August 10, 2020

What Do I Mean by Post-Evangelical?

My son Clay asked me the other day, “What do you mean by post-evangelical?” That deserves a good answer.

Let’s start with this: By evangelical, I do not mean, as some on the Internet have labored to prove, a line of Christianity extending from the Reformation through Calvinism to a handful of modern day independent Baptist fundamentalists. Nor do I mean, as Lutherans have the perfect right to historically assert, that Lutheranism has the right to the term evangelicalism.

Instead, I mean evangelicalism as a twentieth century movement meeting the following qualifications:

1. Protestant, even strongly anti-Catholic
2. Baptistic, even in its non-Baptist form
3. Shaped by the influence of Billy Graham and his dominance as an symbol and leader
4. Shaped by the influence of Southern Baptist dominance in the conception of evangelism
5. Influenced by revivalism and the ethos of the Second Great Awakening
6. Open to the use of technology
7. Oriented around individualistic pietism and a vision of individualistic Christianity
8. Committed to church growth as the primary evidence of evangelism
9. Committed to missions as a concept and a calling, but less as a methodology
10. Asserting Sola scriptura, but largely unaware of the influence of its own traditions
11. Largely anti-intellectual and populist in its view of education
12. Traditionally conservative on social, political and cultural issues
13. Anti- Creedal, reluctantly confessional
14. Revisionist toward Christian history in order to establish its own historical legitimacy
15. Attempting, and largely failing, to establish a non-fundamentalist identity
16. A low view of the sacraments and sacramental theology
17. A dispensational eschatology, revolving around the rapture and apocalyptic views of immanent last days

The center of this, for me, is the twentieth century SBC, and the moderate Southern Baptist effort to remove Baptists from the stain of being called evangelicals is an abject failure. The SBC is as evangelical as it gets in these post-evangelical times.

Other “centers” of this would be TBN, Promise Keepers, Campus Crusade, Charles Stanley and so forth. As with any term of this sort, there is a moving target. What I want to be clear about is this: I do not see the mainline churches as “evangelical” in the any pure sense of the term as it applies in America today. The mainlines are still tethered to the larger “catholic” form of Christianity and depart from my list in too many ways. American evangelicals certainly recognize this and do not consider most mainline Christians to be evangelicals. I would think the line runs right through some mainline churches, especially the UMC and the Christian Church. (The difference between the typical First Christian downtown and Bob Russell in the suburbs is profound.)

Next, I would quote James Jordan. (HT to ReformedCatholicism, though I’ve used this quote before.)

As I maintained in Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future, the Protestant age is coming to an end. That means that the Reformed faith and Presbyterianism are also coming to an end. The paradigm is exhausted, and the world in which it was worked out no longer exists. We must take all the great gains of the Calvinistic heritage and apply them with an open Bible to the new world in which we are now living. We must be aware that there is far more in the Bible than the Reformation dealt with, and that many of our problems today are addressed by those hitherto unnoticed or undeveloped aspects of the Bible. Those who want to bang the drum for a 450-year old tradition are dooming themselves to irrelevance. Our only concern is to avoid being beat up by them as they thrash about in their death-throes.

Jordan’s observation in regards to Calvinism is doubly true for American evangelicalism. Billy Graham may be at the end of his life, but it appears that the movement he represents has become something altogether different.

So what do I mean when I say I am a “post-evangelical” and writing from the “post-evangelical wilderness.”

I mean that I do not recognize the boundary lines of American evangelicalism as the boundary lines of true Christianity.

I mean that creeds and confessions have positive and defining roles, but do not function as popes and unassailable authorities.

I mean that it has become virtually impossible to practice any form of Christian community that does not interact in some way with the larger church in history and reality. (I salute those who attempt to practice pure forms of fundamentalism, etc. They have my respect.)

I mean that I do not share the hostility and suspicion of all things Catholic or catholic that is endemic to evangelicalism.

I mean that I recognize that Christian belief emerges from a matrix of the text of Holy Scripture, the history of interpretation, cultural and sub-cultural presuppositions, the use of reason, the place of experience, the wisdom of the teachers of the larger church and the work of the Holy Spirit in revealing more light. I embrace this more complex understanding of Christian belief as part of the great stream of Christian existence, and I reject any notions that Christian belief falls from the sky as a magic book that exists apart from other components of human experience.

I mean that I believe the paradigms of denominationalism, education, worship, church growth, evangelism, Christian experience and so on that have dominated evangelicalism in the twentieth century are dead. We are moving beyond them into largely uncharted territory, and the winds that are blowing are alternately unknown. Some are dangerous, while some are winds from heaven.

