In an article on the Christianity Today website Ed Stetzer dismisses the doom-sayers and gloom-mongers who think that the church is in terminal decline and puts forward five fundamentals for an evangelical future. I am of a naturally cheerful disposition, but I think his analysis and proposals are superficial and naïve. Jeremiah warned Israel against the complacency of the false prophets who said that the people would never go into exile, or if they did, that it wouldn’t be for long, a couple of years at the most (Jer. 7:1-15; 28:10-16). Sometimes the pessimists are right.
Stetzer is confident that the sky is not falling for evangelicals: we just need to “face some truths and change some behaviors to reach the world with the message of the gospel”. He is looking five to ten years down the road, but I think that is short-sighted. That sort of outlook just keeps us trying to do the same things only slightly better.
Historically speaking, Christianity in the West is where classical paganism was in the fourth and fifth centuries. It’s on the way out. It’s had its day. It’s a thing of the past.
Paul was enough of a bonkers visionary to say to the men of Athens that centuries of polytheistic ignorance were about to be brought to a juddering halt. The God of Israel had fixed a day when he would judge the ancient oikoumenē (Acts 17:30-31).
The conversion of the empire vindicated the radical faith of the early believers and introduced 1500 years of Christian dominance in the West. But over the last two or three hundred years Christianity has been subjected to the same humiliation that it inflicted on classical paganism long ago. It has been driven from the public domain in the name of the secular trinity of Reason, Freedom and Progress—or however we wish to name the new gods.
The world has moved on.
The church has certainly proved highly adept at reinventing, repackaging, and rebranding itself, but that won’t work forever. Since the end of the second world war we must have pretty much exhausted the options—crusade evangelism, the charismatic movement, church growth, alt worship, emerging church, missional church, fresh, messy expressions of church, neomonasticism, and so on.
Sooner or later we will have to come to terms with the scale of the challenge that we face. I suggest, therefore, that Stetzer’s five fundamentals need reinforcing.
1. A clear understanding of the gospel
Because we are talking about evangelicalism, I suppose this has to come first, but it is a fundamental mistake, in my view, to limit the “gospel” to the assertion that “new life is from Jesus’ death on the cross, for our sin and in our place”.
The “gospel” is not a free-floating truth. It’s not a universal bargain. It’s not a meme just waiting to go viral. It is part of a story, and if the story does not in some manner precede our account of the “gospel”, then evangelicalism will grossly misrepresent itself to the world.
Traditionally, evangelicalism has made the gospel part of a personal narrative about sin, new life, and a final triumph over death. But that is not what we have in the New Testament. The story that frames and explains “gospel” in the New Testament is a historical one, the story of Israel.
The proclamation of good news in the early churches looked back to Jesus’ death and resurrection: this is how Jesus saved his people and became king.
It looked forward to judgment, vindication and rule—first with respect to Israel, then with respect to the nations.
The gospel was a statement about what God was doing in Israel’s world.
In this narrative context the evangelistic ministry of the followers of Jesus outlined a protracted, far-reaching, world-changing transition in the historical experience of the people of God. Whatever “good news” we have for people today, either inside or outside the church, is grounded in that historical transition.
But I am inclined to say that it is not the world that needs to hear good news right now but the church.
Isaiah proclaimed good news to Zion, and it was only later that the significance of the predicted intervention of God for the nations became apparent.
Jesus proclaimed good news to Israel, and it was only later that the apostles realised the implications of this development for the nations.
If the church again faces a very uncertain future, then we need to hear the good news that God is with us, fashioning a new future for his people out of the unsettling experience of humiliation, defeat and cultural exile. It may then be some time before we grasp the implications of this painful reformation of the church for an increasingly global secularism. But this is all beyond Stetzer’s pragmatist purview.
So I am all in favour of the keeping the label “evangelical”: it reminds us of our obligation to say something important and good about God, and in the British context it comes with much less baggage. But it needs redefining in narrative-historical terms.
2. A stronger focus on discipleship
For Stetzer discipleship is aimed firmly at the individual believer: the “largest statistical study of its kind” shows that we just need “to remind people to live out who God has made us in Christ”. Add all the discipled individuals together and you get a healthy church.
But individualism is the problem, not the solution. We are unlikely to counter the malaise of our obsession with the self, which has to be one of the most enervating characteristics of the modern evangelical church, by starting with the individual. It doesn’t matter how good our statistics are.
In scripture the formation of the people of God is determined by narrative context. We must approach discipleship not by teaching individuals to live out of their personal relationship with God but by telling a relevant story about the community in relation to the Western cultural context. From that story we will learn what sort of people we need to be.
3. A greater passion for mission
Stetzer makes this a matter of opposing the “clergification” of the church and getting the whole of God’s people involved in “mission”. There is undoubtedly some point to this, but the focus is again on method. The analysis doesn’t begin to face up to the existential challenge posed to the church at the end of the Christian era.
So here’s the overriding task, as I see it. As we drift into the age-to-come, Christianity needs to be saved from the fate that befell classical paganism. It needs to be saved from becoming a museum piece—or there will be no future for the people of God, not in the West at least.
But there’s another side to this coin, a more fundamental missional challenge, if you like—that the name of God should be hallowed among the nations.
We’ve been here before. Ezekiel declared that YHWH would gather the exiles and bring them back to the land, not for their sake but because his name had been brought into disrepute among the nations:
And I will sanctify my great name, which was profaned among the nations, which you profaned in their midst, and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, when I am hallowed among you before their eyes. (Ezek. 36:23 LXX)
That was the mission of God.
Likewise, Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God would act as king to save his people and that through this action his name would be “hallowed” among the nations—I paraphrase slightly (Matt. 6:9-10).
I think these texts give us a simple and highly pertinent model for the Missio Dei today. God is saving his people from historical irrelevance, from an obsolescence of the age; and in the process he is re-establishing his own reputation in the secular West.
4. Evangelism in the age of the Nones
According to Stetzer Americans live in a “post-seeker context”, so churches “will have to find new ways to lead their people to reach out to their neighbors”. It’s all about method. Again.
It’s not poor method that enfeebles evangelistic activity. It’s the lack of a compelling, historically relevant message about the living creator God. We simply don’t know what to say.
Jesus’ gospel was not the offer of personal salvation to friends and neighbours. It was the dire warning that God was about to judge and restore his people.
Paul’s gospel was not the offer of personal salvation, cleverly presented in new and exciting ways to different people groups. It was the outrageous proclamation to the powers-that-be, to the nations of the empire, that YHWH was about to turn the ancient world upside-down.
Until we develop a narrative on that sort of scale, evangelism will be no more than an uncomfortable and largely futile exercise in turning back the clock.
5. New thinking in developing best practices
If the most that we can expect from “new thinking” is better ways to perpetuate an old paradigm, then I humbly suggest that evangelicalism really doesn’t have much of a future. Evangelicalism needs a new story to tell about itself—not out of a misplaced trust in novelty but because it hasn’t yet faced up to the way the world is changing. For that, we need to learn some hard lessons from history.