Just in time for today’s solar eclipse, David Drury (of Wesleyan HQ) has written a pointed piece on what he terms “The Eclipse of Evangelicalism.”
His claim is that, as a movement, evangelicals have seen their core convictions eclipsed by other aims and ends; hence he even argues that, as a movement, evangelicalism is “dead.”
While I don’t have time for a full critique here, I appreciate the call to repentance and a reclaiming of our core-convictions.
While “dead” may seem too-strong a word to many; I’m glad that Resurrection is even stronger.
Here it is.
The Eclipse of Evangelicalism
Repentance Upon the Death of a Movement
By David Drury
As of this day, August 21, 2017, I believe that the evangelical movement is dead. At least, it appears to be dead. As a movement, evangelicalism is no longer effective in its original aims in the West. The movement has shirked its persistent values, and has quit practicing the core convictions that made it relevant and necessary. Even if evangelicals still claim to believe the core values, they do not practice them. Evangelicalism still exists as a category of people today—but it no longer is an actual movement in the kingdom of God.
Today Americans gather to watch one of the most unique sights the skies produce: a total eclipse. The moon is passing directly between the earth and the sun, blocking its rays, but for a corona of subtle light exuding from the dark circle, a faint reminder that the sun is still there, obscured for a time. Visible from coast to coast, the eclipse shown on a map looks like an arcing brush stroke swept from Oregon to South Carolina. The last time the sun was eclipsed like this (what they call a “totality”) in America was June 8, 1918. Much has changed in the 99 years since the last total eclipse, particularly for evangelicals.
In the last century, but particularly in the last decade or two, the core of what it means to be evangelical has been eclipsed by other priorities. The shining truths have been obscured by other moons, which have come between evangelicals and their core identity. In the process of this eclipse, a darkness has come across the land of evangelicalism, and even though it happened slowly, it has happened surely to this day, where a near totality has been reached.
Evangelicalism has a long history that can be told in a variety of ways. Finding its source in revivals and awakenings as well as Methodism and pietism. Whitefield and Wesley, Ockenga and Graham, Finney and Stott, Edwards and von Zinzendorf: they all could be seen, in their own way, as founders from different eras of the evangelical movement. Most agree that evangelicalism, as a movement, reflected a core set of values, which were…
These are the classic four core values affirmed by many in evangelicalism, including the National Association of Evangelicals.
Let’s examine each of these characteristics of evangelicalism and how they have been eclipsed:
Evangelicals not only believed but behaved in a way that being “born-again by the transforming work of Jesus Christ” was critical. They shared their love of Christ to others and people “came to Jesus.” Was it messy? Yes. Did it all add up like a theology text-book? No. But because of this passion for conversion millions entered into a life-long process of following Jesus in fits and starts. This meant that disciples were called out to “follow me” and enter discipleship.
Today the conversion-oriented activity of evangelicals has now been eclipsed by the love of entertainment.
Bible-following – More than merely Bible-believing, evangelicals were a Bible-living sort of people. They followed the Bible and obeyed its teachings. They gave scripture a higher authority over any other source. Some might have valued reason, tradition, and experience, but even those critical elements were subject to the witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ found in the Bible. The pietistic, revivalist, and holiness streams of evangelicalism ensured that the people called evangelical were not just evangelistic, but also discipled to live differently by obedience to this gospel.
Today the Bible-following lifestyle of evangelicals has been eclipsed by the love of self.
Cross-focused – Core to being an evangelical was a cross-focused way of life. The evangelical was living by the mantra: Christ has done it on the cross. The evangelical was all about the forgiveness attainable by the sacrifice of the perfect God-man on the cross, making possible the redemption of all humanity. Evangelicalism believed in the incarnation, the teaching of Jesus, the miracles, the resurrection, and the ascension, and return of Christ—but central to it all was the crucifixion as the event and doorway into the rest of its three values. This brought the movement a potency and clarity in focus where all things began and ended with Jesus.
