July 9, 2014 / Geoff Holsclaw

Evangelical Influencers: A Mirror into our Future

“Mirror, Mirror, on the Page”

At first I was quite ambivalent about this article by Christianity Today: “33 under 33: Meet the Christian leaders shaping the next generation of faith”.

But my ambivalence turned to concern, and then concern turned to outrage!

Well, actually that’s not true.  I’m not outraged.  But I am significantly concerned.  Why?

Because as a pastor of many years at Life on the Vine I know what is said or done on the surface is rarely the most important thing going on in one’s life.  Often there are deeper, and darker, currents flowing of which I must pay attention.   And as a professor at Northern Seminary I know it is usually the un-reflected assumptions that have the most power in our theological constructs.

So my concerns lay beneath the surface of this article, and it is into this depth that I want to ask what this article might be telling us about Christianity Today specifically, and evangelicalism generally.  

I want to use this article as a mirror through which evangelicals see themselves.  But not just a mirror that describes reality, but also a mirror that prescribes reality.

This would be in the tradition of the older “mirror of princes” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirrors_for_princes), handbooks that taught young princes how to rule by offering exemplary kings from the past in order to inspire princes in the present.  The hope was that the young prince would conform to the image presented in the text and in that way the text would be a mirror for who they would become in the future (the most famous example is Machiavelli’s The Prince).

On the Surface

To begin with, I don’t think there is anything sinister going on (all reference to Machiavelli aside) in listing some of the young, up-and-coming talent within the millennial segment of evangelicalism (if they indeed self-identify as evangelicals, which would be an interesting question to ask all 33).  I believe everyone listed here are honest, hard working, individuals who deserve the honor they have received.  They represent a list of great people doing great things, presented as both inspired and inspiring.

Just as I was raised on stories of brave missionaries and great pastors, stories which significantly shaped my life and calling, so too our youth need inspirational stories through which to catch a vision for their own lives.  This vision casting, therefore, functions as a “mirror of evangelicals”, forming the imagination for what we can become.

Into the Deep

But what might be under the surface of this article?  What does it tell us about Christianity Today specifically, and evangelicalism generally?

Simplistically, we could point out that the list seems rather conservative (politically and theologically), mostly American, and fairly Reformed, and that this mirrors the readership of Christianity Tody.  But these observations that do not necessarily offers any deep insights.  After all, we should also point out the gender and ethnic diversity, as well as the many artists on the list, all of which should be commended to some extent.

Beyond the individuals listed here, however, we need to take the list as a whole and see two very clear commitments reflected in it, onecultural and the other theological.

Culturally, this list perfectly reflects American “heroic individualism”. If you have an idea to change the world, then boot-strap your way to its realization: craft your message, build your platform, gather an audience, and make a difference.  Now again, I’m not saying this is the actual story of any of these individuals, but reading their brief bios you cannot help but get this impression.

But this impression of “heroic individualism” should be questioned.  Does not this echo a celebrity-driven culture and therefore perpetuate a celebrity-driven church?  Does this not echo/perpetuate a platform-driven church in which being successful is gauged by the metric of audience impact rather than gospel witness? A list like this echoes/perpetuates American individualism, which neglects to tell the story of how these individuals were formed and shaped by a community to be the people they are.  I would rather have seen a list of all the churches/families/communities these people came.

Theologically, this list is committed to a very Reformed/Niebuhrian understanding of “transforming culture” which masks an extremely thin ecclesiology.  The basic idea is that Christians should go out and transform culture by influencing (in a Christian way) every part of culture (politics, economics, education, and the arts).  Of course, especially for Niebuhr (in his classic Christ and Culture), what it means to ‘influence’ culture is left extremely vague (Niebuhr is quite out-dated, but as of yet there has not been a model to rival him, something Dave Fitch and I hope to remedy if we ever write a book together again).

The problem with the theological commitment of “transforming culture” (which to be clear, I’m attributing to Christianity Today in crafting this list, not to the individuals listed) is that it most often leads to the liquidating of the local/regional church as the locus of God’s work through which the world can see, imagine, and believe an alternative telling of reality, one based in the Kingdom of God breaking in through the life, death, and resurrection of the Son in the power of the Spirit.

Where is the Church?

In conclusion, I ask, “Where is the church reflected in a list like this?”, especially if it is to represent the future leaders of the church.  In reading this article most of those listed come off as completely churchless (which for many is absolutely not true).  And so again, this “churchlessness” tells us more about how Christianity Today is framing these people than who they really are.

And this is telling as a mirror into evangelicalism in America, both descriptively and prescriptively. 

Not having missionaries or pastors prominently on this list might indicate the opening up of Christian life beyond the narrow confines of vocational ministry, honoring every aspect of life a part of mission.

But I wonder if this is not more of a capitulation to the American entrepreneurial spirit of individualism and “can-do-ism” that will continue to erode the evangelical church in America?