« Listening to Fresh Voices »

My first thought upon being asked to respond to the question of the future of American evangelicalism was to wonder about the size of that question. How am I competent to answer such a large question, since I am a New Testament scholar and not a sociologist? Yet I have considered these questions about the identity and direction of evangelicalism for much of my life, having grown up in this movement and having pursued my vocation within its borders. My involvement in this blog conversation for the last half a year has also contributed to my understanding of evangelicalism; my colleagues have offered me a greater sense of the richness and expansiveness of the evangelical movement, and I am grateful to them for investing their wisdom and perspectives into this conversation.

I’d suggest, however, that none of these qualifications provide me with a window into the future of American evangelicalism. I am neither a prophet nor the daughter of a prophet… So, although I will share my vision for the future of American Evangelicalism, it is not an attempt to prognosticate. Rather, I share here my wish, my hope, my prayer for this movement that has been a theological home for me for a long time.

First, I’d like to think that evangelicalism will reckon with its located-ness as a particular movement within the church’s historical trajectory rather then the one, true expression of God’s work in this world (see May discussion on this blog). The pluralistic context in which we live is a resource for doing this kind of redefinition and exploration of identity. Rather than feeling threatened by such pluralism, even within the realm of Christendom, we could allow it to teach us that ours in not the only legitimate voice in the church. This kind of self-reflection, as a movement, could help us identify our strengths and weaknesses in ways that provide avenues for both self-correction and for preservation of what is central. Because if we have to say that everything is a strength (a corollary to ‘we’ve got everything right’), we’ll never be able to discern what strengths evangelicalism does offer to other Christian traditions.

A recent Bethel graduate and now pastor, Adam Rao, made the following observation to me in a recent conversation that highlights one such strength. "I think that the strength evangelicalism brings is the recognition that our Christian beliefs matter because they locate us in something that is not entirely incomprehensible, but took/takes place in human history. If the resurrection never occurred, then let’s pack it up and do some good instead of wasting our time with all this church stuff. If Jesus didn’t really exist or was nothing more than a 1st century prophet, then I’m pretty sure I can stay home on Sunday mornings and pursue my own spirituality without needing a church at all."

Second, as part of this self-reflection, I would hope we might come to terms with and even celebrate the breadth and diversity that is American evangelicalism. Amos Yong helpfully expresses this diversity in his post in this current conversation. Given the penchant of evangelicals to define “we” rather narrowly, we have quite a way to go in this endeavor. Yong has suggested, for example, that we intentionally include non-white populations in our conceptions of evangelicalism. How will we do justice to the presence of immigrant movements within American evangelicalism? How will we pay attention to and learn from global evangelical expressions?

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.

Some voices leading this new generation of evangelicalism have been a part of this blog (Kyle Roberts, Soong-Chan Rah); others that intrigue me include thinkers like Christena Cleveland and Rachel Held Evans, who we might locate within the evangelical tradition (based on the publishers of their books and themes they engage). What particularly excites me about the work of this next generation is their willingness to collaborate and to be in conversation with those not just like them, theologically or socially. There is a sense of the importance of relationality in their work and presence that I find exceedingly hopeful. Capable hands, it seems to me, for a passing of the torch, even and especially if this next generation doesn’t do evangelicalism precisely like each past generation has envisioned it.

To invoke Dylan:

Come mothers and fathers

Throughout the land

Don't criticize

What you can't understand

Your sons and your daughters

Are beyond your command

Your old road is

Rapidly agin’

Please get out of the new one

If you can't lend a hand

For your times they are a-changin.’

(from The Times They Are a-Changin’)

My hope is that the evangelicalism of my generation will age gracefully (while continuing to make important contributions) and then empower and step out of the way for a new generation that places Jesus the Messiah at the center, understands the Bible as revelation from God, and commits to living out justice, mercy, and faithfulness in mission from the triune God (Matt 23:23).

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