The future of evangelical Christianity

With doom and gloom being predicted on all sides for the future of mainstream Christianity, what sort of future should evangelicals look forward to? Phillip Jensen looks into the Bible and into the future for some answers.

My mother had a few favourite verses from the Bible that she used with great effect to irritate her children. For example, whenever we asked about something that was going to happen in the future, she would quote Amos 7:14—“I am not a prophet nor a prophet’s son”.

In the lead up to this address, I wrote to many of you to say that I planned to make a “significant statement about the state of Australian Christianity and the future of evangelicalism”.

It was a little distressing to see that this fairly ambitious and probably unwise suggestion of several months ago was recently advertised on a Christian website as follows:

JENSEN TO SPEAK OUT: On Saturday July 8, leading Sydney evangelical, the Rev. Phillip Jensen, will deliver a stinging attack on the state of Anglicanism worldwide … according to publicity material for the 25th anniversary of the UNSW campus ministry’s Mid Year Conference. Watch this space for details.

I do not blame the website for this, as rumours have spread wildly, but as far as I know nowhere have we promised “a stinging attack on the state of Anglicanism worldwide”—not that it would be hard to deliver.

However, the topic that I was thinking of talking about was the state of where we are at the moment in Australian Christianity and what the future holds for evangelicals. Let me firstly make a few observations about the current state of Christianity in Australia, before discussing the future for evangelicals.

1. Australian Christianity

a. Some comments about Australian society

Christianity is still the mainstream religion of Australia, despite the repeated declarations of media commentators to the contrary. Indeed, it is a little tiring to be continually reminded by the newspapers that church attendance has been declining since the 1950s, especially when they never mention the parallel drop in newspaper circulation over the same period, or that in the 1950s, Sydney had two evening newspapers, neither of which exist now.

The world has changed since the 1950s—the increase in motor transport, the arrival of TV, the ease of air travel, the refrigerator, the washing machine, the supermarket. It is a different world.

Back then, evangelicals knew that most church-going was nominal rather than real. Indeed, that is why we were always evangelizing within mainstream churches. The changing social structure has revealed just how brittle that nominal Christianity was. Not surprisingly, those churches whose attendance was most nominal or cultural—notably the theologically liberal and catholic—have had the largest decline.

The individualism of modern society works against church-going. There is a direct correlation between women entering the workforce and the drop in women attending church. But it is not just church. The political parties have suffered an enormous decline in membership, as have the Scouts and Guides, school P & Cs, and a host of similar organizations. The nature of voluntary ‘club joining’ has been radically altered.

Thus, in census after census, Australia declares itself overwhelmingly to be Christian. And yet in joining and attending church, Australia declares itself to be irreligious. The church that Australians don’t go to is a Christian church, and the God they believe in but largely ignore from day to day is the Christian God.

We must not let the secularists determine public policy as if people’s beliefs and lives were as pagan as theirs. The vast majority of Australians believe in God, and the God they believe in is the God of the Bible.

Moreover, it is becoming apparent that the Christian lifestyle so rubbished and decried by our secularist intelligentsia has much to commend it. More and more evidence (from places like Duke University) is showing that those who attend church regularly live longer, are healthier, enjoy life more, have happier personal relationships, better marriages, better sex lives, and so on.

This is matched by the worldwide findings that the sexual revolution has been an unmitigated failure in producing happier families, happier people or even happier sexual relationships. The cost to our society has been measured by our own federal government in terms of billions of dollars (in the recent ‘To Have and To Hold’ Report; for a review, see kategoria #11).

b. Some comments about the mainstream churches

The growth in number of real members of the Kingdom of God—those who have been born again by the Spirit of God—is very hard to calculate with any accuracy. Indeed, there seems little point trying to work out precisely what proportion of the population they might represent. Whatever the exact number, it is a very small minority. The task before us is to rethink our strategy for reaching Australia with the gospel.

However, one of our first problems is that despite the wholesale exit of the ‘nominals’ over the past 40 years, the residual structures of mainstream, institutional Christianity remain. Support for these structures is mixed. Those, for example, born after the Second World War find very little interest in maintaining any denominational loyalty. It is hard for an older generation to understand this.

Most of the denominations are an expression of European—especially British—Christianity and life. For those born in the Empire, these denominations made sense of their families, their own heritage and their place within society. The Melbourne-based sociologist, Professor Gary Bouma, demonstrated some years ago that social class and voting habits could be correlated to denominational affiliation—not just the Irish Catholics voting Labor, but Salvos, Methodists and Baptists also tending to vote Labor from their more working class background. Add to this the ethnic derivation of some of our denominations—English, Scottish, Greek, Irish, Welsh—and we can understand why an earlier generation, closer to their European roots and culture, would think and act with denominational loyalty.

However post-Gough Whitlam and the 1972 election, the baby boomers, and even more so their children, do not think of themselves as misplaced Europeans, but as Australians. Add to that the migration of peoples from all over the world, and the majority of young Australians are not going to identify with a strictly European expression of religion.

