The Future of Evangelicalism: A Twenty-Something’s Perspective

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
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The big debate over Love Wins has once again ignited speculation over the future of evangelicalism and the role that young adults will play in it.  Last week, Scot McKnight posed a series of questions that I’ve been pondering ever since: Is evangelicalism in a major shift? Are we headed toward a split? Will young evangelicals stick around or head for mainline churches instead?

I grew up in evangelicalism, spent most of my twenties arguing with it, and as I approach my 30th birthday, am ready to rebuild and move forward in my faith. While I can’t address these questions on behalf of all young evangelicals, I can speak from my own perspective, which I suspect is fairly common.  

The Divide

The media has focused largely on two movements within my generation of evangelicals. 

The first is the young, restless, and Reformed movement, which despite some conflicting evidence, seems to be growing, especially if you take into account the surging popularity of young Reformed pastors like Kevin DeYoung, Joshua Harris, and Mark Driscoll. Along with Tim Challies, John Piper, Al Mohler and Justin Taylor, these guys are totally dominating the blogosphere, (I know, because I compare my stats to theirs more often than I care to admit!), leading many to predict that they represent the future of evangelicalism.  

It’s important to note that this movement is centralized, with clear leaders and denominational affiliation (Southern Baptist & PCA). Leaders in this movement were quick to condemn Rob Bell and his book—many writing scathing reviews based on a few excerpts and some promotional copy 

The second group—sometimes referred to as “the new evangelicals” or “emerging evangelicals” or “the evangelical left” is significantly less organized than the firstbut continues to grow at a grassroots level.  As Paul Markhan wrote in an excellent essay about the phenomenon, young people who identify with this movement have grown weary of evangelicalism’s allegiance to Republican politics, are interested in pursuing social reform and social justice, believe that the gospel has as much to do with this life as the next, and are eager to be a part of inclusive, diverse, and authentic Christian communities.  “Their broadening sense of social responsibility is pushing them to rethink many of the fundamental theological presuppositions characteristic of their evangelical traditions,” Markham noted. 

While young adults in this movement tend to identify similar influences (NT Wright, Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne), they are significantly less organized. More importantly, most of the young adults in Marham’s survey reported that they didn’t like labels. They strongly preferred “non-denominational” or  “follower of Christ” to “evangelical.”  Folks who identify with this group would be more likely to welcome Bell’s ideas…or at least not condemn them as unorthodox. 

A quick glance at my Facebook profile would reveal that I relate more to the second group than the first. And since I am therefore suspicious of labels and binaries and anything that smells of an us-vs.-them mentality, I feel compelled to point out that most young Christians do not fit neatly into one of these two categories.  No one’s faith journey looks exactly the same, and there are many young evangelicals simply trying to faithfully follow their own conscience and conviction without identifying with one group or the other. 

The Question

The release of Love Wins revealed some of the serious differences between these two groups the way a florescent light reveals all the blemishes on your face when you look in a mirror.  This light’s been turned on before—(I think of the Evangelical Theological Society’s debate with Clark Pinnock and Greg Boyd, and the continuing debate between the BioLogos Foundation and Al Mohler)—and I suspect it will turned on again. 

So the question is: Can young evangelicals get along well enough to create a new generation of evangelicalism that includes both of these groups? 

I would really, really, really like to say YES—because I love my Reformed brothers and sisters, because love evangelicalism’s rich history of diversity, and because I love being a part of tradition that allows for spirited dialog. 

…But there’s a problem. 

The Problem

The problem, as I see it, can be summarized in the now infamous tweet issued from John Piper: “Farwell Rob Bell.” 

Those three words triggered a profound reaction within a lot of young evangelicals because many of us have heard them, in some shape or form, before. 

I heard them when Al Mohler dismissed me as “glib and irresponsible” for suggesting that perhaps Christianity is compatible with evolution. (He insisted that the two are not, in fact, compatible.)  My friend Sarah heard them when her questions about women’s ordination were met with charges that she didn’t take the Bible seriously.  My friend Steven heard them when he was told that his refusal to accept the doctrines of predestination and limited atonement represented a “rebellious spirit” against God Himself.  And I’ve heard them over and over and over again as evangelicals in my community have questioned my commitment to Christianity simply because I’m not absolutely certain that Anne Frank is in hell. 

See the pattern? It’s hard to maintain unity when differences in theology are met with accusations of heresy, and challenges to certain interpretations of the Bible are dismissed as challenges to its authority.  I’m concerned that many of these Reformed leaders are fundamentalizing doctrines that need not be fundametnalized, to the point that a critique of Calvinism is cast as a critique of Orthodox Christianity.  

