Other Discussions on the Future of Evangelicalism

 

The recent “Future of Protestantism” hosted by Biola University on 30 April 2014, is not the only forum where the issue has been raised. A similar conversation took place between Stanley Hauerwas and Albert Mohler in 2012 titled “Nearing the End.”

Prof. Stanley Hauerwas

Prof. Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas, a widely respected theologian, is in Mohler’s words a “high church Mennonite.”  Albert Mohler is President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisvilee, Kentucky.

This conversation between a Baptist and an Anabaptist makes for an interesting contrast to the “Future of Protestantism” panel which was comprised mostly of Reformed theologians.

 

Evangelicalism in a Buyer’s Market

Prof. Hauerwas used the metaphor of the religious marketplace to describe the contemporary situation of American Protestantism.

But I suspect it’s true in most places because basically a buyers’ market, that very description, reproduces the presumption that you live in a demand economy that says that the buyer is supreme and they get to buy what they want and therefore…    (Emphasis added.)

This leads to a number of interesting insights.  Hauerwas observed that because American Evangelical congregations are in a buyer’s market it is very difficult to form a disciplined congregational life.  Albert Mohler concurred noting:

When Stanley Hauerwas talks about the buyer’s market for religion in America, he’s onto something that evangelicals ought to notice and notice very carefully. And that is in fact that that is indeed an apt metaphor for our society at large, but it also, if we’re not very careful, a dynamic that is experienced by many churches and denominations, not only in the Protestant mainline, where he mentions all those brand-named denominations jockeying to retain their membership and a declining membership base, but it’s also the case that there are many in American evangelicalism who basically think of the gospel as something to be packaged and sold.    (Emphasis added.)

American Protestantism with its free church tradition has given rise to a multiplicity of denominations.  Membership is a matter of individual choice; one is not bound to a particular church body.  One can move one’s membership as one sees fit.  With the recent erosion of denominational identity, church hopping and church shopping have increased among Protestants.  Within this frame outreach is the equivalent of marketing outreach, the Gospel as a commodity, and church members as clientele.  Evangelical churches that are non-confessional in doctrine, built around the popularity of a charismatic pastor, independent of the larger church, and ministries designed to meet people’s needs can be likened to a shopping mall; designed to maximize the influx of clients or attendees. This has resulted in church staff being under “the pressure to produce results.”

The religious market place has also contributed to a minimalist approach to the Christian faith.  Downplaying doctrinal distinctives makes a church more accessible to prospective members (potential customers) and lowers the cost of joining.  However, doctrinal minimalism has hidden costs. It weakens the sense of theological identity as well as commitment to the local church.  This explains the appeal of the recent neo-Reformed revival among Evangelicals.  The neo-Reformed emphasis on theological rigor and doctrinal precision can be seen as rooted in a need for theological identity.  Their stress on covenant and disciplined church life can be seen as a reaction to libertarian individualism rife in popular Evangelicalism.

If Hauerwas’ metaphor of Evangelicalism being in a buyer’s market holds true then the question needs to be raised as to whether Peter Leithart’s Reformational Catholicism can ever expand beyond being a niche market.  Leithart’s call for “Pentecostals attuned to the Christian tradition” (20:14), “Baptists who love hierarchy” (20:17), “liturgical bible churches” (20:22) runs against the grain of specialization and niche marketing that underlie Protestant denominationalism.  Asking churches to give up their distinctives is tantamount to their surrendering their identity.  Many would lose members and end up closing their doors.

What Hauerwas referred to as a buyer’s market is largely the result of Protestantism’s response to two aspects of modernity:  urbanization and consumerism.  The resultant incoherence of Protestantism has caused many Evangelicals to investigate the early Church, the church fathers, and liturgical worship.  This in turn has resulted in growing numbers to exit Protestantism altogether for historic traditions like Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.  See: “A Protestant Exodus?

 

Orthodoxy in the Religious Marketplace

This raises the question: How does Hauerwas’ religious marketplace metaphor apply to Orthodoxy?  In many ways Orthodoxy is a latecomer to the American religious market.  Many of the Orthodox parishes originated in the waves of immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s: Greece, the Balkans, Serbia, Ukraine, Russia, and Palestine.  Designed to meet the spiritual needs of the immigrant communities, many ethnic parishes ended up perpetuating the culture of the “old country.”  Oftentimes, this was not so much niche marketing as it was a closed shop.  This state of affairs began to change with the influx of converts in the 1980s and 1990s.  Today Orthodoxy in America is at the cusp of change, from ethnic Orthodoxy whose identity is rooted in the culture of the “old country” to an Orthodoxy whose identity is rooted in American culture. And from a closed shop to evangelistic communities committed to fulfilling the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20).

