Evangelicalism is in disarray. No longer does this domain belong exclusively to the children of 16th century Protestant Reformation, who for so long a time have been echoing the battle cry of the biblical faith it triumphantly recovered against the backdrop of fallen Late Medieval Christendom – Sola Scriptura! Sola gratia! Sola fide! Solus Christus! Soli Deo gloria!
Joining them now in the camp is a new breed of self-professed evangelicals who identify themselves in many ways – progressive, post-conservative, post-foundationalist, seeker-sensitive, emergent, among others.
So laments David Wells, himself an evangelical and distinguished professor of systematic and historical theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary,
Evangelicalism … is now in a free fall, despite the fact that it is still sustaining many fine individual organizations. We are coming to an end, I believe, of this era of believing in the form that we have known it and what will follow it is now taking on a rather different shape.
Referring to the book that he co-authored with church historian John Woodbridge in 1975,The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are and Where They Are Changing, Wells recalls,
It was clear to us… that evangelicalism was about to change, the core consensus was beginning to weaken, strategic coherence was beginning to disappear, and that in the absence of these things we could anticipate seeing many new ad hoc definitions as to what evangelicalism was and many new ad hoc silences when it was not what it was supposed to be. We were right. Our book turned out to be on the front end of a veritable cottage industry of definitions as to who evangelicals were and as to what they believed.
Looking into the 1990’s, Wells continues,
For some, the older doctrinal boundaries had been crossed with astonishing ease and with few, if any, sanctions and, for others, it had become an exercise in futility to close the barn door when it was apparent that the beast had long since bolted. So while many evangelicals still doffed their hats to the formal and material principles, when it came to worshipping, structuring the church, and living in the marketplace, they quickly looked the other way. As evangelicalism has emptied itself out theologically, novelty, experimentation and cultural trendiness have overwhelmed many of the historic, bedrock affirmations that once characterized evangelical faith.
So that if there be any conformity to the world that we can readily locate in contemporary evangelical Christianity, it is no longer simply a matter of evangelicals having succumbed to the allurements of this ultra-modern world. What we are witnessing today is a rather deliberate, conscious attempt to openly surrender the evangelical heart and mind to the postmodern thought-patterns of the day.
Unlike their predecessors, who in the 19th and 20th centuries stood squarely with the extraordinary challenges posed by modern secularism and Protestant liberalism of their days, this new breed of evangelicals is more than willing to open their doors wide to the postmodern way of thinking. And this, as if pragmatically, without ever posing a challenge to the philosophical ideals of postmodernity while simultaneously maintaining a skeptical stance against their conservative heritage in the evangelical tradition.
In the words of Justin Taylor, co-editor of the book Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times,
They are self-professed evangelicals seeking to revision the theology, renew the center, and transform the worshiping community of evangelicalism, cognizant of the postmodern global context within which we live. They desire a “generous orthodoxy” that would steer a faithful course between the Scylla of conservative-traditionalism and the Charybdis of liberal-progressivism.
Their preoccupation: an unguarded quest for relevance, and an almost never ending search for the latest and most innovative methodologies in doing both theology and ministry. Old school evangelicalism, they claim, is already outmoded, and for that matter, has already become irrelevant to the 21st century postmodern world. For them, it’s about time to get evangelicalism re-engineered and repackaged to make it relevant again.
But as Wells puts it,
“It is surely a great irony that what evangelicals have most surrendered in the hope of becoming culturally relevant is what, in fact, now makes them culturally irrelevant.”
To which Os Guinness agrees:
Never have Christians pursued relevance so strenuously; never have Christians been more irrelevant.
For by so doing, they have only become like the world, and consequently, irrelevant to the world.
This brings to mind a very important spiritual principle about which all evangelicals must be constantly reminded: that Christianity is most relevant to the world only when it is least like the world. The opposite is equally true: Christianity is least relevant to the world when it is most like the world.
- Guinness, Os. Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Flirts with Modernity. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1993.
- Taylor Justin. “An Introduction to Postconservative Evangelicalism and the Rest of This Book” in Millard Erickson, et. al., eds. Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 17-32.
- Wells, David and John Woodbridge. Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are and Where They Are Changing. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1975.
- Wells, David. “The Rejection of the Classical Doctrine of God and What It Says About the State of the Evangelical Movement” in Reformed Perspectives Magazine Vol. 11, No. 52, December 27 to January 2, 2010.