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Evangelicals Need a Constructive Vision

January 29th, 2024 | 11 min read

By Patrick Miller

Shortly after becoming a Christian, I attended a L’Abri conference in Rochester, Minnesota. Jerram Barrs gave a keynote address in which he, rather offhandedly, expressed his expectation that he would one day read Jane Austen’s next novel in the resurrection. As a young Christian who learned more about the afterlife from Looney Tunes angels than Revelation 21, a hopeful vision of resurrected culture making was revolutionary.

Shortly after, I attended a lunch with Jerram, where I asked him a question, “In the new creation, there will be no more sin or discord. How could one write an interesting story without conflict?” Jerram smiled, and offered an answer that has shaped far more than my view of life after life after death.

“Writing about sin is simple,” he explained, “Writing about beauty and goodness takes greatness. And thankfully God's renewed world will be full of writers who can aspire unto that great task.”

From the perspective of heaven, negative writing is easy. Opposition is uncomplicated. Deconstruction is undemanding. Experience bears this out: even simple minded people wax eloquent in their scoffing.

Jerram taught me the measure of a writer (and in retrospect, I would add leader) is his or her ability to breathe life, not death. In a way, he was riffing on Psalm 1:1-3,

Blessed is the man who … sits [not] in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.

In the ancient world, a fruit tree was valued not for aesthetics, but as a food source. The average Israelite spent 60 days a year in extended hunger seasons, when the entire household lacked basic nutrition.[1] A high yielding fruit tree was a tangible life source for perennially hungry communities.

Thus, understood in context, the psalter opens with a contrast between the scoffer and the fruit tree, which raises a question: will you sow death through scoffing or life through fruitfulness?

In the modern era, I find myself asking a similar question: Will I be the sort of person who dismantles my world with my negative, cynical visions, or the sort of person who gives life to a new world by means of a hopeful, positive vision?

The Age of Negative Visions

In a recent newsletter, Aaron Renn warned against developing a “negative identity” directed toward a “negative vision.” He writes, “A negative identity is one built around opposition to something or someone, often, but not always, around a grievance.” This is not, according to Renn, the path to happiness or a flourishing social order.

I agree.

The problem is that negative visions sell in an attention economy because they arrest our attention more easily than positive visions. The saturnine aspect of fallen souls takes chthonic mirth in knowing what it’s against. Making war marshalls a malevolent joy, especially when you believe your cause is just.

And let’s be honest: Evangelicalism is in a lamentable state. There is much to justly war about.

Perhaps that’s why the sort of people who write about evangelicalism, culture, and evangelicalism’s place in culture find negative visions so appealing. It is necessary and satisfying work, after all. But above all, negative visions are simple. As Jerram taught me, critique is easier to make compelling than charity. This explains why the books consistently generating the most conversation—both from fans and detractors—follow a similar format: a book length dismantling of a problem followed by a single chapter or epilogue offering a positive vision forward. When was the last time you read a book (on evangelicalism and culture) that spent one or two chapters on a problem, and then the remainder offering a constructive alternative?

I can name several but none have begotten conversations as large as the negative vision publications.

That’s no surprise when The Discourse takes place mostly on social media, which is algorithmically designed to upvote negative visions and downvote positive ones. I doubt this is because of a grand negativity conspiracy. More likely is that the algorithms reflect the interests of the people using their platforms. We live in the age of negative visions. The recommender AIs just give us more of what we want, and less of what we despise. Positive visions don’t vibe well in a highly suspicious, anti-institutional moment. We relish seeing through things more than seeing anything at all.

Evangelicalism is not immune to the cultural mood. Quite the opposite. We’ve been infected by it, and our current coterie of leaders seem incapable of resisting.

The Centers of Negativity Cannot Construct

The tragic reality is that even if the Christian purveyors of negative visions wanted to change course, the incentive structures buttressing their publications, institutions, schools, and churches would not allow them to do so.