Turbo Qualls becoming Orthodox

Turbo Qualls becoming Orthodox

What many Protestant converts find appealing about Orthodoxy is its ancient faith and liturgy.  It can be expected that Orthodoxy will hold fast to Apostolic Tradition into the twenty second century and beyond, while Protestant denominationalism will continue to mutate and morph into forms barely recognizable to those living today.  The future of Orthodoxy in the twenty first century depends on it being able to enter into the mainstream of the religious market.  This depends on Orthodoxy’s cultural accessibility (all English liturgies) and geographic accessibility (at least within an hour’s driving time). There are signs that Orthodox evangelism is bearing fruit resulting growing numbers of converts.  Saint Barnabas Antiochian Orthodox Church in Costa Mesa, California, is one example of effective outreach and catechumenate.  With no special program for outreach but ordinary parish life, Saint Barnabas has reached out not just to Evangelicals but also to the younger generation brought up on punk rock, tattoos, and turned off by an overly materialistic American culture.  See: “Christian Tattoo Artist Turbo Qualls: An Interview for the Two Cities.

 

Discipleship and Catholicity

Like Peter Leithart, Stanley Hauerwas touched on Evangelicalism’s need to regain the catholic dimension of Christianity.  Another concern of Hauerwas was the way Evangelicalism made church secondary to Christian discipleship.

….  But one of the great problems of Evangelical life in America is evangelicals think they have a relationship with God that they go to church to have expressed but church is a secondary phenomenon to their personal relationship and I think that’s to get it exactly backwards: that the Christian faith is meditated faith. It only comes through the witness of others as embodied in the church. So I should never trust my presumption that I know what my relationship with God is separate from how that is expressed through words and sacrament in the church.  (Emphasis added.)

Where Protestantism emphasized the individual, the catholic dimension emphasizes the Christian life in community.  Hauerwas noted:

I need to read the Bible with other people. And that has pretty much been lost. Let me say in that regard that one of the other things that worries me about evangelicalism is I’m afraid it’s got the Bible and now, and exactly how it is that you reconnect evangelical life with the great Catholic traditions, I think is part of the challenges for the future because you need to read the fathers reading Scripture as part of our common life if we are to sustain a sense that we don’t get to make Christianity up. We receive it through the lives of those who have gone before and that just becomes crucial for us to be able to survive in which we find ourselves.  (Emphasis added.)

Like Peter Leithart, Dr. Hauerwas saw the recovery of the Eucharist as critical to the future of the church.

Well, let me say one of the things I would have us to go is a much richer, liturgical life than I think is the case in many evangelical and Protestant mainstream churches. I think a recovery of the centrality of Eucharistic celebration and why it is so central is just crucial for the future of the church.    (Emphasis added.)

It is interesting that for someone who comes from the Anabaptist tradition; Stanley Hauerwas has some kind words about the First Ecumenical Council!

Well, I want to be careful with that word rational because I think nothing is more rational than Christian Orthodoxy. I think the Nicaea account of Trinity is an extraordinary development that is a tradition thinking through its fundamental commitment in a manner that is intellectually compelling.

However, the Nicene Creed is more than the product of rational intelligence.  Orthodoxy believes that the Holy Spirit guided the bishops in their defense of the Gospel against the heresy of Arianism.  Because the Nicene Creed represented the mind of the Church (and not individuals), it was able to unify the early Church.

Hauerwas’ call for the recovery of catholicity, the Eucharist, and the Nicene Creed has much in common with Pastor Leithart’s “Reformational Catholicism.”  The similarities between Hauerwas and Leithart is significant in that it shows a similar concerns being voiced not just in Reformed circles but also among the Baptists and Anabaptists.  This points to a widespread hunger for catholicity among Protestants.

