Sunday, April 14, 2013

Post Evangelicalism

I'm unsure of the legality of this, but here are some thoughts that with more discipline and editing may make it into an essay for a class on the History of Evangelicalism...

As Dave Tomlinson (author of The Post-Evangelical) rightly points out, evangelicalism must be described in wider terms than as a set of beliefs. It is perhaps here where Bebbington’s definition falls short. Evangelicalism is also a culture with a unique language and practice. Indeed, it could well be argued that one of the most formative episodes in evangelical identity is the practice of field preaching in the eighteenth century. It is not only what was said by evangelicals that was important, but where it was said. Tomlinson speaks of the contemporary sub-culture of evangelicalism by mentioning its events, festivals, concerts, conferences, magazines, books, merchandise, record companies, mission organisations, holiday clubs, and celebrities.   There is also the distinct language shared by evangelicals, with phrases such as “accepting Jesus in to your heart” proving crucial to evangelical thought and practice.

But if evangelicalism must be understood in light of its practices, then so too must post-evangelicalism. Field preaching was a formative moment in evangelical identity. Pub preaching was a formative moment in post-evangelical identity. In 1990, Dave Tomlinson and some friends began Holy Joe’s, which met in the lounge bar of a London pub on Tuesday nights.  With this alternative location came the possibility of an alternative church life.

On the surface this may appear as nothing but accommodation to the world. That is not a critique without merit, yet evangelicals would do well to remember the roots of the English Reformation, where discussion in the White Horse Inn of Luther’s new and dangerous theology over ale proved to be a catalyst for an alternative church life.  Like the sixteenth century Reformation, post-evangelicalism aims to rethink the way in which the gospel is understood.  Yet unlike the Reformers, the roots of this rethinking are often shallow because the dialogue partners and foils are often shallow. The Reformers were engaged with Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas. Post-evangelicalism, on the other hand, has often been in dialogue with little more than a bad experience in what Rah calls “baby boomer evangelicalism.”  This is not to suggest that this bad experience is not indicative of deep problems within certain forms of evangelicalism. Yet the deeper roots of evangelical practice and theology that could serve as useful critiques of evangelicalism from within – one thinks of the theological and philosophical work of Jonathan Edwards or Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology -- are ignored in favour of twentieth century postmodern thought.

Indeed, this shallowness is perhaps one reason why the post-evangelical movement has largely been incorporated back into broader evangelicalism (while still retaining much of its character) rather than becoming its own distinct tradition. Dave Tomlinson, to use one example, is no longer the leader of Holy Joes but a priest in the Anglican church. Moreover, Holy Joes no longer meets regularly, with the same being true for the Belfast equivalent, Ikon. Nevertheless, there remains in some charismatic leaders such as Rob Bell and Pete Rollins a desire to carry the post-evangelical movement further and create new kinds of Christianity self-consciously distinct from evangelicalism. In a paradoxical way, however, one can see this new kind of Christianity not as antithetical to evangelicalism but as the perverse climax of the movement: rather than seeking to bring contemporary Christianity back into line with New Testament church, these leaders are, in their most provocative moments, going back even further and doing away with the New Testament church itself because of its unfaithfulness to the radical gospel of Jesus. The message is, in a sense, that we must return to a form of Christianity that, until now, has never existed.


  1. Bang on! IMHO anyway. If you have not read any Darryl Hart yet, you simply must (Deconstructing Evangelicalism or The Lost Soul of American Protestantism being his two most relevant works to what you're saying).

  2. I have not read him, but he has just made my amazon list. From the description and reviews of his book he seems to be suggesting something with which I entirely agree: namely, that evangelicalism as a distinct tradition is deeply problematic (hence my problem with Rob Bell and co. - far from not being evangelical enough, they are *too* evangelical!)