Piper wasn’t simply bidding “farewell” to Rob Bell, he was bidding “farewell” to any of us who agree with Rob Bell, or ask the same questions as Rob Bell, or at the very least wish to stay in fellowship with Rob Bell. It is no longer enough that we too want to love and follow Jesus Christ, or that we too can affirm the creeds of historic Christianity. We’ve also got to ascribe to 16the century doctrines and 16th century interpretations of Scripture…or else be cast out.

 If we are going to move forward together—building God’s kingdom together,  glorifying and enjoying God together—then we’ve got to be able to disagree with one another without challenging one another’s commitment to the faith. I don’t agree with every aspect of Reformed theology, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that those who hold to it—including Piper and Driscoll and Taylor—are my brothers and sisters in Christ! I would break the bread of communion with them in a heartbeat!

But the problem is that after ten years, I’m getting tired of trying to convince fellow Christians that I am, in fact, a Christian, even though I may vote a little differently than they vote, interpret the Bible differently than  they interpret it, engage with science a little differently than they engage with it, and understand sovereignty and choice a little differently than they understand those things. 

 And I think a lot of other young evangelicals are growing weary of those arguments too. We’re ready to rebuild in communities where a commitment to love and follow Jesus Christ is enough common ground from which to start.

My Predictions

Rumbling beneath all of the evangelical debates about sovereignty, science, heaven, and hell are some serious questions about the Bible.  The divide was summed up nicely in a twitter exchange I had yesterday: 

Me: @rachelheldevans Halfway through #lovewins and kinda wondering why it got the backlash it did. This is not even close to unorthodox, imo. Your impressions?

Cam: CamMohajerin @rachelheldevans It's unorthodox for people who think the Bible is authoritative and infallible...completely normal for McLaren

Me: @CamMohajerin I think it's unorthodox for people who think their interpretation of the Bible is authoritative & infallible.

So my first prediction is that in the next few years the evangelical community will engage in a serious conversation about the Bible. And I suspect that that will be the tipping point McKnight asks about.  Let’s pray that this conversation will be as civil and as loving as possible. 

My second prediction is that the so-called “new evangelicals” will in large part drop the evangelical label. We don’t like labels to begin with, and evangelicalism already carries a lot of political and theological baggage.  Some will head to mainline churches, others will rediscover the rich history of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, and some will leave Christianity altogether. Still others will remain evangelical in spirit, but without the label—opting instead for “non-denominational” or simply “follower of Jesus.” 

My third prediction is that the word “evangelical” will go the way of “fundamentalism” as its adherents become increasingly homogonous and as the word   becomes associated with dogmatism regarding politics, science, women’s roles, homosexuality, salvation, and biblical literalism. 

THAT IS UNLESS  my generation—both Reformed and emerging/progressive evangelicals—decide to intentionally preserve the diversity of our tradition, stop launching personal attacks, and move forward together. As I wrote in my “Letter to a Young Calvinist from a Young Arminian”:  

As a new generation preparing to tackle the age-old debate about predestination and free will, our positions don’t have to change but our attitudes can. We can criticize one another’s interpretations of the Bible without assuming motive. We can point out the inconsistencies in certain faith traditions without attacking the people in them. We can talk about our disagreements knowing that what we have in common far outweighs our differences, for together we can affirm hat Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again!  We are the future of the Church and we have an opportunity here to change the tone. 

While I find myself growing more and more pessimistic about that outcome, I still hope for it. 

I hope for it every time my friend Amy and I have a healthy, productive conversation about theology, despite our differences. I hope for it every time I’m around my many Reformed friends who are kind, generous, and open. I hope for it every time I see young Pentecostals, Calvinists, Methodists, Baptists, and Mennonites working together to alleviate poverty, provide clean water, stop human trafficking, and live like Jesus in this beautiful, broken world. 

I haven’t lost hope in the future of evangelicalism, but I’ve lost the desire to fight for my place in it. I’m tired of trying to convince other Christians that I am a Christian.  As Dan and I enter that stage of life when we will likely start a family, we want to raise our kids in a community of Christ-followers where diversity is celebrated, questions are welcomed, and differences are handled with love and respect…not flippant “farewells.”

We want to get busy, get our hands dirty, start serving and growing and changing the world. This may very well lead us to the mainline, or perhaps to something associated with the Anabaptist tradition, or perhaps to something very similar to evangelicalism….but without the label.


What do you think of when you hear the word “evangelical”? Do you identify in any way with that community? What are your predictions for its future?

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