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The End of Evangelicalism and the Possibility of Reformed Catholicism

June 12th, 2023 | 17 min read

By Jake Meador

In one sense it is not hard to understand the collapse of American evangelicalism. After all, the much missed Michael Spencer saw it all coming way back in 2009. Yet it is still worth pausing to rehearse the problems as we prepare for a fairly consequential month in our movement's history as three of our most influential denominations—the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), and Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) all prepare for their summer denominational gatherings. The crises fall on several different fronts, each of which are worth discussing briefly.

The Failures of the Evangelical Leadership Class

The first and most obvious problem is the fecklessness of evangelical leadership.

The most alarming and egregious cases, of course, are those in which churches looked the other way when confronted with sexual abuse, sometimes even celebrating the abusers. These cases alone would be enough to merit the severest judgment, and yet they are not the only examples we have of the evangelical leadership class failing in significant ways, even if they are the most visceral and horrifying. Prominent evangelical leaders have spent millions in organizational funds on their own homes while other staff were being laid off. They have been suspended for creating toxic work environments. They have enacted church discipline without due process or even a simple explanation of what the accused had done. They have refused to deal with racial prejudice in their communions, sometimes even engaging in it themselves. They have plagiarized sermons and then made excuses when caught doing so. They have played fast and loose with confessional documents, concerned less with how to faithfully honor their ordination standards and more with how much leeway they can claim via confessional ambiguity.

Certainly, these are all different cases and some are far more horrifying than others. But the thread that runs through all of them is leadership behaving in self-interested ways that cause immense harm to the churches and organizations, eroding trust, and creating a crisis within their various communities and the evangelical movement writ large. If you want to know why so many evangelical pastors, media figures, and parishioners have radicalized toward either neo-fundamentalism or post-evangelicalism in recent years, one of the most obvious answers is the dissolution of any trust they once had in their leaders. A similar answer applies when one asks why 13 million evangelicals have left the church in the last 25 years.

These recent years have been enormously challenging in any number of ways for pastors and Christian leaders operating in smaller non-profits, to say nothing of the congregants in their churches who often feel as if their faith is being drained slowly out of them by failure after failure, trial after trial. And time after time the evangelical leadership class has failed to provide assurances that they are seeking to address the problems in our own movement and to serve in such a way that the movement would become stronger, more resilient, and more like Jesus. Whether through inaction, corruption, or glib dismissal, many evangelical leaders have proven themselves to be unserious and untrustworthy. (This is something I myself fell into in the past, I think. In particular I regret this post, not because I think I was wrong that the greatest threats facing us are impiety and infidelity, but because the piece was dismissive of the real burdens confronting Christian parents in many parts of our country.)

If the Christian movement in America is to have a future, we must get serious about anti-corruption efforts within our institutions as well as adopting a broader commitment to requiring our leaders to be above reproach. For their part, our leaders need to care more about what Jesus thinks of them than they do the size of their bank account or home or the relative comfort of their job.

The Theological Problem

Even so, the problem before us is not simply an ineffective, decadent, or corrupt leadership class. If that were the issue, one might be able to preserve some hope that "evangelicalism" as a movement might be salvageable, provided the leadership changed course. Alas, it is not that simple. Two further problems immediately present themselves.

Problem 1: The movement's referents for defining itself are now outdated and largely irrelevant. This was always going to happen for the simple reason that American evangelicalism was a self-consciously defined centrist movement born in the post-war years. At the time, the wings which evangelicals used as reference points to position themselves were Niebuhrian Mainline Protestantism and McIntirean fundamentalism.

It's not hard to discern a sensible centrist option that exists between those polarities: Shore up your doctrine of scripture and chase out the materialists on the one side. Ditch second-degree separatism and dispensationalism on the other. Voila, you have your "evangelical" center. And that is, indeed, more or less what figures like Billy Graham, Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, and Harold Brown built and what they passed on through institutions like Fuller Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School—each of which went on to train defining Baby Boomer evangelical leaders.

