« The Renewal of Evangelicalism: Future Challenges and Opportunities »

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. On the one hand, post-denominational trends might be understood as signaling the ongoing unfolding of the full promise of the Protestant Reformation and the early modern Enlightenment. Freedom of conscience, un-coerced religion, and democratic liberty initially displaced religious hegemony with confessionally organized ecclesial options. But in the present time, such Protestant confessionalism is also showing itself less flexible in mobilizing people. On the other hand, then, creeds are being replaced by relationships, and people are saying that even denominations are too cumbersome, unable to adapt quickly enough in order to meet the needs of those having to navigate the vibrant twenty-first century context. At least the pietist stream – or river – within the American evangelical landscape has always been suspicious of institutionalized orthodoxies, and hence their concerns for a more Christ-centered orthopraxy and Spirit-filled orthopathy leave them more inclined to follow out the post-denominational currents of the present time.

Such post-denominational developments are also being fed by globalization. Migration is transforming the demography of North American life and this will be progressively felt in evangelical churches. The very important issues of black-and-white that ought not to be forgotten are being gradually complicated by red, brown, and yellow, etc., presences. Denominational loyalties are hence being superseded by missional charismatic leadership, engaging worship styles, and racially, ethnically, or culturally significant ecclesial forms. Along the latter trajectories, there are emerging also multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural mega- and other types of churches, among other experimental forms prompted by the needs of migrant communities and their descendants. But this means there are generational, stylistic, theological, and other factors related to these endeavors that will need to be adjudicated long into the future. To the degree that denominations are ineffective in adjusting to these migration, globalization, and related factors, to that same degree they will be irrelevant in the future.

In the global context, of course, there are an additional set of dialogical challenges. On the one side, one would think that the currently shrinking global village along with our ever-expanding information society would urge American evangelicals to seriously consider other cultural traditions and ways of life. In so far as the evangelical center of gravity is also slowly shifting from the American West to the global South, one might expect that American evangelical perspectives are being enriched, reshaped, and challenged, by majority world voices, beliefs, and practices. And to some degree, that is happening. On the other side, the post-denominational tendencies presently at work illuminate how modernity’s individualistic axiology is playing itself out, and this is occurring not only in the North American context but also around the world. This is the consequence not only of Western influence but also of how the forces of globalization flow in both directions: from the rest to the West and vice-versa. In that case, is it just as likely that non-Western communitarian ideals will influence Western and American evangelicals as it is likely that modern American individualism will gain further foothold elsewhere. To parse the question this way, of course, is rather reductionistic, as if communitarianism and individualism could be demarcated thusly. However, even a more nuanced discussion will still need to confront the questions related to globalization dynamics: how the West interacts with, imposes itself upon (whether intentionally or not), as well as gains from, the rest.

The future of American evangelicalism in a post-denominational world will hence be increasingly fragmented, multi-colored, and constituted by global dynamics. If confessional orthodoxy on its own is no longer persuasive, can the center hold? This is of course the ancient question regarding the one and the many. Of course, orthopathic sensibilities, while essential, are also unable to stand solely. “Do you love Jesus?” opens up the conversation, but then the question that follows sooner or later on its heels is, “toward what end?” The latter suggests that orthopraxic actions and behaviors – related to the mission of the church – also play an indispensable role. Yet having just framed it this way indicates that an ongoing triangulation of orthodoxy, orthopathy, and orthopraxy is unavoidable. Some might think such a multi-foundational set of interconnections is debilitating in terms of providing not one (i.e., confessional) but a potentially and perennially shifting number of fundamental commitments. I would urge instead that we consider such a triadic structure as offering a wider range of resources for rethinking and reconsidering not just American but global evangelicalism in our time.

As a pentecostal theologian, I default to an incarnational and pentecostal – and hence arguably more robustly trinitarian – understanding of how this orthodoxic-orthopathic-orthopraxic nexus empowers Christian, and evangelical, identity in an uncertain world. Christ’s incarnation register’s divine commitments to redeeming human embodiment, temporality, culture, and particularity, and the Spirit’s outpouring on all flesh (Acts 2:17) reflects divine modalities of renewing human language, ethnicity, and culture. “Jesus is Lord!” captures the thrust of the Spirit’s ongoing work, although Jesus’ lordship is realized through the Spirit’s gifting differentially the many members of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12), which includes, albeit does not reduce to the registers of race, ethnicity, culture, and socioeconomic class. In our post-denominational times, how adept will we be in engaging with these “others” for evangelical faith? This is a rhetorical question, surely, as it is not as if we have a choice if we are committed to the values of the coming reign of God constituted by what the Apocalypse describes in terms of many peoples, tribes, nations, and languages (Rev. 7:9).

Needless to say, evangelical theologians are and can be exemplary in taking up the dialogue with theologians of race, theologians of culture, and theologians of globalization on the one hand and with Asian, African, and Latin American evangelical and other theologians on the other hand. In a fluid global context, denominational confessions will continue to give way to theological hybridity – evangelical self-understandings that, for instance, link orthodoxy to orthopathy and orthopraxy. This triadically framed node of identifiers will involve racial, ethnic, and cultural qualifiers in some cases and social, political, and economic ones in others, sometimes conflating in multiple directions. For instance, mine is a “pentecostal-East-Asia-by-way-of-Malaysia-to-America-1.5-generation-immigrant-concerned-both-with-ethnic/Chinese-enclaves-and-with-second-and-later-generation-assimilationist-trends-married-to-a-5th-generation-Mexican-American-pentecostal-woman-who-grew-up-on-the-migrant-trail-and-still-remains-the-only-college-graduate-in-her-family” set of perspectives.

America was formed from out of the experience of migration. Evangelical health in the twenty-first century will depend on renewing, and being renewed by, such a diasporic and hybridic identity, one capable of connecting the historic old to the globalizing new. Our post-denominational climate allows for new confessions to emerge that capture and inspire human hearts, hopes, and aspirations (the orthopathic dimension) while engaging with and empowering effective ecclesial mission, evangelism, and social witness (the orthopraxis domain) in a complex and ever-shifting world. Anything less may result in the passing of evangelicalism en route to a new form of ecclesia as the people of God.

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