The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: An Update

Nearly three years ago I was invited to contribute a post to a Patheos series on The Future of Evangelicalism in America. My focus, which is the primary theme of my sabbatical book project, was the splintering of what we think of as evangelicalism.  Here’s how I ended that post:

The next decade of evangelical life will be hotly contested within the group we’d consider as convictional Christians. The question, as Baylor theologian Roger Olson wrote this month, is whether the evangelical tent is large enough to handle the discussions and differences.

It would serve evangelicals well in the coming decade to return to David Bebbington’s definitional criteria for evangelicalism: high regard for scripture, the importance of Christ’s death on the cross, the need for conversion, and the need to share God’s Good News.

If evangelicalism can focus on affirming these core principles, even while disagreeing on broader issues, its impact on society will be substantial. If evangelicalism can’t build a big enough tent around those central pillars, it will mire in conflict and fade into irrelevance.

Little did I know three years ago that the 2016 election would substantially accelerate my prediction. In just the last few months, we have seen the following groups begin to emerge as public expressions of evangelicalism.

The Pro-Trump Evangelicals: This group, originally formed as then-candidate Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council, has provided vocal support for nearly all of the president’s policies and general apology for his character failings. They are motivated in large measure by a vision of a Declining America that must be redeemed through “any measures necessary”. Which is why they’ve latched onto the Cyrus metaphor (although I argued the Nebuchadnezzar was a better metaphor). John Fea’s new book on the “court evangelicals” (which I haven’t read) explores this group in depth.

Billy Graham CenterThe Wheaton Gathering:  This week, a group of non-Trump evangelicals met at the Billy Graham Center on Wheaton’s campus to discuss evangelicalism in the age of Trump. The attendees differed demographically and stylistically from the Pro-Trump group — more females, less white, less combative, more culturally engaging.

The fragmentation is evident in the fact that the first group criticized the “evangelical thought leaders” gathered at Wheaton for not including voices like Franklin Graham or Richard Land. More extreme and fringe criticism even suggested that Tim Keller was an avowed Marxist!

The Lynchburg Revival: The week before the Wheaton meeting, Shane Claiborne and a group of progressive evangelicals (generally overlapping with Sojourners, Red Letter Christians, and Moral Mondays movement) met in Lynchburg, VA — home of Liberty University — to have a series of meetings about issues of poverty, race, peace, and community. Historian David Swartz was there and gave a great report on both the Claiborne group as well as sharing reactions to Liberty.

Evolving Faith Conference: In late March, a group of religious bloggers and pastors — that I would put clearly in the evangelical camp– announced a conference to be held in Montreat NC in October. Advertising itself as “a two-day gatherin for the wanderers, wonderers, status quo upenders, and spiritual refugees to discover you are not alone”, the speakers fit Bebbington’s characteristics of evangelicals, even if they reject some of hte political and social trappings that go along with that label. They may not all be currently attending evangelical churches, but are evangelical nonetheless. (Some of my work with Pew Religion Data showed that a quarter of self-identified evangelicals were in mainline churches).

Millennial Evangelicals: As a professor at a Christian University, I can attest that things are changing in the young generation. While it is true that a larger number of their peers have no religious affiliation, their commitments to core faith principles are vibrant (if at times underdeveloped). Their commitments to diversity are strong and they want to make an impact on the world around them. But they are less politically partisan and more pragmatic. This is seen in their higher commitment relative to older generations to issues of LGBTQ inclusion, gender expectations, and racial equity. The percentage of millennial evangelicals supporting same-sex marriage, for example, is remarkably close to a majority (45%) according to the most recent data.  As David John Seel argues in The New Copernicans, millennial evangelicals are approaching the world using a different frame than their older counterparts.

The 81%: I have written extensively about how hard it is to characterize the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump. They are still the demographic most supportive of his policies. It may be that religious motivations are strong with this group, but it is equally likely that other co-variants are playing a role. We know that not all of these folks regularly attend church and Barna recently learned that 40% of church-going evangelicals cannot tell what The Great Commission is.

What do I make of all this?

Clearly, what it means to be “evangelical” is contested terrain. It is likely that many of the groups that I have listed (and I haven’t said anything about Black or Hispanic evangelicals) would argue that their group is on the right path.

I remain optimistic in the long run that evangelicals can find ways of accepting some core principles and grant each other enough grace to focus our conversations on those rather than looking for the distinctions that would allow one group to claim the mantle of Truly Evangelical.

The short run, on the other hand, is going to get very messy.

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