This is the introduction I didn’t want to write.
Over the last few years, I’ve watched Patrol Magazine grow. I’ve written on and off for the site—served as the head editor for a short stint—and I’ve been amazed and excited to see its growth. I’ve always wanted nothing but the best for Patrol. The site possesses the potential to foster important and meaningful dialogue, and I’ve loved being part of it.
Certain editorial decisions over the last few months at Patrol have left me a little worried over the focus of the site. I’ve always answered critics with the argument that Patrol does not have a specific agenda; it’s merely a forum for a wide range of opinions and discussions. Up until Tuesday, I believed that.
There was an editorial published last week, “Get Over It,” pushing for the acceptance of the notion that modern evangelicalism had failed as a movement and should be discarded. With broad and flamboyant strokes, this column brought scathing accusations against evangelical churches, charges that, if taken to their logical conclusions, have tremendous implications on the presentation of the gospel and the definition of Christianity.
This was more than an attack on a failing business model (like the case of CCM Magazine); this was an attack on traditional evangelical faith. Patrol Magazine describes itself as “post-evangelical”—that’s not me.
I’m a joyful evangelical who attends a church that holds to the validity of Scripture, the reality of sin, humanity’s need for salvation and the centrality of the cross in saving people.
I wanted to respond to Patrol’s editorial, but, through a complicated series of events, I learned that there would be no place on the site for a public expression of internal disagreement.
And so, I won’t be writing for Patrol. With growth, things change, and sometimes you can’t support that change. It hurts.
With change for Patrol comes change for me, and I’ll be joining the writers of Evangel.
So take this as a greeting, and here are my thoughts on why evangelicalism is, “Not Dead Yet.”
Listen carefully, but the bell is not yet tolling for true evangelicalism.
Sounding the death of a cultural institution is a high achievement for writers and a publication seeking to understand and analyze the times. Whether documenting the rise of the tea party or the death of 8-track tapes there is a rush to be the first to lay a pen to paper, or a key stroke to a glowing screen, and accurately detail the problems leading to the ascent or collapse of cultural mainstays.
Patrol found its birth around one of these deaths, as our editor David Sessions was able to forsee and articulate the reasons behind the eventual fall of CCM. The prescience of those posts and a frustration with slothful habits of Christian culture resonated with internet-land. Over the following months, the constantly evolving band of writers and thinkers comprising Patrol have sought to provide you with content that informs and challenges you in your intellectual presuppositions and illuminates the presence of truth and beauty in the artistic world.
Last week, some of my respected colleagues at Patrol crafted an editorial calling for an acceptance of the eventual death of evangelicalism. This article decried evangelicalism’s emphasis upon definitions, in an increasingly definition-less world. It pushed for a new movement that would spend less time sweating over theological separation in Christendom and more time addressing the questions which plague society.
While there might be those among our readership who feel like Patrol has taken a deliberate and conscientious turn away from its roots, there is still a strong divergence of opinions gracing the editorial board of the site. All of us work in other sectors and write for other publications and our participation into the conversation which is known as Patrol is affected by a number of factors. There might be a trend towards certain subjects, but, as in the case of my piece on David Bazan, often it is just a matter of interview availability and timing rather than long-planned intentionality.
This is a forum— a square of debate and discussion— not a manifesto; and often, we disagree. So before my colleagues leave evangelicalism rotting with other ideological relics, I’d like to borrow a line from the Brits and ensure the world, “We’re not dead yet.”
Perspective on truth is one thing that our current postmodern culture has taught us well. The view that each of us have of a certain situation is tainted by our own upbringing and current social standing. Tom Wolfe has spent a lifetime expounding the ideas of Emile Zola in documenting the effects of the community upon the intellectual growth and life of the individual. Environment is crucial to understanding your own perspective on a situation.
But when it comes to this editorial, the writers seemed determined to transfer their own grim picture of evangelicalism and make it normative for the entire community. As someone who grew up with a different background, attends a different church and witnesses a different environment —it’s a picture that just isn’t accurate.
Evangelicalism is changing, but it is hardly dying. Modern Christianity is in the middle of a flux (along with much of the rest of our society). As Christianity is moving out of the mainstream, it’s harder than ever to be a Christian in America. There has been a shaking off of the chaff and wandering from the fold of many church-raised children. But this doesn’t indicate the failure of evangelicalism, as it does the failure of churches within the evangelical community.
I’ve watched from the inside of the Sovereign Grace movement for the last three years. Two years in a row, I’ve sat in the convention halls of its main conference, packed with that age group most likely to leave their faith. These 18-29 year olds sang loudly and listened attentively to long and theologically-rich sermons on the nature of God and the person of Christ. According to Patrol, this demographic is supposed to be moving towards substance-less churches or agnosticism.
