The Evangelical church has been in flux the past several decades—going from one extreme to the next—and in many respects losing its center. Thus it is really hard to define what an Evangelical is today except for the very ambiguous definition of a person who believes the Bible is the word of God (there are even varying degrees of this within Evangelicalism) and in salvation through the vicarious death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Truly, the Evangelical church is at a crossroads. We must choose if we will follow a more culturally amenable position or a more orthodox, biblically sound approach to faith and culture.
The following are some trends and developments that will enable us to see where the church is heading in the near future. Truly, the Evangelical church is in the midst of a seismic shift!
(Note: The following is based on my personal opinion, reading, hours of conversations with multi-denominational leaders and theologians, doctoral studies, and personal observations. Since this is not meant to be a scholarly presentation I have not included footnotes or documented every source.)
1. The continued development and ascendancy of complex apostolic networks in regards to mission, evangelism, and church partnerships
Complex apostolic church networks, as reminiscent of the first-century church movement, will continue to develop and explode especially in the Global South, Latin America and Asia. These networks are also growing (but more slowly) in North America and Canada. These are non-denominational networks or alliances of churches that often include denominations and/or denominational churches that partner for evangelism, community development, prayer, and rallies. Most of the great movements in the Global South, Asia, India and Latin America are headed up by strong apostolic leaders with regional influence who are able to garner support even among mainline Protestant communions and leaders for specific Christian causes.
2. The continued development, acceptance and growth of postmodern churches and theology
Postmodernism is a revolt against dead, empirical modernism that first affected secular universities and in the past decade has infiltrated Evangelical universities and students. As a result, there are now many leaders and movements focusing their church mission with a postmodern mindset (for example, the emergent church movement).
Christian postmodern proponents do not teach there are no universal truths but that there is no way to empirically prove a universal truth. They are against the modern empirical realist approach to verifying truth and believe the Evangelical church has been held captive the past 200 years to a propositional view of truth which espouses the correspondence view of truth (or realism), in which the defense of Scripture is based on it being the most objectively rational view of life in the same way the scientists approach the verification of truth. Postmoderns say this is foreign to the way the early church functioned and is more akin to the Gnostics who believed that only the mentally “enlightened” who had the true biblical worldview and knowledge of Jesus were chosen or saved.
These postmodernists especially take umbrage with what they call the “Enlightenment trap” that Evangelicals have fallen into regarding defending the Bible’s “inerrancy.” They say the early church knew no such thing as inerrancy in the sense they never tried to scientifically, forensically and empirically defend the faith or the inspiration and authority of Scripture (whether linguistically or scientifically). Even prominent past leaders like Anglican Bishop Lesslie Newbigin taught that biblical inerrancy is not the way we should approach Scripture; God chose the faith and Scripture to come through human beings who were part of the faith community and He continues to spread His truth through error-prone human beings who are also limited in their speech and understanding based on their cultures, education and upbringing.
Postmoderns also claim many Evangelicals are trying to act more like secular philosophers than preachers. This practice was condemned by Tertullian when he sneered “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” (The Next Reformation by Carl Raschke, page 19). The conversions of the masses are subjective—never objective—and the faith is spread by the moving of the Holy Spirit on the hearts of people, not by apologetically proving Jesus was the Messiah with the use of linguistics, archeology, or science. They say the elements of the Christian faith include things that are not rational but based on subjective belief such as the raising of the dead, the witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts that we are saved, the gifts and anointing of the Holy Spirit, and even conversion experiences like that of Paul the Apostle on the road to Damascus (which was not a rational but a supernatural conversion experience).
Whether you agree with the postmoderns or not, they are becoming more of a force to be reckoned with. Many of them even believe the church will eventually do away with theology as we now know it!
(For more on this subject read The Next Reformation by Carl Raschke, which is partially a rebuttal of a book against postmodernism by Douglas Groothuis entitled Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism. Also read The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin, page 92 for his view on the inspiration of the Bible.)
3. Charismatics will become more Evangelical and Evangelicals more charismatic
There is now more acceptance across the Body of Christ regarding the Pentecostal gifts of the Spirit such as speaking in tongues. This is mostly because those who embrace Pentecostalism—something theologians and missiologists cannot deny—are involved in the overwhelming majority of the explosive global growth of Christianity!