The trouble is all of these markers used to define the movement are historically relative. The Mainline has long since left the Niebuhrs behind. While you can still find their spirit alive and well in pockets within some of their seminaries, the denominations themselves are in a sorry state and often bear relatively little resemblance to historic Christian practice, particularly on matters of ethics. Fundamentalism, meanwhile, is defined these days less by dispensational theology or second-degree separatism and more by a posture of schismatic vituperativeness that manifests as a tendency to mistake reflexive politically motivated reaction for Christian reflection. It is not possible to look at the Mainline or Fundamentalism as they exist today and fashion a coherent movement by moderating their worst respective tendencies. And yet evangelicalism, as it has historically existed, has relied on those two movements to supply them with their own points of reference.

Similarly, much of American evangelicalism itself presupposes the post-war neoliberal social order, a regime which is now falling to the ground. Politically, it presupposed the center-right neoliberal vs center-left neoliberal divide that has defined American politics for decades. Culturally, it presupposed the vaguely and often superficially Christian cultural, familial, and economic norms of the immediate post-war years with some slight accommodations for the changes that came after the revolutionary 60s. In short, American evangelicalism has been built in such a way that many contingent social conditions were simply taken for granted. Now that those conditions have begun to fade, the movement has lost itself, like a long forgotten navigator at sea who can't find the north star.

Problem 2: The movement's actual theological parameters are under-determined and only become coherent if supplemented by tacitly supplied supplemental content. The classical definition of evangelicalism, of course, is Bebbington's quadrilateral, named for the great church historian David Bebbington, who first defined these four evangelical markers. The four sides of the quadrilateral which make up evangelicalism's theological content are:

  • Crucicentrism: Centered around the preaching of Christ's cross
  • Biblicism: Dedicated to the study and preaching of the Bible
  • Conversionism: Deeply concerned with the experience of personal conversion and the call to evangelize others with the goal of converting them to Christian faith
  • Activism: Marked by a busy-ness, a frenetic working for the expansion of the Kingdom of God in the world

The trouble here is two-fold: First, these parameters are devoid of virtually all creedal or confessional content. So the dogmatic theology of the movement is radically under-developed. Second, several of these markers can easily become twisted in ways that undermine the movement's vitality.

Biblicism, for example, has routinely caused us to sever ourselves from church history and historic Christian theology. Conversionism has often led to a highly pragmatic strategy toward church life and liturgy, which has been devastating for Christian discipleship. Activism, meanwhile, is itself a quite vague and under-determined concept, which often ends up meaning everything and nothing in common practice.

The results of this are neither surprising nor much in doubt at this point.

Because evangelical theology is self-consciously part of the post-war evangelical movement rather than any definable ecclesial or confessional tradition, it's theology is routinely unmoored from history. Theology's import for evangelicals has too often been how doctrines can be deployed as cudgels in our endless bickering and feuding, rather than being a primary means by which we can better know and love God.

That is why one of the most famous evangelical New Testament scholars of the last generation accidentally stumbled into quasi-Arianism and it's why today's evangelical New Testament scholars who are still trying to shoehorn gender politics into the doctrine of God are now stumbling into Marian views that would make a Catholic blush:

When your theology is "evangelical", which is to say "unmoored from creeds and confessions," you shouldn't be surprised if you stumble into saying heterodox things. You're like the hiker setting out in the Appalachians who decided they don't need any maps or GPS. They'll just "find their own way." To the surprise of no one, the way they routinely find ends with them being lost, disoriented, and confronted with life-threatening dangers and lacking the resources required to make their way back to safety.

