Review: The Younger Evangelicals

Title: The Younger Evangelicals
Author: Robert e. Webber
Publisher: Baker Book House, 2002
Softcover, 283 pages, 9" x 6"

"Why is it that the only continent in the world where the church is not growing is North America? His answer: "because we have bought into gimmicks and programs, the razzle dazzle Las Vegas syndrome of Christianity, all flesh and lights and gaudiness. But we have forgotten what it means to BE the church and do ministry." E. Glenn Wagner, p. 148

Webber's latest work is a prophetic call to the modern (pragmatic) churches, and a trumpet blast rallying the current generation.

Robert Webber is a prolific author, and his books are always worth reading. Some of his previous titles include "Worship is a Verb," "Ancient-Future Faith," and "The Biblical Foundations of Christian Worship." Webber is Professor of Ministry at Northern Seminary and Emeritus Professor of Theology at Wheaton College in Illinois.

In 1974 Richard Quebedeaux wrote The Young Evangelicals: Revolution in Orthodoxy, an attempt to get a handle on the neo-evangelical movement occurring at that time. Webber's title purposely evokes a sequel, like Wisdom calling out on the streets, "Hey! Something NEW is happening!" His book attempts to describe the emergent church, a church composed largely of what he calls "the younger Evangelicals."

The Younger Evangelicals Who are the "younger evangelicals?" These are the children of Quebedeaux's "young evangelicals," and the first generation to be raised in a Christian church now set squarely in postmodern culture. They also include evangelicals from the previous generation, like Brian McLaren and Leonard Sweet, who for a variety of reasons have a strong affinity with the new movement.

While presenting a brief history of the evangelical movement and its enculturation in modernity, Webber doesn't address the broader questions that will occur to some, like "Is the postmodern world a 'world' or is it primarily a phenomenon in the developed and industrialized nations?" The question isn't relevant to the heart of the issues and movement Webber is concerned to highlight.

Webber describes the "younger evangelicals" as "evangelical in their faith and practice but very different than traditional or pragmatic evangelicals of the twentieth century." His description thus creates a new taxonomy of evangelical history. Webber delineates three progressive forces within the broader sweep of evangelicalism in the last fifty years. "Traditional evangelicals” were the dominant force between 1950 and 1975 (the Billy Graham types). "Pragmatic evangelicals" dominated the last 25 years of the twenty-first-century; these were the church growth movement types and their current icon is Bill Hybels. Webber identifies the guru of the “younger evangelicals” as Brian McLaren (a label he would readily eschew. Maybe we could use Rob Bell instead?)

The younger evangelicals "want a faith that is biblically informed and historically tested ... But, because they are products of a new culture, the younger evangelicals explain and present the faith differently. The clash between twentieth and twenty-first century evangelicals is not over truth but over the cultural garb in which truth is clothed.” (pp. 16-17) This is oversimplifying, but that's why you want to read the whole book, right?

Webber is unabashedly supportive and even excited about this movement. Oh, you are asking, "Is there really a MOVEMENT?" That question is answered explicitly in the first chapter, with the entire book devoted to identifying and examining this new phenomena. Webber proceeds in a non-traditional way, or at least his method is a "road less travelled" for a mainstream evangelical author.

Webber's method is to quote a large number of internet authors, popular websites, email correspondence, interviews, and even from the papers presented in his classes. Far from weakening his argument, his method incarnates the heart of the movement, which would not exist in its increasingly popular form apart from the new media. As Thomas Hohstadt somewhere pointed out, the first Reformation could not have occurred if Gutenberg's printing press had not been invented. Similary, the current reformation would not be occurring apart from the current revolution in communications.

Webber's work has a certain electric quality to it, in part because it is not documenting a history, but a revolution. Though published only in November, Webber quotes internet authors (sites like Next Wave and The Ooze) dating from as late as April, 2002. That is astonishingly fresh data! The revolution and movement Webber is helping to expose is occurring at this very moment. While Luther may not have been conscious of the impact his scholarly disputation was about to have, the younger evangelicals are quite aware that they are deconstructing modernity toward a re-imagining of the church in western culture.