As the only going concern in religion are the mainstream churches, and as they are expressions of yesterday’s European culture and yesterday’s village and suburban community social organization, it is little wonder that ‘no religion’ is the growing census choice of the young. Unfortunately ‘no religion’ has no nominal members; they all practise.

This makes it fairly imperative that we take whatever action is necessary to reach the next generation with the saving news of Jesus. But will the mainstream denominations be able to reform themselves to take up this challenge? Can they break free from their cultural morés and methods of operation to preach the gospel in ways that reflect something of the new reality? Can the denominations ever become as post-denominational as their younger members are?

I must confess to not a little skepticism of this possibility.

You see, the denominations still have many old people who deserve to receive continued Christian ministry in their own cultural forms. These people are growing fewer in number, and increasingly frail, but they need our help and service, not our revolution.

Furthermore, there are still a sufficient number of loyalists of a young enough age to continue to maintain the old traditions in the churches for many years to come. The mainstream denominations also own enough real estate to enable them to sell off the farm for about a century without having to face serious alteration to their ways of operating.

However, there is hope if the denominations will rediscover their roots. If they would turn back to the Bible, a whole new reformation may commence. Indeed, if they would even turn back to their more recent historical roots in Calvin, Wesley, Cranmer, and General Booth, or to some of the great Baptist heroes like Bunyan or Spurgeon, there would be hope for change. For there, in their own traditions, are the evangelical precepts that would lift them out of their now outmoded cultural straitjackets, and allow spiritual reformation to take place.

But still I am not hopeful, for most chief executive officers know that any system that elects them to be at the top must be a good system in fine working order. It may need minor tinkering at the most, but no major overhaul or, in this case, spiritual reformation.

No, I think we can only expect from denominational leadership pathetic pleas for institutional loyalty, unity and harmony. It is bad enough that the boat is sinking; we must not rock it as well. Their hope for the future will lie in their ever-diminishing mainstream place in society, and so they will try to evangelize by being as inclusive as possible and as respectable and domesticated to the growing pagan culture as possible. Money will be spent on public relations and on social welfare programs, in order to justify their place in public opinion and acceptability.

With this fairly bleak picture of mainstream institutional Christianity, let me turn next to what the future might hold for evangelicalism.

2. Evangelicalism and its future

a. What do we mean by the term ‘evangelical’?

Some use the term ‘evangelical’ sociologically, historically, or experientially. However, the only way an evangelical could define the word ‘evangelical’ is theologically, though not theologically alone.

Now what does all that mean?

Many use it sociologically. That is, a group of people who call themselves evangelical is identified and then described. What they have in common is used to construct a definition of what it means to be an evangelical. The end result is a horse built by a committee. Sometimes you hear this sociological approach on the lips of church leaders who still call themselves evangelical because they at one time were amongst the evangelical group. However, you know that they are not, and never were, genuine evangelicals when they start talking this way. When you hear people speak of their ‘evangelical roots’ or ‘heritage’, they are indicating that, for them, ‘evangelical’ describes a group to which they once enjoyed belonging, not a theology or set of beliefs.

It is in part this sociological definition which has lead to the plethora of adjectives—such as ‘liberal evangelical’, ‘open evangelical’, ‘traditional evangelical’, and ‘conservative evangelical’—that are now common around the world.

The historical definition is a form of the sociological definition, except that it looks to a particular sociologicalgroup in history as the definers of genuine evangelicalism, such as the evangelical revival of Whitefield and Wesley, or the founders of the evangelical unions in the universities.

However, evangelicals are ‘gospel’ people—that is what the word is all about. For some today, that means that evangelicalism is defined by warm-hearted people who have had an experience of God. Today, it seems that anyone who sings with gusto, prays with fervency, and talks the God-talk is an ‘evangelical’.

But the gospel is not merely an experience or a sense of fervency. The gospel is theological in nature. It is the declaration of the lordship of Jesus Christ; that by his atoning death he has risen to sit at the right hand of God in all power and authority; and that from there he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

However, being an evangelical is more than theologically defined. For if the gospel is the word of God to us about his Son, evangelicals are those who respond appropriately to the word of God, repenting by the regenerating power of the Spirit and trusting the word of God.

It is little wonder that evangelicals are generally noted as being Bible people, for the Bible is the word of God.

b. If that is what is meant by being an evangelical, what is their future?

The Book of Revelation makes it clear that at the Last Day, when all will be seen, there will be more people gathered around the throne of Christ and God than we will be able to number. And they will come from every tribe and language and nation and people. They will have in common what every evangelical has in common: their robes will be washed in the blood of the lamb.

So there is no anxiety about the future of evangelicalism. Evangelicalism may not be in the package or the institutions we are used to inhabiting, but God knows his people and will protect them and bring them to the Last Day.

How will evangelicals best survive here in Australia? The same way evangelicals have always survived: by the mercy of God.