You can see this even in Renn’s writing about the need for a positive vision. He writes that he long ago resolved to “build up” not “just tear down.” But what’s striking about his article is that he never defines what a positive vision is, nor does he offer anything approximating one. Instead, he admits with commendable humility that he really doesn’t have any idea what a positive vision for evangelicalism is in America. He can’t even find one for masculinity,

I don’t always have a specific, concrete vision of the future of the evangelical church or 21st century American masculinity, but I’m trying to point in that direction.

Instead of sketching a positive vision, he proposes a series of questions. Renn’s honesty is refreshing and he’s far from alone. His struggle to outline a positive vision is a microcosm of evangelicalism’s current leadership class, which stands in stark contrast to their forebears.

In the past, such thinkers and leaders as Billy Graham, Carl F.H. Henry, Nelson Bell, and Harold Ockenga managed to center the evangelical movement on a positive vision. They built schools, publications, equipped church leaders, created institutions to serve Christians in various spheres. Similar movements have appeared from time to time—one might think more recently of the way John Piper, D. A. Carson, and Tim Keller held together a movement with a positive vision to plant churches and reach cities. People may complain about third-wayism and its excesses, but the fact that we all understand what it is—a positive theological and cultural vision—shows just how far we’ve fallen.

More importantly, it’s hard to imagine evangelicalism’s current leaders replicating these kinds of cross-cutting friendships, much less agreeing on a positive vision they could pursue together. Few of them have exercised their constructive muscles in recent years. They’re out of shape.

As Psalm 1 warns, we start by walking the scoffer’s path, then we stand still, and finally we take a seat. If you sit in your scoffing for long enough, walking becomes near impossible. This is why the same negative books and articles are published on repeat. Our leaders are locked in a negative posture. In fact, they often struggle to understand leaders offering a positive vision, misrepresenting their hope and charity as squishy or abuse-adjacent.

In Tim Alberta’s The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory, he quoted a twitter thread I wrote last year critiquing negative visions predominating Christian publishing—specifically, I was discussing the massive growth in abuse stories in Christianity Today in the wake of “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill”—and asked whether digital incentive structures might be part of the problem. But in Alberta’s estimation I was complaining that we journalists were airing evangelicals’ dirty laundry,

Even some of the best, most transparent, most trustworthy pastors I’d met had grumbled about Julie Roys and the journalism she inspired. If we have family disputes, these pastors said, they should be dealt with in the family. Broadcasting our dysfunction to unbelievers only undermines our mission to evangelize them.[2]

This was not what I said. I didn’t mention unbelievers or evangelism. Nor did I argue that we shouldn’t cover abuse in magazines in papers. I was challenging negative visioneering and the digital incentive structures scaffolding it.  

At first I was surprised that Alberta, who is normally a careful journalist, could so easily miss my point. But on further reflection the problem became clear: when you live in the age of negative visions, it is near impossible to comprehend critiques made from a positive vision. So rather than hearing the critique, they sink to bulverism and don’t engage with the critique at all. Instead, they respond to ideas and sentiments they imagine you must believe if you disagree with their negative vision. A pastor concerned with mundane, ordinary work of cultivating a positive vision and a positive common life in a small, local institution is naive at best. The real heroes? Negative visioneers, like Julie Roys.

To offer a positive vision is to welcome misunderstanding from evangelicalism’s leadership class and many of their most committed followers.

After all, to a greater or lesser extent we are all stuck in a seated, negative position. Getting up will be nothing short of an act of God. He must strengthen our wobbly legs. I am increasingly convinced that if there is a path toward a positive, widespread vision of evangelicalism in America, it will only come through the prevailing prayer of everyday people and pastors who are exhausted by the negative status quo. It is not at all surprising to me that the few people offering positive visions are not Americans—one thinks of Mark Sayers—and usually come from Wesleyan holiness traditions that have historically emphasized prayer and revivalism.

Likewise, when I look at the idealism of Gen Z Christians—don’t sleep on the small scale renewals popping off across the country in churches and campus ministries—I see that the people leading them do not hail from the historic gravitational centers of evangelical power: SBTS, Christianity Today, World, or Wheaton.

