The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New Worldby Robert E. Webber
Robert E. Webber has led worship workshops in every major city in the United States and Canada. Through his conversations and contacts with a network of emerging church leaders he calls the "younger evangelicals," Webber sees how this new generation and their style of leadership is bringing change and renewal to the evangelical church. These leaders, who include those young in spirit as well as young in age, have important insights to offer all generations faced with "doing church" in a rapidly changing postmodern culture.
The Younger Evangelicals explores the characteristics of these emerging leaders and provides an outlet for their stories. Beginning with a brief overview of twentieth-century evangelicalism, Webber examines what is different about the twenty-first century younger evangelicals' way of thinking about faith and practicing church. He allows them-Ph.D.s and laypeople-to speak in their own words on issues such as communication, theology, apologetics, pastoral leadership, evangelism, worship, and spiritual formation.
Thought provoking, energizing, and timely, The Younger Evangelicals is a landmark book for pastors and church leaders, culture watchers, ministry students, and worship leaders who want to prepare for and respond to the new evangelical awakening brought on by our changing cultural context.
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The Younger EvangelicalsFacing the Challenges of the New World
By Robert E. Webber
Baker BooksCopyright © 2002 Robert E. Webber
All right reserved.
Although the younger evangelicals began to appear at the end of the twentieth century, they are inextricably linked with the history and developments of the entire century, particularly the movements of the last half of the century. Therefore, I will begin the study of the younger evangelicals by placing them in the context of a century of evangelicals.
In the broadest sense, American evangelical history goes back to the very beginning of the church. "The Chicago Call," a prophetic document issued to evangelicals by a representative body of evangelicals in 1977, recognizes that "throughout the church's history there has existed an evangelical impulse to proclaim the saving, unmerited grace of Christ, and to reform the church according to the Scriptures." The evangelical story of the twentieth century stands in the tradition of the "impulse to reform the church." But it also has its own unique story determined by the cultural context of the twentieth century.
The rise of twentieth-century evangelicalism came at a crucial time in American history. The new leaders of the American economic and political machinery were moving America toward material wealth and power around the globe while building greatcities at home. On the religious scene the spirit of rational inquiry and confidence in scientific knowledge resulted in the questioning of traditional Christianity. Doubts were raised about a supernatural worldview and the literal interpretation of Scripture. The result was the widespread doctrines of liberalism. Jesus was no longer viewed as a supernatural being but a prophet who preached love.
When conservatives reacted against the liberal message, they set into motion the issues that dominated the evangelical history of the twentieth century. The fundamentalist-liberal conflict gave twentieth-century evangelicalism a unique stamp, defining it as a type of evangelical reform different from any of its predecessors-different than the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the rise of seventeenth-century pietism, Puritanism, the nineteenth-century evangelical awakenings of Wesley, the revivalism of Jonathan Edwards or of Charles Finney or of any evangelical who ministered prior to the twentieth century.
This unique context of twentieth-century evangelicalism has shaped the mindset of the twentieth-century evangelical. In particular three movements of twentieth-century evangelical thought have dominated the last seventy-five years. They are fundamentalism, neoevangelicalism, and diversity evangelicalism. Each of these three umbrella movements has gone through a cycle including charismatic origins, the development of organizations and institutions, and a fixed institutional form. Each of these movements has hearkened back to the original issues that fueled the fundamentalist-modernist controversy but with less and less intensity over time. By the end of the twentieth century, the issues that originally created the rift between fundamentalism and modernism had grown increasingly dim, as the movement of culture reformed and rearranged the issues in each camp. In each cycle a minority sought to resurrect the old questions again and again, but by the end of the century evangelicalism was by and large a movement that had gone far beyond the issues that defined it in the beginning of the century.
Looking back over the twentieth century one can see that each of these three movements has created a proliferation of churches, mission agencies, publishing houses, social organizations, colleges, Bible schools, seminaries, theological systems, and ethical rules. Each group engages in "sibling rivalries" with the other groups and competes for the most lasting ideological inheritance. Two characteristics each have in common is that they belong to the twentieth century, and they have all passed through the stages of development into institutional form. Each group has its elite, its adherents to the core beliefs, and its mavericks who push the envelope.