While quoting such diverse and unorthodox sources is rare except in popular authors like Leonard Sweet, Webber accomplishes two purposes with his unusual methods. First, he illumines that much of the best reflection on kingdom and culture will not be found anywhere in print, but in fact is available at any moment free of charge on a couple of hundred internet websites. Second, he lends credibility to a movement which as yet has barely been noticed in the evangelical mainstream, or if noticed mostly ignored. (Yes, there is real fear out there). The "revolution" is far from underground, yet it has a counter-cultural flavor that has not lent it popularity among modern and "Constantinian" churches and by its very nature it threatens traditional power structures.

The term "Constantinian" defines an interpretive framework which Webber utilizes to strengthen the foundation of his work. Many of us have used the term "institutional church" or "organized church" to describe a similar set of characteristics. Webber, being a better scholar, picks up Rodney Clapp's usage and defines modern and mainstream organized christian religion as "Constantinian." What does he mean by this?

Rodney Clapp calls on evangelicals to return to a more pre-Constantinian understanding and experience of the church. "Now that the long Constantinian age has passed we Christians find ourselves in a situation much more like that of the New Testament.." Clapp calls for the return of the church "visible." (p. 114)

It's worth a historical digression here. After Constantine's military victories he embraced the persecuted church, but in his own terms. By embracing the church and legitimizing it he gained control over the visible church. A pagan whose conversion is legitimately questioned, he created councils and installed and deposed bishops according to his own purposes. The church he ruled became increasingly distant from authentic Christianity. As Walter Brueggemann puts it, "The Constantinian establishment of Christianity made Christianity an ally of imperial power and a speaker of certitudes that were to serve the larger claims of the empire." (Cadences of Home, p.38)

Any time the church aligns itself with power, it is likely to compromise its most basic values and beliefs. And who can doubt that the church in North America has long aligned itself with power? Webber argues,

"A major problem of the market-driven church is that it is so immersed with the culture that it has become enmeshed with it. The younger evangelicals, on the other hand, are recovering the church as counterculture. The church, this view argues, should not seek to integrate itself with culture or to baptize culture. Instead, the church should see itself as a mission to culture. The church as the instrument of God is called to carry out God's mission in culture, calling people to come under the reign of God through Jesus Christ." (p. 132)

If we have not known persecution in the west it is largely because we have failed to be distinctive from the culture around us. How could we be a prophetic voice when we value the things the ruling class values? In "Cadences of Home" Walter Brueggemann speaks of this hegemony in terms of Pax America and the Enlightenment text:

"The Enlightenment text, as practiced in the Euro-American world, provides an unchallenged rationale for privilege and advantage in the world in every zone of life. It means not only polical ascendancy and economic domination, but it also makes its adherents the norm for virtue. In turn this idea shows up even in the church, where it is assumed that the Western church is the privileged norm by which to test all the rest of the church. In the end, even truth is tied in some way to Western virtue. This defining text is exceedingly hard on and dismissive of those whose lives do not "measure up" to the norms of competence, productivity, and privilege.. [resulting] in a kind of "social Darwinism.." (Cadences of Home, p.28)

But what happens when the power that the church is aligned with loses its hegemony, its ability to define all the terms and rule by virtue of dominance in every conversation? What happens when, as Jim Wallis once commented, "The Bible is used simply to affirm and sanctify the present order of things?" (Call to Conversion, p. 120). Inevitably, as the establishment itself falls apart, so falls the church, and thus we enter the turbulent and transitional times which give rise to new creativity and a new movement. (A creativity Brueggemann also documents and finds in other turbulent times, like the Babylonian exile).

Webber attaches great hope to the new movement. He quotes Gary Goodell, who compares the present renewal of the church with the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Goodell argues that the Protestant Reformation brought a reform of theology but failed to affect the practices of the church. The new reformation will "affect how the church functions, both in its life and its mission." (Webber p. 114)

Webber continues to play on the themes of pre and post Constantinian church.

"The younger evangelical makes a distinction between the established chruch of Constantinianism and the "ecclesial" church of premodern times. The Constantinian church joined the political arm of its society to shore up values and achieve the good life. As secularization occurred, Christianity retreated into an upward and personal faith. In recent years the established church has become a place for privatized "me" religion. a therapeutic religion of feel good Christianity. The younger evangelicals assert the church is not a private but a public faith. It is a community of people who represent the "new creation." p .117

Webber finds many other distinctions between the Constantinian church and the emergent church. The emergent church (he identifies the emergent church with the pre-Constantinian church) is less interested in size than in quality; less interested in task than in relationship, less interested in sending missionaries than in being a mission.

