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The Heart of the Evangelical Crisis

With this article, I begin a new column in which I will share reflections on American Christianity, but especially evangelical Christianity. I’ve been embedded in the movement for over five decades, so I should have something to say by now. And what I have to say about the movement is more or less what I have to say to myself, as I see in myself the same shortcomings and potential that I see in the movement at large.

The title of the column, “The Elusive Presence,” is deliberately borrowed from The Elusive Presence: The Heart of Biblical Theology by Samuel Terrien, originally published in 1978 (it’s now published by Wipf & Stock with the subtitle Toward a New Biblical Theology). I read the book soon after it was published, but today I don’t consciously remember much from it except the title (though I suspect it has formed me in ways I remain unaware of). As this series goes on, the careful reader will understand why this is an apt title for the column. If you want to be alerted to these weekly offerings, sign of up for The Galli Report.

It’s hard to know when the current “crisis of evangelicalism” started, because one characteristic feature of the movement is its relentless self-criticism. Evangelicalism is a reform movement, and one object of evangelicals is to reform is themselves.

I do remember when I became aware of a personal crisis that gave me insight into the challenge we all face. I cannot remember the time and place, but I do remember my reaction.

It may have been as the result of hearing a sermon, or perhaps reading a book. But I distinctly remember thinking that my Christian life was sorely lacking in the love of God. I didn’t have any affection for or yearning to know and love God. I wasn’t angry with him. I didn’t doubt his existence. I wasn’t wrestling with the problem of evil. I was being a faithful Christian as best I knew how. But it occurred to me that I didn’t feel any love for God.

I also realized that even though I prayed and read Scripture regularly, not much in my life would be different if I didn’t pray and read my Bible. That is, I was living as a practical atheist, meaning my personal relationship with God did not really affect much inside me. I was at the time managing editor of Christianity Today, so naturally I edited and wrote a lot of things that were Christian to the core. But I realized that if I never prayed again, that I could still be a very good editor at a Christian publication, and a very good church member at my local parish. I knew how to get along with others, to manage staff, to work with my superiors, to work with fellow church members, and to write on Christian spirituality. But prayer wasn’t necessary to do all that. These other matters were all learned skills that had more or less become good habits. My personal relationship with God really didn’t make any difference.

My next thought was, “Well, if I call myself a Christian, I should have greater love and desire to know God more deeply. Perhaps I should pray for that.” And that’s when something occurred to me with great force: I wasn’t sure I wanted that. I recognize that was an odd admission for a person who claimed to be a good Christian. But there it was. I didn’t think I really wanted to love God more. The reasons for that are complex and will be touched on later, but the bottom line was: I really didn’t want to love God.

I’d immersed myself in enough Scripture and Christian theology to know that there was no greater desire than to yearn for God, no greater joy or happiness than to know God more and more intimately. And yet I had to admit that as I looked at my heart and my will, I had little to no interest in that.

I also realized at that moment that there was no hiding all this from God, and that God had known the state of my heart and will for some time, and that he was patiently and mercifully waiting for me to see it for myself. That’s when I also realized that the most honest prayer was simply this: “Lord, help me to want to love you.”

There is a danger to universalizing one’s personal experience, assuming it applies to others, even an entire body of believers. But I actually believe it worked the other way. For some decades now, as evidenced in my writing, I’ve believed that American Christianity has been less and less interested in God as such, and more and more at doing good things for God. We’ve learned how to be effective for him, to the point that we don’t really need him any longer. It was that continuing concern that finally took hold of me, making me realize that this was not their crisis but a crises we all share.

If I were to pick a moment when evangelical Christians began wondering out loud about the state of the movement and where it should be headed, I’d point to the 1995 publication of Dave Tomlinson’s The Post-Evangelical. He described the book’s genesis two years earlier when at the Greenbelt Festival in Britain a friend made a passing reference to “we post-evangelicals,” although he wasn’t sure what that even meant. Tomlinson decided to figure out what it meant, since the term resonated with him and his friends. The book, in his words, was a “pastoral essay directed at those (and there are many) … who struggle with restrictions in evangelical theology, spirituality, and church culture.”

The book made a big splash in Britain, and the like-minded in America began to take notice. From this and other influences arose the Emergent Church movement, which sought, among other things, to adapt evangelical theology to postmodern sensibilities. Perhaps the most well-known attempt was Brian McLaren’s New Kind of Christian trilogy, first published in 2001 and concluded with A New Kind of Christianity in 2010. By the publication of the latter book, McLaren was not merely questioning evangelicalism but also many doctrines of orthodox Christianity. For him and many other emergent leaders, the crisis of evangelicalism was also the crisis of traditional Christianity. Both, as McLaren argued, were mired in the spirit of “modernity,” of theological rigidity, literal reading of Scripture, cold to mystery, more interested in proclaiming answers than in “living the questions.”

McLaren’s “disillusionment” was intensified by the increasing alignment of conservative Christians with politics of the right. Fast forward to November 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump was elected president, and the disillusionment had spread, and had turned into anger for many evangelical leaders when we were told that 81 percent of voters who identified as “evangelical” voted for Trump.

