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Is The Evangelical Movement Crumbling?

Scot McKnight

On February 15, 2017 Scot McKnight posted some reflections under the title “The Soul of Evangelicalism: What Will Become of Us?” As with a lot of things that are posted on the Internet I didn’t have time to comment on it at the time.

I’m one of those people that owes a debt of gratitude to evangelical Christianity. It was through evangelical Christians — primarily holiness and pentecostal and charismatic Christians — that I heard the Gospel of Christ and was nurtured in the faith. To be honest, I don’t really understand how Christianity can be anything other than “evangelical.” The word evangelical comes from the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον (euaggelion) which means “good news” and is generally translated “Gospel.” Christianity has good news to share about Christ. The desire to spread that message — with the notion that it is good news for everyone — is the evangelical impulse.

In that respect, I agree with this guy, “evangelical” is a good word:

 

The news media is wrong. “Evangelical” is not a political word. Many church leaders are wrong — “evangelical” is not a set of strict and rigid doctrinal standards (often Calvinistic ones) to which anyone who uses the word must conform. It is, at its heart, a belief in the message of Jesus Christ — crucified and risen — and a desire to spread that message. Truth be told, I have a hard time understanding how Christians can be anything other than evangelical — in the true sense.

When Christianity becomes allied with partisan politics it damages itself. The rise of the Religious Right (which I associate with the late Jerry Fallwell and others) has made “evangelical” a political word — it means extreme right wing politics. But in the nineteenth century in the USA, revival movements — which were of course highly evangelical in the true sense — were often allied with efforts for social change. Consider the ministry of Charles G. Finney — one of the greatest evangelists ever in the history of the USA — which allied evangelism and revival closely with efforts to improve society. Evangelical is not a partisan political term. Allying the Gospel with a partisan political agenda is to sell out the Gospel. I believe this is why fewer and fewer people today are willing to identify as “evangelical” Christians — it has nothing to do with the message of Christ and a whole lot to do with partisan politics.

In this regard, Scot McKnight does a good job indicating just what he mans by “evangelical.” He writes:

Let’s get the standard definition of evangelicalism on the table first: an evangelical is committed to these four elements: the Bible, the cross as the place of atonement, the necessity of personal conversion, and an active Christian life both in missions/evangelism as well as justice, peace and reconciliation. On top of this, evangelicalism is non-denominational and cross-denominational.

These four elements are what I love about evangelical Christianity.

1. The Bible.

It was evangelical Christianity that began my personal love affair with the Bible. I was encouraged to read it — both individually and in groups. And, I did this. I stuck with it — even through Leviticus, even through the genealogies in 1 Chronicles, even through the parts I could not comprehend at the time. As I persisted, things became clearer. Earlier parts of the Bible illuminated later parts. When I later went to Seminary, I was introduced to a whole new set of tools to understand the Bible. My mission became: to proclaim the message of the Scriptures in order to build up the Church. I initially conceived of my ministry as a teaching ministry. Bible study had shaped me as a person and I wanted to share my enthusiasm about it with others.

I was concerned about the degree of Biblical illiteracy in the Church. In my own mind, was setting out to correct that.

While many conservative churches are quite authoritarian, there is nonetheless, a check on the power of the leadership. The people are taught to read the Bible for themselves. They can arrive at their own conclusions. They are encouraged to meet together to share insights with one another. Preaching is supposed to have a Biblical basis. It is rooted in a book which is the common property of the community. In my youth I remember hearing Billy Graham’s frequent repetition of “The Bible says….” Teaching people to read the Bible, to pray, to fellowship with others beyond Sunday mornings has the natural effect of empowering them to think and serve on their own.

In my younger days it seemed like the “evangelicals” were the only Christians who cared about the Bible.

