In a post-Religious Right American context and, more broadly, a post-Christian West, evangelicals face an identity crisis. Evangelicals are realizing afresh what we always knew in our better moments, namely, that our fundamental identity isn’t political or even socio-cultural but rather theological and missional. Whatever else we are, we are (or we ought to be) people shaped by the Bible and the good news of Jesus Christ, animated by a shared sense of responsibility to take this gospel message to the ends of the earth.
That said, these priorities—gospel, theology, mission—constantly need reiteration. For this reason, evangelicals should welcome Richard Lints’s newly edited volume, Renewing the Evangelical Mission. Deliberately building on the important work of David Wells, this collection of essays seeks to “provoke strategic thinking about the challenges that face American evangelicals and thereby to aid in the effort of renewing the unique renewal movement of American evangelicalism” (5-6). Featuring a stellar lineup of contributors (including Os Guinness, Michael Horton, Mark Noll, J. I. Packer, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Miroslav Volf), the volume offers an insightful analysis of evangelicalism’s current state and a prescient glimpse into what the movement might become in the near future.
The book is divided into three parts. In part one, Volf, Tite Tienou, Noll, Rodney Peterson, and Guinness address variations on the theme “Renewing the Global Mission.” Some common motifs in this section include the global and “polycentric” nature of Christianity in the 21st century, the potential benefits of ecumenical dialogue, the dangers of American exceptionalism, and the challenges of cultural engagement in the post-Christian West. Guinness summarizes these concerns well: “We stand on the verge of a post-Christian West and a post-Western Christian church, with immense but unknown significance for both the church and the world” (90).
Part two addresses the topic “Renewing the Evangelical Mission.” In this section, Packer and Gary Parrett encourage a revival of Christian catechesis, Horton critiques certain strands of evangelical ecclesiology from his Reformed perspective, and Lints seeks to advance a framework for understanding unity and diversity within evangelicalism.
The essays of part three take up the theme “Renewing the Theological Mission.” This section features an appraisal of the work of Wells (Cornelius Plantinga Jr.), a compelling apologetic for the theological interpretation of Scripture (Vanhoozer), an analysis of the epistemological challenges raised by the “emergent church” (Adonis Vidu), and an important proposal on the person and work of Christ (Bruce McCormack).
State of Our Union
Renewing the Evangelical Mission presents its readers with a “state of the (evangelical) union,” so to speak. Taking its cues from the incisive analysis of Wells, as well as earlier volumes from Noll and Plantinga, this collection offers an important contribution in its own right when it comes to evangelical self-reflection and critique. But the book offers more than another jeremiad against evangelicalism. It also points the way forward on a range of topics from epistemology to church education programs, from ecclesiological particulars to ecumenical dialogue.
The essays are uneven in terms of analysis and confessional commitments, and as a result, no reader will agree with all of the essayists’ conclusions. For example, evangelical Baptists will likely take issue with Horton’s tendency to conflate Anabaptist and “self-feeding” ecclesiologies, on the one hand, with any expression of a believers’ church, on the other (though there’s much in his essay that evangelicals of all stripes need to hear). Additionally, McCormack’s suggestion that evangelicals must abandon divine impassibility and simplicity in order to defend penal substitution will seem illogical and counter-productive to many readers.
Despite these and other potential disagreements, each of the chapters in Renewing the Evangelical Mission provides a stimulating contribution to the book’s main theme. Taken as a whole, the book rewards careful consideration of its various analyses and proposals.