Is Evangelicalism Dead?

reforming fundamentalismI’ve been reading a book lately about the history of Fuller Seminary in the context of the Evangelical/Fundamentalist divide of the 1950s.  That sentence alone was probably enough to make 95% of people stop reading, because people in general and evangelicals in particular usually don’t know and don’t care about the history of the evangelical movement.   But I love to read books like this by George Marsdon. He is a leading church historian who was at Duke and is now at Notre Dame (the Catholics sponsor evangelical church history!) whose specialty is 20th century evangelical and fundamentalist movements. But the strange thing about writing books about the history of evangelical thought for evangelicals is that evangelicals aren’t usually the type to really care about history.  Evangelicals tend to be very pragmatic– concerned about results and effects, not history.   I remember when I was in seminary at Trinity a long time ago, overhearing one of the M.Div students studying to be a pastor saying to his group of friends, “I do not understand why we have to read all these european theologians views– why don’t we just read what the Bible says?” (The european theologians he was referring to were Luther and Calvin) This kind of lack of concern for our history keeps us from understanding not only theological concepts, but it keeps us from realizing how often our mistakes and debates are repeats of the past. 

Fuller seminary was staffed originally by a faculty of very conservative fundamentalists, and more progressive evangelicals.  Both had a high view of the Bible, both wanted to preserve the faith, and both believed in the ‘fundamentals’ of Christian faith and doctrine.  The fundamentalists tended to circle the wagons to preserve the truth against ‘modernism’ and other attackers, while the evangelicals tended to emphasize reaching the culture and society through real engagement, honest listening, and charitable thinking.  One of the early presidents of Fuller– Ed Carnell–  struggled to satisfy the fundamentalist constituents while also developing an institution of higher learning that would have the respect of the larger academic world.  While Fuller eventually succeeded as an institution in doing this, he was not able to deal with the stress of his job and eventually the stress got the best of him.   There were really two camps in the faculty– the more progressive evangelicals, and the more conservative fundamentalist evangelicals.   Among the conservatives were Woodbridge, Archer, Carl F.H. Henry, Wilber Smith and Charles Fuller.  Among the progressive ‘new’ evangelicals were George Ladd, Ed Carnell, Paul Jewett and others. 

This era of evangelical history may be mostly forgotten by all but a few academics within another generation.   I wonder if perhaps the term evangelical will eventually be a term like ‘shaker’ which some know to have a unique place in history as a long gone movement, but which few really connect to or identify with.  In another book I was reading recently, “The Courage to Be Protestant” David Wells of Gordon Conwell actually proclaims the death of the term ‘evangelical’ saying that it has lost its usefulness as a distinguishing word, since it means so many things to so many.  He claims that too many different types of Christians claim to be evangelical, from glammy megachurches to emergent church groups to very conservative Bible churches, so that its a name without clear referent:

“Those who still think of themselves as being in the tradition of the historic Christian faith, as I do,may therefore want to consdier whether the term “evangelical” has not outlived its usefulness.  Despite its honorable pedigree, despite its manyoutstanding leaders both past and some in the present, and despite the many genuine and upright believers who still thinkof themselves as evangelical, it may now have to be abandoned.”(Wells, 19)

This may seem dramatic, but he give his reasons for giving up the term.  First, “In Britain, in 2006, a survey revealed that only 59 percent of evangelicals wished to be known as such.”  He goes on:

“The truth is that evangelicals have brought this bad press upon themselves.  There have been just too many instances of obnoxious empire-building going on, too much in evangelicalism that is partisan and small, too much pandering to seekers, and too much adaptation of the Christian message until little remains.  Too many of its leaders have been disgraced.  There have been too many venal television preachers.  There are  too many of the born-again who show no signs of regenerate life.  For many people, the word “evangelical” has become a synonym for what is trite, superficial, and moneygrubbing, a byword for what has gone wronge with Protestantism.” (19)

Wells sees the evangelical church today as lacking definition and lacking authentic conviction:

“If we mute the biblical gospel by our misunderstanding, or by our practice in the church, we destroy the possibility of spiritual authenticity in the church.  In theory, most evangelicals assent to all of this. In practice, many evangelicals– especially those of a marketing and emergent kind– are walking away from the hard edges of these truths in an effort to make the gospel easy to swallow, quick to sell, and generationally appealing….The problem, however, is that this spirituality is highly privatized, highly individualistic, self-centered, and hostile to doctrine because it is always hostile to Christian truth.  Evangelicals gain nothing by merely attracting to their churches postmoderns who are yearning for what is spiritual if, in catering to this, the gospel is diluted, made easy, and the edges get rounded off.  The degree to which evangelicals are doing this is the degree to which they are invalidating themselves and prostituting the church.”

