Post Evangelical

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The Post-Evangelical actually resulted from a chance conversation during the summer of 1993. I was at the Greenbelt Christian arts festival, leading a series of seminars. Late one evening a few of us were winding down, chewing over the day’s events when one of my friends made a passing reference to “we post-evangelicals,” quickly followed by, “whatever that means.”

The conversation moved on and eventually we went to bed. But the question rattled around in my brain: What is a post-evangelical? I suspect the term had entered our consciousness surreptitiously a couple of years earlier, but no one had ever got around to elucidating what it meant. The next day I awoke, determined to have a go. The Post-Evangelical, was published in the UK two years later, just in time for the 1995 Greenbelt Festival.

The decision to release the book in time for Greenbelt was deliberate. The festival is a key gathering point for Christians with the kinds of questions that are often difficult to ask in churches. If the book had an audience, Greenbelt would be as good a place as any to find it. Halfway through the weekend, stocks of the book were completely sold out, and the bookshop manager reported it to be the fastest-selling book in his seven years at the festival. Meanwhile, a thousand or so people packed my seminar tent, with many more outside. The Church Times printed a photograph of the overflow crowd peering into the marquee, with the caption: “Outside the fold, but still looking in.”

Needless to say, the book had its detractors, even at Greenbelt – I’d have been disappointed if it hadn’t! Throughout the weekend a dedicated group of hecklers stalked me, determined to shout down my “heresies.” But these were a minority, and the reception to the book was overwhelmingly positive from the Greenbelt audience.

The book is, in fact, a pastoral essay directed at people who struggle with the restrictions in evangelical theology, spirituality, and church culture—yet who still want to journey with the Christian faith.

The post-evangelical impulse does not necessarily imply a move away from Christian orthodoxy or evangelical faith – though it does for some. Rather it demonstrates that in order to remain true to a tradition, we must come to terms with its changing cultural context so that an authentic expression of that tradition can be found – “you have to change to stay the same”, as Maggi Dawn puts it in The Post-Evangelical Debate. Yet experiencing change can be uncomfortable and confusing. Maggi suggests that post-evangelicals may sometimes share the experience of Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “How can I know what I mean until I hear what I say?” The Post-Evangelical was an attempt to articulate the experience, thoughts, and feelings of post-evangelicals, as well as to help them understand, refine, and critique their experiences.

In the months that followed the books publication, virtually every Christian magazine and newspaper in Britain reviewed it, with responses differing sharply. Nick Mercer, former assistant principal of London Bible College, wrote: “This is a long overdue book which springs out of a growing concern many of us have within evangelicalism—about the large numbers of nomadic ex-evangelicals, about the cultural and theological constraints that seem to be part and parcel of British evangelicalism, about the relief many voice when you dare to express doubt and agnosticism in public meetings, about brain-dead emotionalism.”

Alister McGrath, a leading evangelical theologian, on the other hand, branded the book as “one of the most superficial and inadequate treatments of the contemporary state of evangelicalism” he had read. My greatest disappointment with Alister’s response was that he failed to engage with anything I actually wrote. Along with certain other evangelical leaders, he simply dismissed the arguments out of hand, giving the impression that this thing needed stamping out before it took hold.

But the vast majority of reviewers—even those who disagreed with my conclusions—acknowledged that the book highlighted problems within British evangelicalism. Many recognised the post-evangelical impulse within churches. One conservative writer went so far as to admit: “The weaknesses Tomlinson identifies in evangelicalism are genuine, and there is a potentially large constituency of Evangelicals who, without reading his book, may nevertheless soon seize on its title to describe their own position.”

I think he was right: nine months after the publication of the book, Third Way, an evangelical magazine, announced that, in a survey, 24 percent of their readers now identified themselves as “post-evangelical”. Today, several years later, many people customarily refer to themselves as “post-evangelical,” regardless of whether or not they have read the book, or even heard of it.

Yet for me, the most satisfying indicator that the message had struck a chord lay in the hundreds of letters and e-mails I received—and continue to receive. They revealed that the receptive audience was far broader than originally anticipated. I wrote the book for disaffected evangelicals in their twenties or early thirties (Generation Xers), whose general outlook and attitudes were significantly influenced by postmodern culture. Yet much of the correspondence came from older and more culturally conservative people. Even though they probably looked like “satisfied customers” in their churches, they also clearly harboured a raft of doubts and questions.

After a short time I could predict what most letters would say before opening them. The overwhelming reaction was one of relief:
“At last someone has said it.”
“Thank God I’m not alone.”
“I’ve thought some of these things for years, but I didn’t dare say.”
“Great relief and a regaining of confidence have followed the reading of your book. So I’m not mad after all.”

The letters told stories about the struggles people experienced trying to make sense of their faith in churches where their questions were far from welcome. Some talked about intellectual tussles with doctrines they couldn’t swallow, others of longings for a deeper spirituality. Some were frustrated at the lack of social and political engagement in their churches, others cringed at self-righteous moralizing. Most found the evangelical subculture insular, self-congratulatory, and often, embarrassing.