 

Michael Spencer — “Internet Monk”

Michael Spencer aka "Internet Monk"

Michael Spencer aka “Internet Monk”

The late Michael Spencer’s “The Coming Evangelical Collapse” written in 2009 represents another part of the conversation. Originally a blog posting on the Internetmonk.com the article was later published by the Christian Science Monitor giving it a much wider circulation.  Where Stanley Hauerwas is a high profile theologian, the late Michael Spencer worked as a youth minister then as a Baptist pastor.  In 2000, he began to blog and in time became one of the most popular Evangelical bloggers.  Part of Michael Spencer’s popularity is due to his ability to give voice to a quiet shift taking place in the Evangelical subculture, the emergence of post-Evangelicalism.  While not as measured and erudite as Stanley Hauerwas, Michael Spencer wrote boldly from the frontline of Christian ministry.

We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.

He used bold unguarded language in his famous article.

Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I’m convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.

He also predicted an anti-Evangelical turn in American culture.

Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the “Protestant” 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.

Michael Spencer did not claim to be a prophet.  He wrote as an observer who saw both dangers and promise in the Evangelical movement.  It is now five years since the article was first published in 2009.  There have been some notable shifts, e.g., the rapid and widespread legalization of same-sex marriage and reports of the growing percentage of Americans who identify as unchurched, nothing as dire or cataclysmic as Michael Spencer predicted.  But if current trends continue, his 2009 article may well prove prescient.

Dr. Hauerwas view of Evangelicalism’s future is just as grim as Michael Spencer’s.

I think evangelicalism is destined to die of its own success and it will go the way of mainstream Protestantism because there’s just—it depends far too much on charismatic pastors, and charisma will only take you so far. Evangelicalism is constantly under the burden of re-inventing the wheel and you just get tired.

In terms of the religious market we can expect to see three trends.  One, the continued decline of mainline Protestant denominations into obscurity.  Two, this will be followed by the decline of Evangelicalism.  Evangelical Protestantism is already at its peak; its growth rate has stalled for the past several years, a sign that its decline may have already started.  There is a recent report that the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the largest Protestant denominations, has been experiencing declining membership since 2005.  But the decline of Evangelicalism is not likely to become a major trend until the 2050s. Three, the next Protestant wave may come from the charismatics and Pentecostals.  But the wild card factor that hasn’t yet received much attention is the implication of the shift to a post-Christian society for the American religious market.

 

The Larger Conversation

The recent Biola forum is but one among many going on among Evangelicals today.  What I find intriguing is the fact that there was a time not too long ago when Evangelicalism’s existence and future was an unquestioned given.  That so many are discussing the matter seriously points to something in the air.  It is like the uneasiness that animals sense before the onset of a great calamity.  I had this foreboding premonition about Protestantism after my studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the 1990s.  I was deeply troubled by the improbability of bringing biblical renewal to historic mainline denominations on the one hand and the unchecked trendiness of Evangelicalism on the other.  The pervasive maladies of modernity that afflicted Protestantism in both its liberal and evangelical expressions caused me to look into the early Church.  What I found was a unity of faith that spanned the Roman Empire and continued to endure in the Orthodox Church.  I found in Orthodoxy a catholicity of faith that Leithart and Hauerwas are longing for.

MysticalChurchIt also struck me that Orthodoxy being rooted in Tradition is capable of riding out a hostile and increasingly post-Christian society.  One of the images used to describe the Orthodox Church is that of Noah’s Ark.

I found comfort in the stories of the early Christian martyrs.  But I was also impressed that the Orthodox Church of the twentieth century managed to survive Communism, despite the systematic destruction of churches, slaughter of faithful clergy and laity, and many who collaborated with the Soviet regime.

This has implications for the recent warnings about a post-Christian society.  I suspect that many Christians, Protestants and even Orthodox, are not ready for this new hostile religious market.  We need to heed Jesus’ warning:

As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me.  Night is coming, when no one can work. (John 9:4; NIV)

 

Robert Arakaki

 

Further Readings

“The Post-Evangelical Option: An Interview with Michael Spencer” in Modern Reformation.  Eric Landry and Michael Spencer.

 “The Nature and Future of Protestantism” in The Calvinist International.  Peter Escalante.

“Back to the Future for Protestantism?” in OrthodoxBridge.  Robert Arakaki.

Protestantism’s Fatal Genetic Flaw” in OrthodoxBridgeRobert Arakaki.

“Christian Tattoo Artist Turbo Qualls: An Interview for the Two Cities” in TheTwoCities.com.   Nathaniel Warne and Turbo Qualls.

