Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Three Routes of Escape
In his landmark book, The Younger Evangelicals, the late Bob Webber came up with a three-part generational typology of evangelicals. He contrasted the Traditional Evangelicals of 1950-1975 (e.g. Billy Graham) with the Pragmatic Evangelicals of 1975-2000 (e.g. Bill Hybels & Rick Warren) with the Younger Evangelicals of 2000 and beyond. The difficulty with this typology is that the Younger evangelicals are not all taking the same routes away from Traditional or Pragmatic evangelicalism. Al Hsu pointed me to a post by Clayton Keenon that describes three of the most common routes younger evangelicals are taking in their "escape" (bulleted text are his words):

  • Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches. Obviously, these are three fairly different groups when it comes to theology, practice, and culture. But, for the young, former pragmatic evangelical, they are the same. They are high church. They are rooted in tradition. They are sacramental.
  • Emerging Churches. Again, there are lots of varieties to emerging churches, but to the former evangelical, they have a certain unifying quality to them. They are culturally-embodied. They are experiential. They are communally-oriented. They are concerned with social justice and the arts. They are open to question and change.
  • Reformed Churches. This group of Christians, obviously, could be considered evangelical (as could many emerging and Anglican groups). But, to the children of the pragmatic evangelicals, it is a big difference. They are much more overtly theological. They are God-centered. They focus on glory and sovereignty. They also have a sense of history, at least in the Reformation era. They value the life of the mind in a way the more pragmatic side of Evangelicalism doesn’t.
I definitely see these three trends. I know many of my peers from Wheaton College that have drifted towards liturgical churches. I also know many that have gotten on the John Piper/Mark Driscoll bandwagon that Collin Hansen writes about. And of course I myself am a part of the emerging church conversation.

And while all three of these are rather different, I am also seeing quite a bit of overlap between all three as well. For instance, many emergents are also rediscovering the value of liturgy and drifting towards mainline liturgical churches. Bob Webber's "Ancient Future" discussion, which encourages this sort of move, has been a part of the emerging conversation for years. Though of course it would be inaccurate to say that all evangelicals who are moving in this direction are also emergent.

I think what all three have in common is a dissatisfaction with the lack of depth found in earlier forms of evangelicalism. Whether in terms of worship, ministry methods, or doctrine and theology, Emergents, Liturgicals and the New Reformed all want to go deeper. Of course how this plays out differs. Emergents tend to go deeper into the questions and into a diversity of traditions looking for answers (e.g. generous orthodoxy). Liturgicals tend to go deeper into the rich history of worship practices in the church. And the New Reformed want to go deeper into doctrine, eschewing the superficiality and "self-help" messages of pragmatic evangelical "seeker" churches.

Of course, a big part of this (especially as Webber frames it) is the usual generational pendulum swings. Every generation is going to react against the ones who have gone before them. Which is why I think as we go deeper we shouldn't disparage the attempts made in earlier generations at living out the gospel. I respect the ministry of Billy Graham and his contemporaries, and how they brought evangelicals out from under the shadow of Fundamentalism. And I resonate with the motivation of Hybels, Warren and the rest to use whatever means necessary to communicate the gospel and to tear down any artificial barriers that might scare people away. And I still respect the way each of these men, and many of their contemporaries, continue to grow and evolve in their thinking and approaches. Nonetheless, I think there is value in critique and in new wineskins, and I am intrigued by this typology that Clayton proposes since it seems to conform to my own experiences. It's important as well to understand why younger generations are not content to just stay where their parents and grandparents are at.


posted by Mike Clawson at 6:17 PM | Permalink |


At 5/07/2008 10:49:00 AM, Blogger Dan Morehead

Small world. I took a class with Webber when I was at Wheaton, and am friends with Clayton.

Clayton ends with the question: "What is it about our discipleship leads the faithful Christians of my generation to leave pragmatic Evangelical churches?"

My short answer would be that Christianity cannot make sense without a robust ecclesiology, something the pragmatic Evangelcial churches have always lacked.


At 5/07/2008 11:22:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I think you're probably right about that Dan. Interestingly, one of phrases popular among emergents is "deep ecclesiology", by which we mean valuing the church in all it's many forms and seeing the strengths and weaknesses in it many varied traditions.


At 5/07/2008 01:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

"What is it about our discipleship leads the faithful Christians of my generation to leave pragmatic Evangelical churches?"

Perhaps it is because they are yearning for something they have not found there, and will not likely find in the other two "routes of escape" mentioned - true fellowship in the body of Christ, not an institution or a business dedicated to putting on the best show on Sunday, but the organic body composed of its members with Jesus as the head, not a human CEO.

Pagan Christianity, by Frank Viola, seems to be fueling a lot of conversation lately. Have you read it?


At 5/07/2008 05:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Interesting post. I would take exception with this and what follows in that paragraph, however:

"Whether in terms of worship, ministry methods, or doctrine and theology, Emergents, Liturgicals and the New Reformed all want to go deeper. Of course how this plays out differs."

I am a recent convert to the Orthodox Church, and I am not sure the generalizations which follow the above assertion are entirely accurate. Speaking for myself and for a number of other evangelicals who converted (in fact, my entire parish, including my priest, are evangelical converts), all of those aspects played a part, not just the worship aspect. In fact, one fellow I know hated Orthodox worship for a long time, but he still converted because of historical and theological/doctrinal issues. I obviously can't speak for folks who go a different route in their search, but nobody I know who converted to Orthodoxy (or other "historical" churches) converted for the sole reason you outline.

