The Future and Past of Evangelicalism

This month’s Christianity Today has two articles that I found to be an interesting pairing. One addresses the exodus of young Christians from the church (first chapter of book on which it’s based for free here), the other is a touching remembrance of Vernon Grounds.

The article on Grounds resonated with me as it followed his journey away from fundamentalism and into a broader evangelicalism. He was a leading figure in bringing the need for social action to the attention of evangelicals.

In light of the leadership of evangelicalism now being given by many more conservative folks, especially the separating of social action from the gospel, I found this history to be important and refreshing.

One piece of the journey that I found particularly interesting was that his early years seemed to be more focused on apologetics, and the latter years provided the venue for his prescient calls to social engagement. (That may be a mistaken impression.) And there I found a striking connection with the other essay.

Drew Dyck’s “The Leavers” strives to give a balanced assessment of both the reality of young people leaving the church and the prognosis for their return. There are several sociological factors that make a return with the advent of marriage and children less likely than it was in earlier generations.

But the point that interested me most was when he probed the reasons given for folks leaving.

    Almost to a person, the leavers with whom I spoke recalled that, before leaving the faith, they were regularly shut down when they expressed doubts. Some were ridiculed in front of peers for asking “insolent questions.” Others reported receiving trite answers to vexing questions and being scolded for not accepting them.

I’ve only had one or two Tweets ever go viral. One that did was when I said, “Apologetics is bad for my soul. I’d rather have no answer to my doubts than a bad one.” Or something like that.

At any rate, the “apologetics” connection was what struck me here. Not that apologetics is bad, but it doesn’t really work for me, and for some others. In particular, it gives people answers to questions that they often haven’t asked themselves and therefore cannot feel the weight of. The answer seems to work because they’ve never had to use it to minister to their own heart or mind.

Both articles in their own way point toward one important marker of viable faith for the future. People who have been trained to think of Christianity as a set of statements believed have to redefine faithful Christianity in terms of a life well lived.

Thinking the right things is important, but living the right things provides powerful validation when all the correctly spoken answers widely miss the mark.

16 thoughts on “The Future and Past of Evangelicalism”

  1. Great post! It’s taken me a long time — and I’m still not totally there yet — to accept the fact that I’m also one of those people for whom apologetics doesn’t really “work.” Actually, there are lots of good, nuanced apologetic arguments that “work” for me in the sense of coming alonside what I “know” and believe to be true from experience. But so much of the popular apologetic literature is, to put it bluntly, intellectual skubala that stinks when exposed to the hot sunshine of critical inquiry. The terrible irony is that the Church is foremost supposed to be about Truth.

  2. Regarding “The Leavers,” how does Dyck account for those who end up denying the faith vs. those who leave an organized faith for a less organized/relational faith?

    I wonder if much of this is hyped up for lack of understanding of where Christians are trending.

  3. I don’t understand why apologetics is the target here, when most people that left said they left (more or less) due to feeling they had to adopt a “blind faith” mentality. Apologetics does not remove doubt from the faith journey, but it certainly provides better answers to reasonable questions than shutting someone down (as the article put it) altogether. From my experiences, youth leave Christianity because youth ministers cater to youth with fun and games inter-mixed with Jesus and fail in helping youth build their own faith. Youth ministers should be equipping youth with apologetical tools when they have tough questions and helping youth develop their own faith rather than expecting youth to accept the type of faith the youth ministers sell to their young flock, which is discarded along with most aspects of the youth’s life as they move away from their childhood and into adulthood.

    1. See dopderbeck’s point above, Dan. Often apologetics can make things worse because it creates a veneer of intellectually respectable answers to various questions, but once an existential confrontation is in play the answers seem (or are shown to be, in actuality) thin or trite. Or, worse, apologetics often takes as the object of its study the defense of questions in which the “doubters” have the better interpretation of the data (think of the synoptic problem, discrepancies between the gospels, etc.). Sometimes what seems more needed is not a robust answer to a challenging question, but a realization that the question is challenging because we’re holding to a way of thinking about the faith that needs to be let go.

