On Monday of this week,1 theologian Roger Olson and popular author/blogger Rachel Held Evans2 addressed the topic “The Future of Evangelicalism,” before an audience at George Fox Evangelical Seminary. While I was not able to attend, I was able to follow along via Twitter as Olson and Evans addressed the crowd. (Andy Campbell, GFES’s “Facilitator of Online Education,” has assembled the day’s tweets utilizing Storify.) I was also delighted to learn that Roger Olson was kind enough to post his talk (in written format) online. While I would encourage you to read Olson’s talk in its entirety by going here, I’d like to briefly share and comment on some of what Olson has to say.
Olson begins his talk by making a rather important point. He notes,
Predictions are often taken as prophecies and we all know what the prescription is for false prophets. Please don’t take anything I say here today as prophecy. I have some thoughts about where evangelicalism is going, but they are only educated guesses and don’t even rise to the level of predictions. Much of what I will say, however, has to do with evangelicalism’s present and past. Some of it will be descriptive and some of it will be prescriptive—the difference between “is” and “ought.”
He continues with some personal reflections regarding Evangelicalism, reflections that provide both the reader and audience member with key information that helps to shed light on authorial perspective. For instance, Olson shares this tidbit of information regarding his self-identification after college,
Eventually I came to view evangelicalism as my larger Christian “home” beyond my own denomination and church. By the end of seminary I no longer considered myself Pentecostal; I was evangelical first and Baptist second… All that is to say that “evangelicalism” has always been part of my identity and became more important to me than ever once I shed my Pentecostal identity. Yes, I became Baptist, but being evangelical was more important to me than that. I could move easily among non-Baptist evangelicals and often did. Organizations like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Christian Scholar’s Review (which I edited for five years), the Christian College Coalition (now renamed the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities), the Evangelical Theological Group of the American Academy of Religion, the National Association of Evangelicals, Christianity Today, Inc., the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, all became spaces in which I felt at home and moved around easily.
Olson’s strong affinity with Evangelicalism also means strong affections, affections that make it difficult for Olson “to talk about evangelicalism objectively.” He goes on to write, “I love evangelicalism at the same time that I grieve over it.”
Writing as an “insider” with strong ties to Evangelicalism, Olson’s next statement may come across as surprising. He writes,
It is my considered opinion that the evangelical movement no longer exists. As a cohesive movement, it has dissolved. Of course, it never was perfectly cohesive, but throughout much of the 1950s and into the 1970s it was relatively unified—not as a bounded set category, which no movement really is, but as a centered set category. The movement had a gravitationally strong center that held it together. In my opinion, that gravitational center has lost its strength and the movement has dissolved. What was once a relatively united movement has become little more than a memory.
After a quick overview of Evangelicalism’s origin and development, Olson arrives at the character of Billy Graham, “who virtually defined the post-fundamentalist evangelical movement—an alliance of denominationally diverse, relatively conservative, revivalistic Protestants who wanted to be culturally engaged, socially progressive (at least up to a point), and intellectually respectable.”
Billy Graham and Jimmy Carter were figureheads of a movement that would grow so strong that, “Time magazine labeled 1976 the ‘Year of the Evangelicals,’ announcing that 34 % of all Americans claimed to have had a ‘born again experience.’” Despite increasing prosperity, Olson believes that it was, “Right about then, however, the movement, at its peak of popularity, was beginning to dissolve.”
The movement would die a slow death, however. Olson notes, “As long as Graham was active, the movement stayed together, relatively united, largely by his personality and huge empire of ministries.” Graham’s personality could only sustain the movement for so long. Eventually, age and health would necessitate a change of leadership, a change that would result in what Olson refers to as “the breaking up of the movement.”
Olson gives this explanation for why “Evangelical” is such a broad concept: “It’s because I do not consider “evangelical” a concept tied to the post-WW2, post-fundamentalist, neo-evangelical movement. ‘Evangelical’ is an ethos, not just a movement. Movements come and go, ethoses that gave them their identities and outlived them live on.”