This chapter is a brief overview of these three movements. It is important to understand these three modes of evangelical thought because they set the stage for understanding the younger evangelicals who are not of the twentieth century and its mindset. To know these younger evangelicals, it is necessary to set them in the paradigm shift from the twentieth- to the twenty-first century and grasp how they differ from their predecessors. Then and only then will we understand why post-modern evangelical leadership of the twenty-first century looks and will continue to look very different than evangelical leadership of the twentieth century.
But first, before we look at the twenty-first-century younger evangelical, let's survey the three cycles of evangelical history of the twentieth century (see table 3).
Three Cycles of Evangelicals in the Twentieth Century
Origins Fundamentalism Neoevangelicalism Evangelical Diversity
Time Period 1910-1925 1925-1945 1945-1966 1966-2000
Description Origins of Anti-intellectual Prointellectual The period between
the Antiecumenical Proecumenical 1966 and 2000 represents
Fundamentalist Anti-social Pro-social action an ever-widening
Movement action diversity in
relationship, and in
the diversity, of social
Because twentieth-century evangelicalism constitutes a vast amount of material, I will organize my comments about each of the three cycles of evangelicalism by looking at the attitude of each toward (1) intellectual thought; (2) ecumenical engagement; and (3) social action. My concern is to highlight shifts and developments to see the increasing distance made from the original fundamentalism rather than to provide a comprehensive history. My goal is to describe the setting for the emergence of the fourth cycle, the younger evangelicals who are now a full century away from the debates that formed twentieth-century evangelicalism. I see this new group as a fresh start, a new beginning for an evangelicalism of a different kind.
The Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy
The story of the origins of fundamentalism in America has been thoroughly detailed by George Marsden. Marsden points out that turn-of-the-twentieth-century evangelicalism was "the dominant religious force in American life." It was characterized by a rigorous foundationalism-an intellectual frame of reference that adhered to the scientific method of empiricism and to the ability of the mind to arrive at factual propositional truth. While conflicts with the growth of liberalism were already brewing at the turn of the twentieth century, the notion of breaking from the established church and beginning a "separate" movement had not been birthed.
Evangelicals and their denominational associations were comfortably rooted in Calvinism, Puritanism, Wesleyan revivalism, and the rise of dispensational thought. Even though there were tensions between these various traditions, evangelicals were united in their commitment to the historic faith, to the Bible as authoritative, and to the Great Commission. Evangelicals were also deeply involved in social action and "The ideal of building a Christian civilization." They were the heirs of the social action derived from the Calvinist and Puritan commitment to the transformation of culture and to the aggressive and effective social reform that stemmed from the Wesleyan revivals. In brief, early twentieth-century evangelicalism was characterized by a rigorous intellectualism, was a movement "within" the major denominations, and was highly sensitive to social concerns.
But the cultural setting at the beginning of the twentieth century was unsettling. The decline of Christendom and the emergence of secularism were becoming increasingly apparent. Walter Lippmann in Preface to Morals complained that the "irreligion of the modern world" was "magical to a degree for which there is, I think, no counterpart." The profound spiritual crisis which was to affect the entire twentieth century was already making a subtle appearance.
The foe was modernism and its commitment to evolution. Evolution had emerged as a worldview. It was a new answer to the basic questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? If evolution was right, there was no need for creation. If man originated from chance and was in charge of his own meaning and history, there was no need for Christian redemption or eschatology. William Jennings Bryan, three-time candidate for president of the United States and vociferous foe of evolution, declared this new hypothesis "is the only thing that has seriously menaced religion since the birth of Christ; and it menaces ... civilization as well as religion."
