A couple months ago, Scot McKnight published an article on his blog site entitled, “The Soul of Evangelicalism: What Will Become of Us?” It, and the comments on the original article that followed (including a brief, but enlightening, exchange between McKnight and Rachel Held Evans), has been a source of contemplation and, yes, internal dissonance, for me as I use McKnight’s arguments and insights to think through my own particular thread of Christian practice.
In the space below, I wish to briefly respond to the original article, using McKnight’s original categories of argument as a template for my own.
McKnight initiates his argument with what he labels a “standard definition of evangelicalism,” in which he identifies four elements:
- The Bible;
- The cross as the place of atonement;
- The necessity of personal conversion;
- An active Christian life both in missions/evangelism as well as justice, peace, and reconciliation.
The author laments that these “standard elements” are crumbling. Yet, I cannot help but take issue with his assertion that “evangelical” has an agreed-upon definition or character, which does not necessarily negate his later, more specific, observations in regards to these elements. I have found the term to be notoriously slippery – it seems at times that an “evangelical” could almost refer to any non-Catholic or non-Orthodox Christian, while at many other times the term is more selectively engaged to only refer to particular (often more traditionalist) strains of Protestant practice. More on the uses, and misuses, of “evangelical” as I conclude this post. For now, on to McKnight’s first category…
“The Bible Diminished”.
McKnight points to a remarkable apathy (among which specific group, the author does not overtly specify, though it is certainly a non-Catholic one) towards “creeds, confessions and theological claims”. He further laments a lack of focus upon the Bible as the central item of importance in Reformational thinking, invoking sola scriptura as central to the Evangelical perspective.
I resonate with the author’s lament on this point, in regards to the lack of appreciation which the larger Christian community can take on the history of conversation within church history. Our creeds, confessions, and theological claims were not produced in a vacuum – rather, each contains a rich, vibrant history of discussion, disagreements, compromise, and (perhaps we’ll even allow) guidance by the Spirit of God. Not that each of these elements is perfected, but therein lies the pity. So often, our discussions revolve around important and timeless questions of faith and praxy, yet these discussions proceed without substantial awareness of the history of conversation which undergird the question.
“Mission Work Has Become Social Work”
Church-planting, preaching/teaching the gospel and winning people for Christ, says McKnight, has largely been replaced within Evangelicalism by “NGOs and global justice and water and infrastructure”. Clearly, for the author, traditional evangelistic service has taken a clear backseat to more hands-on, less spiritually concerned, types of ministry.
In contrast to McKnight’s position, I find myself considerably encouraged by the present emphasis upon social service and water/hunger projects, not just among Christian ministries but within Western contexts in general. These types of projects seem to be weaving themselves more tightly into the fabric of our social and spiritual consciousness, and I would like very much to believe (and I do) that this is evidence of the Holy Spirit’s movements upon the current generations, as the hands and feet of Jesus, enacting one of our most sacred callings (the other, of course, is to serve and love God with our entire being).
Yet, the author does indeed remind us of something quite critical; that is, if we as Christ-followers have indeed found something compelling, have found Redemption and continual saving graces through a trusting faith in Christ, then that message must accompany the working out of our physical service to others. Ministries such as World Vision and World Relief immediately come to mind, though there of course are many others. The principles of solid evangelistic outreach (I think back now to my days in Youth With A Mission) remain viable and relevant, and need to continue to be taught and practiced amongst the nations as we strive for clean water, or teach math in a rural village, or assist refugees in their travails and resettlements.
“Where Are the Pastors?”
I wish to quote McKnight here directly: “…vocations for becoming a pastor are diminishing as well. Somewhere at the core of American evangelicalism is an energy that is shaping future leaders into NGOs and social services and away from seminaries, missions training, and the calling to local church pastoring.”
There are several factors which might be at play here, but I will speak to a couple immediately. One, is that such “vocations” are more and more often either unpaid, paid very poorly (and quite possibly even part-time), or entirely unavailable as church attendance and giving has dropped in Western contexts over the years. I am personally acquainted with a number of MDiv., MA, and PhD credential holders, some ordained, who have emerged from their training with few prospects in vocational ministry aside from volunteer positions during Sunday service or 10 hour per week assistants to the youth pastor. Certainly more demand exists for such highly qualified ministers of the Word in other parts of the world, but these positions are almost without exception as parts of missions organizations which require that one approach the venture having secured their own funding. This last point continues to be one of the chief reasons that I have only done missions work on a part-time and temporary basis, and of course many others fall into this distinction.
