Present Conditions, Future Possibilities
If we look at “what’s trending” we have to navigate between the “two horizons” of Christian tradition and Christian living. As I have tried to emphasize in these essays, Christianity is Evangelical, Orthodox, and Catholic. The life and growth of Christianity among any of the traditions is always “evangelical” as the historic and new churches undertake to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. But this evangelical, missional dynamic informed and energized by the Word and the Spirit cannot be managed institutionally and certainly not politically.
My wife and I recently watched the futuristic film Elysium. As science fiction enthusiasts, we thoroughly enjoyed the writer’s predictions of our nation and world in the year 2159. As much as any actors, plot, or action, we relished every prospective social, political, and cultural detail purported by the film as it served to give us perspective about our current climate. This is the power of contemplating the future through art. It makes us stop to consider what is possible, both negatively and positively.
Like others in this conversation, I am reluctant to predict the future of evangelical Christianity. I am no “futurist.” Rather, I will offer some suggestions as to what I would like to see as future developments in evangelical Christianity, some potential directions and dispositions that would indicate a hopeful future for this messy conglomeration we call evangelicalism. Think of it as a wish-list.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few weeks mulling over our conversation, in many different settings. On a Sunday afternoon a little over a week ago, for instance, I was at “Convenient Care,” lying on my back while a friendly and blessedly competent nurse inserted a catheter. I needed to think about SOMETHING other than what was immediately happening. It was a perfect opportunity to consider yet again this strange dialogue, in which—with all the good will in the world—we rarely seem to be talking about the same reality.
Let me lay out two preliminary points. First, this is a blog post, not a treatise. I am expressing my opinions, formed over roughly twenty years, on a matter that has occupied my thoughts.
Second, I realize full well the perils of speaking of “Evangelicalism” (even when modified as a American) as anything other than a fairly diverse movement, especially in recent decades. I restrict my thoughts below to what I see as institutional, or systemic, issues. I realize, quite happily, in fact, that scores of individuals exist on the Evangelical spectrum who would do not reflect the “system.”
I now think of “American Evangelicalism” as a political and cultural movement—like environmentalists, the GLBT, or vegetarians—with a gloss of Christian rhetoric.
If these are some promising directions for American evangelicalism, I also have had a keen sense that, in spite of what my generation of 50-somethings (plus) will or will not do, there are new generations that will take the lead—in truth they already are. If nothing is certain but death and taxes, then evangelicalism will change and morph because, to borrow from Anne Lamott, in 100 years, all new people. In light of this generational movement, I am encouraged by the current generation of students that come to Bethel Seminary for training who are committed both to the future of evangelical churches and to new ways of engaging mission, theology, and faith. They are activists who care about human suffering and who desire deeply to live out the gospel—the story of Jesus—in their particular communities, empowered by the Spirit, for God’s honor and for the world’s restoration.
What is on the horizon for American evangelicalism? If the European West is wrestling with postmodernism and its aftermaths and the global South is grappling with postcolonialism and its socioeconomic convulsions, American evangelicals will continue to struggle with post-denominationalism in coming to grips with a postsecular and yet post-Christendom world.
My answers to this month’s questions are going to sound quite sharp. I don’t think American Evangelicalism has any meaningful future if it keeps classing itself as “American,” a sort of separate national religion. As a distinct movement and culture in the United States, it can only lampoon its own professed theology and wall itself off from the aspirations, sufferings, and perils of Christianity worldwide.
My vision for the future of American evangelicalism is a positive one, although I do have a few concerns. As many of the contributors to this ongoing conversation have noted, evangelicalism has a long, robust, and meandering history. Like all movements, evangelicalism is undergoing change and will continue to transform as society and culture create new obstacles and opportunities. But the underlying principles and beliefs that unite American evangelicals are strong enough to ensure that they will continue to provide salt and light for decades to come.