Having passed the 6-5 mark causes a “cradle” evangelical like me to reflect on personal memories of “legacy” evangelicalism.
Advanced age affords me some license to look with one eye back, and the other fixed on my concern over the spiritual rot in today’s new normal that is rapidly heading us along the wrong paths. Theologian Roger Olson of Baylor resembles my age and experience, and likewise finds disturbing how evangelicalism has trended spiritually. “I have no doubt something drastic happened to change it such that I barely recognize anything called ‘evangelical’ as continuous with what I knew of that spiritual form of life as a child and youth,” he laments.[i] Christ breathed the life of the Holy Spirit into the Church. It is alive and relevant in every age and in each particular culture – and for better or worse, is constantly being contextualized.
Having lived long enough to remember what evangelicalism set out to be, and what it by and large has become, I lament so much good that is now gone. I knew what evangelicalism once stood for; what it has now become is more comparison than resemblance. “Leaders like Franklin Graham and James Dobson, with their unwavering Trump support, have risked any sort of connection with millennials going forward,” notes Stephen Mansfield.[iii] Half of unaffiliated millennials (nones) polled by the Pew Research Center in 2018 cited political partisanship as turning them off to organized religion.[iv] An article of that same year in The State observed that churches were shedding thousands of members – no less in South Carolina, the buckle on the Bible Belt.[v] While their elders were voting for Donald Trump, younger Christians were voting with their feet – right out the church door.
That evangelicalism has skewed itself towards the “55-to-dead” demographic might seem to portend disaster, but for a new generation zealous for a deeper relationship with God, who are neither dismissing the orthodox faith nor battling with the Bible. Many are exercising a new-found freedom to seek answers, after decades of being told it was sinful to ask awkward questions from which their elders sought to shield God.
[i] Roger E. Olson, “Growing Up ‘Evangelical’ in the 1950s/1960s: ‘Look What They’ve Done to My Religion’, Patheos, December 28, 2014. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2014/12/growing-up-evangelical-in-the-1950s1960s-look-what-theyve-done-to-my-religion/ (accessed January 10, 2015).
[ii] “Is Evangelical Theology Changing?”, Christian Life, March 1956, p. 20.
[iii] Samuel D. James, “Stephen Mansfield: Why So Many Conservative Christians Wanted a ‘Pagan Brawler’ in the White House”, Christianity Today, October 20, 2017. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/november/trump-stephen-mansfield-why-so-many-conservative-christians.html (accessed November 23, 2017).
[iv] Becka A. Alper, “Why America’s ‘Nones’ Don’t Identify With A Religion”, Pew Research Center, August 8, 2018. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/08/why-americas-nones-dont-identify-with-a-religion/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=a709783228-RELIGION_WEEKLY_2018_08_08&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3e953b9b70-a709783228-400191101 (accessed August 19, 2018).
[v] Sarah Ellis, “Losing Faith: Why South Carolina Is Abandoning Its Churches”, The State, August 8, 2018. https://www.thestate.com/news/local/article215014375.html (accessed August 20, 2018).