Written with Skyler Flowers
“Grab them by the p… ”
George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery.
COVID – serious problem or overblown?
Trump, Biden, other, or abstain?
January 6th, 2021.
The last few years have highlighted major differences in how Americans have processed the same cultural moments. Every month seems to bring another national Rorschach Test as to how we parse the times. Unlike Rorschach Tests these national events are not always neutral blobs of cultural ink. The same rending of the fabric of America is also happening (maybe not so) quietly within evangelicalism.
I regularly hear from about six dozen pastors from around the United States. Over the past year, each of them have expressed to me that they are exhausted, and I have yet to hear from a single one that they are thriving. When drilling down on these things much of the exhaustion revolves around what we have all been intuitively feeling and objectively observing: evangelicalism is fracturing.
Tim Dalrymple, the President and CEO of Christianity Today, has been observing the same thing:
New fractures are forming within the American evangelical movement, fractures that do not run along the usual regional, denominational, ethnic, or political lines. Couples, families, friends, and congregations once united in their commitment to Christ are now dividing over seemingly irreconcilable views of the world. In fact, they are not merely dividing but becoming incomprehensible to one another.
The fracturing we are experiencing is likely to be irrevocable as the historical ties that bind have eroded beyond repair. The reality is that while many in the evangelical movement thought their bonds were primarily (or exclusively) theological or missional, many of those bonds were actually political, cultural, and socioeconomic. These political, cultural, and socioeconomic differences have always been there beneath the water line but what has occurred over the last 5-10 years has been the extent to which those values are expressed has been exposed. With the expression louder and the exposing more visible, these divergent values have rapidly created substantive wedges between various subgroups.
The rate at which divergent views have been revealed has created jarring relational dissonance. People in the pews are left questioning the extent to which their unity is based on the Apostles or Nicene creeds or other political, cultural, and socioeconomic matters. They are left questioning where churches, ministries, or organizations land on these things.
The tectonic plates are shifting underfoot. This fracturing will likely be irrevocable not because our Gospel essentials are not unifying enough but because the divergence of ethical priorities, cultural engagement, racial attitudes, political visions/illusions, and their implications for philosophy of ministry mean that unity is fundamentally no longer tenable.
The 6 Categories
As I have surveyed the evangelical landscape and discussed with pastors all around the country, evangelicalism seems to be fracturing into at least 6 different subgroups. Three of those groups (#s1-3) still have at least some connectivity to evangelicalism and the other three have cut ties (#s 4-6):
- Neo-Fundamentalist Evangelical– Neo-fundamentalists are those who have deep concerns about both political and theological liberalism. There is some overlap and co-belligerency with Christian Nationalism (a syncretism of right wing nationalism and Christianity) but neo-fundamentalists do so with more theological vocabulary and rationality. Concerning threats within the church, they have deep worries with the church’s drift towards liberalism and the ways secular ideologies are finding homes in the church. Outside the church, they are concerned by the culture’s increasing hostility to Christianity, most prominently from mass media, social media, and the government.
- Mainstream Evangelical – Historically this term has been Protestants who hold to the Bebbington Quadrilateral of conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. The emphasis for this group is on the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Concerning threats within the church, they share some concern for the secular right’s influence on Christinaity, including the destructive pull of Christian Nationalism, but are far more concerned by the secular left’s influence and the desire to assimilate since the world still remains so hostile. Outside the church, they are likely uncomfortable with the rhetoric Trump and other conservatives use but view this direction as the lesser of two evils.
- Neo-Evangelical – People who would see themselves as “global evangelicals” and are doctrinally “Evangelicals” (w/ some philosophy of ministry differences) but no longer use the term “evangelical” in some circumstances in the American context as the term as an identifier has evolved to be more political than theological. Within the church, they are highly concerned by conservative Christianity’s acceptance of Trump and failure to engage on topics of race and sexuality in helpful ways, but they have not totally abandoned evangelical identification and likely still labor in churches with the broadest spectrum of these groups. Outside of the church, this group feels largely homeless in today’s world. There is equal concern, or slightly more either way depending on the person, at the threat the left and the right pose to Christians seeking to live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness.
