“Dispatches from the Post-Evangelical Wilderness” is the byline of this website. In recent days I have received a number of questions from readers, emailers, and Facebook friends asking me to define “post-evangelical” for them. Here’s a review of how I, Chaplain Mike, use this designation.
Michael Spencer called himself “post-evangelical,” and to clarify that he would say that he had moved past present evangelical culture to seek a “broader, deeper, and more ancient” form of Christian faith. His book further describes his journey as being from “Churchianity” to a “Jesus-shaped spirituality”. What did he mean?
On our FAQs/Rules page, you will see his answer, and my comment, to the question, “What is Post-Evangelicalism?”:
MS: I believe the way forward for evangelicalism is the way back to the roots of the broader, deeper, more ancient, more ecumenical church, not forward into more of what evangelicals have been doing the last 50 years.
CM: I heartily agree. In addition, I would say that the reason this is the way forward is that “post-evangelical” for many at ground level evokes a deep disillusionment with the culture of American evangelicalism, a sense of exile or “wandering in the wilderness” in relation to the church, and a hunger for historical rootedness, community that cannot be found in programmed settings, and participation in mission that penetrates the world with the love and truth of Jesus.
The word “evangelical” has a long history. A few of its major uses:
- Its roots are in the Greek word for “Gospel.” The Good News of Jesus is the “evangel.”
- In the Reformation, the word came to describe Protestant (especially Lutheran) adherence to the “Gospel truth” of justification by grace through faith alone. Lutherans continue to have a special affinity for this word, and in Europe it came to be a designation for the non-Roman Catholic Reformation churches.
- The revivals and awakenings of the 18th century, particularly in England and North America, and movements such as Pietism, Puritanism, and Methodism used the word to reemphasize the need for a living faith of the heart.
- In the mid-20th century, Protestant evangelicalism distinguished itself from separatistic Fundamentalism. In the aftermath of the Fundamentalism/Modernist controversies and the onset of the Cold War, evangelical leaders such as Carl Henry sought to restore an evangelical faith that was more engaged with higher education, less separated by legalistic rules of personal behavior, and more ecumenical in its relationships with other Christian traditions. This is what I call “classic evangelicalism” in America. The public face of these “new evangelicals” was represented by Billy Graham and iconic institutions such as Wheaton College, Christianity Today, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), and the evangelical faith missions and publishing houses.
- Evangelicalism morphed further in the 1970s and 80s as the impact of the social and political revolutions of the 1960s was felt more and more in the United States. As Christians became concerned about the sexual revolution, abortion on demand, and other public issues, evangelicalism enlisted in the culture wars. Leaders such as Francis Schaeffer, D. James Kennedy, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson called for more Christian involvement in the public square. Jimmy Carter was elected as an openly evangelical president. The conservative turn in the 1980s that continued into the new millennium was influenced by an influx of evangelicals who participated in the political process more seriously.
- On the theological and ecclesiastical fronts, the 1970s and 80s were also a time of great change. The charismatic movement, church growth teaching and the rise of the megachurch, emphasis on small group ministry, the decline of mainline churches, an explosion of new Christian music, publishing, and retail industries and media outlets, the “worship wars,” the seeker-church paradigm, and the continued influence ofÂ parachurch groups upon the Christian community in effect created an entirely new evangelical culture.
It is this culture to which the term “post-evangelical,” as I use it, refers.
As a post-evangelical, I have not departed from evangelical doctrine. I love Jesus. I treasure the Gospel. My heart and life have been captured by the grace of God in Christ. I fully embrace and gladly own the name “evangelical” in this sense. David Bebbington’s classic 1989 study Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980, identifies four main qualities which describe evangelical convictions and attitudes:
- Biblicism, a high view of the Bible
- Crucicentrism, a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross
- Conversionism, the belief that sinful human beings need to be converted
- Activism, the belief that faith should be expressed in effort.
Though I would want to clarify my beliefs in these areas, and though I would say that these four statements in and of themselves are inadequate, they do accurately describe a few key elements of my basic stance as a Christian.
However, the word “evangelical” has come to mean more than this and to represent an entire church and/or religious culture, which iMonk and many others have critiqued. On Internet Monk, I have given testimony to my experience leaving this evangelical culture and finding myself in no-man’s land in a post called, “My Post-Evangelical Wilderness”. I did a series called “My Issues with Evangelicalism,” in which three specific ecclesiastical and pastoral issues were explored:
Post-evangelicalism is a running theme on this blog, and you won’t read far without bumping into a book review, essay, commentary, or opinion piece that critiques evangelical culture from that standpoint or somehow suggests a broader, deeper, more ancient way.
Why do post-evangelicals pick on this Christian evangelical culture, especially as displayed in America? Here is a list of some of the aspects of evangelical culture that post-evs are reacting to:
- A lack of understanding of and respect for history and tradition,
- A “solo Scriptura,” literalistic, precisionist view of the Bible that does not adequately grasp hermeneutics, literary genre, history of interpretation, and church authority,
- Paradigms of church growth that stress building institutions rather than loving and helping people,
- Models of church structure, leadership, and organization that turn the church into a corporate marketing and business enterprise rather than the fellowship of God’s people,
- Models of ministry that depend on strategies, plans, and programs more than upon the Word and Spirit,
- A continual confusion of means and ends, and the inability to see that changing methods can and does alter the message,
- Pastors who are CEOs or inspirational speakers rather than pastors and spiritual directors,
- Preaching that sets forth principles to help us live as good, moral people, rather than proclaiming what Jesus did and does for lost and sinful people,
- A “temple-oriented” approach to the Christian life wherein everything revolves around the church and its programs (“churchianity”), so that churches are turned into family-friendly, religious activity centers rather than places of true discipleship,
- “Worship” that is more about the worshiper and his/her preferences and emotional experiences than about giving honor to the true and living God and reenacting the story of Christ,
- Captivity to a conservative (usually Republican) political agenda,
- An inability to see the dangers of power and greed as clearly as the dangers of immorality,
- A culture-war approach to public issues, wherein believers and churches take up rhetorical “arms” and wage war against those who disagree with them,
- An entire culture of religious consumers strung along by a “Christian-industrial complex” of corporations who get rich by marketing and selling stuff to them.
“Post-evangelical” is by definition a negative termâ€”it describes having left these things behind. It does not specifically describe where one has gone.
Some are still in the “post-evangelical wilderness,” wandering, seeking nourishment and refreshment. They have not yet found a fellowship or religious culture that can sustain them on their faith journey.
Some have gone the “emerging” route, and this can mean many different things. A lot of “emerging” folks are trying to creatively construct what Brian MacLaren calls, “A New Kind of Christianity” or “A Generous Orthodoxy,” which he further describes as “a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed- yet hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.”
Some have returned to historically-rooted and confessional church traditionsâ€”Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, mainline Protestantism, etc.
Some have remained within evangelical churches of one kind or another, and have chosen to live in alternative fashion to the prevailing culture.
For all of you, and others who may be listening in: Internet Monk will continue to be your trusted source for “Dispatches from the Post-Evangelical Wilderness.”