Related to this, of course, is the simple fact that many self-described evangelicals are barely even Christian in their stated theological views. Barna told us this nearly 20 years ago when it found that only 1/6 of evangelicals agreed to nine exceedingly basic statements of Christian belief. Barna surveyed self-described evangelicals back in 2007 if they assented to these nine propositions:

  • they have a personal commitment to Jesus that is important in their life today
  • they believe that they will go to Heaven when they die because they confessed their sins and accepted Jesus as their savior
  • they say their faith is very important in their life today
  • they believe they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Jesus with non-Christians
  • they believe that Satan exists
  • they believe that salvation is possible only through grace, not works
  • they believe that Jesus lived a sinless life on earth
  • they believe that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches
  • they describe God as the "all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and rules it today

Only about one in five self-described "evangelicals" agreed with all nine statements. Extrapolated out to the population as a whole, that would mean that in 2006 84 million Americans self-identified as evangelicals and only 18 million actually affirmed even an exceedingly basic theological outline of evangelical belief.

More recently, Ligonier data has told us the exact same thing.

At bottom, then, what we have in today's evangelicalism is a movement with leaders who are corrupt, feckless, or both, historical reference points that have long been irrelevant, a theological "tradition" that is frequently revisionist at best, and a movement of professing Christians who are barely Christian at all in terms of their actual beliefs and, in many cases, actual practices.

So: What can be done?

Two things that will not fix this movement are simply trying to preserve evangelicalism through a doubling down on either the more progressive instincts of some evangelicals or the more reactionary instincts of others.

The former will simply lead to a more explicit mainlineification of the evangelical movement.

The latter will, at best, lay hold of real political power in very limited, very temporary ways only to then use that power in stupid, evil, or ineffective ways, all while doing nothing to deal with the underlying problems in the American church. More likely, this move will slowly hollow out Christian doctrine and practice in the name of political convenience or effectiveness. This is, perhaps, why many neo-fundamentalists are now taking their cues for when to call the church to prayer and fasting not from the historic practices of the Christian church, but from the effective religious calendar of progressive civil religion. It is also why those same neo-fundamentalists can't be bothered to practice a real Sabbath in accordance with the decalogue and the law of nature, choosing instead to routinely shadowbox with one another on Twitter every Lord's Day.

Evangelicalism is dead.

It's time to let the dead bury their dead.

The Case for Reformed Catholicism

In the past 25 years, it is hard to identify success stories in American evangelicalism.

One exception to that rule can be found in New York City. Thanks to the ministry of Tim and Kathy Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian, New York has seen a revival of Christian faith and the establishment of an interwoven ecosystem of institutions and communities in the city that all serve to build up and support the cause of the Gospel in America's greatest city. What was distinctive about Tim's approach?

Well, Tim wasn't really an evangelical in the sense described above. To begin, the mainline in New York in the 80s was already far gone. The evangelical presence, meanwhile, was negligible at best. So he lacked those flanks by which to define his and Kathy's work. Second, neither did they take for granted a vaguely, even superficially Christian sub-culture. That didn't exist in New York. They had to look for other points of reference and anchor themselves in surer theological footings.

Thus Tim ended up an odd sort of hybridization of early modern English Puritanism, 20th century English Evangelicalism, and, eventually, Dutch neo-Calvinism, all filtered through his close reading of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. The goal of this project was not participating in and advancing some vague "evangelical" movement or making himself an "influencer" (wretched term) within American evangelicalism. Rather, the Kellers sought to create a missionary encounter with classic Christian orthodoxy in the heart of America's greatest city.

And they did it.

To put it in other terms, one might say that Tim's legacy is a reimagined Reformed Catholicism, updated and modified to suit the missionary context facing us in the late 20th and early 21st century west.

The original Reformed Catholics, of course, were a certain slice of early modern Protestants who saw themselves as reforming the church catholic, calling her to renounce the accumulated errors that had piled up in her theology over the centuries and which had been mostly ignored by the church's hierarchy. Figures like Martin Bucer and Philip Melanchthon, along with their more famous peers like Luther and Calvin, did not see themselves as beginning ontologically new ecclesial movements.