- Post-Evangelical – People who have fully left evangelicalism from a self-identification standpoint and reject the “evangelical” label yet are still churched and likely still agree with the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed. They are more deconstructed than neo-evangelicals and they are more vocal in their critiques of 1s and 2s than 3s would be. Some remain firmly in Protestant circles and others have crossed over to mainline, catholic, or orthodox traditions while still holding to the basic creeds. Concerning threats within the church, they are focused on abuse, corruption, hypocrisy, Christian nationalism, and the secular right. Outside the church, they are primarily concerned with the matters of injustice, inequity, the secular right, and to a lesser extent the radical secular left. Many 4s are 4s also because their experiences with predominantly white evangelicalism have been so difficult and strained that physical distance seemed to be the only conclusion.
- Note – there is likely a halfway point between 4 and 5 known as ex-vangelicals that don’t neatly fit either 4 or 5. This group is difficult to parse as the meaning that this group has taken on has evolved even this year. We did not want to exclude the group from this typology but given the evolving nature were hesitant to pin it down too precisely at this juncture. Some of these folks have actually dechurched, some have deconverted, yet some remain in the faith but are quite vocal on their critiques of the movement. In time this category might evolve and/or swallow up category 5 below or it might fizzle like other labels.
- Dechurched (but with some Jesus) – People who have left the church but still hold to at least some orthodox Christian beliefs.
- Dechurched and Deconverted – People who have left the church and are completely deconverted with no vestigial Christian beliefs.
Some of these terms have been used in the past with different definitions. We are trying to stay close to the commonly understood meanings of both Christian Nationalist and ex-vangelical as they are presently understood. However, regarding Neo-Evangelical and Post-Evangelical we are diverging from some of the other past uses of these terms. Post-Evangelical was a term sometimes used during the emergent church movement and we are not using it in this sense. Neo-Evangelical is sometimes used to describe folks whom we have categorized as 4s and 5s here and we are not using the term in that sense.
It should also be noted that there are many folks who exist part way between two categories. There are those who are 0.5s whose commitment to nationalistic identity is so grave and syncretistic that they are no longer in the faith. There are 1.5s who can’t fully commit to neo-fundamentalism or Christian Nationalism. There are 2.5s who draw equal inspiration from both mainstream evangelicalism and neo-evangelicalism. There are 3.5s who likely strongly agree with the critiques levied by 4s but think the tactics of 3s are more wise. There are some 4.5s who would still subscribe to the Apostles and Nicene Creeds but fully dechurched for a wide variety of reasons. Hence, these categories should be seen as a bit fluid with permeability between them especially while we are in this season of self-sorting.
The Fault Lines
Over the last few decades and especially the last five years these groups have been increasingly becoming more clear. For some decades old exhaustion with the Culture Wars strategy disenfranchised them. For some five to six years of dissonance with how fellow congregants processed Trump, Mike Brown, and Trayvon Martin created separation. Finally for others the separation wasn’t palpable until 2020-2021 when divergence was revealed as to how people processed COVID, masks, the losses of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Trump’s re-election campaign, and January 6th.
As I’ve talked with pastors about this paradigm, 1s and 4s have largely already opted out of worshiping in the same churches anymore (with the exception of a few megachurch environments). This leaves the primary points of real world internal church tension being between 1s vs. 3s and 2s vs. 4s.
1s vs. 3s
Neo-Fundamentalist Evangelicals (1s) think that 3s have a compromised Gospel that has imported worldly ideas of social justice into the church and are in danger of apostasy as a result. These things come to a head primarily on the topics of race and politics. 1s cannot fathom that 3s might not have voted for the “pro-life” Trump and elected to abstain, vote third party, or vote for Biden. 1s struggle to understand that evangelicals would be activists on anything except abortion.
