At a recent meeting near Chicago, fifty Evangelical leaders of various ministries, ethnicities and churches explored the theme: The Future of Evangelicalism in America. (Six of us from outside of the U.S. were included.)
The conveners making no claim to represent a full round of Evangelical views and with no pretense of attempting to arrive at solutions, were courageous and ambitious, even though it was evident that (at best) this was just the beginning of a conversation. While some points might well serve Evangelicals in other parts of the world, this was America’s turn. At this point in Christian history, American Evangelicals are caught in a situation of their own making. Here are my takeaways.
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One: As the country is deeply divided, so are Evangelicals.
Recent conversations over what it means to be an Evangelical have erupted out of a long history. One embedded with expectations and fears, hopes mixed with myths, a dynamic church community conflicted by living in the world’s major world power, and a culture agitated by tectonic edges of social, religious and ethnic friction.
I did not walk into a voting booth on November 16, 2016, but this April I did walk into a room of Americans who have deep feelings about the future of Evangelicalism. Feelings run high across the land. Debate on the issue of politics is emotional and passions are deep and strong.
Listening, reading or watching these debates can be unsettling. Americans interface in polarizing ways around differences in the political, social, civil and religious life of their country. For an outsider those divisions seem so entrenched as to be unbridgeable. Discord has become an industry institutionalized by opposing media empires. This hostility manifests itself among Evangelicals: sides sending invectives, demonizing each other. Straw arguments attributed to opponents are crafted, only to be cut down in language that sounds self-serving.
Two: The witness of Christ is compromised, distorted, and dividing this community of faith.
One can lament the social harm happening within the Christian community, but recent concerns are more about the collateral damage to the message of the evangel: the good news that Jesus has come, is here and will come again. In an age when the Global South – Africa, Latin America and Asia – is undergoing a remarkable growth in gospel witness and social influence, this historic heartland of the Evangelical world is cutting itself up over differing political views and varying social and civic alliances.
It is hard not to think that we are standing at a turning point in history. The sixteenth- century Protestant break with Rome brought with it a new vision and understanding of the Gospel. In the long sweep of that story, the American vision and energy for missions, led by extraordinarily courageous and generous men and women, was driven by a faith that new life was to be found in Jesus Christ. The new understanding of the Holy Spirit birthed in America during the twentieth century produced an unprecedented revival that encircled the globe. In 1960 there were some 90 million Evangelicals worldwide; today there are 600 million. American institutions, churches and missions have been the very heart and soul of this growth and expansion. Now, however, some Evangelicals are in public conflict, bringing division to the witness of Christ.
Three: Clinton and Trump may have lit the fuse but these issues have been brewing for years.
The fracturing of the Evangelical community was not caused by the 2016 election. Instead, it served to bring to the surface what was edging toward an eruption. Deeply opposing views, overheated accusations, and “prophetic” pronouncements over time, from all sides, rest their legitimacy on biblical texts.
A great contribution of the American experience to our world has been their experiment in affirming the primacy of individual rights in the political, social and legal framing of a society. Freedom of the individual is pivotal to modern democracy, a model followed by many others in the free world. However, when a society defines itself around the idea of the autonomous self, it can end up defining ‘what is good’ by ‘what is good for me.’ Layer that with material abundance, hedonistic opportunity, and the power of social media, these cultural options can override the Gospel’s call to integrity, accountability and holiness of life.
Central to the debate is an assumption that the U.S. is framed by a notion of ‘Christian nationalism.’ Making America Christian again comes from an understanding that at one time it was indeed “Christian,” an idea many claim, runs through the fabric of the republic. “Manifest Destiny” phrased a historic vision that in its founding, God chose this land as a place in which he would manifest his goodness so that America would be for the world, a “light set on a hill.” The sense of loss of that ideal, as the argument goes, is because of an assault by ‘secularism’ pushing Christian ideals from civic life. Loss of prayer in schools, the dismissal of Christmas icons, carols and celebration from public places, lack of protection of the unborn, the redefinition of marriage and legal pressure to submit to newly court-defined human rights—in all these things there is a sense that the American Christian heritage has been lost or is slipping away.
Four: Issues fuel passionate debate.
