« Ideology Ends Where Reconciliation Begins: An Evangelical Wish-list »

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’m a cradle evangelical. My theological training took place in evangelical institutions. Now I teach in a historically pietistic and evangelical seminary. After all these years of being involved in evangelical life, while I still feel warmly about these institutions and mostly feel at home in them (if at times uneasily so), I am increasingly less attached to the evangelical moniker. I am more concerned with fidelity to the gospel than with the future of evangelicalism and its institutions. I am more taken with “Christ the Center” than with the evangelical moniker and much of what it currently represents.

In my initial post in this series, I suggested that “evangelical” ought to be considered an adjective rather than a noun—secondary to Christian, or Christ-follower. There are many types and traditions of Christians. Evangelical describes some common heritages and lineages, as well as some overlapping values, theological visions, and impulses. On this account, evangelical describes a particular kind of Christian, or church, or institution. To be an evangelical Christian means that one self-identifies with one of the many varieties, values, organizing principles, and shared practices that are also known by that adjective.

Those core commitments have been well rehearsed throughout this dialogue—no need to repeat them here. I cannot state strongly enough that to be an evangelical Christian ought to signify, above anything else a, commitment to the gospel. But this raises the debated question as to what exactly the gospel is. The future of evangelical Christianity—its health, vibrancy, and relevance for the world—depends on the articulation of the full-bodied, holistic gospel of Jesus Christ. That gospel is the unparalleled story of God’s project of reconciliation. It is the Good News of God entering the world in Jesus and the Spirit and bringing creation from brokenness toward its ultimate healing, wholeness and purpose. This reconciliation is of people with God, but also of people with each other, people with themselves (the healing toward wholeness and holiness of fractured, broken people), and people with God’s creation. This gospel of reconciliation does not depend on the power and strength of institutional Christianity and speaks a prophetic word against the conflation of political power and the Christian religion (what Kierkegaard, among others, called Christendom).

The Gospel is really the whole story of God’s gracious action in and for the world, most centrally, of course in the person of Jesus, the Messiah.  The vocation of evangelical Christians, then, is to proclaim by word, deed, and life the story of reconciliation and to witness to that story of redemption. On the corporate, communal level, reconciliation with God becomes, by natural extension, reconciliation with others.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

When evangelical Christians embrace the gospel of reconciliation, they understand that God’s mission of reconciliation both transcends and determines their identity and vocation. Evangelical becomes no longer a noun, a static definition delineating the in-group from the out-group, but an adjective: A descriptor of vocation, values, and direction, all centered on the work of God in Christ and the Spirit and directed outward to the world.

So what is the future of evangelical Christianity? God only knows, but what if it looked like this?

An evangelical Christianity that embraces the reconciliation message of the Gospel and is self-critical and epistemologically humble, resisting the temptation toward ideology. Walter Bruegemann describes ideology as the “self-deceiving practice of taking a part for the whole, of taking ‘my truth’ for the truth, of running truth through a prism of the particular and palming off the particular as a universal.”[1]

An evangelical Christianity that acknowledges they are not the only type of Christ-followers, nor are they the only reconcilers God is using in the world. Nonetheless, they commit to organizing their lives and their institutions around the core value of God’s reconciliation with the world.

An evangelical Christianity that is not satisfied with being evangelicals and with possessing the Gospel, but which strives to become attuned to God’s mission in and for the world and seek to align their lives, their minds, and their hearts with that mission.

An evangelical Christianity that views their churches and their institutions, not as ends in themselves, but as means toward a greater end—an end which only God can and will bring about.

An evangelical Christianity that trusts in the Spirit’s agency and divine wisdom, rather than primarily in their own interpretations of Scripture, of reality, and of God’s work in the world.

An evangelical Christianity that is open to new movements of God, and yet able to discern truth from error, and justice from injustice.

An evangelical Christianity that embraces both the vertical dimension of salvation  (justification and reconciliation with God) and the horizontal dimension of salvation (healing, relational wholeness and peace, liberation from oppression).

An evangelical Christianity that seeks and embrace truth, even when it runs counter to received and cherished interpretations of Scripture and reality.

An evangelical Christianity that reads the gospels as the message of the Gospel; that finds as much significance in Jesus’ life as in his death and resurrection.

An evangelical Christianity that defined itself in relation to its movement toward center in God, Christ, and the Spirit, rather than by the static edges or periphery of cultural and ideological distinctions (the insider-outsider mentality). 

An evangelical Christianity that rejects ethnocentricity and racism (even the implicit kind) and embraces otherness and diversity, even when it threatens the security and power of consolidated homogeneity. 

An evangelical Christianity that, when necessary, accepts the demise of “evangelical” power and prominence in order to usher in the greater glory of God. Like John the Baptist, a Christianity willing to decrease, so that God might increase and so that God’s reconciliation project might move forward.

I don’t know if all this describes the future of American Evangelicalism, but it would be grand it if did. 

[1] Brueggemann, Book that Breathes, 30.

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