I mean that words like “postmodern,” “emerging” and “missional” are in the process of being defined and filled with meaning, and are not to be ridiculed and rejected out of hand because some who use them are out of step or even heretical.

I mean that I reject the idea that the primary role of a minister is to define other Christians as wrong. I reject the idea that ministers, no matter how large their profile in their own subcultures, are immune from the death of evangelicalism.

I mean that the death of evangelicalism opens the door for a return to the sources and a fresh examination of the meaning of Jesus. I mean that our reverence for previous epochs and events in church history must be tempered with an awareness that the work of the Holy Spirit in the church continues, and what was believed in the past is not immune from the light that may break forth in the ongoing present.

I mean that large churches are not the good thing we thought they were, and the renewal of the church, ministry and worship is a movement of many, small churches.

I mean, particularly, that those leading worship and teaching the Christian life in American Christianity should repent of their previous allegiance to the assumptions of evangelicalism and seek to hear the voice of the Spirit again.

I do not mean that “post evangelical” is a label or a sign in front of a church. I agree that a plethora of “posts” in nonsensical and we must ask if these presumed shifts are real or only constructions of our need for significance.

I do not mean that those calling themselves evangelicals, reformed or fundamentalist are automatically wrong or deluded. Quite to the contrary, our disagreement over the status of evangelicalism is not a matter of spirituality or authenticity.

What does “post evangelical” mean to those of you who frequent this blog?


  1. I suppose I’ll add my thoughts as someone who I guess could be described as something like post-pagan who continues to struggle to move forward to some sort of post-postmodernism as a Christian even as I walk alongside and with a pretty “evangelical” SBC church. One line in your James Jordan quote spurred me to register and comment.

    Those who want to bang the drum for a 450-year old tradition are dooming themselves to irrelevance.

    That’s the central point most who fit the description you provide of “evangelical” completely miss. They are busy fighting among themselves and with other Christians over things that simply have no meaning to me or others like me. As I’ve slowly understood some of these over the past decade-plus, I’ve sometimes gently tried to point them out, but at best have gotten ‘blank stares’ in return. It’s a divide that’s difficult to cross. It’s not that I agree or disagree or have any strong feelings either way. It’s that question itself does not intersect my experience.

    I’ll use one example, though there are many. A favorite SBC banner has been throughout my association with them something called “The Inerrancy of Scripture”. (Yes, the words always seem to be spoken with capital letters and quotation marks. And usually an implied or actual deep, booming voice as well.) Well, OK. That means the Christian sacred canon (or at least the version of the canon included when the King James bible was printed, since there is some dispute over what does or does not belong in the Hebrew part of the canon) contains no error. It says what God intended it to say in the original autograph (whatever that means) and has been more or less perfectly preserved ever since. And I have no problem granting that as fact.

    Which then begs the question, so what? I’m also perfectly willing to grant that the Qu’ran preserves the writings of Mohammed as Allah gave them to him without error. I’m comfortably agreeing that the Vedras have preserved ancient Indian wisdom without error. If you want to assert that the teachings of the Buddha have been preserved without error, I’m OK with that too. I think you get the picture.

    You see, error or absence of error is not really the issue. The issue is can our scripture (or any sacred text) be found trustworthy. Trust comes with great difficulty in the postmodern experience. I’m too sensitive to agendas, manipulation, power games, and are almost automatically suspicious of any “big” claim. The force that I’ve discovered is labeled “deconstruction” is not a conscious volitional act for me. It’s a constant, ongoing filter. And within that experience, it becomes hard to truly trust, to sustain faith, even when it is something I consciously desire to believe. And within that whirlwind, the question of whether or not the scriptures contain any factual error is meaningless.

    Over time, I’ve come to understand that the “inerrancy” claim was actually an attempt to assert the trustworthiness of scripture against a different sort of attack in a different sort of environment. I’m not actually certain that everyone involved even knew that was what they were actually asserting and defending, but it strikes me that it was. I also can’t really determine how successful the effort was or wasn’t against the attack. What I can say is that it is utterly meaningless in the face of the postmodern whirlwind. And that fact appears incomprehensible to those who have not yet felt the full fury of it.

    There are, of course, countless other examples, but this is a good one. I’m sorry I can’t really offer a good definition of “post-evangelical” for you. I’m still struggling to understand “evangelicals”. 😉

  2. Can’t think of anything to add. The following strongly resonate with me:

    Asserting Sola scriptura, but largely unaware of the influence of its own traditions

    Revisionist toward Christian history in order to establish its own historical legitimacy

    We must be aware that there is far more in the Bible than the Reformation dealt with, and that many of our problems today are addressed by those hitherto unnoticed or undeveloped aspects of the Bible.

