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Your View of Evangelicals

<Note: this is a longer post than usual due to the importance of this topic.>


Over the past decade or so, the primary segment of growth in churches in North America has been among, so-called, evangelical churches. While this is not to say some churches outside of the evangelical tradition (read: segment) aren’t growing, by and large their denominations and networks are not seeing growth. This means that evangelicals are a focal group in America.

So who are evangelicals?

Well, that is a complicated answer. There plenty of theories about the nature of evangelicals, where they came from, who they are…and those theories have been around for about 100 years. (Seriously, look back historically 100 years and we’re having the same discussions…but I’ll move on.) Evangelicalism arose in the late 1800s out of a revivalist Protestantism that was a response to the growing secularization of Christianity.1 (Obviously there is much more to be said here.)

Since its inception, evangelicalism has always struggled with its own identity.2 After the turn of the 20th century, more conservative elements of evangelicalism began their own offshoot that would be called fundamentalism. In many ways the first third of the 20th century saw a culture war between fundamentalists and modernists3 (what we might call…wait for it…liberals.) Also during this time evangelicalism continued to grow. Yet the movement still lacked a coherent identity, defined leadership, and uniform doctrine.4 The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 is seen as the tipping point where evangelicalism (and fundamentalism) lost their place in the culture and moved on. Over the next five decades they separated and started a sub-culture that grew and thrived. The results of this, kind of, cultural hibernation was a continent wide movement that manifested itself in the 1970s through the 1990s in any number of movements and cultural forms. Yet two distinct streams emerged: evangelicals and fundamentalists.

All of that history is important, because we still face challenges today. Other than the obvious issues, evangelicals are a rather large segment of American society that is transdenominational, accepts basic orthodoxy of the Christian faith, is often expressed in free church forms (though not exclusively), and enjoys rapid adaptation for ecclesial forms and models. If you were to look at the 100 largest churches in America today, it would be almost a list of evangelical churches. Evangelicalism’s numerical and movement success has given it a kind of cultural credibility that is not found in many forms.

However, the challenge remains: Who are evangelicals?

Traditionally in Christianity a group, or movement, is identified by their beliefs, leader(s), and method worship. Evangelicals are an amebic form. Many scholars, usually historians, have developed some helpful definitions of who, or what, makes an evangelical. You can check the books listed above and find their definitions.

One other truth for evangelicals is that too often we forget that fundamentalist wander back in and through our networks, churches, and conversations. Make no mistake, fundamentalists are different evangelicals in degree and definition.5 This doesn’t make fundamentalists bad people, I have some very good friends who are very convinced fundamentalists. However, we need to remember that their views are different and the vociferousness with which they defend their views is extremely different. Fundamentalists can be part of evangelicalism, so long as we patiently remind them that our unity is found in some basic principles and that we should welcome those who affirm them and proclaim the same Gospel that we proclaim.

For evangelicalism, in its history, has struggled with this question. However, in general, evangelicalism has been able to accommodate disparate groups once the foundations of belief are established. These foundational beliefs are what is generally accepted as orthodox Chrisitanity. Now this doesn’t make one evangelical or not (you can be a mainline Episcopalian and hold these.) What makes one evangelical often is about their view of: Scripture, mission, salvation, Jesus, and a few other issues.6

Historically, in evangelicalism we can find room for:

  • egalitarians with complementarians and even patriarchialists
  • young earth creationists with old earthers and even theistic evolutionists
  • creation care advocates with global warming naysayers
  • democrats with republicans and even libertarians
  • dispensationalists with covenant theologians and even progressive dispensationalists
  • premillennialists with postmillennialists and even amillennialists
  • high church with low church and even no church
  • eternal punishment with annihilationists
  • progressive worship with liturgists and even rappers

 

and even those who view

  • dynamic theory with verbal plenary inspiration and even dictation theory

 

I can go on and on about this. Too often we are pushed to extremes of these positions by people who earnestly hold the extreme position and don’t realize that, for evangelicalism, it has historically been a big tent held up by several key poles of belief and action. When those with extreme positions attempt to push out others who have a legitimately evangelical view we must say, “stop.”

Too often our desire to remove someone from the larger evangelical conversation has to do with our own misunderstanding of historical evangelical belief than it does with a shortcoming of someone’s position. Now, there are some positions that evangelicals have been nearly unanimous on (universal salvation, denial of miracles, denial of Christ’s divinity, etc.) We can and should say there are things that are outside the realm of evangelical belief. Our tent is not so large that it covers those who blaspheme Christ.

As we confront an increasingly (if not totally) post-Christian America we need to look around and assess our options. Do we really want to spar with Gospel driven, Jesus affirming evangelical Christians over issues which have never defined who is and isn’t evangelical? Or do we want to move the poles in closer and leave many more out of the tent?

For my life and ministry (and perhaps I am too generous) I simply believe that once we staked out the appropriate boundaries, centered on Jesus, and begin becoming more and more devoted to Him, we are stronger together than we are apart.