A key practical reason for the demise and irrelevance of the evangelical term and in some sense movement is a lack of concern to take God or godly living seriously:

“Why do some in the church wander from the core doctrines of the Bible and have to be rebuked?  Why do some carry on sexual affairs as if they were purely a private matter and irrelevant to their Christian lives?  Why is it that some pastors yearn for preeminence, demand attention, are authoritarian, build careers and empires, or are moneygrubbing?  Why are some church members so disagreeable that they are th esource of constant grief and divisions?  The simple answer to all these questions is that the holiness of God is not a pressing concern.  It does not have the power to wrench around the disposition of people.  It is not a present reality.  At most it is a doctrinal point to be agreed to, but it is not a searing reality that enters our hearts like a sword.  That is why we have no compunction about engaging in sexual immorality, self-serving and obnoxious behavior, or embracing beliefs that are unorthodox, biblically speaking.  It is as if, in our minds, God is off in a distant realm, utterly pure though he migh be, and we are in our own realm, living our lives as we want, giving expression to some of our dark impulses whenever the urge creeps up on us.  And why not?  God is there and we are here.  That, no doubt, was the psychology present in ananias and Sapphira when they engaged in their deception, and that was the reason for their rather drastic discipline (acts 5:1-11).” (Wells, 239)

I find these words convicting, and in some ways discouraging.  I see in myself the lack of vital concern to BE a Christian in my attitudes, behaviors, and desires.   I like doing things to serve the poor– this seems commendable and is sort of a fad currently in our culture.  I like being concerned about justice, and helping children (who doesn’t like children) and being for womens rights and against racism– all noble, commendable pursuits which are as popular with non-christians as Christians.  But when it comes to my own personal habits and desires– the inner life of discipline and faithfulness to God– that is not as sexy, not as publically commended, and much easier to ignore and put off while maintaining an outer appearance of having-it-together.  But this empty shell of evangelicalism is not a full bodied Christian life and practice in the traditional sense of the original term “evangelical”. 

There are encouraging things going on, and those shouldn’t be forgotten.  There are churches pursuing Christian life and practice through accountability and mutual encouragement– trying to live out the gospel in the way they live on a day to day basis.  Also recent evangelicalism has become more concerned with social justice concerns, and that in itself is a good thing (even if it can distract us from pursuit of inner holiness).   Not all evangelical churches are market driven or fearful of proclaiming an authentically transformative gospel. 

Learning more about the history of the evangelical movement will not necessarily bring about a renewed inner life pursuit of God, but it may help people to understand what it is that makes evangelicalism unique, at least historically.  I am thinking this November we will do a study group on evangelical thought, maybe watching some videos together and doing a few brief readings like Carl F.H. Henry’s “the uneasy conscience of modern fundamentalism” (1947)

If anyone might be interested to participate, let me know. 🙂



Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism by George M Marsden

The Courage to Be Protestant by David Wells

Link to the Carl FH Henry center where you can watch the video series Knowing your Roots about evangelicalism:

faceless evangelicalism


One response to “Is Evangelicalism Dead?

  1. Becky Nuesken

    Is Evangelicalism Dead? – If not dead, it is meandering. I think the core issue is how can we define Evangelicalism? Give it the right definition and it describes the movement that isn’t dead, but is concerned with both the Fundamental Truth of our faith (traditional) AND a dramatic (progressive) return to it.

    Perhaps the term “Evangelical” Christian could be scrapped for another term – “Radical” Christian. Radical’s definition makes it great –
    1. Of or relating to the Origin (Fundamental).
    2. Marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional (Extreme).

    These two completely contradict, but in our Faith, they go hand in hand. Wasn’t Jesus a radical? I think I want to be one too.

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