    I mean that I do not recognize the boundary lines of American evangelicalism as the boundary lines of true Christianity.

    Amen, amen.

    I am hoping to study church history more, not seen through the eyes of the revisionist Evangelical with truck loads of baggage and agendas, but through objective historians. Books you would like to recommend?

  3. I guess I feel uneasy about the term “post-evangelical” as I associate it with a loss of confidence in the Bible. i.e. less sure than ever that it is the word of God (it might be the word of man about God though), and certainly sure that those people who are certainly sure they know what it means have got it all wrong.

    I pretty much share all the concerns you raise above, but what keeps me from becoming a post-evangelical is that I just can’t imagine Jesus, Paul, Peter or John would be happy with this super-humble “we don’t know anything for sure” approach. They seemed to have quite a few basic facts very straight in their minds.

    I’m not saying I don’t think there are some ridiculously over-dogmatic approaches to truth in evangelicalism (“ah yes you claim you believe in inerrancy, but why aren’t you wearing the innerancy t-shirt and singing the innerancy song every Sunday?”). But I do see post-evangelicalism as the slippery slope to embracing all kinds of heresies.

    I first heard the term “post-evangelical” when Dave Tomlinson came out of the house church movement in the UK (which is my background) to be a “post-evangelical”. There have been others who have followed him, and I know of at least one church in my town taking a similar line.

    So sure lets explore what it really means to be Christians and to “do church”, but please lets not lose our confidence in the gospel and in Jesus Christ as the only hope for our world.

  4. I’m inclined to say that there are two very different strands to post-evangelicalism.

    Evangelicalism seems to me to be largely a modernist construction, and the question then is how we respond to the postmodern critique.

    Some people seem to go down the line of embracing postmodernism, where they rapidly lose sight of absolute truth in a haze of incense.

    Others reject a lot of the baggage of evangelicalism and head more towards a relational paradigm – trust in God as overcoming the postmodern critique of communication. Doctrinally they can still be similar to classic evangelicalism, but less culturally monolithic. I think that’s the direct I’m heading in, but still hesitate to call myself a post-evangelical.

  5. >I associate it with a loss of confidence in the Bible

    Where did “loss of confidence” in the Bible and “can’t know anything for sure” become part of “post evangelical?”

  6. Mark:

    >lets not lose our confidence in the gospel and in Jesus Christ as the only hope for our world.

    Man…where do you see a “loss of confidence in the Gospel” and in “Jesus Christ as the only hope for the world?”

    There is absolutely nothing in this post or in any other post on this web site that hints that I am moving in such a direction. It’s offensive to me that you would draw those conclusions. I preach the Gospel and have for my entire adult life. Why is this a concern of yours after reading this piece? You are talking about rejecting the Gospel. I’m nowhere near that kind of apostasy.

  7. Identified especially with the paragraph that began “I mean that I recognize that Christian belief emerges from a matrix…”
    As far as the inerrancy discussion, it’s funny how that term has changed meanings from looking at the Bible as a scientific tool in reaction to evolution to “trustworthy.” (I liked the word you chose for this.)
    We have post-evangelical. Then there’s post-liberal. I love that these two “camps” seem to be moving closer together.

  8. Where did “loss of confidence” in the Bible and “can’t know anything for sure” become part of “post evangelical?”

    According to TR blogs. They just love to put words in your mouth and pidgeonhole you.

  9. Snide remarks at TR blogs aside, just as Robby calls himself Post-Charismatic, but not Post Holy Spirit, I think an appropriate term is post Evangelical, but not post Scripture.