But, in my opinion the Biblical illiteracy problem has grown far worse than it was in the days when I set out in ministry. The mega church culture of our day is uninterested in that. People attend less frequently, preaching is more topical, the people are dependent on their leaders to tell them what is true and what is Christian. What works to build a large ministry is preferred over the business of imparting the faith. As a result, I’m not sure people know what the faith is, or what events and records it is based upon. I’d be overjoyed to be wrong about this. But, I don’t think I am. Scot McKnight says:

The most prominent example of this diminishment of Bible is the routine shrug of the shoulders with respect to creeds, confessions and theological claims.  It may be the 500th anniversary of the Reformation but what was most central about the Reformation was not Luther, Calvin, and Erasmus but Bible, Bible, Bible. …The most important act of a Reformationist is to open the Bible and read it.

Maybe the renewal of emphasis on the Bible which has given rise to new perspectives and Paul as well as new calls to social engagement to improve society is causing conservative Christian to retreat from emphasis on the Bible. Thus, the rise of neo-Calvinism and so forth. I don’t know.

2. Evangelism.

Another issue McKnight raises is the evangelical retreat from evangelism. This is really odd. He says:

Missions, international missions and foreign missions are now engulfed in NGOs and global justice and water and infrastructure. Evangelicalism was built on evangelistic church-planting pioneers. Always, or at least nearly always, such missionaries were fully engaged in church-planting as well as compassion and provisions so far as they were able. But they were there to preach and teach the gospel and win people for Christ. That’s evangelicalism. A friend of mine, a missionary, told me that the last 15 years in his corner of the missionary world has seen not one new missionary concerned with church planting and evangelism; they are all NGO types. Giving to NGOs is on the rise; giving to church-planting on the decline. Organize a day for evangelism training and you will be alone or close to it; organize a day for some kind of social action and you may see more than Sunday morning service.

But, this is what I remember that evangelical Christianity was — a movement consumed by a desire to spread the message of Christ. The (every evangelical) United Methodist church I attended in my youth voted to let some of us young people start a “coffee-house” ministry in the church. We wanted to reach the community for Christ — and we understood that that was one of the new ways to do that. I don’t think our efforts accomplished all that much — but we had an evangelistic intent. We had found hope and direction for our lives through Jesus Christ — and we felt that others would benefit from this faith, as well. My brother and then I both joined up with Teen Challenge in Detroit (long, long ago) — a Pentecostal ministry that was based in the inner city and which ministered primarily to drug addicts and alcoholics. Our motivation in this was to bring hope to the hopeless — we were certain we had a message of hope. And, yes, when you become involved with people in impoverished areas — whatever your original motivation — you become aware of the social factors that are grinding people down. But, it’s because you care about people — and you are certain that God cares about them even if no one else does. Evangelical ministry cannot be simply transactional — come to us, we will give you food & clothing, then go away — it is relational. It’s about people and about their relationship with God. Do we care about people anymore — or just ideas and policies? Do we still believe that the message of Christ is good news?

But, I must admit, there is another side to this that McKnight doesn’t mention. Maybe in a day and age when so many Christians got behind the Donald Trump bandwagon there actually is a renewed need for Christians to demonstrate that they really do care about the good of society. I don’t know. But, the church has to do something that politicians will never do — get involved in the lives of real people and hel[p them to find hope for temselves in their day-to-day situations.

I understand that people are reluctant to use the evangelistic methods of a previous era. I understand that. They can be legitimately criticized. But, the questions that then remains is: but what methods are we going to use?

Well, there is more yet in the McKnight article — read it, think about it. I’d be interested in what you think.

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2 Responses to “Is The Evangelical Movement Crumbling?”

  1. John Meunier says:

    Craig, I saw that article, too, and have not had much time to respond to it. I came into faith the opposite way you did. I was an atheist baptized in a theologically progressive church — but during the brief pastorate of a theological moderate who actually preached from the Bible. My discovery of evangelical Christianity really began with John Wesley, and I have to say I find that our weaknesses as a denomination often seem to be related to the ways in which we have strayed from what he put emphasis on — including the Bible, evangelism, and cross-centered salvation.

    • It will not surprise you to hear that I agree with you about the UMC, John. Personally, I see politics — either right or left — as being a corrupting influence on the church. And, it would be good for all parts of the Church to become more truly evangelical again.

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