"The younger evangelical is interested in building organic communities, not huge Wal-Mart churches that deliver a full range of Christian consumer goods... The Constantiniam church is characterized by professional clergy who have been trained in acceptable seminaries and passed through examinations conducted by their peers.... Their job is to deliver the goods and services.. Lay people, for whom the clergy work, are the consumers of the [religious] goods and services." p. 120

"In the Constantinian church the local church SENT missionaries.. In the pre-Constantinian and now post-modern paradigms, the church does not SEND missionaries, nor does it have a missionary "program." Instead, it IS a mission. The postmodern church invites people in its neighborhood into the new alternative community of people who embody the kingdom. p. 121

The themes of embodiment and incarnation are constant, and dominate not only Webber's writing but also the writings of the emergent church. In the chapter on apologetics, a short but fine description of Christian apologetics in the postmodern world, Webber quotes one of his students, Joseph Clair:

"Disillusionment with Rationalism is obviously promoting a recovery of Wisdom. And by "wisdom" instead of "rationality," we intend to understand knowledge as part of a more holistic schema that culminates in the task of "living well," not merely "thinking well." We are surely still concerned with rigorous training in "thinking well," or "thinking rationally," but we are sensitively aware of the limations of looking at life through a rationalistic lens. This lens keeps you away from, and many times cuts you off from, avenues of knowledge about the Truth that we are no longer willing to miss..."

Sadly, the modern church largely divorced knowledge from life, theology from practice. It was enough to "know" in the head, without living out (incarnating) that knowledge in the flesh, as Jesus was and did. This same split occurred in our paradigms when we divorced the sacred and secular worlds in a kind of renewed gnosticism.

Furthermore, as Clair points out, modernity advocated a false objectivity, as if the knower could be separated from the thing known. This was an error the monastics and mystics clearly eschewed. During the scholastic movement in the twelfth century Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux squared off. Anselm wedded Greek thought and method to the Gospel. Anselm's famous dictum, "I believe in order to understand," still stands firmly in Christian thought.

There was a powerful response to the scholastic movement in the monastic movement. While the scholastics believed the path to God and the transformed life was via knowledge, the monks believed it was via love. Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St. Thierry wrote a series of letters and pamphlets defending love as the path to knowledge. Moreover, they lived in poverty and worked among the poor! Bernard's famous dictum was, "I believe in order to experience" (or "to know".. credo ut experiar).

In Bernard's extensive sermon series on the Song of Songs he writes, commenting on the great commandment,

Let us love affectionately, discreetly, intensely. We know that the love of the heart, which we have said is affectionate, is sweet indeed, but liable to be led astray it if lacks the love of the soul. And the love of the soul is wise indeed, but fragile without that love which is called the love of strength.
Bernard of Clairvaux, "In Cantica" Sermon 20

The truth that God is not known if God is not loved is not without parallel in our daily experience. What husband or wife wants to be loved by their mate in the mind alone? Love is expressed from the center of our being, and finds expression in body, soul and spirit. It's greatest demonstration is in the Incarnation. Clair continues,

"Joseph Clair... rejects the modern notion that "what can be known must be validated with scientific objectivity." He suggests a postmodern apologetic must return to the ancient tradition where "faith was found by an individual in connection to the church." Historically, because the church was the guardian and chief interpreter of Scripture and beacuse it was guided by leaders in apostolic succession, a person was regarded as Christian because of his or her "participation in the community of faith." In other words, faith is participation in truth embodied by the community. To "know" truth, one needs to step inside the community and into the stream of its interpretation and experience of reality." p. 102-104

This is a profound statement of another of the fundamental differences in orientation between the culturally captive modern church and the emergent church. Individualism as a paradigm is dying, allowing a new appreciation for the corporate paradigms in Scripture. And underlying this shift is the corresponding shift in epistemology, a movement beyond rationalism and toward holism.

The most pregnant statement of the difference between modern apologetics and postmodern is found in chapter 10 on "Youth Ministries." "The youth work of the future must be rooted in an embodied apologetic. The qustion today is not "Can Christians prove what they believe? but "Can Christians live what they believe?" (p. 159)

If the changes are so profound, where is the grist for the mill? If younger evangelicals are busy deconstructing the modern church, on what foundation will we build? Furthermore, if the Reformation was so limited in scope and application, what value can be found in the writings of the Reformers?

