Is evangelical Christianity in trouble? It all depends on where you look.
It is easy to criticize American evangelicalism today. The born-again Christian community, like the rest of the country, is divided over politics, COVID-19 protocols, vaccine mandates, critical race theory, gender roles in the church, and the proper approach to balancing the dignity of LGBTQ Americans with religious liberty. Much of the battle for the soul of evangelical institutions—congregations, denominations, schools, and parachurch organizations—is waged on social media sites that barely existed a decade ago. Sometimes I wonder if Jesus himself would recognize his church in its current state.
But Advent is not a time for criticism. It is a time for hope. This is the season when Christians wait with anticipation for the incarnation—Emmanuel, God with us. And Christmas always points us toward Easter and the initiation of the kingdom of God through the death and resurrection of the King of Angels. O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
To the outside observer, the phrase “initiation of the kingdom of God” sounds ominous. Indeed, some evangelicals, intent upon restoring the United States to something akin to Old Testament Israel, exploit the historic Christian understanding of this coming kingdom in service of the pursuit of political power. But the kingdom of God has nothing to do with the kingdoms of this earth. It is rather an alternative political community that calls its citizens to speak truth to power and live by a radical ethic that rarely conforms to our rights-based culture. Though we live in a broken world, we get occasional glimpses of the fullness of this kingdom whenever we see acts of compassion, love, justice, reconciliation, and mercy. When we do creative work that is good, beautiful, and based on truth we are, in some small way, contributing to this kingdom. Advent is the time when we long for its coming: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Present-day evangelicalism may not appear very kingdom-oriented right now, but if we look hard enough, and turn our eyes away from the darkness of deconstruction and into the light emanating from the celestial city, the work of the kingdom comes into view.
While the press and Twittersphere rip evangelicals for their hypocrisy (and oftentimes rightly so), evangelical leaders continue to provide a taste of what the kingdom will one day be like. Pastor-theologian Tim Keller is using his Twitter feed and other writings to teach us how to face death with humility and hope. Evangelical activist Shane Claiborne is hammering assault weapons into children’s toys and exercising his pro-life convictions in the fight against capital punishment.The Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, the Evangelical Immigrant Table, and the National Association of Evangelicals are advocating for Dreamers and refugees. Recently retired National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins reminds us that science and medicine are gifts from God. Texas A&M professor Katherine Hayhoe and the Evangelical Environmental Network are urging us to care for the earth, this sin-cursed place that God will one day make new. Vince Bacote, Esau McCaulley, Beth Allison Barr, and Beth Moore are working courageously for a more just Christianity that includes the voices of all God’s people. Relief ministries such as Samaritan’s Purse are serving those suffering in the wake of the Kentucky tornados. Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren is testifying to the power of the Gospel on the pages of The New York Times, while Fuller Seminary is rightly celebrating the life of Christian intellectual Richard Mouw. Evangelical congressman Adam Kinzinger is speaking truth to power.
Local churches continue to inspire hope. Christians are giving money and support to sustain evangelical ministries during COVID-19. Congregations are settling Afghan refugees, opening vaccine clinics, pursuing racial reconciliation in the most unlikely of places, and providing food, coats, employment, bicycles, and school supplies to those in need. Some pastors are praying for more baptisms, while others are riding bikes on the Mexican border to bring attention to strangers in need of welcome.
My hope for the future of evangelical Christianity is sustained by the young men and women I encounter every day in my work as a college professor. This semester the Messiah University history community says goodbye to Annie, a woman committed to teaching social studies in underprivileged areas. Chloe is writing her senior thesis and preparing for a life of worshipping God with her mind through the study of early American history. Nick stopped by my office the other day to talk about how the theologian N.T. Wright is restoring his faith in the resurrection of Jesus. Dylan is trying to find the best way to think Christianly about critical race theory as he begins student teaching next semester. A first-year student recently wrote on an exam that the study of history is teaching her how to “live as a responsible, respectful, and empathetic Christian citizen in a broken world.” One of her classmates wrote that the study of the past is teaching her about the importance of “humble-mindedness” in her “encounters with God’s world and with God’s people.” And all the Messiah history majors, after a tough year of enduring COVID-19 protocols and losing their academic home on campus, restored a history department tradition by Christmas caroling at the homes of their professors.
Good things are happening. The kingdom of God is on the move. Evangelical Christianity is going through a rough patch right now, but it is also thriving. It all depends on where you look.
John Fea is Executive Editor of Current