The Future Of Evangelicalism
Anyway, as far as I can tell, where young evangelicals are headed is simply out of evangelicalism. They have been, as Jared C. Wilson recently wrote, theologically and spiritually orphaned by pastors and other Christian leaders who were willing to entertain them and occasionally to hector them but who had no interest whatsoever in Christian discipleship. Millions of today’s young evangelicals have been utterly betrayed by a generation of pastors who could pontificate about how essential sexual purity is while simultaneously insisting that every real Christian should vote for Donald Trump, supporting their claims by a random handful of Bible verses wrenched from their context and utterly severed from the great arc of biblical story without which no piece of scriptural teaching can make sense. As I noted here, they cannot even distinguish a penitent from an impenitent sinner — that is how thoroughly they have emptied themselves of moral and spiritual understanding.
One place they’re not going to go is to this kind of vapid Jeffressian idolatry, Jacobs rightly says:
So if young evangelicals are leaving evangelicalism, where are they going? Not many, I think, will head for complete unbelief, but some will; a great many will drift further and further into moralistic therapeutic deism, which will offer them very little but, on the plus side, will ask even less from them; a smaller but still significant number will head for the older liturgical traditions, either for aesthetic or theological reasons.
I have mixed feelings about the “older liturgical traditions” part. Mostly I would be pleased if they did so, and grateful for the company. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I believe that we have the fullness of the truth within our communion, and that the Roman Catholic Church, though lacking that in certain ways (as Roman Catholics say too of us), is nevertheless connected to the ancient church in ways that Protestants simply aren’t. This is a theological reality that can’t be wished away.
I also believe quite strongly that Evangelicals will find in the older traditions spiritual and theological resources that will give them spiritual help not available within Evangelicalism, despite its strengths.
That said, it would be a huge mistake if frustrated young Evangelicals came to Orthodoxy or Catholicism thinking that they would be finding refuge or escape from modernity. Yes, you will find partial refuge, within the liturgy and the sacraments, and within the stability of tradition, but there really is no escape from the acid bath of liquid modernity. It cannot be avoided, only endured.
True, you are unlikely to find America-worship in Catholic and Orthodox parishes, but we have our own serious challenges too. A number of intellectual and aesthetic-minded Evangelicals admire Catholicism for the steadiness of its Magisterium, and because its liturgy is deeper than what they’re used to. Once you get inside of American Catholicism, though, you find that it is in most parishes a lot like Mainline Protestantism, and that the Magisterium is largely irrelevant to the actual life of the parish. And as conservative Catholics will tell you, the liturgy in many — but certainly not all! — parishes has been flattened out and emptied of a sense of transcendence.
Orthodoxy doesn’t have this problem with liturgy, thank the Lord, but many parishes in our country are clubhouses that worship the tribe, with some Jesus thrown in on the side. Many more are not! The point is, Evangelicals who swim to Byzantium will be exchanging one set of problems for another.
To be clear, I still believe it is worth it! There is a reason that, when I found myself so broken that I was no more capable of believing as a Roman Catholic than a man with two broken legs is capable of walking, I never once considered returning to Protestantism. This is despite the fact that some of the finest and most Spirit-filled Christians I know are Protestants. The weight of doctrine and history is overwhelming, as are the sacraments and the liturgy. Even when I am blessed to attend a Protestant service or a Catholic mass that is reverently celebrated, and where I am absolutely certain that God is powerfully present, I am grateful for what God has given me in Orthodoxy, and I am eager to share it with anybody who asks about it. I want to be clear about that. Please don’t think that I am equivocating.
That said, I feel strongly that I should caution Evangelicals who are burning out on their tradition not to make an idol of the older traditions. I did this when I came into Catholicism, and that ended up having a lot to do with my radical disillusionment with Catholicism. Catholicism will break your heart; so will Orthodoxy. Just keep that in mind, refuse sentimentalism, be as realistic as you can about how much any of us have a right to expect from any church, and refuse to deceive yourself about how hard the road ahead will be if you decide to join the Christian pilgrimage through life as a Catholic or as an Orthodox. Also, there are strengths within Evangelicalism — in particular the strong sense of fellowship, and love for the Bible — that you will leave behind. But by the grace of God, you will bring those with you into Catholicism and Orthodoxy, which need what you have to offer.
If you read this as me discouraging you from leaving Evangelicalism, you’re misreading me. The reason I’m saying this is because I agree with Jacobs that a lot of disillusioned young Evangelicals will drift further into MTD — and I want to shout from the rooftops, “Don’t give up or give in! It doesn’t have to be this way! There is WAY more to the Christian tradition than you probably know!”
And if you read this as me trying to encourage you to leave Evangelicalism, you’re also misreading me. Catholics and Orthodox in America have lots problems to deal with within our own churches. We don’t need people who are coming to us with false expectations and/or riding a wave of anger at Evangelicalism’s failures. I believe as a theological matter that God desires us all to be one, so yes, I do wish you would all become Orthodox. But I also believe that in His mysterious providence, God may be asking you to stay where you are right now and serve Him for particular reasons.
That might offend some of my fellow Orthodox, and Catholics as well, who are theologically correct enough to ask how God could desire His people to remain in error. All I can say is that I have been blessed by the friendships of a few men and women over the years who have made a sacrifice of remaining Evangelical, even though they felt powerfully drawn to Catholicism or Orthodoxy, but who believed in all sincerity that it would be a betrayal of those they love within their own Evangelical churches and families to leave. I respect that. They aren’t staying with Evangelicalism out of fear of the unknown, but for reasons of sacrificial love. In my view, God honors that.
I’ll end with this summary for Evangelical readers:
- Do not give up on Christianity because the Evangelical pastors and lay leaders you’ve grown up loving and respecting have failed.
- Do not give up on Evangelicalism for this reason, either. You will not find a church whose leadership is free from failure.
- If you think you’ve reached the end of the road in Evangelicalism, then yes, explore Orthodoxy and/or Catholicism — but see No. 2.
- Make no decisions driven by anger, disgust, or high emotion.
- Do not idealize the older traditions. They will break your heart at some point.
- Don’t demonize them either. They will lift you up at some point in ways nothing else can.
- Take responsibility for your own spiritual life. Be very, very clear that staying in a Moralistic Therapeutic Deist church is unacceptable, because it will ultimately lead to apostasy. If you were raised Christian in America, no matter what your church, you probably have come to expect that religion will cater to you. That’s wrong. Wherever you settle, make sure it’s in a church that reaches into the depths of historic Christianity, that calls you out of yourself, and that stands in opposition to the post-Christian times in profound ways.
Readers, I apologize if any of this comes across as proselytizing. It means a lot to me that I keep this space free of proselytizing. It’s hard for me to know where the line is, because I love talking so much about faith, culture, and the public square. I want to be as honest as I can be with you while also respecting the nature of this blog. Please understand that I love and respect you, whether or not you are a Christian, or any kind of religious believer. Part of that respect is sharing what I believe to be true with you, but doing so in a way that conveys the genuine gratitude I have for what I have learned from so many of you — atheists, Jews, pagans, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others. I’m not a squishy ecumenist or a universalist, but it really is true.