Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rachel Held Evans on the future of Evangelicalism

Rachel Held Evans has a sharp post on the future of evangelicalism. I should note from the outset that I'm not heavily invested in evangelicalism, having never considered myself one of them. I have moved from fundamentalism to the LCMS to the Episcopal Church. So I'm not Rachel's intended audience. (I felt the same way about Rob Bell's and Michael Spencer's books. Good books, but not really addressed to me.) Nevertheless, some of what she says resonates with me.

Rob Bell's book, she says, points to the divide within evangelicalism between the "young, restless, and Reformed" and the emerging evangelicals. The former are organized and have clear denominational affiliations. The latter are less organized and don't like labels. Can these two groups stay together in evangelicalism? Rachel has her doubts:
The problem, as I see it, can be summarized in the now infamous tweet issued from John Piper: "Farewell Rob Bell."

Those three words triggered a profound reaction within a lot of young evangelicals because many of us have heard them, in some shape or form, before. ... Piper wasn’t simply bidding "farewell" to Rob Bell, he was bidding "farewell" to any of us who agree with Rob Bell, or ask the same questions as Rob Bell, or at the very least wish to stay in fellowship with Rob Bell. It is no longer enough that we too want to love and follow Jesus Christ, or that we too can affirm the creeds of historic Christianity.
This is exactly right. John Piper was one of several theologians and preachers who helped lead me out of legalistic fundamentalism - but that tweet infuriated me. He perfectly illustrated with it the very way of Christianity he helped me leave behind. Rachel goes on to say something I've been feeling for some time now:
But the problem is that after ten years, I’m getting tired of trying to convince fellow Christians that I am, in fact, a Christian, even though I may vote a little differently than they vote, interpret the Bible differently than they interpret it, engage with science a little differently than they engage with it, and understand sovereignty and choice a little differently than they understand those things.
For my part I've decided to disengage with people who aren't interested in a truly open conversation. One thing I've learned from signing off Facebook and Twitter during Lent is how much noise and useless antagonism I've had in my life recently. I'm going to try to move on and do something constructive.

Rachel's predictions:
So my first prediction is that in the next few years the evangelical community will engage in a serious conversation about the Bible. And I suspect that that will be the tipping point McKnight asks about. Let’s pray that this conversation will be as civil and as loving as possible.

My second prediction is that the so-called “new evangelicals” will in large part drop the evangelical label. We don’t like labels to begin with, and evangelicalism already carries a lot of political and theological baggage. Some will head to mainline churches, others will rediscover the rich history of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, and some will leave Christianity altogether. Still others will remain evangelical in spirit, but without the label—opting instead for “non-denominational” or simply “follower of Jesus.”

My third prediction is that the word “evangelical” will go the way of “fundamentalism” as its adherents become increasingly homogonous and as the word becomes associated with dogmatism regarding politics, science, women’s roles, homosexuality, salvation, and biblical literalism.

THAT IS UNLESS my generation—both Reformed and emerging/progressive evangelicals—decide to intentionally preserve the diversity of our tradition, stop launching personal attacks, and move forward together.
As I said before, I don't really have a dog in this fight. I pray, however, that those who do may find peace.


  1. My first question when this Rob Bell controversy came up was Rob who? I'd never heard of him. We're in an Evangelical church, but I don't really keep up with who the popular teachers are in Evangelicalism. From what little I know of the Emergent folks, it seems like just another fad. And Evangelicalism is prone to fads that are here today and gone tomorrow. The younger Reformed, however, seem less of a fad, especially as Al Mohler has essentially turned the Southern Baptist Convention's flagship seminary in Louisville into a Reformed bastion. Most all of the young pastors coming out of that seminary and thus becoming pastors in the largest Protestant denomination in America are Reformed. But the Reformed have by no means taken over Evangelicalism.

    Anyway, the irony of Rachel's comment on Piper's tweet is how much she seems to read into it and for all her complaints about labeling and doctrinalism seems to turn around and judge Piper. Does she really know that he meant all she said he meant with the phrase "Farewell Rob Bell"? Maybe Piper meant he just doesn't see any point in discussing things further with Bell. Maybe Piper thinks Bell himself isn't open to real conversation on the issue of salvation and universalism. Who knows? It seems a bit presumptuous to go off on Piper on the basis of three words.

    Otherwise, Evangelicalism has plenty of problems and things could go wrong for it in the near future. It will likely change as the boomers pass from the scene (so too will politics as well as the leadership in other faith traditions). But I don't see Evangelicalism going the way of fundamentalism, especially the Baptist fundamentalism down here in the South. Trust me, there is a real difference between the two.


  2. Piper is a follower of Jonathan Edwards. Didn't Jonathan Edwards once tweet "Farewell Charles Chauncey?"


About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.