The Last Evangelical

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From the Editor:

For centuries, the movement of evangelicalism has been a home for those across the globe who devoted themselves to love of God, love of neighbor, and love for His Word. Yet today it seems the word holds a different meaning—not one associated with good news, but with very bad news. Is it time for us to retire the term “evangelical?” In the words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Has “evangelical” become unsalvageable in its link to white conservatism? 

This is the first article in a series where we pose the question: Is it time to leave the term “evangelical” behind us?

You’ll notice that not all of the articles land in the same place but instead express different viewpoints. At Missio Alliance our goal is not to dictate what we believe the “right answer” is, but to foster conversation in the spirit of love and humility that helps the Church discern a faithful way forward.

We need to hear from you too. Throughout history and still today Evangelicalism has included women and men of color as well as vibrant communities around the globe. We need to hear from all parts of the Church as we engage in this critical self-reflection and invite the Spirit to guide, refine, and teach us for the sake of God’s mission in this world. If you have something to contribute to this conversation, consider submitting an article for consideration here

May this help to foster much-needed dialogue and discernment for the days ahead.

Juliet Liu
Editorial Director 

Forty years ago, in 1977, the Force-wielding Jedi stormed into our cultural imaginations in Star Wars. The year before, in 1976, evangelicals stormed into our collective consciousness in what Time Magazine called the “year of the evangelical.”

But is it now time for both to pass?

The Last Evangelicals

Have we seen the last evangelical? Is it time for evangelicalism to end?

Last year, after 4 of 5 evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, many finally gave up on evangelicalism.

Last month, after evangelical leaders like James Dobson, Franklin Graham, and Jerry Falwell Jr. supported Roy Moore in Alabama, many are rethinking their use of the label.

Are Falwell and Graham the last evangelicals?

This mass exodus from evangelicalism prompted Tim Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church of New York City, to ask in The New Yorker, “Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore?” In his op-ed, Keller attempts to distance theological evangelicalism (with a small ‘e’) from political Evangelicalism (with a big ‘E’).

Keller discusses how evangelicals preceded fundamentalists by 200 years. He situates American evangelicalism as part of a global, evangelical movement. And he points out American Evangelicalism’s many deficiencies.

Keller wonders that just as Democratic “liberals” have rebranded as “progressives,” perhaps evangelicals are in a process of rebranding beyond the politically driven big “E” Evangelicalism.  But in his mind it will still be theologically evangelical, even if by another name.

Perhaps Keller is the last evangelical?

Have we seen the last evangelical? Is it time for evangelicalism to end? Click To Tweet

It’s Always Been Political

Although I didn’t know it then, the linking of evangelical theology and conservative politics goes all the way back to the beginning of my religious experience. For me, theological evangelicalism was always also political evangelicalism.

I was raised in an evangelical, dispensational Bible church in Silicon Valley in the ’80’s. I remember the stories of Christian missionaries smuggling Bibles behind the Iron Curtain.  I remember that the greatest threat to Christian America was Soviet Atheism (notice the blending of Christianity and nationalism).

One year, our church hosted a youth group activity by transforming our entire campus into “Pursevocia”—a fictional eastern European country where communists were persecuting the church (get it—Pursevocia?).  We had to complete various activities while eluding communist soldiers (and if you were captured you had to watch “Thief in the Night” while in prison). Our church was simultaneously teaching us the hardship of Christian missionaries and the benefit of American religious freedom. The two were inseparable.

Through experiences like this and many others, I learned my church was a staunch supporter of the Moral Majority—even if it didn’t talk politics in sermons. 

Commitment to conservative politics was as implicit for us as our commitment to conservative theology was explicit.

My experience—and that of many outside of Keller’s New York experience—belies an all-too-easy separation between a mistakenly political Evangelicalism and the more purely theological evangelicalism.

Not least because of the failure of vast swaths of 20th century evangelicalism to support the Civil Rights Movement, it has been fair to ask, “Are evangelicals really just white Republicans?

(See “The Scandal of the Evangelical Memory” for a quick primer on how we so easily forget our history and heritage).

The Honesty of The Last Jedi

Evangelicals—collectively—have reached a moment like Luke Skywalker did in the most recent Star Wars film, The Last Jedi.

For the first time in the Star Wars universe, the self-confident and self-assured Jedi—defenders of all that is right and true in the galaxy—practice a form of collective introspection and humility.

In The Last Jedi, we again meet Luke Skywalker, the hero of the original movies.  But now he has lost faith in the Jedi—disavowing all he had fought for, all he had built.

Luke accuses the Jedi—at the height of their power—of overlooking the rise of an evil that would destroy everything (enter Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader).  For Luke, the Jedi were not all-wise and discerning. They were blinded by their folly. The Jedi were not meek and humble protectors of the Republic. Rather, they were complicit with the Republic’s downfall through their own hubris and neglect.

The Jedi were as much part of the problem as the Sith Lords of the Dark Side.

And in Luke’s mind, the Jedi must end. 

But wouldn’t that mean the Force would disappear?
That no one would stand for what is good?
That evil would prevail?

No. Of course not.

That is exactly the folly of the Jedi—thinking they were the only defenders against the dark.

For Luke, the end of the Jedi means a new generation of heroes will come of age,find their way, and stand up to fight in a new manner, under a different name, beyond and after the Jedi.

Can Evangelicals Be This Honest?

The honesty, boldness, and critical reflection that The Last Jedi offers is something evangelicals would be wise to imitate.