Today the cross-focused nature of evangelicals has been eclipsed by the love of power.
Culture-transforming – Evangelicalism was missionary and activist in an inter-dependent manner. Evangelicals cared about the souls living down the street and around the world, so they sought to share the gospel with them in innovative ways, and advocated for changes in the economy and government in a way that would help those who were voiceless or oppressed. Abolitionists, suffragists, and pro-lifers all found a home in this paradigm. To a lesser extent, the civil rights movement found a home in this paradigm as well (although largely in the Black Evangelical church, more on that later). They all sought to see people come to Christ worldwide and to, as a result, transform entire societies as the holy witness of Jesus spread across the land.
Today the culture-transforming mission of evangelicals has been eclipsed by the love of money.
You might see the a theme evident in the phrasing above, but one of the things that has had a frog-in-the-kettle effect for this change in evangelicalism is that long ago we stopped actively measuring the actual activity attached to these values, and instead merely treated them as beliefs one would check off like a creed. Evangelicals were decidedly not a creed-oriented people, so this is out of character, but these four values became something to help us discover the answer to the question: “who is an evangelical?”
Surveys began to ask questions discerning how much someone believed statements like: “the Bible is the highest authority for what I believe,” or: “only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.” It is quite difficult to measure the actual behavior of people, and easier to do a survey of what they say they believe. Further, it may be important for younger readers who have come of age during a partial eclipse of evangelicalism, that evangelicals of days gone by didn’t just say they believed these things, they actually lived differently than their non-evangelical neighbors because of them.
Some have attempted to redefine evangelicals or categorize them to make a distinction for those who actually go to church, or engage in other practices. These attempts are noble, but have for the most part shown disappointing trends all the same.
I say “we” in the next sections because I am part of the problem I will outline. I repent of each of these choices, for I have my part in them, particularly since I am a leader in a denomination, and have responsibility for not only my own actions but for the behavior of my people. I am convicted in each of these areas, and write them through tears, grieving for the eclipse of one of the most important and Christ-honoring movements in the history of Christianity.
The Eclipse of Conversion by Entertainment
We choose entertainment over evangelism every day of our lives. We evangelicals care more deeply about the characters on our favorite Netflix show than the neighbors in the homes next to us. We value news as entertaining commentary and conflict more than the world full of those who need Jesus. We choose to value attendance at our churches far more than conversions in our services, much less in our conversations. We have even ceded the worship of God over to an entertainment-driven cycle, one where our Church teams and staffs are continually required to top what they did last week to continue to attract us and entertain us as the “audience.” Our churches accidentally become a part of the menu of Sunday entertainment choices the suburbs have before them, where people wonder: “should I exercise, watch news shows or football, sleep in, take the kids to soccer practice, mow the lawn, or go to Church today?” This is all propagated by an evangelical culture that chooses to feed off the entertaining rush that comes through mostly socio-political conflict with strangers, and even our friends, in comment sections and social media. We care little for the souls of these people we interact with—we demonstrate that we only care that our ideas win the argument, and that we look smarter than our opponents while doing so. We need lessons in civility at a 101 level, to say nothing for the lack of holiness displayed. We no longer love our enemies for the sake of the gospel, we don’t even build bridges our friends if they disagree with us. Evangelicals have “un-friended” the world in the process, as if the gospel of Jesus Christ and possible conversion of these acquaintances is worth nothing to us.
But, before I depress us overmuch, I need to say that I think we post-evangelicals know deep down that conversion of the lost is more important than all the entertainment of this world. Everything will change when we engage more devoutly in our own converted discipleship journey—updating the simple, millennia-old practices of our faith, by meeting as handfuls of believers in living rooms and coffee shops, reading the Bible and praying for each other, interceding over names of lost people, and serving together in our communities. We must repent of our idolization of comfort over conversion, knowing that only Jesus saves us.
