In 2011, I listed five trends in evangelicalism that, apart from a catastrophe or a revival in the United States, were likely to become increasingly evident in this decade. Now that we are halfway through the 2010’s, I’d like to revisit that post and see whether things have played out as I thought.
1. Chastened Expectations of Culture Change through Politics
I predicted that evangelicals would be less inclined to believe that “the culture” could be changed through the political process. I’ve noticed that more and more younger evangelicals agree that the politicization of evangelicalism (or the equation of “evangelical” with a political party, whether right or left) is detrimental to the church’s witness. The distaste for evangelical partisanship has not resulted in an “apolitical” movement, however, but in a recognition that evangelicals are (1) a minority and (2) more persuasive when prophetically challenging the assumptions of leaders in both parties.
Evangelicals continue to speak out on a number of social issues like race relations, abortion, religious liberty, and poverty. The shift is not in the energy of political engagement, but in the realization that politics is downstream from other sources of cultural influence. Many conservative evangelicals are less forceful about “changing” the culture and more concerned about preserving space for conscientious objection to societal trends.
I don’t see a widespread shift in values among church-going millennial evangelicals (note my emphasis on “church-going” not merely “self-identifying evangelicals”). I do see a difference in posture. As I’ve noted before, older evangelicals are more likely to see the U.S. as Israel, while younger evangelicals are more likely to see the U.S. as Babylon.
2. Growth of Evangelical-Style Prosperity Teaching in South America and Africa
When I wrote the original post, I remarked that the new face of world Christianity is no longer the European man, but the African woman. The missionary movement has resulted in a dramatic demographic shift.
As thrilled as I may be about the explosive growth of Christianity in South America and Africa, I am discouraged by the prevalence of prosperity teaching. I wish I could say my original prediction was wrong, but aside from a few glimmers of hope here and there, I see no abatement in prosperity gospel teaching in the global South. Even more distressing is that, in some cases, the teaching cannot be properly defined as Christian at all; it is fundamentally “health and wealth” with just a few evangelical doctrines as a veneer.
3. For evangelicals in North America, homosexuality will become a wedge issue that reveals the major cracks in our theological disunity.
I predicted that in this decade, the controversy in the mainline churches would reach evangelical churches and denominations. We are only at the halfway point, but I do think we are seeing signs of theological disunity in historically-conservative churches, institutions, and agencies.
The World Vision decision in 2014 was a defining moment, both in the disunity it revealed on this issue, and also in the organization’s about-face, as an evangelical core rose up and paraphrased Jesus: “Why do you say, Lord, Lord, and abandon what I said about marriage?”
One of the positive side effects of the ongoing conversation about homosexuality and marriage is that conservative evangelicals see the need to address this subject from a pastoral point of view, not just a political one. Jesus’ definition of marriage is uncompromising and unalterable, but so is His commitment to sinners on the margins.
As more evangelicals speak openly about experiencing same-sex attraction, and as some evangelicals identify as “gay” while following Christ’s instruction regarding chastity, the “us” vs. “them” mentality has diminished. When it comes to the church, there’s just “us” – sexual sinners whose dividing line is not what kind of sexual temptation we face, but the line of repentance and our faith in Christ’s unwavering faithfulness to His people.
4. We will tighten the belt for ourselves and (hopefully) recommit to world missions.
It didn’t take much forecasting to see that building and maintaining massive structures for worship was on the downswing. What surprises me is just how fast this trend has picked up speed. The bigger churches appear to be moving to multi-site, while famous and historic churches like Crystal Cathedral (which I mentioned in the earlier post) became the center of ecclesial decline and failure rather than prestige.
Unfortunately, I think I was wrong to assume “tightening the belt” would be associated with “recommitting to world missions.” The decline in construction has not always been met with a renewed emphasis on mission. Instead, these shifts appear to be based on other factors, like economic realities and the lingering effects of the recession. Would that we be filled with more missionary passion!
5. Polarization regarding Philosophy of Ministry
Here’s where I think I completely missed the boat. I predicted that the lines dividing evangelicals on ministry philosophy would become more defined, as camps of attractional vs. missional or family-centered, etc. would become more entrenched.
On the contrary, the past few years have demonstrated more camp-crossing. Some of the “missional Reformed” became largely attractional, while historically-attractional ministries sought to deepen their discipleship. Polarization still exists, but I’ve seen more willingness for people from different streams to listen, carefully weigh, and then agree or disagree with strengths from other groups.
What do you think of these trends? What have I missed? Where am I right and where am I wrong?