What is the Future of Evangelicals? A Conversation
Now that we no longer have Ralph Winter to interpret history and current trends for us, I guess we have to do it for ourselves. I, for one, am ashamed at what I see non-Christians saying about evangelicals in public forums. They know what followers of Jesus should be standing for, and they pretty much see the opposite. I’d like to create a conversation among several people, most of whom have never met each other, but who have all spoken about the shame being brought on God’s name by the choices and silences of some of those who call themselves evangelicals.
We’ll start with my mentor, Ralph D. Winter, founder of William Carey International University and Frontier Ventures (as it is now known). In some ways he was a prophetic voice “crying in the wilderness,” and some of what he had to say before he died in 2009 is becoming more relevant as events have unfolded since his death. His concern was that evangelicals not tear down God’s reputation by failing to push back against the works of the devil, wherever these are found.
It was actually a blog by Darrow Miller (co-founder of the Disciple Nations Alliance) that prompted me to start this “conversation.” He echoed Winter’s terms, First-Inheritance Evangelicalism and Second-Inheritance Evangelicalism to describe the origins of the false dichotomy that still persists among some evangelicals between personal salvation and social involvement.
I entered the conversation with a response to Miller’s blog, and then I began to notice what other evangelical thinkers were saying. In Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer, Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, pointed out that “The church in America is now undergoing a major deconstruction of its historical identity.” Journalist Michael Gerson (a Wheaton College grad) wrote in The Atlantic and the Washington Post that “little remains of a distinctly Christian public witness.”
I’ve tried to tone down my strong feelings about the American situation in which evangelicals are doing the opposite of what Winter called for (to “rescue God’s reputation,” and “restore God’s glory”). What happens in America often influences other cultures. In my mind, international development requires people to speak out about the need for following biblical principles in government and community policies. This becomes tricky as there is no one political party in any country who will implement all the principles that are needed for justice and righteousness to flourish. So what are followers of Jesus to do?
If readers wish to join this conversation, please feel free to send comments to beth.snodderly@wciu. I’ve added a Post Script to this conversation as a result of a comment by Kevin Higgins, WCIU President.
In a 1980 video lecture, Winter seems to have prophetically spoken about the times evangelicals now find themselves in in 2018. “Abraham was to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. How is this lived out? The nation of Israel did not try very hard to be a blessing to others. When we don’t try to be a blessing to others, the blessings that we have, God takes away. … You don’t have to reflect very far to find ways that God could allow this country to be eliminated. I won’t go into the gory details. ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things shall be added onto you.’ ‘He who would lose his life for my sake and the gospels, shall find it.’” (Watch the full talk here.)
In a 2007 article, “The Future of Evangelicals in Mission,” Winter wrote, “It would seem helpful to distinguish between First-Inheritance Evangelicalism and Second-Inheritance Evangelicalism (my terms). For this article we can define … the First as that which was characterized by a broad dual social/personal spectrum of concern ranging from foreign missions to changing the legal structure of society and even war. The Second Inheritance focused mainly on the personal.
“Christ’s references to the coming of the kingdom of heaven, and the present outworking in this world of the ‘Thy will be done’ phrase of the Lord’s Prayer are actually echoed by the Great Commission itself. Looking closely at Matthew 28:20, it isn’t just the teachings that Jesus commissions His disciples to pass on. It is the actual enforcing, so to speak, of obedience to those teachings, ‘teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ This implies the conquest of evil when the Lord’s Prayer is read in this light: ‘Thy will be done on earth.’ ”
“A return to a full-spectrum gospel could mean an enormous change. Doors will open. Attitudes about missionaries will change. It will no longer be the case of missionaries thinking that they have to use adroit language to cover up the “real purpose” of their work. Their real purpose will be to identify and destroy all forms of evil, both human and microbiological, and will thus be explainable in plain English without religious jargon.” (Read the full article here).
“First-Inheritance Evangelicals worked from a biblical worldview that was comprehensive and wholistic in its application. This led to the first Great Awakening. Wesley exemplified this. He preached Christ crucified for salvation but argued that true revival would be followed by reformation, a change in society stemming from consequential conversions. In other words, the cross has both a personal application and a social application. The Second Inheritance Evangelicals, working from the sacred/secular divide (what I call Evangelical Gnosticism), preached the gospel of personal salvation. They were interested in revival, but not necessarily in the reformation of society.”
“Churches today need to have the expectations of the First Inheritance Evangelicals, not the Second Inheritance. When people come to Christ through evangelism, they need to be discipled. The discipleship needs to take place on two levels. The first is the personal level of the “spiritual disciplines,” i.e. to read the word of God, to pray, to fellowship with believers and to share the gospel.
But a second level of discipleship has implications for the social impact of the gospel. This is discipleship at the level of culture. I would argue that this is the discipleship of the gospel penetration of culture as we find in Matthew 28:18-20.” (Read the full blog here.)
In a response to Darrow Miller’s blog, I wrote: It seems like we are now living in a new era of “evangelicalism” that calls into question both personal and social change. I see “evangelicals” apparently happy to silently put up with behavior at the top level of our society that Jesus condemned—immorality, lying, hate speech, de-humanizing speech.
I do not see many “evangelicals” publicly standing up for the “stranger in our midst”—a key value in Scripture. World Relief is one of several organized exceptions: “The Bible has a lot to say about immigrants and immigration.” Recently America has been going through the trauma of seeing children separated from their parents by an administration willing to go to this extreme to let immigrants know they are not welcome in the US. Even with a belated executive order to rescind this policy, more than 2000 children remain separated from their parents, many with no way to find each other.
What should be the church’s response in America? As Michael Gerson says, “Christianity is love of neighbor, or it has lost its way.”
In an interview with the authors of the book, Participating in God’s Mission: A Theological Missiology for the Church in America, in Christianity Today, Stetzer asked why they wrote the book. Their response: “The church in America is now undergoing a major deconstruction of its historical identity and its organizational and institutional systems. This is requiring it to learn a new grammar for being the church. Learning this new grammar is primarily taking place on the ground in congregations that are seriously working to discern how to be led by the Spirit anew.” (Read the full interview here.)
And then I saw these articles by a graduate of Wheaton College:
In The Atlantic Gerson wrote, “Little remains of a distinctly Christian public witness. … Evangelical used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite.’ ” (Read Gerson’s full article here.)
In a recent Washington Post opinion piece, Gerson basically summarizes my concerns:
“The proper role of Christians in politics is not to Christianize America; it is to demonstrate Christian values in the public realm. … This commitment does not lead toward a single party or ideology, but it does trace the outlines of an agenda: defending the rule of law, protecting minorities from discrimination and harm, fighting against trafficking and preventable suffering abroad, standing up for the rights of the disabled and vulnerable, shielding children from exploitation and abuse. (Read the full article here.)
Kevin Higgins’ summary of a book by Viv Grigg, Associate Professor of Urban Leadership at Azusa Pacific University, provides a good conclusion to this conversation. In The Spirit of Christ and the Postmodern City, Grigg writes about the influence of the Kingdom of God moving from the center, in concentric circles, toward the outside circle where believers are engaged in every facet of society and community life—politics, education, etc. He sees this as God’s aim in revivals. “A revival movement occurs when the Holy Spirit falls on multiple groups, as those initially touched by the Spirit go in power and take his presence into related social groups” (p. 11).
“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).