Regardless of what others do, I commit to conversion-orientation, because it starts with me, or my vibrant faith dies along with evangelicalism. I repent that I have allowed entertainment to eclipse the importance of conversion, and will make concrete steps before the end of the year to engage with fresh focus in this area, and reject the idolatry of entertainment and comfort which evangelicalism has embraced.
- Pray for the lost
- Share my faith
- Eliminate excessive entertainment & consumption
- Engage in uncomfortable conversations
- Converse with civility and redemption in mind online and in person
The Eclipse of the Bible by Self
We choose ourselves over the core convictions of the Bible routinely, so we are bereft of anything resembling the fruit of the Spirit. It has gotten so bad that mainline liberals who we think don’t even believe in the authority of scripture in their lives are better at actually obeying most of the commands of Jesus than we are. This is a profound indictment for us who purportedly have the blood of Jesus covering our sin. Jesus has called out a holy people, a royal priesthood of all believers, and instead we choose whatever our own selfish desires want. Instead of contextualizing the gospel, we rationalize our behavior. We think less of what the world needs to next hear, or what the gospel claims for our actions, and we think more of what backs up our actions in scripture. When we are challenged by anyone we do a google search of scriptures that might somehow be negotiated into backing up our behavior, rather than engaging in the word in such a way that it actually challenges us and our obedience to it any longer. We attack the world primarily over matters of sex, while being no more holy than we were a decade ago ourselves. We are stuck in our sins and believe in the authority of the Bible only in as much as it gives us the authority of self-expression of our evangelical political concepts over others. We don’t actually give the Bible authority over our own daily walk, we use it as a pseudo-authority over others, thus turning the living word of God into an idolatry of selfish aims.
But, I think we post-evangelicals know deep down that the Word of God is more important than any one of us in this world. If we return to the beautiful life-giving way of scripture-living people the movement may rebirth in us. If our neighbors see us actually living differently than them, instead of just putting a different political sign in our yards than them, we will have begun to change this trend. May we repent of our sins and go back to Scripture in our quiet moments each week, worshipping God in our every step, confessing and repenting when we err, and becoming a people that are admired for our devotion to living as Christ taught, rather than as hypocrites who always point out the sins of others, never taking care to confess our own.
Regardless of what others do, I commit to Bible-following, because it starts with me, or my vibrant faith dies along with evangelicalism. I repent that I have allowed authority of the self to eclipse the authority of the Bible, and will make concrete steps before the end of the year to engage with fresh focus in this area, and reject the idolatry of self which evangelicalism has embraced.
- Read my Bible in a way that it convicts me about my behavior and attitude
- Allow others to truly keep me accountable to live in a holy way
- Live with conviction under the authority of Scripture
- Eliminate hypocrisy from my life
- Selflessly admit I could be wrong
The Eclipse of the Cross by Power
We choose the power of the world over the power of the cross, preferring to chase the halls of power in Washington D.C. through political machinations rather than to rely on the work of Jesu Christ. We would prefer to put a picture of ourselves with our favorite politician on our wall than the cross of Jesus Christ. We leaders point to our likes and shares and platform, all symbols of our powerful status, rather than point to the cross of Jesus, boasting only in him. We would rather invite a politician into our pulpit, literally between the congregation and the cross in our buildings, to curry favor and let fame rub off on us than to call people to the forgiveness of Jesus Christ at the cross. All too often this power we desire has actually had overtones of white power with a strident denial of any white privilege. We have allowed those with vaguely white supremacist views to not only take refuge in our churches and go unchallenged from the pulpit, but also to allow a neo-supremacist view of race to cultivate even among our educated and influential leaders. As this has happened, the idea of a Black Evangelical and a White Evangelical has become even more distinct, and the already deep divisions and darkest days of evangelical separatism have re-emerged, threatening the unity that God commanded of us in a more direct way than at any time since the Civil Rights era, when we likewise largely failed at the challenge set before us by God. Some have hoped that revival would come and then magically end our problems of race, providing unity. It could be that God is waiting upon our true repentance from the lust for power and the subtly supportive practices of racism to allow revival to come. We may have his priorities out of order, since confession often precedes and sparks revival, rather than coming after it.