Many neo-evangelicals (3s) struggle with what they would view as ethical compromise in voting for someone with the moral track record of Donald Trump and resent the pressure from 1s to do so. 3s also struggle with the 1s view that we live in a post-racial colorblind society and there aren’t lingering effects of the awful legacy of chattel slavery and Jim Crow systems of racial oppression and white dominance. 3s struggle with the idea that 1s see ongoing positive historical legacy of the societal benefits conferred by our Constitution but that 1s see no continuation of a negative historical legacy of the much more recent harm inflicted by slavery and Jim Crow. 3s struggle with the close proximity of 1s political and national identity to their Christian identity.
The upshot of these things means significant philosophy of ministry differences in how to contextualize the Gospel in this cultural moment. Disagreements over mercy, justice, strategies, tactics, affect, and culture are not easily bridged. In many instances these differences will be fatal.
2s vs. 4s.
Mainstream evangelicals (2s) sometimes have a hard time understanding the core concerns of post-evangelicals (4s). There is misalignment between the two groups as to the extent of hypocrisy, racism, political entanglements, and abuse. Some of these differences arise from diverging experiences between the two groups. Anecdotally it seems like many post-evangelicals have experienced church hurt and potentially first hand or second hand trauma.
Post-evangelicals(4s) feel that mainstream evangelicals (2s) form a kind of establishment that is very resistant to reform or change. I have observed among 4s immense frustration due to their perception that mainstream evangelicals are silent, inactive, or unwilling to see problems obvious to 4s.
The upshot of these things means that 2s and 4s will increasingly struggle to occupy the same churches. There are significant disagreements about whether problems exist, the extent of those problems, and what things need to be done to address those matters.
What are the Implications For the Future of Evangelicalism?
If 2016 was an X-ray, then 2020-2021 is a 3D MRI. What was previously invisible is now largely plain for all to see. Imagine for a moment that every local church is a rubber band. If you have ever had one of those multi-packs of rubber bands there are different diameters, widths, and elastic qualities. The bottom line is that the rubber bands of local churches, ministries, and parachurch organizations are now less elastic. This means the overall tension tolerable before the band breaks has been reduced.
How much elasticity can a church handle now?
As I talk with other pastors around the country what we are seeing is that a church can handle two adjacent subgroups. Some churches are a little more elastic and some a little less elastic but two adjacent subgroups seems to be the amount of tension tolerable before it becomes fatal. If this is true, then three local church paradigms will eventually take form:
- Type A Church – a church comprised almost entirely of 1s and 2s
- Type B Church – a church comprised almost entirely of 2s and 3s
- Type C Church – a church comprised almost entirely of 3s and 4s
Type A Church will continue to carry the torch of the culture wars into the 21st century. They will continue the same primary mode of cultural engagement through political activism through the Republican Party. They will see Type B & C churches as being compromised by political and theological liberalism.
Type B Church will chart a course that is not as culture war centric. While still being politically involved – their primary mode of cultural engagement will be interpersonal in nature. These churches will seek to make disciples and be neighborly. Type B churches would like to avoid the perceived political syncretism and cultural withdrawal of Type A Church and the perceived overly deconstructed posture of Type C Church.
Type C Church will seek to recover the public witness of the church by critiquing abuse, hypocrisy, inconsistencies, and misconduct. Their primary mode will be calling the church to ethical fidelity, justice, and empathy towards the lost, marginalized, oppressed, or disinherited. Type C Church would like to avoid the perceived fundamentalism, cultural isolation, and tacit support of oppressive structures or systems of Type A Churches and the perceived silence of Type B Churches on certain justice or ethical matters
If this thesis holds true then people will continue to self-sort themselves into the type of church that best fits their animating and core concerns. Some churches will try to fight this sorting and be all things to all people, but the size, weight, gravity, and sheer force behind the wedge issues will continue to force churches into one of these three paradigms. We will see a resurgence in fundamentalism as there is plenty of fear to animate parishioners, particularly from the secular left. We will see a rising tide of justice minded churches with plenty of concerns particularly from the secular right.