Rather, they understood their work as being the continuation of the church catholic, stretched across time all the way back to Pentecost. This is, of course, why both Bucer and Melanchthon sought reunion with faithful German Catholics as late as the early 1540s at Regensburg and why they nearly succeeded in the task, were it not for the intransigence of both the Roman Cardinal Carafa and Luther himself.

These early Protestants, rightly, recognized that the catholicity of the faith is found in its teaching, not in a singular church office. So they sought to preserve and pass on catholic doctrine for the church catholic amidst a time of political, cultural, and technological upheaval. Yet even so these men could presuppose Christendom. Their project was ultimately to conserve an actually existing Christendom by renewing it and calling it back to its first love.

The task before us is quite different. Ours is a post-Christian, perhaps even post post-Christian culture. Due to corruption and demographic collapse, we have very little left to conserve of the old American Christendom. Rather than conserving, it's time to build. And it's time to build a distinctly Reformed Catholic movement across the American church.

What does a missionally engaged Reformed Catholicism look like?

We should break that question down into smaller parts. But first of all we need to say that it isn't marked by fear, anxiety, or a frantic, jittery energy. It is, rather, calm and sober-minded, able to recognize the magnitude of the challenges before us and yet also aware that we are most vulnerable to idolatry when we are most fearful. Should we let fear drive us, we will chase fads, capitulate to the secular right or left, and our faith will become hollower and hollower, until there's nothing left save a husk of vaguely Christian public posturing on social media. The first thing every Reformed Catholic must understand is the providence of God. This moment has not caught our Lord by surprise. Nor does he call us, in this moment, to take up weapons or hopes that he has banned at other times. Idolatry remains idolatry. Trusting in the might of men is still a form of betrayal. At bottom what we most need is an encounter with the living God—and the means by which that happens do not change from one time to another. So we must give ourselves to prayer, to fellowship, to the reading of Scripture, and trust that God will meet us in that and use those ordinary means to bring about renewal.

What does it look like theologically? It is "catholic," which is to say it is historically rooted and it is universal. It does not seek to reinvent the wheel, but rather anchors itself in the historic thought of our fathers and mothers in the faith, as well as the great creeds and confessions that have defined what it means to be Christian. It is worth remembering, here, that the original vision of the first Protestants—a vision that many late medieval Catholics had varying degrees of agreement with!—was a moral and intellectual renewal of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. So it will be, must be, a conversation grounded not merely in specifically Protestant thinkers, though certainly in them, but in all the riches of the catholic faith—church fathers, medieval saints, and the witness of the Roman, Eastern, and Radical churches of the modern period.

Academically speaking, models such as Davenant Hall or the Master of Arts in Classical Theology at Biola are both excellent examples of what this looks like. The work of a number of recent Protestant Mainline and English theologians are also suggestive of where we ought to go: Figures like Oliver O'Donovan and John Webster, deeply conversant in modern theology yet rooted in the greats of the faith like Augustine and Thomas and John Owen, are good models. Likewise, the Augustinian liberals of Princeton and Yale similarly suggest a fruitful and, as of yet, largely untried path forward.

What does it look like ecclesially? Here we should work with the institutions we still have. In my experience, the PCA, OPC, EPC, ACNA, and ARP can all be fruitful vehicles for a historically grounded Reformed Protestant church life—which is not to say that every congregation in these communions will be, but merely that each of these denominations possesses the theological resources needed for such a task. Of course, of these communions also have unique struggles that inhibit them in that pursuit.

The PCA and ACNA have the largest role to play here, as they are the respective leading denominations in America for the dominant ecclesial traditions of the Reformed Catholic anglosphere. That said, the EPC is nearly as large as the ACNA while the OPC and ARP cumulatively represent around 50,000 church members, so each of these denominations can and should have a role to play in the broader diffusion of reformed catholicity. That said, because the PCA is the largest presbyterian communion and the ACNA is the largest Anglican, these two denominations will necessarily be central to the broader movement.

