This isn’t exactly the “reclaiming evangelical” post that is ruminating in my mind, but it’s getting close. It also occurs to me that there are books out there by evangelicals that make a similar point (unChristian; They Like Jesus but Not the Church), but it should be clear that I’m suggesting something completely different, though I’m trying to harness the same spirit.
Yesterday and today I’ve been reading the comments to a post Tony Jones made about not believing in demons. The gist of his post, part of a series on Christian universalism, is quite similar to points I made in recent sermons that address demons and miracles. It’s clear that Tony and I are both 21st century rationalists, products of both modernism and postmodernism, who don’t think it’s too much to expect our faith to be intelligible for our contemporary world. We freely admit the obvious fact that we share a radically different worldview from Jesus and the early Christians. We’re not necessarily claiming that ours is better, but we are honest enough to say that this is our context and thoughtfully consider what Gadamer calls the “effective history” of our contemporary situation. His post on demons has generated a substantial response from more conservative (or, as they like to say, orthodox) Christians that find his position misguided or even heretical.
Today I’m thinking about these conservative protests in a slightly different light. Having just completed the second meeting of the PC(USA) Middle Governing Bodies Commission, my mind is still churning through questions of what it means to be the church in a post-Christendom context. Thinking through the history of American Christianity and denominationalism it is hard not to make a basic divide between the era in which the church and its theology were central to culture and our current era in which a fundamental biblical worldview is no longer definitive for American culture.
It strikes me that many conservatives—the kind that want to maintain a biblical worldview when it comes to things like creation, sexuality, miracles, and demons—are going to be most successful evangelizing people that are in some way still shaped by this biblical worldview. Conservative Christianity is based on cosmology and mythology that belongs to a world long gone. In order to buy into the conservative Christian narrative of salvation you must first accept a complicated (though presented as simple) mytho-theological metanarrative that is based on a bunch of assumptions no longer native to our contemporary American culture. To be sure, there are lots of people still shaped by this metanarrative. I think these are the only people in our culture that conservatives will have much success evangelizing or proselytizing.
By contrast, there are lots of other people that look at this metanarrative—with its ancient understandings of heaven, hell, judgment, and atonement—and find it completely unintelligible and irrelevant. Ricky Gervais has recently become the poster boy for this segment of the population. I don’t think someone like Gervais will ever be remythologized to the old conservative Christian metanarrative, though I accept that such a move is possible. Rather than trying to evangelize such people with a message that simply does not make sense to them, the real challenge for the future of the church is re-imagining the gospel for a 21st century world that has been shaped by both modernism and postmodernism.
There are people doing this. You can find it in some corners of the emerging church movement. You can recognize it in those rare mainline churches more interested in mission than maintaining or saving a declining institution. You can see it in the popular work of writers like Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong. But this work needs to continue and be expanded. What progressive Christianity needs is the zeal of old school evangelicalism.
Fundamentalism will continue to have resurgences here and there, but I think the tide is turning beyond fundamentalism, at least in the western world. In its wake we will continue to find post-Christendom people hungry for a faith that makes sense to their contemporary minds and hearts. If we truly believe that the way of Jesus has something to offer our world—indeed, if we believe that the way of Jesus is the salvation of the world—we need to follow the Spirit into new ways of being, thinking, and practicing Christianity. This is the new frontier of evangelism.