Another reason is because of culture wars, persecution and the general hardship of being a believer in the world. The church is uniting primarily over the Great Commission and Cultural Commission and not making a major issue of non-essentials regarding redemption such as speaking in tongues and whether the baptism of the Spirit is distinct from the initial salvation experience. Hence (John MacArthur and Harold Camping excepted), fewer Evangelical leaders are speaking out against Pentecostalism. On the other hand, many people saved in charismatic, Pentecostal-type churches (especially among middle-class Caucasians) eventually seek the safety and stability of a biblically-sound church. These people are even willing to jettison the public charismatic manifestations of the Spirit in congregational assemblies for a more non-charismatic Evangelical church if they feel the Evangelical church has more to offer their growing family needs. Many get sick and tired of the overemphasis of the gifts in some charismatic churches without a corresponding emphasis on sound doctrine, leadership accountability, financial transparency, and proper biblical protocols.
4. The continued growth, development and acceptance of local church-based theological education
In June 2010 the Antioch School in Ames, Iowa (www.antiochschool.edu) became the first decentralized, local church-based theological program to gain accreditation recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. This breakthrough signaled a growing trend in which more pastors worldwide will attempt to educate their emerging leaders theologically within the context of their local churches instead of shipping their best and brightest leaders out to seminary or Bible school, an atmosphere bereft of local church covering or accountability and in which they are graded merely on academic intellectual prowess instead of other areas including character development and emotional intelligence, which manifests itself best in a community of faith with spiritual authority and biblical values.
5. There will be a continued and expanding controversy regarding the doctrine of universalism
The latest book by Pastor Rob Bell entitled Love Wins encapsulates the feeling among many Evangelicals who are grappling with the idea that God will send all unbelievers to hell for eternity. Many believe this is only a fundamentalist belief that is not taught by the early church fathers. (For example, the great church father Origen supposedly embraced “ultimate reconciliation” in which even the devil will ultimately be saved. This is something other scholars refute because Origen’s writings were discursive, ambiguous and confusing in many instances.)
This move towards universalism is being driven by:
1. Evangelicals who desire to take away the offense of the cross and avoid ridicule when they mingle with cultural leaders and attempt to go mainstream in their community and society.
2. The leakage of liberal theology into Christian colleges.
3. The lack of biblical knowledge and literacy among many pastors.
4. The lack of biblical worldview training and discipleship among church attendees.
6. Evangelicals hungry for cultural acceptance will embrace gay theology
As more Evangelicals come out of dysfunctional homes affected by divorce, abandonment and neglect, homosexuality will be harder to fight off among our young people.
In addition, homosexuality is now becoming more acceptable and imbedded in both American and international law and culture, seeping into our public schools, media, music and Hollywood and cultural icons. This is making our generations more and more desensitized toward homosexuality being looked at as taboo.
Making it worse, by and large Evangelical churches do not know how to minister to those struggling with this issue and often look the other way or even silently accept it—especially if it is practiced among those talented in their church choirs, music, and theatre.
Also, as more Evangelicals lose their center and become liberal, the Word of God will be reinterpreted as something that came through the lens of culture. Thus, some of the passages against homosexuality are being viewed as the result of the “homophobic patriarchal non-progressive” culture of biblical times that is not culturally or biblically relevant today.
Of course, homosexuality is one of the sins of the Bible that is always universally applicable because it goes against the Cultural Commission of Genesis 1:28. (One of our primary purposes as humans is to have children and multiply.)
7. More Evangelicals will coin the phrase “biblical worldview”
Although I am excited to hear more pastors using the phrase ”biblical worldview” my excitement is beginning to wane because contemporary Evangelical pastors do not mean the same thing about this subject as someone like Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, Charles Colson, Cornelius Van Til or others. (Read “The Stone Lectures” that Abraham Kuyper gave at Princeton University in 1898, Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto, Charles Colson’s How Now Shall We Live?, and Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth for a few examples of what having a biblical worldview used to mean.)
When I hear pastors and leaders describe what they mean by “biblical worldview” I find many are describing a general belief in the inspiration of Scripture and systematic doctrines of the faith. This is different because, although the former is true, “biblical worldview” has more to do with Christianity being a world and life view encompassing a lens in which to view every realm of life including economics, politics, law, justice, education, philosophy, history and so forth—not only spiritual things related to salvation and the church. The problem is, the more a term is used the more people fake that they understand it and the more the term is watered down.