But, I think we post-evangelicals know deep down that the cross is more powerful than the powers of this world. If we begin to see how the Holy Spirit might bring us together, across race and ethnicity, and to truly listen to the concerns of our brothers and sisters of color, we can reverse this trend. If we repent of our chasing after the power of the world, and begin to chase after the power of God, we will find a greater statesmanship, and a credibility to actually speak into the public square that we have somewhere along the way lost. When we think of our identity, we can regain a sense of movement only by pointing to the cross of Christ, by pointing to the party of the lamb, rather than advocating for the party of the donkey or the elephant, chasing after the permanent power of heaven, rather than temporary power of this earth.
Regardless of what others do, I commit to cross-focus because it starts with me, or my vibrant faith dies along with evangelicalism. I repent that I have allowed power to eclipse the cross of Christ, and will make concrete steps before the end of the year to engage with fresh focus in this area, and reject the idolatry of power which evangelicalism has embraced.
- Fix my eyes on Jesus and his cross
- Ask others to question ways in which I seek power
- Eliminate partisanship from my faith convictions, demoting party affiliation to a preference
- Ask open ended questions of people of color, receiving and follow their counsel
- Doing the hard work of reconciliation that actually costs me something more than words
The Eclipse of Transformation by Money
We choose money over missions and over the transformation of cultures and societies. We calculate the cost of every move so we never say anything that might too sharply challenge anyone, we have ceded the prophetic high ground of biblical justice in our churches to ensure the steady flow of resources to make sure we meet budget and build buildings. We have lost the urgency to send anyone to reach the billions and billions who are lost worldwide, and evangelicalism is no longer the mission sending movement it was designed to be. Evangelicals from the global south now send droves of missionaries to North America to reach those we miss in our back yard, and nine other countries now send a higher percentage of their members as missionaries than we do. Church boards act more like money managers of missionary funds than the classical evangelicals who gathered in days gone by, shedding tears, praying prayers, and paying the way for those to reach entire countries dying without Christ. They sent their own sons and daughters for the cause, while we obsess about a rate of return on our investment like bankers instead of believers. Likewise, we care not for the actual transformation of our neighborhoods and cities at home. Evangelicals largely see immigrants and refugees as only a threat to our fiscal security, rather than people that we might reach for the sake of the gospel, or when they are Christians (as is often the case) seeing them as partners we can learn from and work with. This erosion of transformative motive has made tapping into the xenophobia of evangelicals a sure-fire election issue for politicians. We choose where to live and where to have our children educated with only a concern for our financial well-being and protection. Propagating our financial security and growth is the unspoken but constant aim of our decisions, and we cannot transform the souls and systems of society when the goal is our own greed.
But, I think we post-evangelicals know deep down that the transformation of our culture is more valuable than all the money in this world. We can restore what we once were by fostering a zeal for the world’s salvation, a sense of loving the whole world like our Father does, sending his own Son to save it and offer his transformative way of life to all. We can regain what God wants for us if we look at our culture as a whole, and find cross-cultural ways to bring the kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven, whether that means a loving connection to the immigrant new to our neighborhood, or the lost land in another hemisphere that needs us to rekindle the fires of missionary impulse.
Regardless of what others do, I commit to this kind of missionary culture-transformation, because it starts with me, or my vibrant faith dies along with evangelicalism. I repent that I have allowed money to eclipse the transformation of culture, and will make concrete steps before the end of the year to engage with fresh focus in this area, and reject the idolatry of money which evangelicalism has embraced.
