The emergence of a kinder, gentler evangelicalism

Evangelicals are increasingly motivated by a broader range of social concerns, from disease in Africa, to the environment, to racial reconciliation. And they want to be a witness to these values instead of a tool in the power games of others.

Newsweek. The last sentence of the quote aptly characterizes where American evangelicals have positioned themselves for the past twenty-five years:  as a tool in the power games of others.

(Perhaps I should speak of “Christianists” — the term by which Andrew Sullivan distinguishes this politicized group from other evangelicals.)

The mainstream US media has recently published a couple of articles hailing the arrival of a kinder, gentler evangelicalism. The New York Times reported:

The founding generation of leaders like [Jerry] Falwell and [James] Dobson, who first guided evangelicals into Republican politics 30 years ago, is passing from the scene [either dying or retiring]. … Meanwhile, a younger generation of evangelical pastors — including the widely emulated preachers Rick Warren and Bill Hybels — are pushing the movement and its theology in new directions.

There are many related ways to characterize the split:  a push to better this world as well as save eternal souls; a focus on the spiritual growth that follows conversion rather than the yes-or-no moment of salvation; a renewed attention to Jesus’ teachings about social justice as well as about personal or sexual morality. However conceived, though, the result is a new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty.

In my experience, concern for the environment is also taking root among younger evangelicals.

I hope Newsweek and the Times are right to suppose that this represents a generational shift. I’m not quite convinced yet, but I’m hopeful.

There are two trends to consider. The Times is alert to one of the trends, which involves very large, “seeker sensitive” churches.

The church pastored by Bill Hybels averages 20,000 in attendance each week. To maintain a more personal touch, it makes use of 2,600 small groups. The Times comments:

Hybels, founder of the Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, is very possibly the single-most-influential pastor in America; in the last 15 years, his Willow Creek Association has grown to include more than 12,000 churches. Many invite their staff members and lay leaders to participate by telecast in Willow Creek’s annual leadership conferences, creating a virtual gathering of tens of thousands. …

As his stature has grown, Hybels has seemed more willing to irk Christian conservative political leaders — and even some in his own congregation. He set off a furor a few years ago when he invited former President Bill Clinton to speak at one of his conferences. And the Iraq war has brought into sharp relief Hybels’s differences with conservatives like Dobson.

… On the eve of the Iraq invasion, Hybels preached a sermon called “Why War?” Laying out three approaches to war — realism, just-war theory and pacifism — he implored members of his congregation to re-examine their own thinking and then try to square it with the Bible. In the process, he left little doubt about where he personally stood. He called himself a pacifist.

The other trend is more of a grass roots phenomenon. There is a rising interest in something called the “Emergent” church. Or “movement”, or “conversation” — Emergent leaders are uncomfortable being defined by labels.

The Emergent movement reminds me of the internet-driven political campaigns of Howard Dean and Ron Paul. Yes, there are identifiable leaders (e.g., Brian McLaren), but the movement as such has no hierarchy, and is not identified with any individual. It is amorphous — a concept that has spread virally — a meme.

As such, it isn’t clear how much impact the Emergent movement will have on Christianity. It could self-destruct, as Howard Dean’s political campaign did in 2004. On the other hand, it might represent the beginning of something new in Christianity:  a way of doing church differently in a postmodern era.

The thing to note is that these two trends, so different in approach, have similar ideals with respect to social issues. There’s an amusing, semi-serious description of the seven layers of Emergence on a Christianity Today blog. Consider the seventh “layer”:

Maybe the mission of the church isn’t simply to become a bigger church? … To their amazement, [the article’s hypothetical congregation] discovers significant swaths of the Bible (such as the Pentateuch, prophets, gospels, and epistles) talk about justice, poverty, and compassion. The church begins to speak about social issues and participates in efforts to combat poverty, AIDS, and global injustice.

This paragraph takes a bit of a cheap shot at the Hybels model of doing church — “Maybe the mission of the church isn’t simply to become a bigger church?” Emergent folks tend to be critical of the megachurch model. Nonetheless, the paragraph’s emphasis on poverty, AIDS, and global injustice is consistent with the mission objectives of Hybels’s church.

In the convergence of these two trends, there is hope for the next generation of evangelicals. The reader may note an approving nod to the Emergent movement in the name of my theology blog, Emerging From Babel.