  10. mort_chien says

    Post evangelical? Well, maybe that description works for us. I have toyed with the more specific “post Baptist” but that does not seem to do it right, and it singles out the Baptists for a special opprobrium that they do not uniquely deserve. In 33 years of walking with Christ, we’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way. I started to ask questions about alternative views that the church we were then attending would not consider. We’ve been down a few rabbit trails, but here is one “post evangelical” collection of conclusions.
    • Pentecostalism (yes, went down that trail for 4 years a long time ago) is often a denial of objective reality. It is headed for a massive train wreck. I cannot fault them for their desire to know that God is immanent in their lives, but the obsession with immediate experience divorced from even the most basic logical examination of that experience is very damaging. We saw one 30 something woman die of brain cancer and were told when we objected to the name it and claim it healing being pushed “not to hide behind the sovereignty of God.” A month later another young woman was raped and murdered. And the pastor still would not yield.
    • Evangelism? Where do we get off quoting Jer. 29:11 as if it had anything to do with converting the lost? (#1 of the 4 spiritual laws a la Bill Bright). And Rev 3:22?
    • Eschatology – you left that one out. “Left Behind” has achieved almost canonical status in some churches. Riddlebarger’s book on Amillenialism convinced me that credible alternatives do exist and that one does not have to be liberal or anti-Semitic to subscribe to them.
    • History? Is it possible that we are willfully ignorant of church history because it has some pretty yucky things to say about Protestants as well as Catholics – and maybe some good things about the Church of Rome? I finished the whole 8 volumes of Schaff a few years ago. Sobering and humbling. Maybe we can control people better if we keep them ignorant of history? And confined to our own narrow walls.
    • Creeds? Well, we’ve come nearly full circle on this. Was converted through CC while attending an Anglican church. Left it because they were getting pretty weird in 1974 – much weirder now. Discovered that the fundamentalists were “right” but … how could they have been the only ones after so many centuries? Luther? Calvin? Never talked about them. Hell, they were originally Catholics right? Did not go far enough with the Reformation. Ah, the Baptists! They got it right. Except there is all that nasty stuff about how often they split – damning everyone not in their little groups. And by the late 20th century they are doing their version of worshiptainment as well. So now we attend a tiny PCA church where we recite the Nicene Creed and take time for confession of our sins and sing hymns with content.
    • Sacraments – well I am not quite a paedo-baptist, but I appreciate their explanation of why they hold that position. There is a possibility that they may even be right. Covenant theology is a whole lot more sensible than the dispensational stuff I lived through. The Lord’s table is a whole lot more meaningful now that I reflect on my need have my “body made clean by His Body and my soul washed through His most precious blood.” Much more than a mere memorial. I am with Calvin on this.

    Well, this is getting long. I wish we fit in somewhere. I cannot serve in a leadership capacity in our church because of the baptism thing. I understand and agree with them on this restriction. There are no Reformed Baptist types in my area – not even close. I am not sure it matters any more. We still cling to Christ and hope that we are not burying a talent in the ground.

  11. Ted Elmore says

    Good thoughts, Michael. Today I read Newsweek’s current article on Billy Graham. I am in many ways a ‘recovering Baptist’ hanging on by my nails. I never knew one could feel so homeless! I can’t help but wonder if maybe part of Graham’s legacy is that of post-evangelicalism. He modeled loving God and loving people. His generation and others of modernity seemed to want to claim him as their own. Yet there is a newer, fresher post-evangelical generation that in my view really does grapple with what Scripture actually says rather than just parroting the ‘tradition of the elders’. It is tough, or at least it is for me. There are days I feel I bleed all over the floor. But in my deepest person, I believe that God the Holy Spirit is doing something very, very special. It may be new to me, but I suspect it is ancient to Him.

  12. I’m pretty sure you could could label the later Graham as a post-evangelical influence. Inerrantists, fundamentalists and TRs hate Graham. Even the current Newsweek article has them spitting out angry posts today.

  13. I had never really noticed the word “post-evangelical” until I read Dave Tomlinson’s book by the same title a couple of months ago. It intrigued me because it fit so well with so many of the questions I have been asking.

    To me, the word implies a rethinking of evangelicalism and a willingness to allow the tough questions to be asked. It also implies a willingness to question (and allow others to question) some of the “sacred cows” of evangelicalism.

    In some ways, it seems like a natural extension of the Reformation. While many pay lip service to the “sempre reformanda” (if I have that correct), most “reformed” believers do not seem to allow for any more reformation.

    steve 🙂

  14. Hi Michael,

    I’m sorry if you thought I was accusing you of “loss of confidence” in the gospel. I have been a long-term reader of your blog and find myself in agreement with pretty much all you say.

    What I was trying to explain is what the term “post-evangelical” connotes to me (and I would say to a lot of evangelicals here in the UK). I was surprised to hear you using it, precisely because I don’t think you fit with my understanding of the term. You did close your post with the question “what does post-evangelical mean to you?” I was just trying to answer that question.

    I haven’t read Dave Tomlinson’s book, and would like to at some point. It came out while I was at university and I remember discussing it with various evangelical pastors back then. Then I hardly heard the term “post-evangelical” for about 10 years, when all of a sudden, I hear it as I listen to your podcast.

