Do Western evangelicals have a role to play in the highly spiritual yet post-religious cultures of post-Christendom? I assert that evangelicals, because of their tireless ability to prosper outside of institutions within the individualized culture of the West, are well suited to serve in post-Christendom—a religious and cultural epoch where spirituality without religion is the primary form of faith expression. But evangelicalism must morph if it is to remain true to its roots (as change agent) while making a significant impact in the newly arising cultures of spirituality of the West.
Reformed Evangelicals in Modernity
Western evangelicals look to the early “evangelical” Reformers for their roots. Luther’s posting of his 95 theses serves as a model for an activism that moves away from institutional faith and focuses on the life of the believer before God. Generations after Luther, the Reformation movements institutionalized, their spiritual vitality waned, and evangelicals emerged to call the faithful, through tracts, Bible studies, or open-air preaching, to a vital relationship with Christ. Both the Pietist and Puritan movements stressed the need for repentance and personal conversion. Beginning a century later, the Wesleys, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and eventually Charles Finney continued this evangelical pattern of calling out to the nominally religious to recommit their lives to Christ.
The Reformation coincided with the birth of modernity, a culture made possible by the invention of the printing press. Modernity represented a larger shift in Western culture, from a mercantile to a capitalist economy, from fiefdoms to nation-states, from an illiterate to a literate populace, resulting in an educated middle class. Traditional commitments gave way to societal commitments—from the villager to the citizen, from the artisan to the industrial worker, and from the clansman to the soldier. Modernity needed a religion to make sense of its world, and the Reformation answered the call.
Over time in modernity, societal commitments yielded to Cartesian, Enlightenment, psychological, and more atomic understandings of the individual, giving way to the heightened responsibility of the late modern or postmodern individual. Evangelicals thrived in the culture of the individual and the values of the Enlightenment.
As personal agency increased in the modern period, so did evangelical practice. Religious affiliation might be beneficial but could never substitute for personal repentance: each person needed to convert to an entirely new of way of life. Evangelicals felt the call to individually share their understanding with others, outside the religious institution, in the home or workplace. More than homily or sermon, it was individual Bible reading that became the primary referent for evangelical life, through study or devotional reading. One’s family, community, ethnicity, gender, age, or economic status did not save; for the evangelical, each one came to Calvary alone.
Moving into the twentieth century, the producer culture that dominated modernity until World War II waned in the 1960s, moving toward a more individualized and hence consumer-oriented paradigm in the 1970s. Religion in the West adopted this logic as well, and ascriptive ties to religion—i.e., a set of activities inherited from one’s parents, like language or culture—ceased in the West. Instead, all religions shared a level playing field, and churches competed as one of many spiritual options for the seeker to choose. In addition, a plethora of new spiritualities filled the religious marketplace. Freed from denominational ties, Christian individuals in a consumer society flocked to evangelical megachurches of the 1980s. More responsive to the seeker than their traditional forebears, these evangelical institutions created spiritual products and activities designed for individual consumption.
Throughout their history, evangelicals initiated a broad range of practices, intentionally outside institutional controls. Late-modern culture provided a space for the widespread practice of individual Bible reading, prayer groups, preaching and revival meetings, accountability groups, mission societies, radio and television evangelism, and worship music. Evangelicals created colleges, seminaries, college ministries, and magazines—not to mention new churches and movements—most outside the jurisdiction of existing power structures.
Evangelical movements, with their clarion call for individual action, evolved into larger institutions, which eventually impinged on the freedoms of the individual members of the organization a generation or two later. These institutions would then be characterized as less vibrant than their origins, and thus would become candidates for renewal. The evangelical call for a removal of constraints to individual action and enablement of gospel action would be sounded again.
The Birth of Emergence Culture
With the birth of the Network Society and the rise of interactive web practices in the twenty-first century, Western culture shifted once again, this time from a consumer paradigm into a culture of participation. Participatory culture transforms consumption activities into production activities, as former consumers become cultural producers, remixing consumed media products into new configurations and products.
Participatory culture is not a post-individual culture—the individual is still a choosing creature free of ascriptive ties. But these individuals are choosing to immerse themselves into a deeply communal and participatory world. It is not an isolated, lonely “me,” but the deeply “connected me”1 that dwells in this new world of connectedness and participation.