Fuller Theological Seminary president Mark Labberton summarized the crisis of evangelicalism at a national gathering of evangelical leaders at Wheaton College in 2018. He called it “political dealing,” and he castigated evangelicals for grasping at political power, for racism, for nationalism, and for lack of concern for the poor. As is obvious, he was only talking about conservative evangelicals, but to him and many elite evangelicals, it is these evangelicals who constitute the crisis of evangelicalism today.

No question that the crisis today is more intense than it has ever been, with leading evangelicals (usually those who want to distance themselves from anyone who seems to support Donald Trump) dropping that label, preferring to be labeled as a “follower of Jesus” or a “red-letter Christian” or just “Christian.” That discomfort with the name has been around for years, starting with those who felt more attuned to labels like “post-evangelical” or “emergent.” So troublesome are these developments that InterVarsity Press commissioned a book devoted to the meaning and future of the movement: Still Evangelicals? Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning (of which I was a contributor).

Of course, others have located the crisis at the other end of the political and theological spectrum, and did so some 20 years earlier in The Compromised Church: The Present Evangelical Crisis, an anthology with contributions by John MacArthur, Mark Dever, David Wells, Albert Mohler, and Philip Ryken, among others. For these writers, the evangelical church had become shallow theologically, biblically, and in its worship. Their views also have a lot to commend themselves.

Another view comes from journalist and historian Molly Worthen. In Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in Evangelicalism, she argues that evangelicalism is rife with contradictions and confusion because the movement has never has a single authority to guide its life and faith.

This may have been an insight to non-evangelicals, but those in the movement just said, “Well, yeah.” This is the great strength and weakness of evangelicalism. Its lack of structured authority—with only the Bible and each person’s reading of it—has allowed it to be a dynamic movement that shapes the faith attractively to each generation and each culture. But that lack of a central authority inevitably creates arguments and divisions, and therefore in some ways an ongoing crisis.

These are but a few of the crises that those inside and outside the movement name. Each of the critics have been right in more than one respect. As editor in chief of Christianity Today, embedded in the culture of evangelicalism for over half a century, I recognize the measure of truth in each of these many complaints. They are not to be dismissed with a sweep of the hand.

There is indeed a political crisis (but it’s both on the right and left in my view). And a crisis of racism (certainly among whites, but also increasingly among minorities). And a theological crisis. And a biblical crisis. And a crisis in worship (and not just because of thin worship songs). A crisis in marriage and family. A crisis in evangelism. A crisis in social justice. A crisis in pastoral care. A crisis in discipleship. And on it goes.

Along the way, we’ve seen an increasing number of predictions of evangelical demise. Ten years ago, the late blogger Michael Spencer sparked one of the first social media conversations about the viability of evangelicalism with his essay, “The Coming Evangelical Collapse, and Why It Is Going to Happen.” Among other things, he said this:

This collapse, will, I believe, herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian west and will change the way tens of millions of people see the entire realm of religion. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become particularly hostile towards evangelical Christianity, increasingly seeing it as the opponent of the good of individuals and society.

The response of evangelicals to this new environment will be a revisiting of the same rhetoric and reactions we’ve seen since the beginnings of the current culture war in the 1980s. The difference will be that millions of evangelicals will quit: quit their churches, quit their adherence to evangelical distinctives and quit resisting the rising tide of the culture.

Many who will leave evangelicalism will leave for no religious affiliation at all. Others will leave for an atheistic or agnostic secularism, with a strong personal rejection of Christian belief and Christian influence. Many of our children and grandchildren are going to abandon ship, and many will do so saying “good riddance.”

I was skeptical at the time he wrote this, and said so in print. But today I admit that Spencer was more right than he was wrong. Recent events and surveys bear out many of his predictions. We truly are in a moment of crisis in the American evangelicalism.

To be clear, I have no money in this game, meaning it doesn’t matter to me if, as many predict, the movement known as American evangelicalism fades away with the sunset. God has raised up many reform movements since the day of Pentecost, and has seen many die—some of which I suspect he has killed off. If evangelicalism fades away, he will in his mercy raise up another movement that will revive his people. The future of the church in America does not hinge on the health of evangelicalism; it hinges on the power of God. I’d say we’re in good hands.

That being said, American evangelicalism has had a unique beginning, one that energized it and carried it along for two centuries and more. And it has been one of the most revolutionary movements in church history, changing the face not only of North American Christianity, but with the 19th century missionary movement, the entire globe. This history has many troubling elements, as many have pointed out. This is not surprising, because it is a movement full of sinners. But God has been good and has nonetheless used it to enable people from all walks of life and every corner of the world to know the unsurpassable grace of Jesus Christ.

Still, contemporary evangelicalism is in serious trouble. Actually, its crisis is the same one that afflicts all Christianity in America. At the risk of hubris, and the risk of merely adding one more item to the seemingly endless list of crises, in this book, I believe that the crisis lies at the heart of what ails large swaths of the American church. Alexander Solzhenitsyn named it in his speech upon receiving the Templeton Prize in Religion in 1968. He was talking about Western culture when he used it. I apply it to the American church, evangelical and not:

We have forgotten God.

[The Elusive Presence will continue next week.]

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today.

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