Because the reality of our situation is that we agree on far more than we disagree on. We are closer theologically than we are apart. We worship the same Jesus Christ who is risen and will come again. As a lost and dying world looks for hope in the midst of the growing darkness we need the light of Christ that will bring them in and not running around blowing out each other’s candles.

Just some thoughts. Apologies for the length.

One more note: On Monday I’ll post up a discussion about views of inspiration to round out the conversation.


  1. 1. See George Marsden Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, James Davison Hunter Evangelicalism, and David Bebbington The Dominance of Evangelicalism for background info that is far better than I can provide here. 

  2. 2. Marsden, Understanding 64-65 

  3. 3. George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture 2nd Ed. 171-175 

  4. 4. Joel Carptener Revive Us Again 13-32 

  5. 5. Marsden, Fundamentalism 4, “Fundamentalists were evangelical Christians, close to the traditions of the dominant American revivalist estbalsihemtn of the nineteenth century, who in the twentieth century militantly opposed both
    modernism in theology and the cultural changes that modernism endorsed…Fundamentalism was a “movement” in the sense of a tendency or development in Christian thought that gradually took on its own identity as a patchwork coalition of representatives or other movements.” Marsden has been criticized for this view, perhaps rightly so for aspects. A larger discussion to have is whether fundamentalism persists today, I believe it does, and how it has changed in the past twenty years. 

  6. 6. George Barna has a helpful list that reflects evangelical attitudes, often better than historians. 

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Engaging the Post-Christian Now

Last night while I was developing a four week Bible study series on engaging culture, I ran across a wonderful video of Alan Hirsch speaking at Q Austin about “Post-Christian Mission.” Check it out by clicking this image:

Hirsch

I’m glad Alan Hirsch has this kind of prophetic voice among Christian leaders. A couple of his books, particularly The Shaping of Things to Come and The Forgotten Ways, have indelibly shaped my missiology and ecclesiology. His talk at Q talks honestly about some important issues confronting church leaders. Though it was given about four years ago, it is bearing out in our contemporary culture.

Though there is much to talk about in this presentation, one of the central issues which he gets into  is the idea of the missiological distance of people within a post-Christian culture.

Hirsch, who is admittedly drawing influence from Ralph Winter’s piece Finishing the Task: The Unreached Peoples Challenge (go and download the PDF and read it), discussed five point of missiological distance. For a church starting at M0, each step represents at least one major cultural boundary between the church and that person. BTW, I’d say most Millennials are at least M2 to M3 from their local church.

Notice in the first graphic the reach of traditional church programming is limited to that first step. One point which Hirsch helpfully brings up, is that for many of our churches we still require people to come back to us. (Remember his point about attractional being extractional.) He has a good point here and it should provoke us leaders to consider what it is we are calling people to do in mission and in evangelism.

Now, I’m not entirely sold that the attractional model is either bad or ineffective. I’ll probably talk about that more later. Suffice to say, that while I don’t believe numbers define success, it does appear that the wave of church growth which is occurring in North America is primarily happening in larger, progressive methodology churches. That isn’t a bad thing because of the collective sending and missionary culture developed by most of those churches.

Key to this movement is how churches, of any size really, engage in and cast vision for an incarnational missionary culture among their people for those where we live, work, and play. By dedicating ourselves to this kind of incarnational missionary culture (probably best defined in the term missional) we can move more broadly across cultural distance and bring the Gospel to those who are far and allow them to remain far culturally without having to extract them. As a result they become the near cultural missionaries to their spheres of influence.

This kind of thinking is revolutionizing the church in the 21st century. It is also something we should be thankful for and ready to engage in. Though there are aspects of Hirsch’s work that I am reticent about, I think his work here should provoke us to think about how we can shift our culture to motivate people to be missionally minded.

If for no other reason than it appropriately integrates horizontal movement as a proper metric of spiritual maturity. More on all of this later.

So how are you engaging missional movements in your local church? How are you casting vision to your people and motivating them to capture great things for Christ? How are you seeing movement beyond the M1 culture in your area?

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Reaching Twentysomethings

Several days ago a friend of mine, Dean Inserra tweeted this thought:

This is an incredibly important point that comes from a leader who is pastoring a church that is actually seeing 20somethings attend at a high level. Just some background, Dean is pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida. About six years ago, Dean started his church with 24 people and it has grown, primarily by reaching college and 20somethings, to one of the largest and strongest churches in Tallahassee. Dean is a great pastor who understands the essentials of ministry.

Dean also understands that one of the great challenges facing all of our churches is a generational drain that is seeing lower amounts of young adults attending churches. Now this isn’t to say they aren’t attending church…it just isn’t the one they grew up in and it isn’t those using traditional methodologies.