First, according to the two historians, evangelicals share “biblicism,” a general regard for Scripture as the uniquely inspired, written Word of God. I argue, however, that what’s unique about evangelical biblicism, as distinct from, say, confessional, Protestant orthodox biblicism, is love for the Bible. Evangelicals love the Bible as the story of God with us. Beyond the debates about its inerrancy or infallibility that divide evangelicals stands the experience of, in the words of Hans Frei, the Bible absorbing the world. Evangelicals are Christians who see the world through biblical lenses. So, evangelical biblicism is a distinctive kind of biblicism. It’s not just sola scriptura in a formal sense. It’s a very close, personal relationship with the Bible as God’s message to us, our means of knowing God in a personal, intimate way. The evangelical ethos encourages Bible reading for devotion as well as study; it motivates Bible memorization and a strong desire for everyone to have the Bible in their own language. In a word, evangelicals view the Bible’s main purpose as transformation, not just information. Second, Bebbington and Noll identify conversionism as central to evangelicalism. The evangelical ethos is distinctive in the way it views salvation. In contrast to sacramental spirituality evangelicalism, as a spiritual ethos, believes that a right, reconciled, transforming relationship with God begins with a decision of repentance and faith. Evangelicals disagree about the nature of that decision, but all agree that authentic Christianity always includes begins with it. A process may precede it, whether that be irresistible grace regenerating and bending the person’s will or prevenient grace enabling acceptance of God’s saving grace. But that a person must repent and trust in Jesus Christ for authentic Christian life is part and parcel of evangelicalism as an ethos. Third, Bebbington and Noll point to crucicentrism—cross-centered proclamation and devotion—as an essential hallmark of authentic evangelicalism. Evangelicals cling to the cross of Jesus Christ in faith. We sing about it. We preach it. We celebrate it. We re-enact it. Evangelicals disagree about theories of the atonement, although by far the majority of self-identified evangelicals have historically affirmed something like satisfaction or penal substitution or the governmental theory—all objective views of the atonement as having an effect on God and not just on people. The evangelical ethos is cross-centered. Fourth, Bebbington and Noll regard activism in missions, evangelism and social transformation as essential to the evangelical ethos. Evangelicals have always been and are Christians who feel called to spread the gospel and help the poor and suffering. The evangelical ethos is marked by concern for the kingdom of God and its growth or approximation through divine-human cooperative effort in the world. These are Bebbington’s and Noll’s four hallmarks, distinguishing features, of what I am calling the authentic evangelical ethos. In other words, “evangelical” is not merely “Protestant;” it is Protestantism energized with transforming personal experience of God.
To these four hallmarks, Olson wishes to add a fifth, what he refers to as “the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy as interpreted by the Reformation broadly defined.”
What does this mean for Evangelicalism? Does Evangelicalism have a future? Or is Evangelicalism a defunct designation used in reference to a dead movement that has nothing left to offer?
Olson suggests, “The movement has no future that I can see. It is hopelessly broken into smaller groups, parties, movements of their own. Very little dialogue happens across the divides between them.” The Evangelical ethos is, however, a different story. According to Olson,
I believe there is still a lot of life in [the Evangelical ethos]. And much of that is coming to us in North America from evangelicals in the Global South.
[...] In my opinion, American evangelicalism has become so Western, so American, so modern, in the sense of Enlightenment based, that we have become a mission field for evangelicals from other parts of the world. And they are coming—to evangelize us for the gospel stripped of the cultural accretions we have put on and around it. To a very great extent, I believe, the future of evangelicalism in America depends on what we do with these missionaries to us.
So, at the end of the day, does Evangelicalism have a future? If we are talking about Evangelicalism as a movement, Olson sees the answer as being “not likely.” According to him, “it would take another Billy Graham to revive it. To a very large extent it was centered around him and his many ministries.” Thus, “We will have to learn to live with a shattered, fragmented evangelicalism and focus our attention and energy on keeping alive the evangelical spirit, ethos, among us.” This will involve ”many different expressions and we’ll need to learn to live with them.” It is then and only then that “we can get on with the business of being evangelicals in our own, separate ways and accept others as equally evangelical without trying to make them conform to some stereotype of our own invention.”
- March 11th, 2013. ↩
- You should check out her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. ↩
- Who would Olson include in this group? “They are represented by the Gospel Coalition and similar organizations such as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals that publishes Modern Reformation.” ↩
- This group is represented by the likes of “Mouw, George, Neff and Christianity Today.” and, 3) postconservative evangelicals.[5. Postconservative evangelicals “are represented by McKnight and the Missio Alliance and magazines such as Sojourners and Relevant.” ↩