What, then, should we do as evangelicals to survive in Australia?

We should pray. We should plead with God not to judge this nation and remove the gospel from it, for he is quite capable of doing so.

Is there nothing more we can do? There is nothing more worthwhile, but there are other things we can do. As long as we are here, we should seek to honour Christ in our holiness of life, and to further his name by the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of others.

How are we to do that? Urgently and inconveniently, both to ourselves and to our hearers—for if Timothy is to be our model we are to preach in season and out of season. We have certainly come to those evil times Paul speaks about when people have chosen teachers to teach the things that their itching ears want to hear. Little wonder, then, that we are persecuted, for all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Our message is the pungent odour of death for those who are perishing.

Therefore our future is to get on doing what we have always been doing—praying, living in holiness, growing more like Jesus and so laying down our lives for other peoples’ welfare, and in particular their salvation, by the proclamation of the gospel to all, that Jesus may be praised in our lives, in our message and in the salvation of yet more people.

c. What is the future of evangelicals in Australia and with the mainstream institutional churches?

As my mother used to say: “I am not a prophet nor a prophet’s son”.

However, Amos was a prophet, and since the day of Pentecost all God’s people do prophesy. Let me, then, make some observations—although I would not give them the status of prophecy, and I do not want to be stoned if any of them fail to come to pass!

I should not joke about prophecy, because really it is at the heart of the matter. You see, from the day of Pentecost Christians do all prophesy—for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy (Rev 19:10). As we proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus, as we declare the coming judgement that our Lord Jesus will bring, we speak the true words of God, and so we are the true prophets of God.

Now, who gives prophets the authority to speak? It is not the government, nor the lawyers, nor the religious officials. When they stupidly asked Jesus who gave him the authority to do these things, Jesus replied with the dumbfounding question: “John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or from men? Tell me!” They discussed it among themselves and realized that they were in trouble no matter what they answered, so they simply said “We don’t know”. And so Jesus refused to tell them by what authority he was acting.

Friends, if I am right, the denominational churches that hold onto the mythology of their evangelical roots will never truly reform themselves by these evangelical roots, because of their commitment to their own institutional culture. Evangelicals will not be excluded from them, and may work with varying degrees of comfort within them, but these mainstream denominations will not be the way that we will preach Christ to this nation in this generation. Nor will the denominations be open to our desires or attempts to reform them.

Prophets do not wait for permission to speak. They do not wait till people want to hear what they have to say. They do not wait to be authorized by any apart from the God who commissions them. Our task is to call the nation to repent. If the heretics and false teachers of denominational churches will not listen, we should not spend too much time before dusting off our shoes and moving on to preach to those who have had less opportunity to hear the great message of salvation. If that means being like Paul and setting up church next door to the synagogue or in the hall of Tyrannus, so be it.

Am I saying that we should leave the denominations? No, of course not. Why should we leave because in some places unbelievers have taken temporary possession of the property that was left by our forefathers for the preaching of the gospel? No, let them leave—but I have never yet seen a good reason to leave.

Am I saying that we should split the church and move into schism? No, of course not. That is just the scaremongering of those who are afraid of being found out for possessing the form of godliness while denying its power.

Am I suggesting that we do not work in fellowship with others who love the Lord Jesus and wish to preach the gospel also? No, of course not. This is another fear tactic from people who are feeling their own kingdom being threatened. They should be rejoicing that more people are coming into Christ’s kingdom.

I am suggesting that the future of evangelicalism in relation to the denominational churches lies in direct evangelistic church planting. It may happen inside or outside the denominations. We need just to get on with it, wherever the gospel is welcome.

The future of evangelicalism lies in brave hearts who will take action and not be constrained by the traditions of men—the lines that men have drawn on the ground, the rules that men have made about who conducts church how, when, where, and by whose authority.

Am I suggesting that we should be ecclesiastical law-breakers? Certainly not—no more than the Lord Jesus was in his day. We have to get his perspective of seeing the difference between gnats and camels. He was constantly being attacked by religious people on the high moral ground of their keeping the law, while he was supposedly breaking it. But he was concerned for the salvation of people, not the preservation of man-made laws which, in the name of God, undermined the very work of God.

I think we can see that God has blessed the ministry surrounding MYC in many ways. There have been an extraordinary number of effects, and great progress in many areas—witness the growth and effectiveness of Matthias Media, the Ministry Training Strategy, the missionaries and ministers (both lay and professional) who have gone out, and so on. There are lots of great things happening, and not only in our network. Evangelical organizations like AFES are going from strength to strength. In ethnic ministry, in church planting, in new initiatives in evangelism—there are good signs everywhere. In that sense, the future of evangelical Christianity in Australia looks strong.

However, our future in the most important sense is to keep doing what God has called us to do—to pray, to be holy, to preach faithfully. In unity with all those who love our Lord for his death for us, and want to proclaim him as the risen Lord, let us get on with the task. Let us proclaim him, the One before whom all Australia should bow.

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