« The USA at a turning point: The future of American Evangelicalism »

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. 

What is the future role of American Evangelicalism? There really are two paths which this movement can take in the future. One path is that of increasing cultural irrelevance. The church is currently well positioned to accept this path and passively allow for its own death. The Europeans have provided a model for this trend that the United States appears to be comfortable following. On the contrary, American Evangelicalism can see a future of increased influence on the culture, psyche, and morality of the American people. The church can embrace a future in which it recaptures the hearts of the people by bringing to life the person of Christ for new generations.

In his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King said about the early Christians that “The church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.” Dr. King understood the tremendous weight of responsibility carried by Christians in every nation and generation. Furthermore, he recognized that without a commitment to prophetic independence, their impact on the greater society would be limited.  As purveyors of light in a world suffering from the consequences of sin, the church’s public function is crucial. As a result, it must strive to constantly align itself with the right principles, rather than the right people. In this way civic engagement is important, but must be tempered by a spirit of independence that places ultimate allegiance to Christ over political or economic interest groups. 

The American church faces an important question. Will it own this important transformative role for future generations or allow itself to be relegated through partisanship, division, and hypocrisy to irrelevance for a large swath of the population? There is no more significant matter. Practically, for the evangelical community to retain and increase its influence for future generations, it should embrace a focus that is two-fold. 

The primary focus must be on the power of individual witness. In his book The Way of the Modern World, author Craig Gay states that “practical atheism has become so disarmingly attractive in the contemporary situation that we have actually embraced it within our churches.” For Christians to bolster the role of faith in the greater society, we must begin with the individual. Faithfulness, love, righteousness, service, humility, community engagement, and a peaceful, articulate, and impassioned intellectual defense of the gospel are as crucial now as they have ever been. Christians whose lives display a counter-cultural commitment to discipleship have the ability to be the greatest agents of change in local communities. Above all else, Evangelicals must retain their devotion to the pure gospel. A watered-down Christian witness, diluted for the sake of comfort, tolerance and social acceptance, does the world little good. In fact, it promotes a further lack of respect from our critics as Christianity has historically experienced its greatest periods of growth when clearly distinct from and persecuted by the mainstream. As the apostle Paul reminded us, “when I am weak, then I am strong.” Our individual examples, even when rejected by the majority, are powerful.

Secondly, the church should collectively resist the temptation to retreat from the public square. There exist a number of areas in which the church is uniquely positioned to provide life changing service and solutions to the world’s most pressing conundrums. They include the AIDS crisis, immigration reform, ethical compromise in governmental leadership, racism and ethnic strife, uplifting communities trapped in poverty, transforming a culture of violence into a culture of peace, and shining the light of Christ through embracing adoption and models of healthy family. These are all glaring crises for which most secular institutions have both limited impact and potential solutions. A thoughtful, compassionate, and holistic approach to these dilemmas will solidify the church’s influence for years. Whether it recognizes it or not, the world is searching for the love and hope only Christ’s church can provide. 

The beauty of this battle lies in the Jesus’ scriptural promises. In Luke 21:33 Jesus says "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” Whether the church’s future influence rivals American’s Puritan forefathers or Christians become an increasingly persecuted American minority group, His influence will last. We will win.  Consequently, as we continue our battle for the heart of American culture, we simultaneously recognize that our greatest hope lies in the one who overcame death. His hope is eternal. In this way, regardless of cultural outcomes, the future of American Evangelicalism remains bright.  

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