Reflections on “The Future of Evangelicalism”
Yesterday I enjoyed hearing both Rachel Held Evans and Roger Olson hold forth before a full house at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, weighing in with their thoughts on the future of evangelicalism. They add their voices to an ongoing conversation (e.g., see this oft-referenced article; see this challenging book), and one that might be of interest to readers, so I thought I’d share here a few things that came up.
Evans, in her trademark style, maintained her characteristic honesty as a voice for millennials, both in the sense that she had criticisms for evangelicalism as well as hopes. Olson expressed his belief that evangelicalism as a “movement” was dead, but as an ethos it is still very much alive and can be accounted for in many forms. It is represented in at least three flavors: a neo-fundamentalist flavor perhaps represented by D. A. Carson and the Gospel Coalition, a moderate flavor perhaps represented by Richard Mouw, Timothy George and Christianity Today, and a more progressive form that is emerging represented by the newly formed Missio Alliance (they are hosting a gathering in April in Washington DC to also deal with the same question Olson and Evans handled).
A central theme wove through both talks. Evans a layperson who is passionately in love with evangelicalism and cannot imagine her own identity being woven outside of its grand tapestry, and Olson, an academic who refuses to hand over the identity of evangelical to those who believe they are the rightful owners of it just because he does fit the “typical” bill (who determines what that is?)–both focused on evangelicalism’s entanglement with politics. This is not an unfamiliar story, nor is the critique of the entanglement new. For example, James Davison Hunter offers a clear and powerful critique of the problem of evangelicalism’s relationship to politics in his To Change the World (but he’s an equal opportunity critic, taking on Christian progressives and Neo-Anabaptists too).
Olson’s and Evan’s critique resonated with the audience. After the same time they offered their critique, a hopeful conversation ensued during the remainder of their talks as well as the Q&A about just what they thought the future might look like. Olson’s articulation about an ethos provides room for various possibilities. He promised his lecture would be posted on his blog (it’s there now). Evans was hopeful that evangelicalism would focus on social justice, gender concerns, and sexuality issues. On these points, Olson readily agreed regarding their importance.
This raises a concern. For all of their initial criticism about the entanglement regarding evangelicalism and politics–an issue that they and others have convincingly argued breeds cynicism and hinders the church’s public witness, (see Ross Douthat’s recent Bad Religion)–they seem paradoxically to bring up other political issues. The only real difference, someone might point out, is that the concerns of the Religious Right and the Republican Party, to the extent that they have been identified with evangelicalism, have been politicized. Yet it is arguable these other social concerns have been also…just look to the other party (see Douthat or Hunter). So what real difference are they offering regarding evangelicalism’s future?
An issue I would have liked to hear them address goes deeper than politics however. And I think it’s more important. It affects evangelicalism more deeply it seems, because it goes to its roots. Evangelicalism, as Olson noted, has its roots in the Great Awakenings of the 1800s. D. G. Hart traces its beginnings to the revivalism of Whitefield. It began when religion turned toward practicality, both for public and private life. It is after all, interested in changing the world (Olson described this as a quite legitimate way of understanding the fourth of evangelicalism’s 4 main characteristics).
From this beginning, combined with the fact of disestablishment and the culture of “choice” produced by the privatization of religion, a spiritual marketplace has emerged in our time that has been recognized by sociologists as varied as Wade Clark Roof (Spiritual Marketplace) and Peter Berger (The Sacred Canopy). The character of religious engagement in the present era is one of “use” — our approach is often instrumental. In 1966 a prophetic sociologist named Philip Rieff saw this cultural moment coming. In his aptly named classic, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, he suggested long before it came to pass that religious leaders ought to take up the role of therapist and that religion ought to take up the practical role of helping people cope and making them feel better.
“What, then, should churchmen do? The answer returns clearly: become, avowedly, therapists, administrating a therapeutic institution—under the justificatory mandate that Jesus himself was the first therapeutic.” (pg. 215, Fortieth Anniversary Edition, ISI Books)
And now here we find ourselves. Indictments of religion as mere therapy are easy to find. L. Gregory Jones called the church “psychological captive” in 1995. Christian Smith’s 2005 study of modern American teenagers (Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers), whose faith he calls “moralistic therapeutic deism,” is now the buzzword of youth workers everywhere, both as a bane of their existence as they wonder how to solve the problem and a sigh of relief since the finally have a name for the elephant they’ve known has been lurking in the room for so long. And a much missed point of his argument is that their faith has simply been handed down from their parents–it’s parasitic on the major faith tradition of Christianity itself.
Has evangelicalism, emerging as it has out of its originary concerns for the practical, been complicit in the emergence of therapeutic religion? Indeed, yes. But, but, but….not just evangelicalism. The problem of therapeutic religion is much bigger than evangelicalism. It has affected all of American religion. It goes even beyond Christianity.
Perhaps then, a better question, since it is a more pressing concern, and was not addressed in the conversation today, is this: how will the future of evangelicalism face the contemporary challenge of therapeutic religion? How will the Gospel be preached faithfully in a world where the hearers’ ears are already tuned to hear things a certain way, who already desire a certain kind of religion? This is as significant an issue as the one about the disentanglement with politics, if not bigger, because it runs deeper in our social imaginary and has been there longer.
Yet, this is not just a question for evangelicals. This is a question for Catholics, confessionalists, and all Christian leaders. This is indeed a question for all of us. As we forge ahead into the postmodern future, we might not end up with religion without religion (whatever that is), but if we don’t face the issue of therapeutic religion, we might end up with “church” without church.