      1. In my experience, apologetics is a tool: when used for what it’s meant used, it can enhance understanding of faith issues. If used improperly (providing “trite” answers, which I don’t think it does unless taken out of context), it can be detrimental. Should we toss the hammer because it does not screw the screw, or should we recognize what its job is and not force it to do something it was not designed to do? Toss apologetics when providing trite answers, use it to help people understand aspects of faith.

  4. My guess is that this is indicative of a long-term schism for evangelicals. Those churches & communities that shift focus away from apologetics will no doubt attract some of those doubters, but they will, in the process alienate all the people who are evangelical precisely because it’s a kind of identity politics.
    I know a lot of evangelicals for whom the central focus of their faith is assenting to a correct set of propositions, and I have come to believe that it’s that set of defining propositions that attracted them in the first place- like a lot of people who join ideologically strict movements, it was the identity-making power of the group and it’s ideas that they were after. They wanted to belong to an “us.”

    Those folks are not only going to not want to shift focus away from apologetics and faith based on assenting to a set of propositions – they’re going to fight tooth and nail against any change in that direction and brand would-be reformers as heretics.

  5. “Others reported receiving trite answers to vexing questions and being scolded for not accepting them.” Scolding for me has been veiled…and apologetic texts have created more doubts for me. That said, if apologetics is of no value (and I tend to agree with that b/c of my own experience), how do you propose individuals enter Christianity, particularly those from other religions and other cultures?

    1. Mostly by telling the story of Jesus as something that has power to transform lives, society, etc., and having the lives, society, etc. to make good on the claim. That old evangelical “testimony” idea is a different kind of “apologetic”, one that is not only more personal, but perhaps does a better job of articulating the inherently storied nature of the faith.

      That’s an initial thought. What do you think?

  6. Yo, Dr. D.!

    A very intriguing pairing, as you suggested.

    Too bad that “apologetics” are too often used to defend “the faith” (as if our questions could “kill” it) and not defend “the faithful” (whose unanswered questions could prove fatal, faithwise). I wonder if doubting truths and wrestling with God about them is a better route to owning our faith and persevering than is blind conformity simply because we’re “supposed to.”

    And the field of apologetics still seems too dominated by a conventional Western-influenced mindset of linguistic perfectionism and philosophical skepticism and analysis. Where are the apologetics systems that address foibles of our language and those who come from a spirituality of embracing experience and then processing it, instead of getting it theoretically correct first and then applying it? Almost a decade ago, a group I was with expanded the Alpha Program slogan of “No question is too simple” with the addition of ” … and no question is too complex.” That was in part to by-pass the problem of conventional apologetics (and epistemologies, too, for that matter).

    P.S. I think your idea of the testimony as “embodied apologetic” is helpful, especially for those of us who are “wired” to embrace experience and process it afterward to see what we truly think.

  7. I think the power of the gospel is the power to invade any story we live in. Apologetics is one way the gospel found to take root in Western thought.

    While I think the era of Apologetics is ending ( or ended 20 or 30 years ago really ), as the story we Americans live in changes, I don’t that that is universal.

    A cultural story which is asking questions that Apologetics is designed to answer could easily exist in other places. I am no expert on Christianity across the globe, but it seems like this could be the case.

    So I half agree, except that the future of evangelism will have to include good relationships with the people for whom Apologetics is the very gateway to the presence of Christ.

  8. Dan, as I mulled your comments I came to a point very close to what the Misfit Toy articulated above.

    From having engaged with you in a couple different contexts, I think that we occupy slightly different slices of the evangelical world and we are differently wired in terms of how we receive, process, and deal with various issues arising in the course of our respective Christian journeys.

    It strikes me that my anti-apologetic bent is one slice of the evangelical pie, but that the “apologetics is helpful” contingent continues to thrive as another slice of it. I think that both are true outside of Western/U.S. evangelicalism as well.

    So perhaps a couple of important take-aways include: (1) recognizing that apologetics will continue to be important for some evangelicals in the US and abroad; balanced with (2) folks who appreciate apologetics not mistaking their processing of certain data pursuant to the faith, or answers given in defense of it, with “the faith” itself; along with (3) listening to folks who are within the fold but dissatisfied with their answers in order to both give better answers and choose wisely where the faith does, in fact, need defense.

