Is the Evangelical Movement Dying, or Maturing?

Evangelicals are growing more moderate and more powerful according to author Walter Russell Mead in a perceptive essay in this month’s Atlantic.

While some claim the movement’s influence is in decline, Mead argues it’s adjusting to contemporary realities and accommodating as necessary to reach as many people as possible today. This adaptability has marked evangelical leadership throughout history.

For example, the Methodist movement in industrial Great Britain in the 18th Century was innovative and adaptive. John Wesley preached on street corners in the language of the workers to make his teaching accessible and his brother Charles adapted common tunes for his prolific hymn writing.

In the U.S. the movement was equally adaptive relying upon lay preachers who rode horseback to preaching points rather than wait upon an educated clergy to establish building-based congregations as the population moved west. Circuit riders, in fact, were among the advance guard. In addition, they were directly engaged with the people which kept their preaching in touch with the struggles of everyday living. The movement was relevant as well as accessibile.

Mead says U.S. evangelicalism–at least that wing that seeks engagement with modern life–is flexible, user-friendly and market-driven. While it holds to core convictions, he says, it also seeks to be relevant, engaged, and to reach as many people as possible regardless of their culture, ethnicity, or politics, not unlike the early Methodists.

This wing is less creedal than conciliar and that leads to widely divergent views about cultural values and issues. As Mead notes, in the past evangelicals were abolitionist and pro-slavery among other seemingly contradictory positions. This can be confusing but it’s consistent with the motivating drive to reach more people with a message of salvation, defined by evangelicals as getting people one-by-one to accept Christ as Savior.

Modern evangelicals are more educated and share some concerns in common with their secular neighbors, according to Mead. Thus, it’s no surprise that they can accommodate to the culture in order to advance values such as environmentalism.

But achieving wider influence requires partnering with others who don’t share the same set of values across the board. This results in a less strident movement overall and can lead to more pluralism, as it has in the Methodist movement.

Historically such movements have also led to upward mobility, but that’s material for another post.

Mead says evangelicalism is in transition and it’s gaining influence inside power systems. The movement isn’t dying, Mead writes, it’s maturing.

As it does so, it will be interesting to see how this tendency toward moderation affects the movement as a whole.

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