8. The house church movement will continue to multiply in response to the superficial corporate life of larger, more institutional church models
From the writings of church history and the New Testament we believe the church of the first century mainly met in homes. (Because of persecution they could not meet in synagogues or build cathedrals until after the Edict of Milan was issued in AD 313.) The average size of these house congregations was no more than 50-70 people. Coincidently, this is the average size congregation of churches in North America today, even though our churches mostly meet in storefronts of old church buildings and not homes.
Many have found that megachurches do not meet their needs for community and connection and they long for something more authentic than something driven by large programs. Although I understand and appreciate this movement I also think it is not the size of a church that matters but the structure of a church. For example, you can have a megachurch of over 700,000 (like the church in Seoul, Korea led by David Yonggi Cho) which has a strong sense of community because it depends on small groups to drive it, not Sunday services.
In addition, house church leaders will have a hard time ever exerting any substantial community or cultural influence because today’s societal leaders (including both political and ecclesial) mainly give more respect to leaders of congregations larger than the typical house or storefront congregation. They also view house churches with suspicion as something self-ordained, not accountable and illegitimate.
9. Ecumenicism will become the norm as the culture wars heat up
When I first came to Christ it was taboo to speak about Evangelicals working closely with Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Now there is a growing movement of this type of collaborative work especially in the cultural wars regarding same-sex marriage, abortion and the general persecution of the church by media elites and some public officials. This only furthers the need for more cross-denominational partnerships.
Although I do not see a total unifying of the church anytime soon, I would not be surprised if in the next 100-200 years denominational distinctions are largely gone because of greater communication and partnerships that have been evolving over time.
(“Evangelicals and Catholics Together” initiated by Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus in 1994 and the ecumenical magazine “First Things” also initiated by Neuhaus are some profound examples of how the church is unifying. Also, as a result of Vatican II and the charismatic renewal movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s Rome has come closer to the Protestant Reformation ideals such as justification by faith, making the Bible available to the people, and presenting the mass in the vernacular of the people. The Catholics are also working more with conservative Protestants and Evangelicals fighting the culture wars, aiding the poor, and for social justice. Protestants are starting to prove their faith by their works (like the Catholics in some sense) and have begun to appreciate some of the contributions of the Catholics as well, although we are still very far apart in essentials such as celibacy among the priesthood, Mariology , prayers for the dead, purgatory, papal infallibility, and other important areas of disagreement.)
10. There will be stronger, more conservative Evangelical movements based on integrity, accountability and biblical discipleship to counter superficial, nominal American Evangelical and mainline Christianity
Finally, I see a growing hunger among young Evangelicals (and also a remnant of top leaders) for authentic, accountable relationships and community as we follow the way of Jesus and the apostles. This is a result of a greater passion to serve God and a reaction against the superficial, therapeutic “self-help” gospel taught among many popular pastors and leaders. It is also a reaction against the lack of integrity among many high profile Evangelical leaders who have been publicly humiliated in numerous scandals.
Many churches are also incorporating a greater level of serious discipleship in their Sunday preaching and programs (for example, Bill Hybels). Others are moving away from a seeker-sensitive, watered-down gospel approach in regards to their Sunday sermons. Many others are also embracing the spiritual disciplines of the early to medieval church as a means to give God space to transform us to Christlikeness so we can walk in emotional health and maturity. (For more information on this subject read The Emotionally Healthy Church by Peter Scazzero; Invitation to Solitude and Silence and Sacred Rhythms, both by Ruth Haley Barton; Invitation to a Journey by M. Robert Mulholland; and all of the writings of Thomas Merton.)
11. More independent Evangelical/charismatic church members will embrace liturgical/historical church models and even mainline denominations
I have seen a growing trend among congregants and even pastors who are embracing a more historical, liturgical approach to ordination and how we do church as an attempt to connect and relate to the historic Christian faith. Some (like Francis Beckwith and Frank Schaeffer to name a few) have even gone back to either Catholicism or the Orthodox church. Many independent Evangelicals are embracing the spiritual disciplines of the monastic movement from the early and Middle Age church. Some have even become charismatic Episcopalians or have joined the newly formed North American Anglican Communion.
This is a smaller trend than the growing development of complex apostolic networks. But it is still a movement since there will always be an extreme reaction among some who are leery of the independent, disconnected Evangelical church models that are islands unto themselves.
Furthermore, the more one studies history the more many of the differences that made us denominate become relativized when we see the common thread of Christian orthodoxy throughout the various denominational streams which have stuck to the essentials of the faith and not gone the way of compromise like the liberal Protestant denominations.
