This is Part 2 of my response to Alastair Roberts’ post regarding the state of progressive evangelicalism. I’m going to focus on point 3. Roberts states:
“The question that we need to ask ourselves is how the progressive evangelical movement is being formed in the absence of progressive evangelical churches. My suggestion is that, given the lack of progressive evangelical churches, the progressive evangelical movement that is forming online is primarily formed of highly disaffected people from evangelical contexts, people who are often isolated and alienated in their own communities, but who find common identity online.”
For the most part, I think he’s right about this. Last year I posted my own thoughts about how Liberal Christianity in general is dying off. While I still feel the same overall about Liberal Christianity in general, I am much more optimistic now than I was when I wrote that post.
The reason why is that the longterm trends on the evangelical Left have been towards increased order and consensus. I have been involved in sharing the Gospel for about twenty years. For most of those years, people who rejected the Gospel did so for personal reasons. Online I found a lot of the same theological reasons, but digging a little under the surface almost always personal issues: either they a bad experience with a church or parents, felt rejection based on sexual orientation, or they were content with their current belief system.
In 2005, I saw a dramatic shift. Political reasons for rejecting the Gospel took center stage. While the personal issues were still prominent, I saw more and more nonchristians who remained so explicitly because they equated Christianity with Republican politics. The catalyst was the re-election of George W. Bush and the evangelical church’s willingness to be identified with the administration’s politics.
All of the campus missionaries I know agree that they too saw a dramatic shift around 2005. Suddenly they found themselves trying to assure students that their ministry wasn’t a stealth attempt to make young people become Republicans. The personal issues were still prominent, but for an increasing number students the main issue was conservative politics. Since then, the number of people who identify Republican politics with Christianity has increased.
Around the same time my pastor and I devised a series of “man on the street” interviews, where I asked people three questions:
“What is your opinion about Jesus?”
“What is your your opinion about evangelicals?”
“Are you familiar with our church, and if so, what do you know about it?”
The results were fascinating. We expected pushback from nonchristians and friendly discussions with other Christians. Instead we found almost all of the nonchristians were happy to share their thoughts. They enjoyed having a dialogue with us.
The Christians, on the other hand, were full of anger. The few evangelicals we met were glad to share their feelings, but since they recognized us as fellow believers, they didn’t feel the need to elaborate. But the other Christians were accusatory:
“Why are you doing this?” (asked as if we were firing them from their jobs)
“You people are ruining this country.”
“You’re destroying Christianity for the sake of winning elections.”
“You people don’t even believe in Jesus.”
Only a handful of Christians were willing to have their answers recorded. Some not only insisted that we turn our camera off, they also insisted we empty our pockets to prove that we weren’t secretly recording them anyway. They really wanted to respond to our questions, but they suspected if we recorded them, we would edit it dishonestly. No nonchristians suspected we were up to no good.
From my perspective, what we’e seeing now from Millennials is a smooth continuation of that pushback against evangelicals. In the eight years that have passed, many Millennials have come of age or moved beyond their conservative roots. And what I see now is a more coherent list of tenets Liberal Christians are willing to define themselves by, and voices that, while not authoritative, have found themselves with an audience willing to rally around them. Given how young many of these people are, the movement is coalescing ahead of schedule.
Granted, the movement is still in a state of chaos and uncertainty, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most successful movements start in a disorganized fashion and slowly move towards structure and institutionalization. The Tea Party began with an obscure CNBC pundit named Rick Santelli ranting about the mortgage bailout. The Arab Spring began with a Tunisian fruit seller named Mohammed Bouazizi setting himself on fire. The Civil Rights movement broke open nationwide when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Mundane beginnings can launch dramatic results.
It’s worth noting that none of these figures wound up becoming leaders in movements they sparked, and at first each of them defined themselves by what they were against (in the case of the Tea Party, they still define themselves that way.) I would argue that Liberal evangelicals treat conservatives as foils because they still wish to remain a part of the evangelical church. In order to change the church, liberals must engage it directly.
The reliance on online community may be temporary. For decades I used to point out that Atheism wouldn’t be able to compete with organized religion because religion offers community and fellowship. Lo and behold, Atheist churches have begun to pop up, and people are going to them.
That said, I do agree that the danger is that Liberal evangelicalism could disintegrate into a vague pantheistic spirituality. I’ve noticed a number of liberal evangelical bloggers have begun to shift in this direction. However, I don’t think this trend is irreversible. In spite of its reputation, evangelical Christianity as a whole is extremely flexible. It’s shocking to observe how susceptible it is to fads and charismatic figures, and many churches have reversed themselves on core doctrines in a very short amount of time. If the church can shift rightward in a short period of time, it is quite possible that it could shift leftward, especially if we reach a point where the number of Liberal evangelicals exceed the number of conservatives.