One way to characterize the culture of participation is within a larger rubric spanning science, systems theory, and philosophy within the rubric of emergence. Through this paradigm, new forms of cultural life emerge. Emergent religion is characterized by a focus on deinstitutionalization, community, plurality, social justice, the embrace of material reality, the sacralization of all of life, an embrace of science, and innovative appropriations of tradition.2 Emergence Christianity, a subset of both Emergence culture and religion, respectively, began with Azusa Street in 1906 Los Angeles,3 according to Phyllis Tickle. Led by uneducated preachers, many barriers were crossed, including racial, economic, age, gender, cultural, and denominational. A few years later, when Walter Rauschenbush introduced the social gospel, a social justice component was added to the early characteristics of emergence. With the birth of the Taizé movement in 1943, all the components of an emergent Christianity were displayed: a deeply communal, hospitable, and ecumenical movement dedicated to global peace and justice, expressed within an incarnational, neo-monastic aesthetic. Before the midpoint of the twentieth century, Tickle writes, Emergence Christianity had revealed its form.4
With the increased agency of the Western individual, combined with a deep suspicion of institutions, these organic movements at the margins of Christianity may become the primary Western expression of faith in the twenty-first century. It is most clear, in the West, that Christian institutions will cease to dominate as they did in Christendom. A deinstitutionalized church, beyond the denomination and the congregation, seems to be the future of the Western church.
Toward an Evangelical Emergence
In early modernity, societal commitments governed how people formed their way of life. Evangelicals internalized the modern innovations of the Reformation and contextualized those forms into the late modern culture of individualism. In participatory culture, where all citizens are individualized—i.e., people are choosers, free of all ascriptive ties and anti-institutional in disposition—what is the role for evangelical faith? How might evangelicals continue their work in yet another culture where high levels of personal agency abound?
Evangelical megachurches, designed for the individual spectator, no longer serve as compelling options for participatory individuals in emerging cultures. A participatory individual desires to produce, interact, reveal, and upload their creations for others to experience. An evangelicalism that focuses on producer or consumer paradigms will not thrive in a participatory culture.
Evangelicals would do well to bring their highly participatory entrepreneurial skills and inclinations to bear on emergence culture. The evangelical has always destabilized church practice—the inner call trumped those activities that seemed to perpetuate the institution rather than personal spirituality. Through their own initiative, evangelicals take responsibility for their own spiritual life before God, reach out to neighbors, and start new ministries. Evangelicals cultivate a spiritual network of friends without regard to institutional religion. If emergence is the time for a DIY spirituality where one cobbles together spiritual life from many sources across many networks outside typical church structures—then evangelicals are ideally suited to serve in this context.
In regard to mission in emergence culture, I suggest that evangelicals remember their four marks5 and offer them with open hands, knowing that they will significantly morph when remixed with the receiving culture. The Emergent religious practices of deinstitutionalization, pluralization, social progressivism, and innovation (within tradition) will merge with the evangelical marks of conversion, activism, Bible, and the cross. The new synthesis will look different from either evangelicalism or emergence as the two traditions meet, embrace, and challenge one another.6
Evangelicals are a people who believe in conversion. Small improvements will not do; one needs to completely redirect his or her life to God. In late modernity, the revival meeting served to facilitate the conversion of a nominally religious person into a spiritual person. Evangelicals encouraged both adult baptism and personal testimony and downplayed religious affiliation. After conversion, evangelical converts were to continue in a vibrant faith; if not, they would be considered lukewarm or backslidden, and they would again be candidates for the altar call. For the evangelical in participatory culture, ongoing sanctification would be expressed through a dynamic and unceasing practice of spiritual encounter with God, often expressed in an everyday rule of life.
Evangelicals in these new contexts would practice a material spirituality. A material spirituality embraces science and its findings in physics and biology, letting go of the long battle against science in regard to cosmic origins and evolution. A material spirituality integrates these findings into a spirituality that sees the connectedness of all things. It welcomes mystery and paradox. A material spirituality has no hatred of the body. Yoga, rest, and a healthy diet all function as spiritual activities. While living in an evolutionary universe, a material spirituality remains conversionist: all of reality must continue to yield to God and pursue growth to find its full expression.
Evangelicals would do well to bring their activism forward into emergence culture. Evangelicals understand that what they receive in the gospel must not be kept to themselves; they have a responsibility to communicate this message to the whole world. Just as in modernity, evangelicals in participatory culture would be apostolic and start new ministries; however, unlike those in modernity, large numbers and longevity would not be a litmus test of success.
New evangelical affiliations would be guided by missional action, not membership. Evangelicals in participatory culture would identify with other Christians by sharing in their mission, be it serving, creation care, peacemaking, proclaiming, or justice work. Moreover, they are more likely to identify with their own group by adopting its rule of life rather than by attending church services or membership classes.
Evangelicals in emergent culture would engage public culture with a deep sense of equality and mutuality. They would dialogue with other traditions, be it within Christianity (ecumenism) or with other faiths or nonfaiths. They would recognize pluralism and mystery as realities and so they would understand that they see only partially as well, that ambiguity is a facet of our current reality. As such, evangelicals in emergent culture would approach others in a state of “prophetic dialogue.”7
Evangelicals see the Bible as the basis for their faith and practice in everyday life. Correspondingly, evangelicals in participatory culture would see Scripture as the overarching narrative of their lives, a story that includes the cosmos, the emergence of life, the peoples of the earth, and the Hebrew and Christian traditions.