Evangelicals have reached a similar moment of disillusionment. People are asking of each other, “Still Evangelical?”(forthcoming book by IVP). Should there be any more evangelicals?

Evangelicals like me are asking, “Am I the last evangelical? Are we the last of the evangelicals?”

Having exchanged its founding principles for a porridge of political power, having betrayed its moral virtue for political victories, I wonder if it’s time for evangelicalism to end.

  • Many of us have lost confidence in leaders who raised the standard of sexual purity against Bill Clinton but now shrug when it comes Donald Trump or Roy Moore. 
  • Many of us have lost confidence in evangelical pastors who proclaim the inerrancy of God’s Word but support one who disregards the veracity of any and every statement. 
  • Many of us have lost confidence in a group of people for whom the greatest heresy is to speak against gun ownership or to speak for welfare expansion.

If Luke Skywalker can repudiate the Jedi as a flawed group outliving their purpose, perhaps evangelicals can too.

This doesn’t mean there is nothing to stand for. Neither does it mean that all is lost.

It means we are changing how we stand for what is right. It means maybe evangelicalism needs to die so that something else can come to life in its place (and while I don’t have time to expand it here, I don’t think adopting a progressive-left agenda is the answer either. See this episode of the Theology on Mission podcast for more on that).

Maybe evangelicalism needs to die so that something else can come to life in its place. Click To Tweet

White, American Evangelicalism

And for evangelicalism to die, I really just mean white, American evangelicalism.

There has always been a robust, non-white strain of evangelicalism through the African-American church, and a growing identification among Hispanic Christians.  And there has always been a global evangelicalism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that promotes both spiritual revival and social reform—seeing each as integral to the “good news” proclaimed by evangelicalism.

Rather than the opposition between a political and a theological evangelicalism, we need to recover a robust integration of spiritual revival and social reform, something that global evangelicalism never lost.

Rather than the opposition between a political and a theological evangelicalism, we need to recover a robust integration of spiritual revival and social reform, something that global evangelicalism never lost. Click To Tweet

If—when?—white, American evangelicalism disappears, it will only be to make room for a more robust, more multicultural, and a more ancient version of evangelicalism from all the corners of the globe.

We—the last (white, American) evangelicals—must make way for what comes after. Not as a covert rebranding.

But as a true conversion.

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10 responses to “Please Lord, Don’t Let Me Get Pragmatic: Spiritual Formation for Missional Leaders

  1. Thanks for that David

    This is what I’m trying to do.

    Build economically viable communities where costs of living go down through things like free-cycling and sharing meals, child care together.

    Its tough, but I really think it holds a lot of power to help things like this last.

  2. First off, I liked this article and it made some excellent points. But I would like to challenge your argument that a church needs 3 bi-vocational pastors, not just one. I am part of a church called Awaken in Calgary, Canada, where we only have one bi-vocational pastor. But the rest of the church steps up and takes care of a lot of things in order to make sure our one pastor does not burn out. Maybe I am just young and naive but I think there are other options if you have the people to step up. I’d love your thoughts on that.

  3. hey raskolnikov
    as long as you are not mistaking pastors with the idea of staff….i think that any church that is always depending on one pastor is bound to failure and burn out

    However, by the sounds of it, you’re community might be full of pastors, they may not call themselves that or be on staff, but it sounds like they are certainly doing pastoral duties…

    you as one person can only do so much, and pastor so many people.

  4. I applaud the bi-vocational approach. It reminds me a lot of what Paul was doing as a tent-maker missionary .. but I think most Pastor’s are too scared to do it … or pehaps don’t have the time? or perhaps it means being in the real world too much?

  5. David,

    Thank you for voicing some of the questions that have been going through my head in these last months. I especially appreciate that you pose this as a spiritual rather than just economic problem. I have been working at staying grounded amidst the anxiety, and it requires intentionality and discipline, a lot of deep breaths and the will to give up the illusion that I have any control over these matters. Thanks for sharing your struggle and your prescription.

  6. David-

    Your post is very well timed. I don’t know if I’m quite as scared and pressured as your sketch here, but I have definitely been effected by the constant buzz of financial crisis. (Especially the fear of not having a marketable skill to fall back on).

    One of my spiritual disciplines is to spend more time with missional church pastors than denominational administrators and church-planting leadership. The pragmatism from the latter is sometimes helpful, but must be taken in very small doses lest it feed the temptations you discuss here.

    Thanks for your words of wisdom.

    p.s. I’m wondering if you ever responded to my question about Scot McKnight’s desire to start some new kind of post-emergent (I couldn’t resist) network of evangelically minded emergent types? Are you in conversation with Scot about this? Is anything coming of it? How has your work with LotV at developing an evangelism tool come along? I’d love to see the fruit of those conversations.

  7. Jeremy, I just saw your comment … great comment. I’ll try to address your questions in the “P.S.” through the blog … but probably not in next month or so …
    Peace ..

  8. These financial pressures did not start yesterday or today, they started long ago when the translators of the Bible mistranslated the word “ecclesia” into the word “Church” which we take for a building. The emphasis since then has gone towards the building a place to worship rather than the rightful translation as “The Earthly Body of Christ” meaning people. The wrongful focus then began a chain of errors including a hierarchical institutional system rather than a one-another type ministry. Now the Chickens come home to roost with all these financial pressures we have made for ourselves. Pressures that God had not desired for us to bear had we listened.

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