One example of how this could work in practice is in the area of sexuality and gender, where both the PCA and ACNA have issued remarkably similar denominational statements on sexuality and gender in recent years which can and should be regarded as the consensus position of Reformed Protestantism in America. We might even go so far as to say that the PCA and ACNA, perhaps with the new Global Methodist denomination joining the fold soon, would do well to regard themselves as the new Protestant Mainline, replacing the UCC, TEC, ELCA, UMC, and PC(USA). Indeed, in raw numbers it may already be the case that there are more people worshiping weekly in PCA churches than there are in PC(USA) churches. 

What does it look like liturgically? As much as possible, public worship of God's people should be grounded in the great creeds and prayers of the faith, passed down to us through the ages. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. In specifics, much will vary from church to church. The most coherent option is likely that preferred by the Diocese of the Living Word in the ACNA, which treats the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as its standard liturgical guide. That said, for those denominations and dioceses that lack the accepted structure conferred by the prayer book, it is still wise and good to sing old hymns and Psalms, to receive the Lord's Supper regularly, to dedicate time each week to the public reading of Scripture and the preaching of the Word of God, and to adopt liturgical staples such as the call to worship, congregational prayer, and benediction and, in all these things, to hew closely to Scripture and historic practices and prayers. The point here is not to adopt a liturgical straitjacket for ourselves, but rather to consider the core elements that ought to mark the gatherings of God's people and to insist that those elements be present in our gatherings.

What does it look like outside of churches or academic settings? Well, I think it looks a lot like New York Christendom: a web of interwoven organic communities of believers existing alongside specific groups and institutions intended to strengthen believers in the living out of their faith daily, to equip them for lives of virtuous service to neighbor, and to support them in their vocations. In New York, this has meant things like the formation of Hope for New York, the Faith and Work Initiative, Redeemer City to City, and even simple practices, like maintaining a kind of classifieds section on church websites to help connect believers to one another.

A useful image here might be Ivan Illich's concept of tools for conviviality. In his work, Illich distinguished between the tools of industrialization and tools of conviviality. The former are concerned only with efficiency, speed, and productivity. Industrial tools tend to background the person, muting their individuality and dehumanizing them as they become more entrenched. Convivial tools, on the other hand, actually equip and free us for virtuous lives of inter-dependence with neighbors. Illich:

I choose the term "conviviality" to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man−made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. I believe that, in any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society's members.

Later:

As an alternative to technocratic disaster, I propose the vision of a convivial society. A convivial society would be the result of social arrangements that guarantee for each member the most ample and free access to the tools of the community and limit this freedom only in favor of another member's equal freedom.

In other words, the Christian community begins here: It begins with the recognition that the most important, most true, most essential thing in all human existence is this: that Jesus Christ rose from the dead so that we could be reconciled to God and one another and that he know calls us to lives of reconciliation, even aiding us through the sending of the Holy Spirit and from his place at the right hand of God the Father, where he intercedes on our behalf. Because this is the most important thing, everything else about our lives is negotiable according to whether or not it aids us in being reconciled to God and to one another. Work lives are negotiable. How we use our money is negotiable. How we organize our communities and how we relate to our neighbor is all negotiable, provided the negotiating, as it were, happens beneath the recognition of Christ's Lordship and his authoritative call on our lives. With that base, we are equipped to think creatively and faithfully about how to build Christendom anew in our own local neighborhoods and communities, hoping always for God to pour out his blessings on us so that we can bless our neighbors and call them to the same live of joyful service and conviviality that we seek to live.

One chapter in the life of the Christian movement in America seems to be winding down. But another is now beginning before our eyes. We have the chance now to build on surer foundations for the joy of the Lord is both our strength and our satisfaction—and it enables us to radiate the love of God into the world.

"But Jesus told him, 'Let the dead bury their own dead. You, however, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.'"

Correction: An earlier version referred to the REC as a separate denomination from the ACNA. However, the REC is a founding member of the ACNA and its dioceses are all part of the ACNA. I apologize for the error.

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).