It’s been a little over a week since my post at Patheos on The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism. I appreciate the questions and comments. This week, Patheos added The Future of Progressive Christianity. While the new responses were as varied as last week’s, there is some fascinating synergy here worth watching.
Updates on My Post
First, some reflections on my own piece. Some have suggested that I was arguing that evangelicalism was more fragmented than at any point in the past. I don’t think I ever said that but I can understand the implication.
Let me clarify a few things. First, as a sociologist, my time frame was limited to the past 75 years — the period from the foundation of the National Association of Evangelicals to the present. That is why I referenced Molly Worthen’s history of what I call Industry Evangelicalism — the organizational dynamics that defined what we think of as “evangelical” in the popular realm. As Molly points out, there was significant variability among religious groups in the broad Evangelical umbrella, but there was a “mainstream evangelicalism” (a term often evoked to demonstrate someone is outside that stream). Those focused on defining mainstream are the ones that Putnam and Campbell identified as the source of their “second aftershock” of millennials becoming disillusioned with institutional faith (a pattern David Kinnaman has documented well).
Second, the fragmentation today is taking place in a remarkably different social context than any past fragmentation. This is well documented in the Pew Religious Landscape Report. We have seen a remarkable decline in Cultural Christianity because the social sanctions for not being religious have basically disappeared. Business owners no longer suffer in their local environments for not being members in good standing of the local Presbyterian Church. Furthermore, as a variety of institutional figures have found themselves on the wrong side of social media, abuse claims, or authoritarian personalities, it has coincided with a general anti-institutionalism within the society. In an age of social media, there is a democratization of viewpoints that would not have been present in the past. These changes in the social context, along with others, exacerbate the fragmentation that is present and makes consensus building much more difficult.
Finally, my call for an embrace of big-tent Bebbington definitions isn’t an “anything-goes” invitation. It’s a recognition that even evangelicals who disagree on social issues or come from different generational perspectives are all holding the scripture in high authority. They may not use the scripture in the same way in their positions, but they are trying to ascertain the meaning of the Word of God as best they can. The same can be said of the importance of Jesus Christ as the means to salvation and the desire to spread the Gospel to all who will hear. Their methodology may differ but their commitment is the same. If we can find ways of acknowledging the legitimacy of those commitments, even if we disagree with the interpretations arising from them, we can find some very solid ground for the future.
The Future of Progressive Christianity
When the next phase of the Patheos series came out this week, I was struck by a post by Kyle Roberts. Titled Will Progressive Christians Become More Evangelical?, it explores the same Pew data and makes use of the Putnam and Campbell book. Kyle suggests that as some evangelicals have found their way to mainline churches, the mainlines need to adapt. This raises the possibility for some healthy convergence. As I’ve written before, when you compare regularly attending mainliners and evangelicals, the differences are not as stark as our standard portrayals would assume. And Kyle finds a hopeful synthesis very close to what I was suggesting in my Bebbington paragraph:
We’re are seeing more experiments of faith, which might involve not only ecumenical Christian communities and initiatives, but inter-religious ones as well. And we’ll see more progressive evangelicals and former evangelicals (post-evangelicals) joining up with mainline Protestants, progressive/liberal Catholics, and people of other faiths (or no particular institutional faith at all) in bringing a little more hope, peace, and gospel to their neighborhoods. These progressive/post evangelicals are bringing with them a heart for the gospel, a deep respect for the Bible, and a “missionary” (or better: missional) view of the vocation of the Christian.
Today, Zach Hoag wrote a post aligning my fragmentation post with one from University of Washington sociologist Jim Wellman. Jim had argued that progressive Christianity lacks the infrastructure to be able to survive. As Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope documented in Church Refugees, those “done” with Church will find other institutional means of pursuing social justice concerns. Because too many progressive leaders are more likely to be isolates rather than part of broad networks, they run the risk of simply fading from sight over time.
Zach encourages us to explore the “messy middle lane”. He calls us to “rethinking and reforming” our religious institutions.
I think this is absolutely right. We need to find ways that the institutional church is an expression of the Body of Christ, is a place where people find authentic purpose in relationship with God and others (see this by Roger Olson), and is capable of speaking in Kingdom language to a post-Christendom culture.
More on what this might look like in my next post.