 

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10 Responses to Other Discussions on the Future of Evangelicalism

  1. David says:

    I think that a post-Christian America is good for the Christian faith. I think we tend to forget that the scriptures and the earliest Fathers all have some pretty negative things to say about a Church that is popular, accepted, and that is in cahoots with Caesar. We’re little colonies of the Kingdom of the Triune God, proclaiming the good news that “there is another King, Jesus” (Acts 17.7), and that his imperial reign over heaven and earth, obtained through his mysterious incarnation, ministry of proclamation, sacrificial death, harrowing of hell, glorious resurrection and ascension is someday going to be the only government in the entirety of the universe. That’s a prophetic message–it’s one that calls the nations and especially human governments to account, that calls people to allegiance to a King. I think one of the main ways Evangelicalism goes wrong is that it emphasizes the personal relationship element of Christianity over against the allegiance and reverence dimension. Having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is vital–it cannot be had if one does not first learn to acknowledge him for who he is as Christ, the anointed, God-chosen king over all things, and as very God himself.

    This is the very heart of why monasticism arose: when Christianity became legal, it became fashionable. The moment that you are no longer giving up your association with the wider culture and society in order to follow Jesus is the moment that you are leaving behind a crucially eschatological dimension to the faith–this is a faith which is looking forward to the day when the nations are shattered like broken pots by the Davidic king, the God-Man Jesus of Nazareth (Psalm 2). The Desert Fathers and Mothers were people who wanted to continue to capture that and took up the lives they did because of the fact that the local Church was increasingly becoming a place where the sanctifying presence of the Spirit was lacking, because it was not being preached or practiced.

    Orthodox should thank God for Evangelicals and Protestants–they have things to offer to the Church. I think one of the things that God has used the Protestant movement for is to show us what happens when you unplug the Church from the authority of Tradition. They have shown us a path that we cannot tread: we can offer them a home when they find it a dead end, not a home where they will hear “I told you so” or “So you come crawling back,” but embracing them as brothers and sisters in the Lord.

    A post-Christian America is good for the Gospel because it restores the vital, missing, martyr-making element of it: its clear proclamation of a King in the face of other human kingdoms. The reason we have a “religious market” in America is because this is a country that has tried to entrench itself in barriers against the very this-worldly claims of religious traditions. Christianity is not exempt from this–it is beyond difficult to proclaim that Jesus of Nazareth is lord and king of the world to a nation that by its own self-definition will not listen. Matters are not helped by the fact that much of American Christendom could care less about this world–the ultimate goal, after all, is to go away to heaven when you die, because you have a personal relationship with the Savior. There’s a reason the Sadducees denied the Resurrection: it cost them political power. Resurrection is a very revolutionary doctrine, all about how we all ultimately end up back here, and so how we treat one another and this rock matters. Christianity is Resurrection-focused and oriented–all of our Christian lives are lived in anticipation of the day when God will raise the dead and judge all men through Jesus–indeed, it is the resurrection of Jesus that guarantees that God will judge the world, that he will set it right again (Acts 17.31).

    American Christianity is Platonic in its focus, generally compromises to Caesar in more ways than one, and fails to uphold the severity of Jesus’ Kingdom over all created reality. These are the same conditions that were true of the Church when it was legalized. I think that slipping into unpopularity, that losing a Christian majority, is the healthiest thing for the Church in modern America: it will remind it of where it truly comes from. It will cause it to be evangelical in the truest sense: as a Church that proclaims that Zion’s God reigns (Isaiah 52.7), and therefore the nations owe their allegiance, and must become disciples and be baptized (Matthew 28.19). Judaism, notably, preserves this to an extent in their conversion process–any good rabbi makes a number of attempts to dissuade one from becoming a Jew because of the severity of the commitment. American Christianity needs to recover a sense of the commitment that is involved in becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ.

    • robertar says:

      David,

      Thank you for pointing out the opportunities in a post-Christian society. You also made a good point about the the costly nature of being a follower of Christ. These are valuable lessons for all of us.

      Robert

  2. David says:

    Thanks again Robert for another fine and provocative article. As post-Christian Secularism in the West ramps increasingly hostile pressure against an un-rooted and fragmented Protestantism [re: teaparty evangelicalism] some of us will likely live to see much more of what we’ve seen a trickle of in the past 25 years: Exodus.

    The millions of weak nominal christians will continue to flee social & political discrimination & persecution from fading mainstream denominations [theologically-liberal]. They will hardly be distinguishable from their secular counterparts.

