Who speaks for evangelicals? So asks author and pastor John Ortberg in a recent blog post. Ortberg argues that today, evangelicals are so theologically and politically diverse, that finding a single leader is virtually impossible.
Ortberg’s right. But, finding a spokesman is the least of evangelicals’ worries. The larger, more fundamental issue concerns whether the term evangelical has completely lost its meaning. I’m also wondering whether the coalition that once united under the evangelical banner even exists.
Scot McKnight, a popular blogger, author, and New Testament scholar, doesn’t think it does. I spoke with Scot this week and he explained how the evangelical coalition that formed in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s has disintegrated in recent years.
To the likes of Billy Graham, theologian John Stott, and first “Christianity Today” editor, Carl Henry, evangelicalism meant a commitment to four distinctives: the primacy of the Bible; the importance of personal conversion and the centrality of the cross; and lastly, evangelicals advocated actively living out one’s faith in daily practice.
Today, however, many who wear the label evangelical challenge one or even all four of these distinctives. As McKnight wrote in his review of Brian McLaren’s book, “A New Kind of Christianity,” McLaren has “to one degree or another, criticized, deconstructed, and rejected each.”
In addition, McKnight argues that evangelicals have divided into many different factions. There are neo-Reformed evangelicals; the Emergent evangelicals; the Ancient Future evangelicals; social justice evangelicals; and now, Tea Party evangelicals.
McKnight believes mega-churches have contributed to evangelicalism’s demise. These churches so focused on the message of salvation that they – quote – “left everything else up for grabs.” Much of evangelicalism now, McKnight argues, exists in a “theological vacuum.” A 2007 Barna survey reflects this vacuum. Reportedly, many Americans who consider themselves evangelical don’t believe Satan is real or that the Bible is totally accurate.
I think this vacuum extends beyond basic doctrine, though. Evangelicals also lack a biblical basis for their views on economics and government. Yet, these are key components of a biblical worldview. Sure, many para-church organizations address these issues from an activist standpoint. But, when’s the last time you heard a sermon on the biblical basis for private property or the proper role of government? Pastors don’t want to touch these hot-buttons issues. Yet, failing to do so has left most evangelicals believing all political and economic systems are equally valid. Our society is increasingly polarizing to the political Left and Right. And, without any biblical guidance, evangelicals are doing the same.
No doubt, we’re at a critical juncture in the history of this movement. I hope it can be salvaged. But honestly, as diverse as it’s become, I’m not sure it can.