Not really out to make a point, and I'm sure you didn't mean to be as definitive as I'm making you out to be -- just saying, is all. :)


At 5/07/2008 10:22:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Thanks for sharing your experience RL. I was just making a generalization based on what I've seen from my peers. But obviously each person's reasons will be unique.


At 5/08/2008 08:55:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

Great post. The categories are helpful and accurate, but as you point out there's overlap in what is driving younger evangelicals in each of these streams. Maybe even more overlap than you indicate.

I'm not trying to make all the categories bleed into one because they don't. But a greater concern for justice/mercy issues, a hunger for a rooted, historical connectedness, a desire for more robust and thoughtful and less time-and-culture bound theology, can be found in all of those streams. How they play out, where the emphases are, what conclusions are reached may differ. But it's not as clear cut as the categories themselves might suggest. I can feel at home, or feel totally out of place, in a given church within any of those 3 streams.

Weber's seminal 1980's book Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail identified and gave voice to many of those evangelical hungers for "more", and was a huge influence in our move from evangelicalism to the liturgical church. Richard Foster's "Streams of Living Water" is helpful in identifying the existence and contribution of various streams throughout the history of the church, and pushing us beyond the one or two that we are inclined toward, to see the value in the others.


At 5/08/2008 01:00:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Do you see much concern for justice/mercy among the Young Reformed Karl? I'm not saying that some of them aren't, but I've not noticed that as a major theme in their movement. Certainly people like Tim Keller are trying to include it, but then you have guys like Mark Dever who are openly opposing it. And I can't say whether I've ever heard Piper or Mohler mention it much at all. As for Driscoll, I can't help but notice that none of the recommended reading for his Acts29 church planters have anything to do with ministries of justice or compassion.


At 5/08/2008 02:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

That's a good question Mike, and I guess I'd say it depends on where you look. I know he's not "young" himself any more than Brian McLaren is, but Tim Keller's church in NYC is probably the first place I think of when I think of the young reformed, and from what I understand they do place quite a bit of emphasis in that area, as you acknowledge. I'm familiar with several other large, theologically conservative PCA and EPC churches that are deeply involved in racial reconciliation, meeting physical needs in inner cities, working for affordable housing for the poor, etc.

But you're right there are others in that stream for whom justice and mercy concerns are low on the scale, if they register at all.

We left an "old, reformed" church for the liturgical church and their lack of interest in (and outright suspicion of) the gospel implications for the church's call to be involved in doing justice and mercy, was part of what finally sent us out the door.

I guess that's what I was getting at by saying there are churches in all 3 of the streams where I'd feel pretty at home, and others in all 3 of the streams where I'd not feel at home at all.


At 5/09/2008 09:59:00 AM, Blogger Macht

The CRC has done excellent work on issues of justice. I don't know how many of these "young Reformed" folks are CRC, though. My sense is that they tend towards Reformed Baptist churches, which makes sense if you look at the leaders (Piper, Mohler, etc.)


At 5/12/2008 02:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

Thanks for interacting with my post, Mike. It is nice to hear your thoughts.

I think Dan (first comment) highlights the heart of what I am concerned about. This is really about discipleship and the way we form people. Beneath our formation is always our (conscious or unconscious) ecclesiology. More than anything, I would like to see churches and Christians have a well-formed theology of the church to explain what they do and why.


At 5/13/2008 11:36:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous

Mike, as a further follow-up to your question above regarding the young reformeds and their concerns for justice and mercy, I thought I'd share this, from an email update I received today from a friend of mine, about your age, who is the pastor of a "bridge" church in inner city San Diego. It's a PCA church and he's a graduate of RTS.

Missional Community Groups:

"Have you ever been involved in a lame Bible study (or community group) that seems to have very little impact on you and no impact on your community? You know, the kind where there is a lot of navel gazing and very little else. Well, I certainly have, so when we launched our community groups, we asked ourselves a pretty simple question: “How can our community groups avoid being lame?”

"Well, we haven’t figured it out, but one thing that has breathed life and purpose and power into our community groups is their connection with the mission of God. We have required (or should I say strongly encouraged) each one of our groups to have at least a monthly mission expression together, primarily because we’re convinced that mission and mercy manifest most magnificently in community, and, inversely, that community is best forged in the fires of mission & mercy.
So let me give you a glimpse into the group that I have the privilege of being involved with. We adopted a refugee family from Burma who arrived here without knowing a word of English and landed in the inner-city community that is home to our church. I attached a picture of them with my little buddy Ford and my girl Milly. There needs are so great that it has literally taken every person in our group to love on them and we still aren’t even scratching the surface. For instance, an attorney in our group has been addressing some of their legal issues. Two school teachers and a nurse have been dealing with health care issues stemming from no prenatal care. And all of us have chipped in to deal with their most recent setback: no food and absolutely nothing for a baby that is about to be born. And oh, by the way, they are 2 months behind on rent.

"What is happening is that in the midst of mercy and mission, community is manifesting itself. Just listen to what our leader wrote this week to the group. “It is more and more obvious that we will NEED each other this summer and WILL be a part of each other's lives due to Thaw Poe and family!” Crazy, isn’t it, how community is being built in our group, and at the same time the community we call home is becoming a little more beautiful. Messy….yes. Perfect community group…..no. But it isn’t lame, and I look forward to it, and for that I give thanks.

Prayer Request: We currently have 4 English speaking groups, and around the same number of Spanish speaking groups. Pray that God will develop a multitude of missional community groups in our church that are so captivated by the gospel that they then take its transforming power out into the community to make it more beautiful."