Will evangelicalism decline or continue to expand?

Phil Johnson at the Pyromaniacs blog has a recent post called Whither Evangelicals. He says that:

“The average evangelical today couldn’t even tell you what the original doctrinal distinctives of classic evangelicalism were.  In fact, post-modern evangelicals don’t really have any clear doctrinal identity.”

I would agree with this.  But this is so because it is so diverse–not that it doesn’t have any identity.  Most evangelical churches do not have common creedal confessions like Reformed and Lutheran churches.  However, evangelical churches do have a basic doctrinal belief and it tends to be traditionally orthodox.  Phil goes on to say:

“… I’d be inclined to say that the singular characteristic that stands out most among contemporary evangelicals is their distaste for drawing any clear lines between truth and error. They don’t like to handle doctrine in a polemical fashion. They especially don’t want to be thought “negative” when it comes to declaring their doctrinal convictions. They don’t want anyone to think they are “against” what someone else teaches. (What a gauche, fundamentalist attitude that would be!) Almost everything is negotiable within the broad evangelical movement of today.”

I do not agree with his assessment because this may be true of some evangelicals but not the majority of evangelicals. The majority of evangelicals would fight tooth and nail to defend what they believe to be truth. I would even beg to differ in saying that evangelicals are the protectorates of orthodox Christian beliefs.  But each evangelical would differ in how they defend it and why the defend it.

Why? It’s because evangelicalism is a very wide/broad movement that cannot be narrowed down to simply a narrow movement.  It is so broad and diverse that no one can characterize all evangelicals in a certain way. They are not only diverse but are also identified by so many denominations. It’s probably the most diverse in terms of denominations. And because of this denominational diversity that the evangelical movement will not just lay down and die or fade away like what the iMonk would like to suggest.

Some Calvinists like Martyn Lloyd-Jones, James M. Boice, or Arthur Pink have predicted its demise and that it would just fade away into oblivion. It won’t. I think evangelicalism may perhaps morph into something else.  Just as Wesleyanism morphed into the United Methodist Church and other Methodist denominations, I predict evangelicalism may merge into fewer denominations in the very distant future but it won’t simply fade away like Puritanism did. In fact, evangelicalism is becoming even more diverse as we speak as an ever-increasing number of churches and denominations come into being.  Phil also states:

“The evangelical movement that our grandparents and great-grandparents knew is dead. Evangelical principles live on here and there, but the label has been commandeered by people who have no right to it. It has been bartered away by those who promised to be the movement’s guardians and mouthpieces—Christianity Today and the National Association of evangelicals being among the chief culprits. But rank-and-file evangelicals are to blame as well, because they were content to abandon their own heritage and run after cheap amusements. The average American today thinks evangelicalism is a political position or a religious ghetto rather than a set of biblical beliefs.”

Phil is right on here.  Moreover, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and Christianity Today are merely mouth pieces but I would like to add that what they express do not even reflect 10% of evangelicalism. We may prefer to put evangelicalism into a box and characterize what evangelicals believe, but this doesn’t work. It is simply too diverse, and it may always remain so. We have to look at evangelicalism by breaking it down to its denominations and look at a specific church’s denominational belief. Painting the evangelical movement as with one broad stroke gives a false description of what it is. It just shows that we do not understand what it is.

If I may draw an analogy, I might compare to the nature of the internet. The internet cannot be controlled or regulated because it is just too big and diverse and delocalized. So it is with evangelicalism. It is too big and diverse to even be stereotyped as being politically conservative or a religious ghetto (as Phil calls it).

Despite saying all of this. I do concur with Phil and the iMonk that evangelicalism does have its apparent weaknesses. But its weaknesses are only what we perceive as weaknesses. To evangelicals, these may actually be its strengths; and these strengths may help evangelicalism to grow into the next century.

3 thoughts on “Will evangelicalism decline or continue to expand?

  1. CD, thanks for that. I’m glad you see it that way too. I think your assessment is quite accurate. I saw your chart on the flow. Progress on 4 of the 5 is pretty good on the liberal side of the church. Liberals are bound to see something wrong about the written word of God being unauthoritative. If it were, why even bother to study it. Why not just study the humanities and social sciences from a human secular point of view and forget about biblical theology?


  2. Honestly I think Phil is full of it. If you look at the 5 points of context from the 1920s:

    Inerrancy of the Scriptures
    The virgin birth (and the deity of Jesus)
    The doctrine of substitutionary atonement
    The bodily resurrection of Jesus
    The authenticity of Christ’s miracles

    which of those do modern day evangelicals reject? I would argue even liberals have moved on these 5: the virgin birth is not really contentious among Christians, nor is the bodily resurrection nor the authenticity of miracles. Hard materialism does not exist even with Christian liberalism today. Most Christians today do believe that substitutionary atonement is a core doctrine.

    I’d say on inerrancy liberals have generally moved right and evangelicals have moved left. So there is progress on 4 out of the 5 and only slight shift in the “negative direction” on one out of 5. I don’t consider that a broad defeat. Phil came from fundamentalism, fundamentalism has slipped horribly separatism doesn’t work out long term. In terms of percentage of the population evangelicals look like they are going to slip over the next 2 generations because of demographics: my post on flows.


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