“You can’t heal a wound by saying it isn’t there,” offered a pastor (a line attributed to Augustine). In this effort to cast a vision for the future of Evangelicalism in America, the conference became an opportunity for people to put forward their concern over issues they say are not being addressed by Evangelical leaders, institutions and congregants. In listening, I was reminded that even though Americans carry proudly the reputation of unbounded optimism and exceptionalism, they do have a history that grinds its way through racial stories still playing themselves out. Forced African migration and slavery, for instance, entails horrific stories of mistreatment in servitude. Americans suffered a Civil War which mowed down twenty percent of its soldiers, leaving more than half a million dead. The country stumbled through the Jim Crow years, then was lifted by the Civil Rights movement and its subsequent laws. It emerged into this century, making progress but still with active memories and accusations of today’s mistreatment.
At first, I felt those driving this side of the debate were using the event as a soapbox. But these continuing historic issues, bubbling under the surface, are not going away.
Five: Being co-opted by Caesar’s power should not be the end game.
A century ago this Christian community fought for a biblical theology and Gospel rooted in the cross and open tomb, framed by the reign of Christ and modeled in a life of sacrifice and servanthood. Caesar, in his political and military might, was his antithesis.
Today I hear a surprising number insisting that the strength of their faith is also located in social, cultural and political power. Driven by a concern in retaining religious presence, words and behavior of its political leaders seemingly are waved off as a distracting cloud: what really matters (it is said) is Supreme Court power and influence, and the social and civic ability to affirm and, if needed, to assert a Christian position. What gets lost in ensuring Christian influence is Christ’s call to holiness and just living.
Siding with cultural and political power puts one in danger of losing Jesus’ call to be “salt and light.” It might be well to recall the words of Charles Colson: “The kingdom of God does not arrive on Air Force One.”
Six: Evangelicals in America need people and groups to help bridge the bitter divide.
You can hear in public conversation a fear, that by allowing the rise of other points of view it directly challenges a continuing primacy of Christian values influencing public policy.
This fear of competition is not uncommon. In countries (even those with a Christian majority) undergoing pluralization, the dominant group often feels threatened by a rising group of ‘outsiders.’ This is true for Hindus in India, Muslims in Bangladesh, the Orthodox in Russia or Greece.
To bridge the divide, it matters that Evangelicals own true pluralism inherent in their Constitution, the provision that in its nation all faiths have the right and opportunity to live out their faith. Fearing loss of their favored place in society, Evangelicals in effect distrust the power of the Gospel. The disciples, annoyed over a Samaritan village not welcoming them, suggested calling down fire from heaven. Jesus would have none of it. Cultural competition is too often interpreted as a threat rather than an opportunity.
A fitting conclusion
There were spiritual leaders at this conference whose wisdom and discernment is as good as I’ve ever seen. In conclusion, an African-American pastor reminded us of the story (Acts 3) in which Peter and John, going up to the Temple met a lame man who asked for money.
The pastor described these divergent personalities: Peter, at times angry, often dominant, pressing his point of view, unwilling to listen, out in front, needing to be noticed. John, while a “son of Thunder”, seemed, as the pastor noted, gentle, who walked alongside Jesus. Sitting aside Jesus, his body language spoke of loving care, thoughtfulness, tenderness. Two more opposing images you couldn’t have imagined. Here they were, post resurrection walking along side, off to worship at the Temple, in unity designed by the Spirit. Now they were co-conspirators in this new logic of power: a reign of Christ demonstrated first in the weakness of the Cross, now demonstrated in the power of Jesus’ resurrection. Caught in public, when asked for help they said, “Look to us.” Now brothers, in community.
Jesus is victor: his reign levels idols of power and self-interest. He draws together polarities by graciously forgiving our sinful ways, breaking our tendency to grasp, liberating us to rest in God-like fellowship. He softens our variant personalities and clashing political debates. He breaks down opposing economic views, all the while gently speaking what we really know in our hearts to be true.
These takeaways suggest that we may want to consciously and deliberately lay down our swords of debate, and clothed in the fabric of Christ’s making, ask what the reign of Christ means in our living?
The pastor offered a fitting close: lacking material and political power, “Such as I have, in the name of Jesus . . .”
Brian C. Stiller
Global Ambassador, The World Evangelical Alliance