    Yet other millions of sincere Christian evangelicals will flee to an increasingly present Orthodoxy (as well as Rome). This is especially so as the both the Orthodox literature, Orthodox Churches and embodied Orthodox Christian become increasingly visible before them in flesh and blood.

    The lure of an ancient historic theological connection with the early Apostolic Church is a Christian [Holy Spirit?] instinct. So also is a deep and abiding Sacramental Tradition of depth and substance — not dreamed up by theologians or worship leaders last week…or a couple of years ago. Historic stability and permanence have their own lure as evangelicalism fragments further. That Orthodox offers a save haven in all this — without an authoritarian pope-hierarchy, or regular sexual scandals, will attract millions of conservative protestants.

    Evangelicals and conservative protestant late-comers who try to exploit such instincts and traditions for themselves will find in more and more difficult to stem this flow [exodus] from their own niche. Pretending to be the ancient Church will only play — as long as your people don’t continue to read and see Christ’s real Body before them in flesh and blood.
    david rockett

  3. Mike says:

    I’ve left Evangelicalism for the church of the Reformation (Lutheran). The more I studied the church fathers and their doctrines and their understanding of Scripture the more I realized I could no longer be an Evangelical. When you present the doctrines of the early church to evangelicals they say some variant of, “Why would I care what these people said? I follow teachings of the Apostles.” I would like for them just once to find me one Christian writer from the first eight centuries of the Church who denied that Christ is present in the Eucharist or denied that the Spirit is present in Baptism. I would even take a heretic, show me just one heretic who believed what you believe. And yet they do not see that their position that the early church were evangelicals even though all evidence is against them is absolutely no different than the positions of the Mormons and JWs. That is why I could not in good conscience stay in the evangelical church. The good news is that there are so many more who understand that Christ has given His Church a spirituality that is far greater than looking inward at ourselves.

    • William Tighe says:

      Yes, but similar questions apply equally pointedly to Lutherans, e.g.,

      Find me one Christian writer from the first eight centuries of the Church who denied that the Eucharist is a sacrificial offering or who denied that the threefold apostolic ministry of bishops, priests and deacons is necessary for the very being of the Church*, or who, most importantly of all, denied the unicity and indivisibility of the Church (that is, that the Church is one only sacramental communion). I would even take a heretic, show me just one heretic who believed these things.

      (*) On this issue, St. Jerome is often cited as a Church Father (the one and only one among them all) who believed this, but this is debatable (see the article to which I will link below); and it seems likely that an obscure Eastern/Greek Arian writer named Aerius held this view.

      http://thewellofquestions.wordpress.com/2009/01/18/jerome-on-the-tri-fold-ministry/

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aerius_of_Sebaste

      • robertar says:

        William,

        Thank you for sharing these links.

        Robert

      • Mike says:

        Find me one Christian writer from the first eight centuries of the Church … who denied that the threefold apostolic ministry of bishops, priests and deacons is necessary for the very being of the Church

        For one, St Augustine, the most influential father of the church whom you would call blessed, said in his letter to the Manichaeans,

        “Even if I do not speak of this wisdom that you do not believe to be in the catholic church, there are many other things that most justly keep me in its bosom. The consent of the peoples and nations … The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the seat of the very Apostle Peter … And so, lastly, does the name itself of “catholic” … But with you, where there is none of these things to attract or keep me, the promise of truth is the only thing that comes into play. Now if the truth is so clearly proved as to leave no possibility of doubt, it must be set before all the things that keep me in the catholic church.”

        I’ll have to address more after work.

        • William Tighe says:

          Well, nothing there seems to support your case, since St.
          Augustine, by “the succession of priests,” does not mean “the succession of presbyters,” but, rather, “the succession of bishops,” since the word “priest” (sacerdos in Latin) commonly referred to “bishops,” not “presbyters” down to the Sixth Century and beyond.

        • Eric Todd says:

          “Now if the truth is so clearly proved as to leave no possibility of doubt, it must be set before all the things that keep me in the catholic church.”

          I am not exactly sure why you wanted to quote St. Augustine here, out of context. However, if you intend to imply that one’s own understanding of the truth trumps the Church’s understanding, than you are operating under an epistemology that is fundamentally the same as that employed by the Evangelicals against which you inveigh. Either one adopts the Vincentian Canon that truth is that which was universally believed by the Church, or one rejects it.

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