There will also be denominational strain for larger denominations. It will likely be impossible for denominations to span the entire 1.0 to 4.0 range. If a single local church can withstand a span of 1.0-1.5 range at most, then a nationwide denomination can likely only withstand a span of 2.0-2.5 without a split.
Large parachurch organizations will feel these tensions most acutely due to their big tent nature. It will be difficult to find a least common denominator that is satisfying to a very broad group as many will be dissatisfied. These tensions are playing themselves out particularly among large campus ministries.
What are the Implications for the Broader Culture?
Politically, there will be a reshuffling of the deck – some 3s and 4s will become independent or vote democrat. However, there does seem to be a rise of people who hold little to no orthodox Christian views who now self-identify as evangelical. This might in turn be a zero sum game where the only thing that is different is that the term “evangelical” is now more semantically tied to political meaning and less to theological meaning.
Sociologically, the resurgent neo-fundamentalism and its co-belligerent Christian Nationalism will continue to create parallel information ecosystems that will further stretch and rend the fabric of the USA. This will create opportunities particularly for 3s to try to create space for a nuanced middle America but it will be challenging to hold with erosion happening in either direction and without the (illusory) safety of tribalism.
Racially, tensions are likely to continue to rise. Neo-fundamentalists and Christian Nationalists will continue to find new labels and terms for their fears surrounding social justice. Exvangelicals and the dechurched will not tolerate evangelicals who don’t agree that systemic racism exists, express some meaningful agreement concerning its existence, and take active steps to work against it.
Economically, there will likely be more boycotts and counter boycotts as capitalism becomes increasingly weaponized in all directions to lobby for a particular cultural or political vision.
Regarding journalism, news, media, and social media, there will be ongoing challenges with sound information and reporting. The temptation on either end of the spectrum to distort, twist, and lie will be a problem that is not going away. This will likely continue to be exploited by foreign bad actors as well, further complicating the matter.
Hope For the Future
The question that remains before us is whether the big tent evangelicalism is worth fighting to preserve. From a big picture viewpoint, the answer seems obvious depending on where you are standing: cutoff the subgroup that seems the most extreme from where you are standing and march on. However, as this fracturing takes place in local churches, it is a much harder lived reality.
Therefore, the question is ultimately answered not by how major evangelical institutions react to each succeeding wave of evangelicalism but how local pastors and church leaders preach, counsel, disciple, and lead through these waves. It is easier for institutions to throw around their collective weight in distancing and removing various subgroups from their mission than it is for local pastors to see people leave who have been in their church for decades. This is why pastors are beat down and tired.
As local churches continue to observe this fracturing in their contexts, it will be necessary that they move forth with courage, compassion, and conviction for those across this spectrum. This will at times mean saying goodbye to brothers and sisters who you have ministered alongside for years and at other times mean calling back those who want nothing more than to be done with the church.
But there is hope. As Tim Keller pointed out in a recent interview, we have been here before in the 1940s when Carl F. H. Henry charted a course in between the twin dangers of liberalism and fundamentalism. He pointed out that in that day there was a sorting between various subgroups in Christianity that eventually led to what we now call evangelicalism. We are in a similar sorting here in the early 21st century. There is a lot to be explored this century in the orbit of the constellation of the doctrine of man, the imago dei, and (kingdom) ethics.
The church is not held together by its own strength but by the unbreakable bond of the unity of the Spirit. With this confidence, the church can move forward into this sorting, whatever it may look like, with hope that the Lord is using it to strengthen and embolden his church for fruitful mission in this age. This fracturing need not be viewed as wholly negative. Rather, in this sorting we hold on to the confidence that God is preparing his church to engage this age as both missional and confessional, with courage and compassion, holding on to orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathos.
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Skyler Flowers serves as an assistant pastor at Grace Bible Church in Oxford, Mississippi, where he lives with his wife, Brianna, and their pug, Sybil. Skyler received his MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. He also serves on the steering committee for Rooted and contributed to the As in Heaven podcast.