In fact the emergent church finds itself looking in two directions: forward in hope of a new day of faithfulness for the church, and back beyond the Reformation. Though there were witnesses to an authentic faith community after Luther's time, like the Anabaptists, they were few and marginal. But in the days prior to the Enlightenment and modernity or pre-Constantine, there is a deeper witness to Christ. Post Constantine and in particular post Reformation the church became increasingly concerned about success, growth, buildings, authority and relevance. Eventually any real practice of the priesthood of believers was lost. All of this resulted in compromise, the poor were marginalized, and the focus on outward appearance prevailed over authentic and faithful practice.

Webber notes that common sources for light for the younger evangelicals are marginalized groups like the Anabaptists, the early Methodists, the spiritual writings of the mystics, and the Celts. None of these provide a map for our time, but they anchor us securely in the Big Story -- and without that firm foundation there is no way to cast the anchor forward.

While Webber acknowledges the need for change, he holds little hope for the modern church. He observes that renovation requires far more energy than a new beginning.

"It is interesting that for the most part younger evangelicals are committed to start-up churches. Many existing churches, most perhaps, still function in the modern established pattern and are fearful to take the kind of risks it takes to become a post-Constantinian church. This may explain why so many of the younger evangelicals are church planters. They feel the investment of time it takes to change an existing institutional church is hardly worth it. Like the fundamentalists of the early part of the twentieth century, they have turned toward new soil, especially in the inner cities and among the poor. Here, among people who have no tradition to uphold and no denominational battles to fight, the younger evangelicals find open minds and hearts to the fresh winds of the gospel."

The inertia of the pragmatic church is often startling. When a movement grows in size and popularity it becomes like an ocean liner, requiring a huge expanse of space in order to negotiate any change in course. New movements are like lifeboats, small and flexible, diverse and empowered, and respond rapidly to their new environments. This is particularly true with a decentered movement like the emergent church. New movements don't have the vested interest in system maintenance that older movements possess; they have less to lose and so are willing to experiment and take risks. Margaret Wheatley, in "Leadership and the New Science," comments that we need explorers, those willing to venture where there are no maps. We need tinkerers.

"Tinkerers have skills but no clear plans. They make do with the materials at hand. Tinkering opens us to what's possible in the moment."

"Life's tinkering has direction. It tinkers toward order - toward systems that are more complex and more effective. The process is exploratory and messy."

"All this messy playfulness creates relationships that make available more: more expressions, more variety, more stability, more support. Who we become together will always be different than who we were alone. Our range of creative expression increases as we join with others."

The pragmatic churches are usually not asking the right questions. Typically they ask, "What must we change in order to reach the postmodern generation?" This question doesn't reach to a foundational level. They aren't asking how their own enculturation restricts their freedom to live the gospel. Twenty-one years ago Jim Wallis was speaking prophetically when he wrote,

"Community is a place to grow in truth, wholeness and holiness. The only way to propagate a message is to live it. That is why there can be no conversion without community. Community makes conversion historically visible." "Call to Conversion," Harper and Row, 1981, p. 116

Webber doesn't comment directly on deconstruction as a methodology, but in applying the term to the Reformation itself he defuses some of the tension surrounding the term. "This contextual methodology is no different than the method the Reformers used to deconstruct the church's reliance on the medievally culturalized form of Christianity in order to release the faith to be contextualized [in their day]"(p.17).

While I didn't notice any particular discussion of wine and wineskins, Webber notes that the forms themselves are changing. He notes that the younger evangelicals are more likely to utilize liturgical elements than their predecessors. At the same time they reject tightly orchestrated programs in favor of “an encounter with God’s presence.” (p. 191)

But he is clear that these outward changes represent something much deeper. They are not merely window dressing for the modern church. These changes represent a "paradigm shift," and Webber quotes Vancouver pastoral mentor Dann Pantoja warning against any superficial changes for the sake of a "postmodern market."

"There's no such thing as a postmodern "strategy." God's actions don't fit with spreadsheet plans. Church planting in the postmodern world "could mean being a spritual community who actually experience the spiritual reality of God in our world. It could mean building up a spiritual community who would honestly testify of the brokenness and suffering of this world. It could mean building a serving community who would do ministries of justice and compassion as a testimony that God is present in this broken world." (p. 137)

What about the church's mission? Webber has highlighted the theme of embodiment, and the best apologetic is clearly the witness of a transformed life. "The church's mission is to show people what it looks like when a community of people live under the reign of God." (p. 133)

The "exilic" theme of Brueggemann's work appears clearly in Webber's thinking.

