really dug into it were capable of turning its critical tools on evangelicalism itself. I personally grew up in a church that really emphasized intellectual formation, but even then there were broad swaths of theological thought (e.g. Black and neo-orthodox theology) that were totally written off in our world.
Discussions on Twitter and reading articles about the subject make me think that the term “evangelical” will go the way of the word “fundamentalist”. Both have perfectly legitimate meanings that arose from a specific historical context and a very good impulse within Christendom. There is and never will be anything wrong with either, per se, and I am not afraid to identify myself within both streams. However, the cultural and political efforts that both “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” have carried water for with are so off-base as to render their common usage meaningless, and “evangelical” is losing its ability to hold together a coalition of Christians across denominations.
That’s not to despair — renewal will always be happening. And I think many of the institutions that grew out of evangelicalism will continue to thrive and contribute to that renewal. But we’re going to need some massive repentance on the part of people like Jerry Falwell, Jr. who claim to speak for evangelicals before that name will mean anything in our contemporary discourse.