(For more on this trend read Return to Rome by Francis Beckwith; The Rebirth of Orthodoxy by Thomas Oden; Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail by Robert Webber; The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, general editor Thomas Oden; Worship Old & New by Robert E. Webber; Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology by Stephen R. Holmes; Evangelical Is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament by Thomas Howard; and Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants by D.H. Williams.)
12. It will become more normal for pastors, leaders and churches to embrace a holistic gospel approach as taught in the Cultural Commission of Genesis 1:28
More Evangelical pastors are embracing the holistic call to be salt and light to their communities (Matthew 5:13-16). They are aware that the gospel must be relevant by meeting the practical needs of our communities so that by word and deed we are proclaiming the gospel and being faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ to the world. Those churches that center themselves on good Sunday preaching and good choirs will become the new dinosaurs of the twenty-first century.
These holistic churches embrace the full import of Isaiah 61:1-4 which involves not only saving individual souls but restoring whole cities with the power of the gospel of the Kingdom of God. (For more on this subject, read my three books: Ruling in the Gates, Kingdom Revolution and Kingdom Awakening.)
13. Hyper-dispensational theology is being jettisoned
When I first came to Christ in the 1970’s everyone was purchasing Hal Lindsey’s dispensational, best-selling books like The Late, Great Planet Earth. Most pastors were fixated on the last days, the rapture, the identity of the antichrist, and the battle of Armageddon. The only difference in theology/eschatology for most believers was whether a person was pre-, mid- or post-tribulation, not whether or not they espoused a dispensational view (which was assumed).
In the past three decades there has been a huge shift (especially in theological seminaries and colleges) among future Evangelical thinkers, theologians and pastors away from focusing on last days teachings regarding the rapture, the identity of the anti-Christ and the imminent return of Christ, and toward the primary call of the church to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Most of the dispensational preaching today is coming from older, popular pastors. But the new crop of influential pastors under 40 reflect this emphasis toward a more classical pre-millennial view or a post-millennial or amillennial view of Scripture (prior to the mid-19th century the Evangelical church knew nothing about a pre-, mid- or post-tribulation). What all these views have in common is the call of the church to manifest the Kingdom of God on the earth in practical ways that impact communities instead of passively waiting for the rapture and splitting hairs over when God’s Kingdom will come. Most, like Charles Colson and others, do not publicly mention their views on eschatology as much as emphasizing our Cultural Commission towards societal transformation in every realm of life so the church can function as salt and light to the world.
Others, involved in what they call “reconstruction” emphasize the post-millennial theology of the Puritans who founded this nation. Still others do not know exactly what they believe; they just know it is important to attempt to transform their communities with the holistic approach of the gospel.
14. Higher criticism of the Bible and systematic theology will lose more prominence among scholars
There is a growing trend among top biblical scholars in liberal circles to focus their research on determining the original intent and meaning of the authors of Scripture. They have basically agreed the Scriptures are the books that the people of God have received by faith and that no amount of argumentation as to their historicity or canonicity would be fruitful at this point, since it is impossible to either prove or disprove the Scriptures with the data we presently possess.
More conservative scholars (whom I agree with) believe there is enough extra-biblical source material to back up the historicity of the Scriptures (for example, writings in non-biblical books, archeological findings, the oral and written histories of the early church fathers, etc.).
Liberal scholars take a more reductionist approach from a starting point of skepticism in which they attempt to reconstruct the biblical story based on scientific empirical data that cannot be proven because of its basis in subjective conjecture (for example, the Jesus Seminar). Thus, more writings from liberal scholars dealing with the culture and history of biblical times are being used in conservative schools because this kind of research is extremely helpful!
Regarding how we approach theology: Systematic theology is losing steam because it usually only includes about 20-30 topics of the Bible, based on what each writer deems important.
Biblical theology is gaining more popularity because this discipline takes the approach of studying the Bible as it was written (instead of topically and thematically) which enables each subject or topic to unfold as we inductively study each book in both the New and Old Testaments, as God’s word originally intended. (This is in contrast to artificially lifting passages out of various books of the Bible and systematizing Scripture thematically.)
In conclusion: These are just some of the trends in the Evangelical church that I have observed over the past several decades. It is truly a seismic shift that we are all witnessing! The future direction of the church and the world will be decided by all of the above!