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The Future of Evangelicalism – Split or Drift?

January 25, 2013

This is a big deal: Where Evangelical Christianity is going

Yes, it involves the “religious right” politically.  But it is bigger than that, culturally and personally, to millions.  Whether it is voting patterns or broader cultural issues, Evangelicalism in the US is probably the largest religious force.  It is also a significant portion of the population.  Thus what is happening in it, where it is headed, is of profound effect on millions, individually as well as collectively.

National Baptist Evangelical Life and Soul Sav...

National Baptist Evangelical Life and Soul Saving Assembly of the U.S.A. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perhaps you know that the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the country, and is not confined to the South by any means.  It provides one interesting example of the stirrings of change in a style of Christianity which, at least consciously, resists change.  Its congregations have been given the option of calling themselves “Great Commission Baptist”.  Or they can retain “Southern Baptist”.  Note that the new title (taken from Jesus’ evangelizing “commission” to his disciples, after his resurrection, reported in Matthew 28:18-20) removes the regional label but reinforces the priority of evangelizing, a core value of Evangelicalism.  One has to wonder if other public relations issues were in mind also.

But this is largely a side issue from that of the overall direction of the largest Christian affiliation in America… “affiliation” in that it is organizationally diverse and varied in details of beliefs and practices but related and often intertwined by core theology and, somewhat less so, by similar cultural viewpoints.

In relation to this style of Christianity, I’ve chosen the words “split or drift?” carefully.  Let me explain.  The popular Evangelical speaker and author, Tony Campolo, recently posted an online article called, “Is Evangelicalism Headed for a Split?” Seminary professor, author and popular Jesus Creed blogger, Scot McKnight, posted part of the article on his blog as well and his readers entered the discussion.  So there is at least some use of the word “split” to describe what may be ahead.  I’m not sure how widely thrown-around is the idea of a “split” specifically.  There is already a lot of turbulence, to be sure, with many people from inside challenging certain Evangelical commitments, collaborations, theological emphases, etc.

I don’t see how Evangelicalism can have a split in an organizational sense.  That’s because it is more a movement than an organization.  The many church denominations and “parachurch” organizations (some large ones such as World Vision would fit here) comprising Evangelicalism do connect significantly via the National Association of Evangelicals, publications like Christianity Today and its affiliates, and certain interdenominational colleges, universities and seminaries.  Any of these could have an internal split and they typically do have ongoing internal tensions over differing viewpoints and such, like almost any organization.  (Are these heightening lately? I’m not sure… they have been severe before, numerous times.)

But a split of Evangelicalism itself? I’m thinking more in terms of currents drifting different directions (already happening and perhaps accelerating). The increase of such a dynamic seems more likely than what one could call a split, as with two (or even 3 or 4) clearly defined “sides” taking their marbles to go play on another playground, by some other name.  

Now, to go by names alone, we might say there already has been a split, in that we have some new element of church organization often called “Emergent or Emerging”. (The former is more formally an organization, centered in England, the latter more a loose affiliation and general term — an adjective more than a proper noun, though sometimes the latter as well.)  A quick Internet search can tell anyone interested more about these than I can go into here.

Seemingly overlapping to a large extent are also the many Christians calling themselves “Red Letter Christians”.  They mean they take more seriously than most Christians the statements attributed to Jesus in the Gospels which some Bibles mark in red letters… especially those that emphasize care for the poor and down-trodden, nonviolent resistance and such.  I don’t pick up, however, that they are seeking to fundamentally change Evangelicalism’s theology or even the structural aspects of it through churches and such institutions as I’ve mentioned.  More the emphases and their practical expression.

Are there any clear demographics to the drift (along with turbulence)? Aside from a few key leaders such as Campolo himself, probably in his 70s, and Brian McLaren (Emerging movement), in his 50s, it appears that young adults and those in their 30s and 40s are the major movers and shakers, as well as the big majority of the “rank and file”.   Interestingly, in my state of California, especially Southern Cal, Emerging Christians and groups seem under-represented relative to much of the country, including some borderline states of the South.  Otherwise, I’m not aware of particular geographical trends, although those who follow this closely probably have identified some.  I also don’t know how much these movements are affecting racial minorities…. It appears the concentration is mainly among whites, with younger racial minority people and some heavily racially mixed church congregations involved as well.

As to sexual orientation, here is a “dividing line” that is often clear.  Traditional Evangelicals tend to be welcoming to all only under conditions and the “drifting” groups and people generally welcoming with no conditions.  

Are you in the middle of any of this “drift” (or revising or searching or whatever your similar term might be)? Do you know someone who is, or a congregation which impresses you or puzzles you? 

Whether or not you personally are, what do you make of it? What direction(s) do you see for Evangelicalism and the more traditional side of Catholic as well as Protestant Christianity? And what of Greek/Eastern Orthodoxy? (which generally gets ignored, including by me).

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