As the articles in this issue of Modern Reformation suggest, evangelicalism is experiencing a change in seasons: former evangelical statesmen are passing from the scene, new evangelicals don’t seem to rally around the same issues and ideas as their forefathers, and it’s increasingly difficult (if it was ever really possible) to identify clearly what an evangelical is. If you have any warm feelings at all about evangelicalism, you want some answers: Where is evangelicalism going? Who better to turn to for answers than the individuals whose lives and work helped create and shape evangelicalism. Modern Reformation is honored to include the reflections of these evangelical leaders, pastors, and scholars as we seek to understand our own time and the future of the evangelical expression of Christianity.
The Evangelical Manifesto, issued in May of this year and signed by many evangelical leaders, gives a diagnosis of the movement which is true, clear, pungent, and with which I wholeheartedly agree.
It speaks of evangelicalism’s internal “confusions” and of evangelicals as being “in dire need of reformation and renewal.” Why is this? It is because biblical truth has been replaced by “therapeutic techniques, worship by entertainment, discipleship with growth in human potential, church growth with business entrepreneurialism.” The result is a kind of culturally perverted Christianity in which “we ourselves are often atheists unawares, secularists in practice who live in a world without windows to the supernatural, and often carry on our Christian lives in a manner that has little operational need for God.” As if that were not enough, evangelicals, who loudly proclaim the doctrine of sin, are nevertheless turning a blind eye to their own sins and failings.
I applaud the honesty of this diagnosis. But may I ask an awkward question? During the last two decades, as I have been writing about this gathering storm, there have not been very many others who have expressed the same concerns. Where, I ask, have our leaders been?
Twenty or twenty-five years ago, the Manifesto‘s call for “reformation and renewal” might have made some sense and might have gained some traction. Today, though, it looks more like an earnest attempt to close the barn door long after the horse has disappeared.
By that I do not mean that nothing of worth remains in the evangelical world! Of course, there are churches that are flourishing in good and biblical ways, there are believers living authentic Christian lives, missionaries doing work in sometimes heroic ways, and a new wave of younger Christian believers is emerging, so to speak, who are really searching for the real thing and are disgusted by the very failures that the Manifesto describes. Unfortunately, though, much of what the Manifesto sees as wrong is now so thoroughly institutionalized, so much of it is a part of the warp and woof of evangelical believing, so much of it unashamedly practiced by the leaders, both pastoral and institutional, who should be about addressing what is wrong that no “business as usual” kinds of repentance are going to work. The truth is that there are now so many vested interests involved in preserving the failing evangelical status quo, there is so much cultural habit entailed, so many private ambitions at work, so much muddied thinking and emptied-out spirituality now fills its churches that any call to change these attitudes and habits without a matching call to address their causes behind them is bound to fall on deaf ears.
This story of postwar evangelicalism, however, is not at all unusual. Ebb and flow, expansion and decline, failure and renewal, have marked biblical believing in all ages and it is what we are seeing today. The early postwar years, the 1950s and early 1960s, saw the emergence of the movement that, despite undoubted mistakes and misjudgments, nevertheless built a sound biblical basis for the faith, undertook a massive publication effort in producing Bible translations and commentaries for this foundation, and began an energetic, evangelistic outreach. It is no small tribute, backhanded though it is, that half of American adults today claim to be born again. Being born again has won grudging cultural acceptance even as the culture itself has been given more than a grudging acceptance in the evangelical world!
It was in the 1970s and 1980s, however, that a different kind of leader emerged-no longer the pastoral/ theologians of the earlier period, but the CEO/entrepreneurs of the increasingly organizational and institutionalized period in the movement life that had grown out of these earlier years. The gathering strength in organization, wealth, and numbers that has continued to this day has, it turns out, been matched by a gathering decline in Christian authenticity-as Barna has been assiduously documenting-and by the evisceration of any serious meaning to the word evangelical. Who would have imagined, for example, that in 2008, according to the recent Pew study, 57% of evangelicals would say that eternal life can be found in many other religions? Had the biblical writers thought that, we would have no Bible today.
Evangelical is an honorable word with a history that at times has been magnificent. But today, it has been debauched by a mass of empty born-again professions, by fallen leaders, and by theological corruption. It is time, I believe, to respect what the word once meant by no longer using it of ourselves, at least for a generation. Let us put our own house in order before we think again of ourselves as being evangelicals.
Much of this mammoth world of believing, with its entrenched leaders, will resist reform to its dying day, but let the reform-minded, let those who really care about Christian truth, begin to network together, to work around the existing structures where necessary and with them where possible, to bring about a new day. A new day is possible and I am optimistic in thinking that we will yet see the current evangelical ebbing followed by a new reforming flow and our moment of failure by a fresh and invigorating renewal that may, in time, require new forms for its life and expression.
Dr. David F. Wells is Distinguished Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts.
This article originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2008 Vol. 17 edition of Modern Reformation and is reprinted with permission. For more information about Modern Reformation, visit http://www.modernreformation.org or call (800) 890-7556. All rights reserved.