These ministries are being led by ordinary pastors doing extraordinarily ordinary things. But one thing they share in common: they have a positive vision. They give students a vision of a common life under Jesus’ rule—basically the antithesis of digital isolation under self-rule. But it’s not framed as a war against the bad stuff. It’s framed as a fight to do life together, invite others in, and seek the common good.         

These students know what they’re for even if the evangelical leader class doesn’t.

Millennials must repair, preserve, and hand off

As millennials begin to take over more leadership from Gen X, there is the possibility that we will level up their jaded, anti-institutional malaise. After all, we are the generation that became adults in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and massive Pride Marches. We excel at deconstruction, and scorching the earth where once important institutions stood.

But we’ve also had the benefit of seeing what happens when negative visions prevail. If you lead in churches, schools, government, or business, there is a good chance you’ve seen your own well intended efforts to make change (usually by tearing something down) fall flat on its face. You’ve seen that negative visions are full of sound and fury, but in the end signify nothing. If you, like me, have been the idiot telling that story, you’ve likely resolved yourself to become a builder and preserver.

This means receiving the institutions currently led by Gen X as stewards. Our churches, publications, and educational institutions may (or may not!) be in shambles. The worse the situation, the greater the need for institutional repair and preservation.

I think we millennials must come to accept our role as generational middle-men. We are the characters in the story who will, more likely than not, be the ones forgotten. History will remember the negative visioneers who broke evangelicalism. It will also remember those who built new institutions and visions, but it will not remember those who held the building together when it threatened to crumble, strengthened the foundations, buttressed what threatened to buckle, and handed it off to a generation with the ability to build something new. That may very well be us, and that may very well be our positive vision: institutional repair and preservation.

Stiven Peter, a young Gen Z thinker, suggests that “repair” is a helpful metaphor for evangelicalism’s orientation toward culture. I want to add two additional thoughts to what he proposes. On the surface, they may seem banal, but I believe they are the key to an institutional hand-off from Millennials to Gen Z: honoring our past and cheering on our future.

We honor the past by honoring our local institutional forebears. Spiritual mothers and fathers have been cast aside and spat upon by modern negative visions. Millennial leaders must be grateful for what their spiritual parents built, and show that thankfulness by treating them with respect, dignity and honor. This does not mean repeating the errors or whitewashing failures, but instead foregrounding what was good and true. We must seek to preserve the good things, and not rush ahead into a negative vision that smashes the fragile common life that it always takes generations to build. (Note: This obviously does not apply in abusive leadership environments.)

We cheer on our future by equipping and empowering young leaders with the wisdom and opportunity required to develop their skills as builders. As we age, we can bring temperance to youthful zeal, and most importantly a non-anxious presence. One of the greatest risks I see at present is that the negative visioneers are much more willing to give time and publication space to zealous young people than those with a positive vision. If positive visioneers don’t learn to develop deep relationships with young leaders who can build something more good, true, and beautiful from what we’ve repaired and preserved, they will eventually reflect the negative leaders who did.

At the moment, there are no Kellers, Grahams, or Henrys to lead a unified movement centered on a positive vision, so in the interim I believe the best we can do is prepare the soil for what may come. Those of us with positive visions must find each other. Social media won’t help. It will only isolate us. We need to return to old ways: building friendships through events and networks. Critically, networks of relationships that are often buffered from one another—networks of thinkers, investors, business leaders, and pastors rarely intersect—must find ways to cross-pollinate and build relationships that can sustain one another as we embark on terribly challenging positive vision in the age of negative visions: to preserve the good and to repair what was wrongly defaced and to hand off the good institutional deposit we’ve been entrusted faithfully.

Let’s pray for God to use us to prepare the soil for what comes next. Let’s pray with formidable desperation. For, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18).

Footnotes

[1] Sandra Richter, Stewards of Eden (p. 48).

[2] Alberta, Tim. The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism (p. 391).

Patrick Miller

Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.