We are in the midst of some big changes within evangelicalism in North America. For many, the word “evangelical” means “right-wing Republican Christian fundamentalist.” So what are those of us who still call ourselves evangelicals, but are made crazy by right-wing fundie Republicans, to do? The course a lot of my peers have taken is to stop using that label, to call refer to themselves as “post-evangelical,” or to join the growing ranks of the Nones. I think that doing those things only serves to remove otherwise sane voices from an increasingly insane fundie evangelicalism, and it does nothing to witness to the long (and non-fundamentalist) history of evangelicalism. I’ve written about that history elsewhere, so I won’t rehash it here.
If evangelicalism is to stand any chance of being revived from its present condition, it’s going need to change, fast. I think some changes are already occurring, and are coming from forces that have been traditionally underrepresented within evangelicalism. Fortunately, there are groups of people bubbling up from all over North America who aren’t quite ready to toss in the towel on evangelicalism’s future. Already there are two great gatherings planned for this spring on opposite coasts which plan to wrestle with finding a way forward.
The first of those is in Portland, Oregon in March. As of George Fox Evangelical Seminary‘s Ministry in Contemporary Culture series, the seminary is hosting a half-day conversation with Rachel Held Evans and Roger Olson around the question “Does Evangelicalism Have a Future?” Then, the next month, across the country in Alexandria, Virginia, hundreds of people are gathering for the inaugural Missio Alliance conference, which has at its heart an exploration of the future of the gospel. George Fox Evangelical Seminary, the place where I work and the institution with which I did my doctoral studies, is a part of Missio Alliance, and is being represented by several speakers including Dr. MaryKate Morse, Dr. A.J. Swoboda, and (soon-to-be Dr.) Bob Hyatt. So, no matter which coast you’re on, there is an opportunity for you to join in the conversation and help shape the future of evangelicalism.
So, what does the future of evangelicalism in North America look like? It’s hard to know exactly, but here are three of the features that I think must shape its future:
- Non-white – Evangelicalism has been spreading around the globe over the past half-century, due in large part to the emphasis placed by evangelicals on missionary efforts. As a result, evangelical Christianity has taken root and grown in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia. As those regions ramp-up their own missionary sending efforts, they have their eyes set squarely on North America. The future of evangelicalism in North America rests in thriving, predominately non-white faith communities. It is time (past time!) for the white guard of evangelicalism to platform non-white, non-American voices in all matters of theology, ecclesiology, polity, and practice. For more about the present migration of evangelical Christianity from the global South to the North, see Jehu Hanclies’ excellent book Beyond Christendom and my review of it.
- Spirit-filled – Evangelicalism elsewhere in the world has a much more charismatic flavor than much of what passes for evangelicalism in North America. This is partly due to the way evangelicalism capitulated to modernity in the 20th century, stripping out anything that smacked of mystery. Instead, it did its level-best to incorporate the tools of scientific inquiry (while remaining wary of science itself) into developing methods of studying the Bible and defending its claims. The Holy Spirit became the red-headed step-child of the Trinity, subordinated to a tyrannical Father and a perpetually sacrificed Son. The result is a Christianity based on propositions and intellectual assent. The future of evangelicalism will be animated by the Holy Spirit, imbued with a fresh sense of the mystery of the gospel, especially in traditions that have been largely non-charismatic. We stand on the cusp of the Third Great Awakening.
- Female – Evangelicalism in North America has been dominated by (mostly white) male voices. That is changing and changing quickly. We need more women to lead evangelicalism. Fortunately, some are starting to be heard, despite forces that would attempt to drown them out. I’m deeply indebted to women like Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey, Suzannah Paul for leading the conversation. The challenge to white guys like me is to find ways to take the power and privilege we’ve been handed, and give that away to voices that are different from our own. The future of evangelicalism is with the growing number of women who will rise into positions of leadership and scholarship, and the men who will get out of the way for them.
I’m sure there are more things you could add to this list, or maybe features with which you disagree. Either way, I’d love to hear what you think the future of evangelicalism is going to look like.