These new evangelicals would recognize the deeply contextual aspect of the Bible and the many ways groups and cultures have appropriated Scripture through history. Evangelicals would receive different liturgies, creeds, symbols, rituals, and practices, often taken directly from the Bible or deeply inspired by it, as their worship. Evangelicals in emergent culture might eclectically appropriate Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal liturgies as biblical practices immersed in the cultures of their time and place.
Evangelicals in emergence will bring forward master narratives from the Bible—stories of liberation and redemption. The world beyond the church might be given over to slavery or patriarchy or any number of fallen structures, but the community of God must live into the coming kingdom, where differences are celebrated and overcome, all are equally valued, all have a voice and something to give. This was a characteristic of the early Christian communities, and it serves as a challenge to evangelicals today.
The cross invites individuals into a new life of rich abundance, but first, they must die. Each one must let go of all that does not coincide with God’s ways, receive forgiveness, and align oneself with God’s in-breaking kingdom. It is a personal dying to all the fallen systems of the world and a living into the new reality of Christ. It is a “no” to oppression, marginalization, isolation, exclusiveness. It is a “yes” to the reign of God and the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.
The tasks of a spiritual leader morph in a participatory context as well, but again, they resonate with historic evangelical dispositions. The spiritual leader is first and foremost a seasoned spiritual practitioner (a disciple) before he or she is a leader. He or she must lead from the place of spiritual mastery, regardless of the level of formal education attained. His or her authority comes from serving through an exemplary life, one that inspires others; he or she will not prescribe a life for others as much as serve as an example to them. The leaders in these spiritual communities function as spiritual directors more than they do as managers. These leaders may not have had any formal training—in fact, education may become a liability, as formal training may lead to more religious expressions of faith—not to spiritual practices outside of institutions. Beyond the spiritual director role, the new evangelical leader may work as a facilitator, creating a space for volunteers to create ministry activities such as worship, small groups, or mission outreach.
Because of evangelicalism’s long history as a contextualized faith in an individualized culture, evangelicals possess a gift to offer twenty-first century communities who share many of the same characteristics. I suggest that evangelicals come with a posture of openness, offering their vibrant tradition to an emerging context of connection, holism, and participation. Through integrated practices of a converted spirituality, a holistic engagement with the world, a wide sense of God’s story, and a fresh engagement with the cross, evangelicals may demonstrate a way forward in the highly spiritual but post-religious culture of post-Christendom.8
1. Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman, Networked: The New Operating System (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 19.
2. Ryan K. Bolger and J. Shawn Landres, “Emergent Religion,” in Encyclopedia of Global Religion, ed. Mark Juergensmeyer and Wade Clark Roof (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2011).
3. Phyllis Tickle, Emergence Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012). See part 2: “A Long Time Coming: How Did We Get Here?” (pp. 47–104).
5. Recall that evangelicals are characterized by a commitment to an individually converted way of life, the Bible as an individual’s primary source of authority, a personal activism that seeks to share their way of life with the world, and the cross where each individual receives the life of Christ as mediated through his life and work. Although many definitions might be given, the most widely accepted view of evangelicalism continues to be David Bebbington’s, from Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 2–17.
6. This is not new; evangelical has been used as a modifier to other traditions. One might be an evangelical Orthodox, an evangelical Catholic, evangelical Anglican, or evangelical Reformed. Richard Mouw describes himself as an evangelical Calvinist. Richard J. Mouw, The Smell of Sawdust: What Evangelicals Can Learn from Their Fundamentalist Heritage (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 71–76.
7. Stephen B. Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder, Prophetic Dialogue: Reflections on Christian Mission Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis), 2011.
8. Portions of this article appeared originally in “Evangelicals on a Journey to Emergence,” by Ryan K. Bolger, in Phyllis Tickle, Evangelist of the Future, edited by Tony Jones (Paraclete Press, 2014), www.paracletepress.com.
“By these marks, by these fruits of a living faith, do we labour to distinguish ourselves from the unbelieving world from all those whose minds or lives are not according to the Gospel of Christ. But from real Christians, of whatsoever denomination they be, we earnestly desire not to be distinguished at all, not from any who sincerely follow after what they know they have not yet attained. No: ‘Whosoever doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.’ And I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that we be in no wise divided among ourselves. Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thine? I ask no farther question. If it be, give me thy hand.”
+ John Wesley (1703–1791), the founder of Methodism, played a leading role in the development of the Holiness and Pentecostal movements. He wrote prolifically on diverse subjects such as salvation, the power of music, and anti-slavery, and his tracts were widely distributed. In “The Character of a Methodist” he refers to the “marks” of a Methodist as loving God and loving neighbor, praying without ceasing, rejoicing always, giving thanks in everything, and desiring only to please God. At his death Wesley was considered by some the “most loved man in England.”