    So once again, sorry for making you feel “got at”. I wasn’t aiming a shot at you. In fact, I am in broad agreement with what you said in this post. I guess I just was trying to say that I would hesitate to use that label about myself as I think it sends out the wrong signals.

  15. Brian Pendell says

    Just a quick comment: To me “post-evangelical” means “transitional”. I.e., one is dis-satisfied with the current state of the Protestant church but one as yet has no better alternatives. Think of it like Europe just before Martin Luther — the problems in Christianity of the time were obvious to anyone with eyes to see, but there weren’t any better choices until a leader appeared to show the new way.

    So think of it as gas being poured down for a second reformation, but the match — the leader, the prophet — has not yet been made manifest.

    Of course, the enemy will certainly send counterfeit leaders to try to lead people off track. So it’s something to be wary of.


    Brian P.

  16. In your list of qualifications that define evangelicalism, I would add that it has been shaped by the influence of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement.

    I liked your post and I am very much in agreement with it. I think your statement that “I do not recognize the boundary lines of American evangelicalism as the boundary lines of true Christianity” pretty much sums it all up. I have said the same thing on my own blog, that we who live in the here and now are not the end-all, be-all of what God is doing in the world.

    As to what it means to be “post-evangelical”, I would add that I do not believe that God can be experienced outside the context of community with His people. I believe that the promises of evangelicalism that we can experience God’s immediate and intimate presence through individualistic piety and individualistic discipline are empty promises. In other words, “Jesus and me” is not enough.

  17. Profnachos, I would recommend for a starter to read _Being and Communion_ by John Zizioulas. It is not a history, but it presents a really useful grid for beginning a read of Church history. Also there are one or two recent books out by Thomas Oden, who is doing some great stuff in making the Patristic mind available to readers today.

    Webmeister, while I’m here, would you please take a look at the blogpage I listed here, maybe to add to your blog roll?

    Blessings on you all for an awesome site, and message!

  18. Well, what can one say? Attend an Evangelical Reformed church for years, then sustain a series a serious losses over several months,ie. deaths of 3 people, including parents, loss of job, etc and the response from church is the great wall of silence. [This all happened a few years ago, now I’m in a better place]. I rang my pastor one night and said I was dropping out of church for awhile and I hope to be back one day. To continue attending amidst the indifference was just too difficult and I wasn’t being honest. 6 months later I returned, having forgiven the church, but it hasn’t changed and now I have 0 expectation it will or can. I don’t have a relationship with the bible, but with God. The lack of love in evangelicalism is just so jarring, and that is my great challenge, to love others, despite prevailing church culture. I have also made a return to the Catholic church in the last few years and have found the depth of intercourse between God and Man profound. Most evangelicals [in Australia] seem to have an intellectual understanding of God and not a heart knowledge of Him [I know there are many exceptions]. Bible reading, groups, sermons, conferences, etc are seen as the only way to continue in your relationship with God and show others you are committed to Jesus! Alister McGrath has a profound chapter on Protestants in his ‘The Twilight Of Atheism’ and I highly recommend the book also. I don’t understand why Activity is seen as more important than relationships at church, esp. with the men. I have loved good and deep theological writers over the years, but it seems to me this isn’t enough, it seems to me we are only satisfied by meaningful, accepting, non-judgmental and genuine relationships which are mutually encouraging, but these are so rare. Does this mean that so few have really understood the ‘amazing grace’ we have been given? I don’t know. It seems to me when Christians don’t love each other, much damage occurs, and when they actually do love one another the effect, the experience and the emotion is like a glass filling with cold water on a boiling hot day. I’ve now realised this Reply is probably too long, sorry about that. John.

  19. F. Lee Arlington says

    Until I recently discovered your blog and other sources like it I felt like an orphan. Raised SBC, God led me to and through the Pentecostal Church (Foursquare and AG)to this uncertain place where I now stand. Thank you for leading the way.

  20. I prefer Orthodox as a definition for myself and consider the word synonymous with “Christian”. I am a convert to the historic Church founded by Christ’s Apostles. I am the son of a prominant 20th Century Evangelical leader, without who’s guidance I would neither be a Christian nor would I be the man I’ve become. What I find in Orthodoxy, much of it simply echoes my own father’s conclusions, due to his independent spirit & mind. With the Spirit’s leading I have found my home in what I do believe, as a former Baptist, to be the “One True Church”. I sometimes refer to myself as a “recovering evangelical”. Lastly E. Monk, I appreciate your blog & your honesty.
    Pete E.