Patheos has just published a symposium on the future of evangelicalism in the next five years. I'm delighted by how few of the voices are embracing either the cultural naiveté of the new Religious Right or the cultural despair of the vague and incoherent Benedict option. My prediction that these movements will take a few years to burn out (at least among evangelicals) and make way for what Tom Nelson calls “hopeful realism”—neither naïve nor despairing about the church's role in shaping the dominant culture—may have been overly cautious.
Timothy George—a voice familiar to First Things readers—suggests we consider a Franciscan Option:
But perhaps the example of the Franciscans is more fitting for our time. Saint Francis and his followers followed the way of the cross, embraced lepers, and danced in the joy of the Spirit for the glory of God. Their movement was marked by mobilitas, not stabilitas. They went everywhere preaching the gospel—to the towns and marketplaces, to the universities and centers of power—and eventually into all the world. For evangelicals and Catholics alike, joined together toward a common mission, this is a Franciscan moment.
I think we cannot overstate the importance of the insight that we need “mobilitas, not stabilitas.” I see the same dynamic at work in Charlie Self's call for a faithful and activist “renewal” over against a reactionary “retrenchment” or a syncretistic “revision.”
Carl Trueman, another voice familiar here at First Things, rightly sounds a note of caution about evangelicals' deficient institutional and doctrinal development:
Conservative Evangelicalism may be more robust in terms of recruitment than other Christian alternatives at this point but it looks singularly ill-equipped to face the challenges of the coming days. It simply lacks the identity and the resources that come with historic rootedness, a point which makes it perennially vulnerable to becoming simply American culture in a Christian idiom. In comparison to Evangelicalism, Roman Catholicism, for example, has a clear ecclesiastical identity and a long tradition of social teaching, both of which have helped to foster serious intellectual engagement on many of the ethical issues of the present day.
Chris Armstrong makes a similar point, observing that evangelicals' tendency to value the immediate and participate in “youth culture” will be a problem in an age when gravitas and deep transformation are needed.
There is a lot of truth to this—yet David Buschart also has a point that evangelicals' lack of high cultural walls and fortifications allows people to come in as well as out:
It will be worth watching to see whether or not trends in the coming years reveal values or sensibilities which are common to both the rise of “Nones” and the strength, at least relatively speaking within Christianity, of nondenominational evangelical Christianity. Might it be that an increase in “Nones” will be in some sense paralleled by a continuing increase, even if not as large, of nondenominational evangelical Christianity? Might nondenominationalism be especially well-suited for a time and culture such as this, a time when there is an increase in “Nones”?
I'm a proudly denominational man myself, but I think his point is well taken. I think when the current cultural crises have had some time to die down, the Nones will be a fruitful mission field for evangelicals.
Armstrong urges us to look to history to recover our gravitas; Jennifer Woodruf Tait looks to history to remind us that evangelicalism has been declared dead many times before, and has always confounded the doomsayers. She urges evangelicals not to build higher walls but to look for spiritual allies—including among the renewal movements going on in the mainline, where she resides. That's also good advice. This last thought may make my hero J. Gresham Machen spin in his grave, but: In spite of the theological problems in the mainline, those traditions do at least have some sense of what it means to be the church within a culture, rather than seeking in vain for some extra-cultural Archimedean Point. Catholics and evangelicals—together!—could benefit from that.
Greg Forster is the author of six books and the co-editor of three books, including John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement: Justice as Unfairness.