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Evangelicalism, Reformed Catholicism, Ctd.

June 14th, 2023 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador

Thanks to everyone who read the recent piece on reformed catholicism. There have been a few questions come up either publicly on social media or via backchannel that I wanted to take up.

First, do the British evangelicals offer a better model than American evangelicalism that is, nonetheless, still "evangelical?"

I don't think they do. There are a couple reasons for that.

First, like other species of evangelicalism, British evangelicalism has always presupposed British Christendom. Evangelicalism historically is almost always a renewal movement within a Christian society. That was true of Stott, Packer, and Lloyd-Jones's movement, it was true of the older iteration of British evangelicalism gathered around the Clapham Sect, and it was true of some of the first people to bear the name "evangelical," the early German Protestants in the first half of the 16th century. To put it another way, evangelicalism lives off the borrowed capital of the compromised Christian society it seeks to reform.

Obviously one could cite the emergence of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa and, to a lesser degree, east Asia as proof to the contrary. But even there the Christian growth in Africa often began under colonialism. Specifically it often began in English-speaking colonies. So there was still a kind of deeply compromised, attenuated British Christendom standing behind missionary growth. Moreover, post-independence, we have seen the emergence of a robust African Anglicanism as well as a relatively sturdy African Catholicism. Neither of these, to my eyes, can really be described as "evangelical," in the way we usually mean it in the US. What is needed now is a movement able to reckon with a non-Christian society—and there's just very little in evangelical history to suggest that it is up to that task.

Second, I think it would be hard to replicate British evangelicalism in the US because the difference between the UK and the US is so sharp. One illustrative example: When Oliver O'Donovan wrote a book about same-sex attraction and the church, it was published in separate editions in the UK and the US.

The UK title: A Conversation Waiting to Begin

The US title: Church in Crisis

To be clear, those are different titles for the exact same book. But it speaks to something of the sensationalizing and polemicizing dynamics that you find in American evangelicalism which are just absent in the UK.

If it is of interest, the Mere Fidelity guys actually took up this issue in an episode some time ago. Obviously this is a question close to our heart at Mere O since half our hosts for Mere Fidelity are British evangelicals and our founder has multiple Oxford degrees and my own affection for British evangelicalism is no secret. But I don't think the British evangelical style can translate to the American context. The cultures are just too different.

Is it really time to give up on evangelicalism?

This is another common objection. Hopefully this can come across in the spirit I mean it to: I think a lot of us are in denial about the problems in front of us as Protestant believers in America. Our seminaries and colleges are in dire straits already and we haven't even hit the long-expected demographic cliff coming for colleges in the late 2020s. One seminary I know of has seen their MDiv graduates go from 60 ten years ago to six this past year. If I said the name, you'd know the school. Three other major evangelical seminaries, perhaps the three defining non-SBC seminaries in evangelicalism, have faced their own financial problems in recent years.

Speaking of the SBC, which we should as they are by far the largest evangelical denomination, almost 40 times the size of the PCA, their numbers are bad too. They've lost three million people in about 15 years. I'm old enough to remember when Al Mohler would crow about the mainline losing thousands of people a year. But now his denomination is losing hundreds of thousands a year.

Also, as some noted while following this week's convention, there doesn't seem to be enough attention given to the fact that most SBC churches are very small and have pastors who are grossly underpaid.

Finally, the megachurch movement isn't covering itself in glory right now either. Willow Creek's struggles are well-documented. Rick Warren, in many ways the best possible version of a megachurch pastor, is spending his late career playing fast and loose with long-standing theological norms in his own denomination. The megachurches that are thriving today are mostly prosperity churches of the sort where the pastors say things like, "you gotta get your tickets so we can worship God, preach his Word" before threatening to pull any videos from YouTube that feature the song their church sang that morning since "we haven't released that yet." (I seem to recall Luther having something to say about such things.)

So for those not ready to give up on evangelicalism, I guess my question is "what do you need to see to convince you that it is time to give up on it?"

Recovering from the Loss of the Mainline

I've been reading Joseph Bottum's book An Anxious Age in which he makes the case that the collapse of the American Mainline is one of the least discussed and most important events in recent American history. He's convinced me, at least. Why is the Mainline's loss so catastrophic? There are a number of reasons.

First, Bottum argues that American civil society traditionally was a three-legged stool. You had the marketplace, the state, and the church all bound together pursuing a common work. The marketplace generated wealth and provided jobs, the state offered security and preserved the overall social structure, but it was the church which gave moral guidance to both. And the "church" in this case wasn't "Christianity" in general or "any church" but specifically the Protestant Mainline. The Mainline fell, though, and nothing could replace it, although Catholicism tried very briefly. So what you ended up with was two of the three legs remaining. We know how that works imaginatively just by picturing a two-legged stool. In practice, how it worked was the market and state both became ungoverned by moral claims—which is perhaps one explanation for how you end up where we are today.

Second, there was a basic style of belief you found in the Mainline that can't really be replicated by Rome or evangelicalism. For the Mainline, it was normal to think of yourself as being "responsible" for America in some sense. This was crucial because it meant you were part of America, rather than being marginalized, assailed, or hated by America. The same does not apply to Catholics. America has a long history of anti-Catholicism (which surfaced again most recently during the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation process) and, for their part, Rome also has a long history of anti-Americanism, though that is understandable given America's frequent treatment of Roman believers. (Though it is also worth noting that the most anti-American writings from Roman Christians aren't really anti-American because of America's treatment of Catholics, but rather because they take Roman political thought to be fundamentally in conflict with American political order.)

For their part, evangelicals are too cognizant of their outsider status and too bothered by it to ever really develop the inner security and calm confidence that defined the Mainline at its best. Evangelicals are essentially defined by wretched urgency and as long as that holds true they'll never replace the Mainline.

Can reformed catholicism actually emerge as an alternative movement?

One possibility we have to confront is that regional churches can and do sometimes cease to exist. There have been multiple Christian movements in China across history and all up till this present one have failed and disappeared almost entirely. The Japanese church was growing rapidly in the early modern era until the Tokugawa persecution crushed it. Likewise, some regional churches slide into dhimmitude and live at the mercy of their local rulers, such as has happened with the Copts in Egypt. Another instance of this was the eastern Christians in Syria, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East. But they are now almost altogether gone, largely due to American foreign policy decisions.

It is entirely possible that the American church will face that fate. And we need to reckon with that fact or we'll never develop the seriousness required to deal with the problems before us. Given demographic and institutional collapse, it is entirely possible that America will be almost exclusively secular by the time I die. One of my heroes, Martin Bucer, lived to see his reformation of the Strasbourg church entirely undone and he died living in exile in England.

That said, it doesn't have to be that way and it might not be that way. Renewal is possible. But for renewal to happen we'll need to get far more serious about faith and work issues (because work is where people spend a great deal of their life and their faith needs to be relevant there), far more serious about thick Christian community, and far more serious about how our church life catechizes and disciples our church members. And on each count, I think what will be required is not preserving failed evangelical norms and practices, but going back further and trying to imagine a revitalized catholic Christianity.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).