- Live on dramatically less and spend more wisely
- Give a greater amount of my income to supporting missionaries
- Pray for worldwide evangelism daily
- Consider which areas of systemic injustice require my sacrificial investment
- Eliminate ways I contribute to injustice and risks my white privilege to defend the oppressed
Four out of Five White Evangelicals
Now we need to talk about the elephant in the room. Much has been made of the data showing that White Evangelicals in the US voted for Donald Trump at a rate of 4 out of 5. You may not like me bringing this up in the context of this treatise which is more about the state of the church and theological matters, but like or not, as evangelicalism reaches total eclipse, it comes at a moment when we are associated quite directly with the President we largely helped achieve power. It is notable that many prominent evangelicals were silent about politics in the past few years, but many supported and continue to support Trump vocally. As a full disclosure on my part, two of the most notable public evangelical detractors of Trump include two great leaders I worked for directly in the last decade, Jo Anne Lyon and Max Lucado.
So as we consider evangelical identity in its age of eclipse it is pertinent to ask ourselves: is Trump an evangelical? I am tempted to say no, based on the above classical components of evangelical belief and life, Trump is not a classic evangelical. However, he may in fact roughly match the reality of evangelicalism in eclipse. He juggles these four factors like a court jester of Washington DC, giving little if any respect or attention to the values evangelicals have said they care about for hundreds of years.
He has experienced no personal conversion personally, claiming to have never even asked God for forgiveness and defending his faith as an entirely private matter, but he values entertainment over most anything, devoting most of his business life to it. Even those that cannot stand our president must admit that he is a highly entertaining sort. No one has ever accused the man of being boring. He is not Bible-following, in belief or practice, as is patently evident in his behavior and words. He is not cross-focused, never bringing to bear the concepts of redemption or the reconciling grace made possible by the death of Jesus on the cross. Nor is he culture-transforming, as his isolationist values make no room for the longstanding moral and Christian influence of our nation worldwide, something that evangelicals have perhaps even over-stated in the past, in their drive to be a witness to the world.
Some hoping to gain through his candidacy have written these things off as the beliefs and practices of a “baby Christian,” or a “man with flaws but a good heart.” I am not here to talk about politics. My aim is not to convince you to object to Trump as I and my mentors have, or to support him. Instead, my claim is that Donald Trump may in fact be a mirror to hold up to show evangelicals what they actually look like now. Whether you have a politically calculated toleration for Trump, or a revulsion to his policies and behavior, he is us, reflecting in the mirror all our lost glory as evangelicals.
Donald Trump is what we evangelicals already are, or at least are becoming. It explains why he is so supported among us. Even after a cavalcade of circus-like activity coming from the White House since his inauguration, he still retains his support. Why? Why not, I say, if he matches what we actual value. We love entertainment, ourselves, power, and money. Trump gives us those things. We need to admit it. We love these values even more than the Son of God they obscure behind them. We might fill out surveys and claim differently, but we don’t live that way.
In this treatise I have claimed that like the eclipse of the sun by the moon, evangelicalism has been eclipsed internally by other priorities and idolatry. Repentance is needed by we evangelicals, and a return to the core values that made evangelicalism purposeful for God in the first place. Evangelicalism was never perfect, but it was used by God, and perhaps this eclipse will pass if we each as individuals recommit to do our part to the core tenants that made evangelicalism work for Jesus. We may need to throw out the term. We may need to join a Christian identity that will emerge and be created by young people tomorrow that we cannot clearly see today. But whatever the case, may we again become those who value:
- Individual lives converted by Christ and made new…
- The Bible as the true guide for actually living differently than we used to live…
- The cross of Christ as the actual crux of history, which provides the only persistent power worth aligning ourselves with, and…
- The missionary transformation of cultures and communities, found here and nearby, and in the hard and faraway places likewise.
May all this be made possible by the Him who can do immeasurably more than all we ask or even dream of, Jesus Christ.
David Drury is author of ten books, including God is for Real, Transforming Presence, Being Dad, and SoulShift. He serves at the chief of staff for The Wesleyan Church headquarters. The Eclipse of Evangelicalism may be re-published in any format provided these lines are included. © 2017 by David Drury