Many of the letters I received also voiced exasperation at the sense of certainty and hype experienced in some evangelical churches, where they found it particularly hard to express disquiet or to question prevailing attitudes. In my opinion the fundamentalist tone in much charismatic theology fuels this post-evangelical impulse. A colourful letter from a university professor powerfully sums up what many people feel:

A year ago I was in a state of rage bordering on church burning. I felt like Winston having escaped from Big Brother or the savage in Brave New World, and wanted revenge for all those mind-fucking sermons, miserable-worm guilt feelings, and the ludicrous new-speak that had been my life for twenty years. There was no church I could go into without having a severe reaction and either walking out or putting my fingers in my ears and going ‘la la la la’ – which my wife found embarrassing and looked like demonization to those who are so wise about these things…A copy of your book and a visit to Greenbelt were the first indications that I was not entirely alone. I am now completely free from that stifling kind of religion that slowly strangles the life out of you and from the susceptibility to completely flee reality. My spirituality is now my own, not an undigested mixture introjected from a thousand grim sermons and silly books. I can get in touch with the strength of it, deep inside. I can read the words of Jesus, but their meaning has now changed like rain into snowflakes. My mind is now open and not tight shut, and I feel an almost primitive sense of freedom and energy.

Of course, not all evangelical churches are the same. Some are much more open-minded than others. Yet the widespread nature of the post-evangelical impulse suggests that it is much more than just a reaction against extreme fundamentalism. My travels around the world have also convinced me that this is not just a British phenomenon, as some have suggested. Wherever there are evangelicals (in the Western world, at least), there are post-evangelicals, whether or not they assume the label.

But we can go further. Conversation with people in other church traditions convince me that a similar impulse exists in other parts of the church, too. Indeed, people have told me that even though their faith journeys differ from those in the evangelical camp, they find themselves travelling the same road, perhaps as “post-Catholics” or “post-liberals,” for example. This is not surprising, if my understanding is true: that the shift among evangelicals is linked to the wider cultural shift in Western societies.

The notion that our broader cultural context shapes how evangelicals and all other Christians “do” church is dismissed by many evangelicals, who believe that the message of Christ must be, and can be, protected from cultural entanglements.

But I am advocating critical engagement with the wider culture, not unthinking absorption into it. Since his death and resurrection, the meaning of Jesus Christ for his followers has been illuminated by many different cultural and philosophical perspectives—including, most recently, the methods and insights of modernity. Christians must engage contemporary culture if they wish to know how to make the good news of Jesus relevant to people in that culture. By engaging critically, Christians will also identify those elements in postmodern culture, such as unbridled consumerism, and hedonistic individualism that run counter to the claims of Christ.

The Post-Evangelical was always intended to be the beginning of a journey, not the end. While it appears on the reading lists of various college and university courses, it makes no claim to be an academic work or an alternative systematic theology. Much more work is needed to develop post-evangelical themes, and I am pleased by the number of research projects my book has provoked. More importantly, as I have already stressed, the book comes from a pastoral concern. I wanted it to empower ordinary people to think for themselves rather than be boxed into some pre-packed version of Christianity.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Louise Deane June 1, 2011 at 8:50 pm

Was given your book by my Sister-in-Law yesterday. Cant believe what I am reading. Its talks about everything I have been feeling of late. I became a christain after a Alpha course in 2000 – but have spent 10 years in a conservative evangelical middle class Anglican church and just dont feel I belong there any more (if I ever did). Have not been to church for over a year – but still feel like a committed christain. I live in Bristol – and have thought about worshipping with the Quakers – but not even sure if this is right for me. Do you know of any Churches in the Bristol area that would welcome me – a failed evangelical christian – with all my hang-ups – questions and doubts.

Thank you for writing this book – it has helped me so much – to not feel that I am the only one feeling like this.

Louise Deane

Mark June 10, 2011 at 3:20 pm

Just finished reading this book.

Coming from an Evangelical upbringing in middle-America and moving the UK to study theology, this book has been the most refreshing, and honestly, the only comfort I have found over the last three years in the development of my personal faith in regards to church. I want to thank you for this progressive, insightful and encouraging book.

-Mark.

Noel Richards August 3, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Hi Dave,
Just writing to say hi. It has been a long time since we shared a stage at Spring Harvest together. A lot of water under the bridge.

Some friends wrote to say that they had been to the church where you are in London and found it really helpful. I remembered that you were seen as some kind of outcast back the late nineties. But I realise now that you were probably asking the questions that needed to be asked.

I think that Tricia and I are on a similar pilgrimage as you, after all these years. We now live in Palma, Spain and it is really interesting when you step out of the “evangelical” bubble and start asking the Lord how you really should live as a follower of Christ.

We are still writing, recording and singing.

Hope you are well,

Noel

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