The Future of Evangelicalism

I just read a characteristically helpful post by Steve Holmes on defining evangelicalism. Holmes wants to emphasize that evangelicalism is not simply defined materially, but also formally. What makes one an evangelical, in other words, is not only what they hold to, but how they hold to it (I encourage you to read the post after my terrible summary).

Since we have spent a lot of time on Theology Forum talking about the nature and boundaries of evangelicalism, being evangelical and all, I thought it might be helpful to take Holmes’ point to talk about the future of evangelicalism. If he is right, and I think that he is, we could see a lot of the fragmentation in evangelicalism as disagreements over the location of certain doctrines. The missional discussion is a certain material understanding of the Church-world relation as well as a specific understanding of the centrality of that doctrine to the nature and task of any evangelical church. Spiritual formation, likewise, entails a certain material understanding of the Christian life as well as the belief that spirituality is central, and therefore orders discussions concerning the Church-world relations (for instance). James posted earlier about the 9 Marks ministry’s concern about “liberalism” in evangelicalism (meaning something like, reading broadly, rather than theological liberalism), which specifically lays out 9 actual marks that are central organizing commitments.

That said, is this a helpful way to understand the various debates being had in evangelicalism? Can we use this as a way to talk about what could be defining debates in the near future (I tend to think that theological interpretation, Church-world relation and anthropology will be those kinds of debates)? Any thoughts?

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2 thoughts on “The Future of Evangelicalism

  1. This account does seem to be able to make sense of ‘seeker sensitive’ and ‘emergent’ thinking within Evangelical camps. Both of these groups definitely put aside doctrine and theologizing for the sake of ‘missional’ commitments.

    Having said that, I don’t think the formal/material distinction can be pushed to far. That is, I definitely see there being a definite doctrinal element to being Evangelical. This is at least within the context of the 20th century. I am not so familiar with pre-20th century Evangelicalism.

    I think the whole formal/material might be missing the mark. Could not the Evangelical camp be, in fact, both missional and doctrinally orthodox? What I mean is that Evangelicalism is neither defined by her missional character nor by her historic creedal nature, but by her unwavering commitment to both and the inherent tension that comes with that matching. This would seem to account for the rationalistic side (Piper, Grudem, Carson) and the ‘seeker sensitive’ and ‘emergent’ sides. It is only when someone or some group forgets this balance that we become aware of their incoherence with the rest of the movement.

  2. It really bothers me to see the word “missional” getting bastardized into a slogan for “service.” It has far more reach than that, at least it should. Of course, this is the problem when a word goes viral in American Christianity. At its core, missional theology locates the apostolicity of the church in the apostolicity of God, which has everything to do with (and gives even more weight to) “orthodox” doctrines in such a way that they are made, to my mind, even closer to orthodoxy because of their witness to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ through Holy Scripture. Unfortunately, “missional” becomes descriptive of a church that’s out doing stuff in the world with only vague notions of why it should be doing anything. To be sure, this isn’t all bad. Many churches are dying because of their insular Christendom-assumptions, safe-guarding themselves against a “sinful world” outside their walls, and even a vacuous “missional church” movement might jolt them from slumber. Still, it’s irresponsible for theologians and pastors to limit their church’s identity in service. Service, just like rational “orthodoxy,” becomes disconnected from the call to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the world.

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