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. McSwain
    Nov 15, 2007 @ 21:10:46

    I am seeing this general shift in the L.A. area, definitely. It is refreshing to hear the young pastors at my church deal constantly with social, environmental, and personal responsibility.

    Re. “Maybe the mission of the church isn’t simply to become a bigger church?” No, that’s not the mission of the church. The mission of the church was given in the Great Commission. But becoming a bigger church is a natural outgrowth of bringing people to Jesus, is it not? If the church has its priorities straight (in my opinion the evangelical movement has had it wrong for a long time), I think it follows that people will come in droves. People are hungry for spiritual authenticity here.


  2. Bridgett
    Nov 15, 2007 @ 23:28:23

    Maybe not a kinder gentler evangelicalism, but a broader-minded, stronger one? Kinder, gentler evokes a sense of moral relativism for me.


  3. Stephen
    Nov 17, 2007 @ 09:21:14

    • McSwain:
    Becoming a bigger church is a natural outgrowth of bringing people to Jesus, is it not?

    Quite right. I think there are two kinds of people when it comes to “mega” churches. A pastor friend of mine ran into this problem when his church was growing. Oldtimers would occasionally complain, “The church is getting too big.” His response was always, “Too big for what?” And of course it’s true that big churches have lots of resources which enable them to do things that small churches can’t.

    Nonetheless, some people see big churches as not intimate enough to be an appropriate venue for the work of the Gospel. And Hybels’s church tries to respond to that concern with its 2,600 cell groups. To me, that’s a perfectly reasonable answer to the concern.

    But sometimes the megachurches do things to accommodate people for the sake of church growth which others view as compromising the Gospel. And perhaps they have a point. That’s where the real issue lies — not with the size of the church, but whether they have the authenticity that you mention. You’re right, people are hungering for authenticity in our plastic, image-and-marketing-driven society. “Seeker friendly” is a kind of marketing strategy that some people find off-putting.

    • Bridgett:
    Maybe not a kinder gentler evangelicalism, but a broader-minded, stronger one?

    You have a good point. I should have thought longer about the title for this post, because “kinder, gentler” doesn’t quite capture what the post is about.

    It is relevant: to Hybels’s profession of pacificism, and to the Emergent church’s compassion for the poor and other marginalized folk. What I really wanted to get at was a combination of compassion and anti-militarism.

    And “anti-militarism” means, in part, not making the political fight against abortion and same sex marriage the core of one’s identity. By broadening the range of concern, the next generation of evangelicals would do a lot to rehabilitate their tarnished reputation.

    Are we moving toward moral relativism? Maybe — Emergent believers are often accused of precisely that. It’s part of their postmodern mindset, which is prepared to tolerate the incoherence of the world.

    Brian McLaren, for example, won’t come right out and say that he’s in favour of gay rights; but he won’t say that homosexuality is a sin, either. He insists that the Church needs to listen empathetically and not rush to judgement — which seems to mean suspending judgement altogether, at least for the time being. Some people question whether he is an evangelical; and indeed, I’m not sure McLaren wants to wear that label.

    As I said in the post, Emergent folks tend to resist all labels. But in my view, the Emergent church is clearly a post-evangelical phenomenon. It may prove attractive to liberals like me. (Because I am a liberal, in case you’re still trying to figure out where I’m coming from.) But it has definitely originated among this generation of evangelicals, who feel a need to distance themselves from their forebears.


  4. Bridgett
    Nov 18, 2007 @ 00:26:07

    Oh, I knew you were a liberal. That took about 2 posts.

    And I see what you mean by kinder/gentler now. Less judgmental as opposed to wishy washy. I think of myself as a liberal thinking Catholic, also finding myself with a “need to distance” myself from my forebears. I have emergent churchgoers (?) two doors down. It is fascinating how much more we have in common than the more traditional Catholics on the block have with me.

    Liberal Catholics–especially those who do not vote how their bishop says they should–are often accused of modernism, of being anti-life, of be morally relative.

    But I still cling to the belief in the informed conscience. It’s not about my bishop. It’s about me, and God.

    I love reading your blog.


  5. Stephen
    Nov 18, 2007 @ 07:58:37

    I still cling to the belief in the informed conscience. It’s not about my bishop. It’s about me, and God.

    Well said!


  6. Trackback: Emerging From Babel » A generational shift in evangelical Christianity?

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