Perhaps the Spirit of God is pushing us into new realms of creativity in regards to our vocational training and execution? Workers who are fully supported (financially, through ongoing vocational training, and otherwise) surely must have a large advantage in terms of efficacy and longevity when compared with those faced with the substantial stresses of raising their own support. Perhaps the ways in which deep, powerful ideas of faith and praxy permeate through the Church are undergoing a necessary transformation away from more “traditional” modes? I can of course only speculate, but what seems clear is that the Church cannot support all those currently desiring to minister and teach.
Here, McKnight expounds briefly into a major area of his writings (atonement and community), and here he laments the “hard headed” views of propitiation held by many conservative writers, while progressive voices (in the author’s view) negate or minimize God’s wrath and judgment in favour of social justice themes when considering atonement.
Most interesting to me in this section is that McKnight’s distinctions and concern over atonement theory’s misuse or lack of use, are themselves too obtuse and advanced for many Christians to follow. Atonement (and in a more general sense, salvation theory/soteriology) is quite poorly presented in the typical Sunday service, and over-generalized (especially propitiation, true to McKnight’s point) past the point of fallacy.
Our salvation and atonement to the Living God is one of the great mysteries of the human condition. Yet how poorly we have trained those in Christian pastorships and teaching roles to express such mysteries to those they are meant to instruct and inspire. Atonement must be communicated at the experiential level as well as the head knowledge of atonement theory; again, this is another reason why “service” missions and vocations have gained so much prominence.
“Embracing our Flaws”
This segment of the author’s argument repeats some of his earlier points (lack of proper attention to sanctification, holiness, etc.; the prominence of social activism over more traditional evangelism). I would like to quote a portion of McKnight directly:
“Criticism of the ‘Four Spiritual Laws’ or the ‘Bridge Illustration’ is not replaced with something better but is replaced with exactly nothing. The pietist basis of Christian activism in evangelicalism, an activism that was first of all evangelistic, missionary-shaped and church-planting oriented, has been swallowed up by social justice activism.”
I’ve addressed much of this already, above. Certainly in the more left-centre, progressive Christian circles in which I have found a home in recent years, there is a near-insatiable hunger for complexity and practical outworkings of the theology which is discussed. Simplistic tools such as the “Romans Road” or “Four Spiritual Laws” are largely ignored in favour of more nuance and theological exploration. Perhaps McKnight does have a point, however, in that we need to retain ownership of more generalized, simplified tools to present to those new to the faith as they first begin to stretch their theological muscles.
And yet, it is precisely the over-simplified theological tools which many Christians have come to reject as insufficient to speak into modern realities and the questions of our day.
Pride in Politics rather than Piety
In this final, very brief section, McKnight in a very sideways-glance acknowledges the sin of pride and desire for political influence which has infected evangelicalism like a virus (those are largely my words, not the author’s). And to be fair to McKnight, he has addressed this sin many times in other blog postings and writings aside from the present article under consideration.
For many, both inside and outside Christian circles, it is this pride of political influence and political positioning which has caused the largest crisis for “evangelicalism” in all its many permutations.
I’ll be direct at this point: I have no love for the term “evangelical”. I do not consider myself one, and never have (to my knowledge) self-applied the label to myself or the working out of my faith. I suppose, then, that I am not particularly invested in redeeming this term, and I am not even sure that such an effort is wise at this moment in history considering all the baggage with which it is associated.
Yet, I have been mentored by many who would certainly consider themselves evangelical, and I have been part of more than one ministry during my Christian service which would similarly adopt such a term for itself. I have a deep, abiding, and continuing respect for the principles, training, and mentorship which I have received over many years, and I wish for that legacy to continue for others in the current generations.
It seems quite clear that evangelicalism has become something which it ought not, at least as a broad category. What new believers, what the genuinely curious and seeking are craving, at least in my experience is not a return to traditionalism. Many have left traditionalism due to boredom, stagnation, a perception of irrelevancy, abuses of power/authority, improper mixing of the political and religious spheres of influence, and poor quality theological education that fails to merge orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
My wish for the current generations, and those which will follow, is responsible exploration of ideas and service which considers the full rich heritage of the Christian past (evangelical and otherwise) while pushing ahead towards new territory. Renewed authority of instruction. Less investment in direct political influence, more investment in changed hearts and minds through careful and thorough theological teaching which seeks to meld with the working out of God’s command to serve the least of these with our talents and finances.