    This should come along with folks like me (4) being perhaps a bit more patient with those for whom these approaches work, and (5) being willing to be reminded about those areas that do, in fact, call for defense in the face of true (not imagined) challenges.

  9. I think a key in thinking about apologetics is to be clear about exactly what is the subject of our apologia.

    The first problem with much standard evangelical apologetics, in my experience, is that it is trying to defend a very hard notion of Biblical inerrancy along with a literalistic hermeneutic. So, you get nonsensical creationist arguments, forced harmonizations of different Biblical texts, crazy interpretations of current events in light of “end times” thinking, and so on.

    The second problem is that contemporary evangelical apologetics often are wedded to an almost positivistic epistemology. So, you get “The Case for a Creator” or “The Case for Christ,” as if human reason is the ultimate, neutral judge of “the facts” — and as if, in the event the “case” fails to meet the jury’s legal standard of proof, faith is not reasonable.

    Since neither of these foundational presumptions can be sustained ((1) hardline inerrancy with a literalistic hermeneutic, and (2) a quasi-positivistic epistemology), the entire project crumbles.

    If the apologia shifts to the personal knowledge of the living savior who embodies God’s story of salvation, the sort of defense offered seems to me more robust. The first line of defense here is to challenge the modernist notion that the only true “knowledge” derives from quasi-positivistic empiricism. Once it becomes clear that the foundations of modernity as a whole have crumbled, we can start to talk about the reasonable bases — the reasons — for faith in Christ. In effect, the project is an effort to recapture pre-modern ideas about what “reason” and “knowledge” fully encompass — in particular that “faith” always precedes “understanding.” (Good book: John Stackhouse, “Humble Apologetics”).

  10. In many respects, all our arguments, perspectives, etc., are somewhat autobiographical. In taking a particular position, we are also telling some aspect of our story. In so doing however, quite often, we have a tendency to want to narrow Christianity to our own temperment, perspective, opinion, etc. In having “been there, done that,” or “moved on,” we think others should too. That is neither a reasonable expectation or a good idea.

    There was a time when I read Lee Strobel – thought he was okay. Then I went through a phase when I scoffed at even the thought or mention of his name. Recently, I went back to look at some of his stuff and found that it was actually pretty good and constructive. But even if I hadn’t formed that opinion, there are many who find his work helpful and informative. To that end, he makes a valuable contribution, regardless of whether he appeals to me personally or whether a host of people of a certain bent will find him unappealing.

    This doesn’t mean we can’t critically engage our brothers and sisters [end times stuff, to use one of Dave's examples], but I ought to be glad that the church is bigger than what I think and believe. Them Christians sure are an uncontrollable bunch that are hard to keep in line.

    Given the above, Daniel, your last comment is very much helpful and goes forward in advancing unity in diversity. At the same time, I want to say that what we offer has to be more than merely subjective experience. Given all the thoughtful contributions you offer here, I think you believe that as well.

    One more point: would it be possible to get off the anti-propositional stuff [btw, is it wrong to equate anti-propostional with anti-intellectual?]. Propositions are integral to language and communication. We’re alll offering a host of propositions here. If we want to say that we’re about more than propositions, then of course and absolutely because we are. At the same time, we are not anti or non-propositional. Why would we want to be? We are after all the people of Apostles, Nicea, Chalcedon, etc.

    1. You following me around John? Good comments. It’s not about being “anti-propositional,” I think. It’s about the place of propositions. Propositions are just human statements — valuable, but always provisional, never the whole Truth. The whole Truth is a person — Christ. So relational Truth isn’t “subjective”. It’s more “objective” than human language. And don’t forget that the Apostle’s Creed is essentially a narrative, not a set of legal propositions.

      Re: diversity in the Body — yes, and no. Yes, I agree, we need to hear from each other, and people with different temperaments need different avenue of expression. But, I don’t think “diversity” means just accepting mediocrity (or worse, stupidity). Most of popular conservative evangelical apologetics is mediocre at best, stupid at worst. I’m afraid that in the long run much of it is more harmful than helpful. Bad theology, shallow arguments, shallow faith.

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