"This missional position of the church is best expressed in the image of "exile." The church, in its exilic condition, stands against the "secular salvation" of the world and calls attention to God's claim to reign over the world through its community (konionia), its service to the world (diakonia), and the message it proclaims to all cultures (kerygma)." (p. 133)

Similarly, in Chapter 1 of "Cadences of Home," Brueggemann writes, "I have elsewhere proposed that the Old Testament experience of exile is a helpful metaphor for understanding our current faith situation in the U.S... The exiled Jews were of course geographically displaced. More than that, however, the exiles experienced a loss of the structured, reliable world which gave them meaning and coherence, and they found themselves in a context where their most treasured and trusted symbols of faith were mocked, trivialized, or dismissed. Exile is not primarily geographical, but it is social, moral and cultural." (Cadences of Home, 1997, p.2)

For much of the past century the church was at home in the land; now our experience is more akin to that of exiles. We have lost a sense of "a structured and reliable world" with meaning and coherence. The current cultural shaking is both an opportunity and a crisis; the greatest risk is that many will simply ignore the warning signs and attempt to carry on with "business as usual."

One of the best features of "The Younger Evangelicals" is Webber's careful structuring of the content, and in particular his use of charts. Virtually every chapter incorporates a chart which shows a quick comparison of the essential values or characteristics of each of the three groups he compares and contrasts. For example, this chart contrasts apologetic style and theological commitment.

Traditional Evangelicals

Pragmatic Evangelicals

Younger Evangelicals

Theological Commitment

Christianity as a rational worldview

Christianity as therapy Answers needs

Christianity as a community of faith.

Apologetics Style

Evidential Foundational

Christianity as meaning-giver
Personal Faith

Embrace the metanarrative
Embodied apologetic
Communal faith

In the closing chapter Webber shares the challenge he experienced in finding a title for the closing chapter. He considered "A New Kind of Conservative for the Twenty-First Century," because of his conviction that the younger evangelicals are essentially conservative, believing the road to the future runs through the past.

A second consideration was "An Ancient-Future Church for the Twenty-First Century." This title would have captured the sense of bringing the past into the future.

Webber chose "A New Kind of Leadership for the Twenty-First Century," because of significant differences in orientation between the new leaders and the old.

"The new leadership is not shaped by being right, nor is it driven by meeting needs. Instead, it arises out of (1) a missiological understanding of the church, (2) theological reflection, (3) spiritual formation, and (4) cultural awareness."

Webber's work is a fine examination of a current revolution, a snapshot, as one writer put it, of "a moving train as it passes," or perhaps of a fire as it roars upward with the application of new fuel. Webber straddles the fence between a scholarly and a popular approach, his interest remains both practical and theoretical, and he captures the heart of a promising renewal and reformation.

Moreover, Webber's book carries a prophetic edge. It forms a wakeup call to the pragmatic churches. At the end of his life and ministry St. Francis said to his followers, "As yet we have done nothing. Let us begin again." There is much to be done, and it is time to start again.

I highly recommend this book to all who have interest.

Review by Leonard Hjalmarson, Kelowna, BC NextReformation

Questions for reflection:

1) What do you think of Webber's taxomony of the evangelical stream? Is is too broad? Is it too narrow? Is it helpful?

2) Webber seems to say that the pragmatists are culturally captive whereas the younger Evangelicals are not. Is this an accurate picture? An exaggeration? What are the cultural dangers for the younger Evangelicals?

3) Webber suggests that the way forward involves looking back. But how do we do this? Much of church history is reinterpreted to fit a certain dogma (Calvinism for example) while others resort to a pick and choose method among the Patristic writers (accepting certain features while rejecting others that fit into their preexisting schemas). How do we really move beyond our own biases and comfortable frameworks?

4) Start up churches seem like a good thing. But is it possible that the emergent church may miss the fuller picture of God's work within even the institutional churches? How do we acknowledge that we stand within a certain heritage, Evangelical or otherwise? Is there any true path to beginning afresh?

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• © 2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on September 9, 2005