For a while we’ve been hearing about the diaspora of young evangelicals when they go to college and then how they aren’t returning. This data is probably reflecting a number of issues (that I’m not going to attempt to discuss here) but it is highlighting several trends we should note:

  • Young adults are not attending church at the same rates as their generational predecessors. For many once or twice a month to a service (not deeper attendance: service, groups, etc) is sufficient for them to consider themselves “connected.”
  • Young adults are attending churches, but it isn’t the ones they a) grew up in, b) are using older methodologies, and c) usually smaller.
  • Young adults, who attend church, are going to ones that utilize progressive worship, have younger pastors, and are often larger.
  • Young adults who are committed Christians understand their spiritual journey as primary and church involvement secondary.

 

So, where does that leave us? Well, for starters, it should be reinforced by Dean’s point. If your church is expecting that young adults are going to come back to the church of their youth (or their parents) this is a mistaken strategy. The ministry method here is: let’s hire a young guy to lead the area, expect them to attract these young adults by presence alone, and we’ve always had a strong youth ministry and that should translate to young adult ministry.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. If your church is seeing post-college 20somethings return at a rate of 25% you’re probably doing a very good job. 

Dean, and young leaders like him, have realized that in order to extend ministry to 20somethings they have to implement massively different methodologies than established and institutional churches are comfortable utilizing.

One of the greatest challenges is that we raise our children from preschool to high school in highly validated, highly inculturated, highly experiential children and student ministries and then expect them to shift to institutional models of adult ministry without careful guidance. We’ve also drastically underestimated spiritual devastation sexual liberation and experimentation has done to millennials. However, there is still hope.

A couple of recommendations we can takeaway:

  • Talking to leaders, like Dean, about their successes is essential.
  • Be willing to change how we understand spirituality in 20somethings.
  • Creating highly validated, authentic events for 20somethings is important.
  • Allow your “Sunday morning only” paradigm to be questioned and pursue alternatives.
  • Realize that models of last century might not produce evaluative tools for the church of this century.
  • Check out leading thinkers who have published great content like Barna Studies, Gabe Lyons, Dave Kinnaman, Jonathan Merritt, and others.

What are you seeing? What is the rate of return of 20somethings at your church? How are you being successful with this segment? What challenges are we missing?

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May 2013
POSTED BY Garet
POSTED IN

Church

DISCUSSION 1 Comment
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Measuring Up

One of the challenges of living in an increasingly post-Christian culture that is fragmented and dispersed as we are, is that how we engage with church and activities is changing. Even up into the late 1980s, maybe the early 1990s, we could reasonably expect regular, consistent attendance at events and programs. Indeed, the average church built their year around a programatic structure where we could move people from event to event to event to event and expect that this would be a decent marker of how well a church was doing in its ministry. 

With the explosion of fragmented and dispersed people, who are often faithful believers, that is driven by a shift in technology, media, and social involvement this programatic model is suffering a much needed death. The challenge for church leaders is understanding that there are two kinds of measures that go into assessing how well, or not, a church is accomplishing its goals and ministry.

Vertical Measures – are largely how many church leaders track, analyze, and assess their ministries. This approach asks the question: how many people showed up to (insert activity.) It is fundamentally a church of last century approach to ministry assessment. It has, as an underlying assumption, that church folk are moved and motivated to personal growth by attending events and regular involvement in ministry. Vertical measures track numbers and draw conclusions based on those numbers. (How many of us have a designated counter on Sunday morning.) They are also how most senior leaders have been taught, in both seminary and vocational life, how to assess programs and ministries.

Horizontal Measures – seek to track how many people are moving along in their journey of spiritual maturity. This approach asks the question: how many people are being changed/transformed in their spiritual lives? In utilizing this approach, church leaders attempt to understand how people are drawn from being passive observers (imagine the people in the stands of a baseball game) and grown into active contributors (the players on the field.) This is a difficult assessment to get our arms around, particularly since our measure tools are designed to track this growth. When leaders move to utilizing this measure as a primary tool for assessing ministry performance the metrics change and conversations are shaped differently.

Horizontal Measures

For churches that are seeking to grow their ministries (not necessarily numerical growth) the horizontal measures, appropriately tracked, might lead to increased vertical measures. Here the focus is on making disciples, making maturing Christians. With the fragmented and dispersed people who fill our pews and chairs from week to week, their weekly/regular attendance isn’t a metric of their spiritual maturity. Frankly, many spiritually mature church goers know where and how to get resources for their own growth that are unconnected with the specific church where they serve.

How church and ministry leaders develop tools and metric to measure horizontal growth becomes the key matter. Perhaps some questions lead will bring about some focus: how many more of our people are interested in missions work (local, international)? how are we doing starting a new ministry to an external need? where do we turn for new group leaders? how are doing filling vital volunteer positions? how are our people doing in moving from an inward focus to an outward service? how are we doing moving people from sitting and soaking to being involved in serving and giving?

Horizontal measures help develop people and draw them along a spectrum of spiritual maturity. Of course we can still use vertical measures, but to exclusively rely on them misunderstands appropriate ministry goals. A good balance between the two measures will bring about a healthier ministry culture and more informed leaders as we consider our next opportunities for expanded ministry.

 So what do you think? What are some ideal measures of horizontal growth?

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