An Evangelical Future »

An Evangelical Future

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.

At present, there is still immense commitment from American evangelicals to this mission and now along the lines of partnership with other missional Christians around the globe. The day of paternalism by Western churches is over – we live in a post-colonial time and this is to the advantage of global Christianity for the formation of many new centers of faithful leadership. New vital areas of American evangelicalism have become “post-denominational”, even seeking a “religion-less Christianity”. But there is a problem of falling statistics in general commitment to church attendance and to biblical literacy – the two are inseparably linked. Aging memberships and disaffection for and of the young have become acute. At the hundreds of Christian colleges and para-church organizations, there may be a feeling of largeness and momentum but in terms of the population as a whole, American evangelicalism is a shrinking demographic. Fortunately, many of its organizations are committed to partnership with the global family of evangelicals and the prospects are bright despite our brokenness. Still, the future will be to address this decline. In all likelihood, if the evangelical population trend reverses and demonstrates significant new growth, it will be because the message and methods of discipleship are actually “reaching the unreached”.

The distinguishing feature of evangelicals is their concentration upon scripture as the canonical form of the Gospel. Through translation and dissemination of the scriptures permeation of the gospel will be extensive in the local populations of the world. This means that wherever believers are adequately formed as disciples of Jesus, they will be narrating their own lives in biblical yet unfamiliar cultural terms. Evangelicals are defined by this internalization of the gospel, by its translation into modes of “saving experience” –the fundamental Christian experience that the rubric “evangelical” connotes. Saving experience shaped by this gospel is the evangelical measure for all other doctrinal and missional norms. The Christo-centric scriptures – “the messianic scriptures” are the basis for this measure (cf., e.g., Lk 24, the risen Jesus instructs his disciples in doing Spirit-illumined, messianic exegesis of all scripture).  This is the source of Augustine’s “evangelical” motto:  credo ut intelligam – “I believe in order that I may understand”. These evangelical features make learning and experience twin principles of identity formation. Evangelical mission, education, and humanitarian relief are practical outcomes of this identity.

What will evangelical leadership look like? Part of the evangelical world is struggling to make its mark through tradition. The neo-traditionalists may be “Anglican”, “Reformed”, “Wesleyan”, “Baptist”, even “Pentecostal” while there is a constant trickle of conversion to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. The traditions are certainly the common property of all Christians and yet all the historic institutions together are not adequate for the global missional task. This should not be taken as dismissive, only that the global mission to the earth’s 7 billion could never be dependent upon the historic institutions alone. So the mission is being taken up and extended by non-Western Christians as well. Happily, they are up to it. Impressive leadership and resources have emerged in Asia and elsewhere. I would suggest here a key historical lesson evangelicals should bear in mind. When Constantine adopted Christianity as the religio licita (“legal religion”) of Empire it not only radically altered the faith, it also limited the church. Orthodoxy became defined by the boundary of the empire; but orthodox Christianity already exceeded those bounds. The resulting divisions left much of the world beyond the empire to a critically weakened mission. This would be born out over and over again - Latin will only take you so far in the world. With the demise of Constantinianism in mission and with unencumbered evangelical principles, the extension of the gospel to all nations is actually freer now. As the new communities find ways to exist and to do their mission, orthodoxy and catholicity will embrace such developments.

The very positive side of evangelical outreach is also humanitarian. For decades, evangelicals were allergic to any whiff of “social gospel”. As the mainline went into radical decline, evangelical organizations such as World Vision have proliferated. The missional partnerships and the political coming of age of evangelicals are also significant in this. Hopefully the new generation of evangelicals will realize how fundamentally the gospel inspires life commitments to discipleship with these very practical outcomes. If Christian living based upon the gospel can achieve greater focus, a whole new generation of American evangelicals will join the already vibrant missional partnerships around the globe.

The evangelical contribution to global Christianity from the Reformation was its concentration upon the doctrine of salvation sola Christi - but also its ecclesiology which required faithfulness to the gospel alone – the true heart of sola scriptura. The marks of salvation and of the church are mediated through the Spirit and the Word activating people in worship and discipleship. Christianity thrives based upon the gospel essentials of knowing Christ where the “two or more” gathered in his name constitute the church whenever this is happening. In these conversations I have advocated for the five sola’s of the Reformation: faith alone, scripture alone, grace alone, Christ alone, to God alone be glory. The great imperative for evangelicals is the proclamation of the gospel and the advancement of the church however simple its forms. Evangelicals have always seen this mission as requiring practical innovation and immense resourcefulness.  When the Gospel of Christ takes root in and transforms so many cultures it is because it also teaches deep respect for the dignity of the human being. These evangelical principles have become a permanent feature of global Christianity but they are a long away from any possibility of institutional containment. In this we can be confident in the sola Christi: “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).

Evangelicals are by necessity deeply committed to religious liberty because they are often regarded as sectarian as they have communicated the gospel independently of traditional institutions. But they, like other Christians, wish to avoid persecution – and they must wish this for every human being. Persecution does not always result in a strengthened church. In some cases persecution has resulted in the eradication of historic Christian communities along with the silencing of their message. The world of cultural systems is vast and powerful and only relatively few provide for freedom of religion. In intolerant places, Christian living has become virtually impossible because it is associated with “Western” culture. But in recent decades many evangelicals have been looking to models of contextualization and indigenization of the gospel by native speakers and their nascent communities. The gospel is culturally translatable but its communicants must be free to live it out. Living out the gospel will always be profoundly shaped by the cultures of its people and evangelicals need to respect these new Christian achievements however unusual they may appear. “The gospel cannot be chained” (2 Ti 2:9) as it makes its way into difficult places and engenders new communities. American evangelicals have a great deal to learn from the emergent evangelical majorities in the global east and south – of course the learning in partnership goes in both directions.

The origins of religious liberty are not to be found in the general rule of law but in the gospel itself. Saving faith requires the exercise of a free conscience – or better, a freed conscience. This is essential to scriptural teaching on the nature of the human being before God. The gracious work of the Holy Spirit is a free act of God so that faith in Christ is truly saving the person not coercing him. The most “evangelical” of the Vatican II documents is Dignitas Humanae (1965)[1] authored by John Courtney Murray and promulgated by Pope Paul VI, drawing directly from the American evangelical heritage going back to Roger Williams. The document asserts that “the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature”. Such faith is linked directly to the dignity of the person which is “inviolable” – something that culture warriors need to reflect upon long and hard.

As we learn to recognize the contemporary evangelical developments soteriologically and ecclesially, we might consider five rules of Christian identity: 1) wherever believers, however hidden within the landscape of their native cultural systems manifest a sincere confession of “Jesus is Lord” we are assured that they do so only by the Holy Spirit (I Co 12:3); 2) wherever believers begin to live out the love command of Jesus they demonstrate the reality of their sanctification in Christian living (Mk 12:29);  3) wherever believers demonstrate witness to eternal life in Jesus Christ they demonstrate the saving reality of Jesus’ mission in the world (Jo 17:3);  4) wherever believers, however much they are forced underground and are few, gather in Jesus name they are his ecclesial presence in the world (Mt 18:20); 5) wherever believers are helping others to become followers of Jesus they demonstrate the spiritual authority which Jesus gives to his disciples (Mt 28:19-20).  All of these are evangelical hallmarks of the church where the gospel of Jesus Christ is being effectively mediated in the world. To be sure, there are a multitude of doctrinal refinements to be brought forward but these are their root and stem; that which makes the visible church possible.

Finally, perhaps the greatest thing that evangelicals can do is praise God and in particular to exclaim: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news…” (Is 52:7; Ro 10:15).




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