The story of how evangelicals won the debate but lost the war over evolution constituted a turning point. Marsden speaks of the enormous impact of the debate: "It would be difficult to overestimate the impact of the 'Monkey Trial' at Dayton, Tennessee, in transforming fundamentalism." The "Monkey Trial" Marsden mentions, also known as the Scopes trial, refers to the 1925 Tennessee legal case in which the state succeeded in having John T. Scopes convicted for illegally teaching evolution in public schools. This trial marked the end of the initial controversy and the beginning of a new kind of fundamentalist saga in the years between 1925 and 1945.
Cycle One: Fundamentalism from 1925 to 1945
The first phase of twentieth-century fundamentalism was known as much for what it was against as for what it was for: First, it was against an intellectual engagement with new thought. Second, it was a time during which the fundamentalists separated from the "liberal" denominations and began their own independent coalitions. Third, it retreated from social engagement with the world.
The first characteristic of fundamentalism was its anti-intellectualism. Historian George Dollar asserts that the movement was "shaped by a desire to strike back at everything modern-the higher criticism, evolutionism, the social gospel, rational criticism of any kind."
While fundamentalism was "anti-intellectual" toward the new movements of thought, it remained rooted in the intellectual thought of "Scottish Common Sense Realism" and to the Baconian system of thought. Common Sense philosophy insisted that "facts" could be known directly. This conviction derived from Descartes' emphasis on knowledge gained through the empirical method. One could study the facts and obtain through observation and reason knowledge that was propositional. While this method was originally known as the "scientific method," it was soon applied to religious knowledge as well. Francis Bacon had taught a method of analysis that consisted of gathering data, classifying it, and interpreting it. Common sense and Baconian analysis were applied to Scripture to determine truth. The inerrant Bible was the source for data fed into the evidential process of knowing truth.
The view of inerrancy, that "every single word of the text had been divinely inspired," figured prominently in the fundamentalist rejection of evolution, historical and literary criticism, and any attempt to interpret Scripture in any way other than a literal reading of each word. Inerrancy extended to all scientific statements, to historical references, and to all numbers found in the prophecies of future events. There was little room for symbol, poetry, or any kind of imaginative speech.
Fundamentalists became "the people of one book." Having no need for philosophy, sociology, history, science, and the arts and disciplines that dominated the intellectual world, the fundamentalist rejected the "philosophy of the world" in favor of "Biblicism."
This was true of my fundamentalist college education, which was marked by a distinct negative attitude toward things intellectual. For example, the fundamentalist school where I was educated did not have a philosophy department because "all you need is the Bible." They offered one course in philosophy to meet state requirements for students in the educational department, but this was a course designed to show why all philosophical speculation was foolish and should be avoided. The opening lecture of the course always dealt with Paul's statement in Colossians 2:8: "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ." No attempt was made to put this verse in the context of Hellenistic philosophical thought or in relationship to the growing threat of first-century Gnosticism. It was treated as a blanket statement against the study of all philosophy, a stance that would be taken in that course to teach how the study of philosophy was a waste of time. This attitude still dominates fundamentalist Biblicism, a view that is based on the modern philosophy of rationalism and the scientific method of hermeneutics. This method results in propositions of faith that deliver guaranteed truth, a hermeneutic not widely accepted by the younger evangelical.
A second characteristic of fundamentalism was its antiecumenical outlook. The antiecumenical attitude of fundamentalism is understandable given the growing institutionalization of liberal thought in the early part of the century. The antiecumenical attitude was justified when one considers the power exercised by denominational leaders over fundamentalist pastors and churches.
Excerpted from The Younger Evangelicals by Robert E. Webber Copyright © 2002 by Robert E. Webber
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Robert E. Webber is Myers Professor of Ministry at Northern Seminary, president of the Institute for Worship Studies, and emeritus professor of theology at Wheaton College. He is the author or editor of more than twenty works, a columnist for Worship Leader magazine, and an editorial consultant for Reformed Worship. Webber lives in Wheaton, Illinois.
Robert E. Webber (1933-2007) was, at the time of his death, Myers Professor of Ministry at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and served as the president of the Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, Florida. His many books include Ancient-Future Faith and The Younger Evangelicals.
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