Mock some of its lingo and character traits, if you want, but this community that reveres the truths found in the Bible, the work of the Puritans and the nearly-sainted John Piper (the Minneapolis firebrand was greeted like a rock star in 2008) is growing exponentially, and with little decay.
And the growth isn’t just confined to churches that incorporate drums and a worship leader in flip flops. Capitol Hill Baptist Church has been around since the 19th century, nestled in the heart of D.C., and my church home since March. Despite the fact that Pastor Mark Dever usually occupies the pulpit till 12:30 with sermons that are anything but light, while the worship has only bare musical accompaniment, the theologically-rigid body has grown much in the last years and is heavily attended by that same 18-29 at risk demographic.
Go a little outside the District and you can find another American religious institution, The Falls Church Anglican. Self-described as part of the “evangelical tradition,” the 277 year-old church has maintained doctrinal purity, even at the cost of a denominational split, and is still growing. If Patrol wants something a bit closer to home, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, led by Tim Keller, doesn’t seem to be on the verge of the grave. There is substance to these churches, a humble orthodoxy (to borrow a term from Sovereign Grace), and there are hungry followers.
But maybe this is just the picture coming out of my environment.
I’m painfully aware that for years, churches across Christendom have placed an emphasis upon the external at the expense of the internal. Whether it be culture war Christianity with Disney boycotts and curse counting, or apologetics training that claimed to conquer any tough question that might be encountered; churches are reaping a harvest that was sown years ago.
Not all church leaders are content with this, the “Evangelical Manifesto”— mentioned in passing by the Patrol editorial— contains more than definitional semantics. Existing within that carefully worded statement — steered by philosopher Os Guinness who will be sitting down for a Q&A to be published here on Evangel — is a response to our current philosophical environment and a vision of a church defined not by standing against culture but dialoguing with society. It stands against culture warfare, humbly asserts key Christian truths, and pushes for a political system which tolerates the intellectual expression of all views. Those very “meta questions,” that Patrol calls evangelicals to lead the discussion on, are at the heart of this document. Ironically, author Mark Noll, quoted by post-evangelicals as an example of what Christians should be doing, is one of the charter signatories of the manifesto.
An obsession over definition won’t save evangelicalism, but as members of the evangelical community move forward, it is vital that they understand what direction their movement is headed.
And here’s where definitions are so important. If Patrol is defining evangelicalism by the type of political activism, masked in religious expression, characterizing the work and ministry of men like Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye and Dr. James Dobson, then yes, we can pronounce a death and failure to that type of outreach. But according to Patrol’s definition of evangelicalism — and with a slight nuance to what you understand activism to be— as “conversionism, Biblicism, activism and crucicentrism,” we are left, not with arbitrary points of doctrine, but rather the distinguishing mark of true Christianity.
Oh, and for the record, “crucicentrism” refers to the centrality of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross in the process of our salvation—the backbone of our faith and the heart of the gospel and is not something to be removed lightly.
Gillian Welch whispers that she will know her savior, “by the mark where the nails have been.”
How will you know your savior, if not by the cross?
The problem in evangelicalism is not an absence of definitions; it’s a need for churches to live in accordance with the very things they profess to believe.
Christian churches are now starting to realize that the internal relationship with God, the sanctification of the believers, is the primary purpose of the Church. Unless the individual members of the church are seeking to transform their own heart into the likeness of Christ — putting to death sin and pride — there can be no true place for external evangelizing and interacting with culture. One must find himself just before God, before he can ever hope to make the world right.
Patrol’s editorial claims that evangelicalism, “offered no intellectually acceptable explanation for how one is to live and think in the postmodern world,” but that argument seems based less on actual reality and more on localized experience and sweeping generalizations. There are too many vibrant evangelical churches across the U.S. to simply dismiss them with a broad wave of prose. Then look to the rich fruits of Asia and Africa and see if it still seems wise pronounce a time of death on evangelicalism.
The writers may not have been offered an intellectual acceptable solution in their own background, but there is a new generation of Christians who do have their own experience, their own story.
It’s the story of a generation willing to humbly question, diligently search the Scriptures, kneel in repentance, and then seek out truth and accountability in the pews of their local church. It’s the story of a generation unafraid to ask the hard questions, but willing to seek answers. It’s an imperfect generation, continually in need of repentance, but one which seeks to serve a perfect God.
If that previous definition of evangelicalism must be discarded, then what shall replace it? What will define the gospel, if not the Biblical story of God’s perfection, man’s fall and the unmerited and gracious sacrifice of Christ that warrants being spread to the four corners of the earth?
This isn’t meant to be a soapbox, but when traditional truths are cavalierly dismissed with the sweep of multi-syllable prose, there are implications. What separates Christianity from other belief systems? Return to truth and seek a new definition of your theological movement, if you want, but in the end, you may only find, like Chesterton,
“I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of civilized religion… I found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered it was orthodoxy.”