“All labels have their problems, and, to be sure, ‘evangelical’ is fraught with them. But I am not giving it up.”
~ Roger Olson
Millennials & The Church: A Different Take
As I pointed out in numerous times on this blog, the center of evangelicalism is collapsing.
Countless evangelical Christians are moving to the left or to the right. Namely, they are moving toward liberalism or they are moving toward high church or low church traditions. They are moving toward individualism or communitarianism.
In this post, we will briefly survey the four major streams within evangelicalism with an eye to Christians in their 20s, 30s, and 40s – often called Mosaics and Busters or Generation X and Generation Y or Millennials.
My analysis is based on what I’ve observed in my extensive travels worldwide, speaking in a variety of conferences represented by the different streams (wherein I’ve interacted with the other speakers and attendees), and corresponding with thousands of evangelical Christians in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.
Like anything else, there are always exceptions, overlaps, and sub-groups that don’t fit neatly into these four evangelical streams. So don’t regard this survey as an exact science.
Yet based on my observation and experience, what follows are the four largest and most influential streams within evangelical Christianity today that are populated mostly by people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. The characteristics I’ve outlined below represent the tendencies of most of the people within each stream.
Note that the labels I’m using are simply handles I created to communicate intelligibly about the subject. They are necessary for distinguishing each stream from one another. However, they do not represent any denomination or formal tribe. And they shouldn’t be used to denominate any particular individual.
The four streams are . . .
Stream 1: The Systematizers
* political: tend to be on the right.
* appeal: drawn to propositional truths; seek strong discipline and order in their daily lives.
* search: in quest for theological certainty. Systematizing truth in both thought and life attracts them.
* identification: populates much of the “New Reformed/Calvinist” movement. There is a great deal of theological uniformity within this stream.
* reach: very large online presence; above average on-the-ground presence.
Stream 2: The Activists
*political: tend to be on the left.
*appeal: drawn to causes.
*search: bettering people’s living conditions. Attracted to social causes like acts of mercy, social justice, helping the poor, caring for the environment, etc.
* identification: populates much of “the Emergent Church Conversation,” the “New Monasticism,” and a segment of “the Missional Church Movement.” There is a great deal of theological diversity within this stream.
*reach: above average on-line presence; above average on-the-ground presence.
Stream 3: The Emoters
* political: tend to be on the right.
* appeal: drawn to supernatural encounters.
* search: demonstrations of the miraculous; the healing of emotional wounds.
* identification: populates much of the contemporary “Charismatic Movement” in all of its forms. Strong emphasis on restoring the supernatural: signs, wonders, casting out of demons, healing, etc. and what God will do in the future in terms of revival and miracles. There is significant theological uniformity and diversity within this stream.
*reach: weak online presence; very large on-the-ground presence.
All three streams are part of mainstream Christianity. Consequently, each stream has been featured in the voices of establishment (popular) Christian magazines and e-zines.
Each stream holds conferences that receive wide publicity, being advertised in establishment Christianity magazines and e-zines.
Each stream can be viewed as emphasizing mind, will, and emotion respectively in their approach to God. (Systematizers emphasize the mind; Activists emphasize the will; Emoters emphasize the emotion.)
The fourth stream flies under the radar of establishment Christianity because it is not part of it. Yet it’s just as large as the other three streams.
Stream 4: Those Moving Beyond Evangelicalism
*politically: tend to be apolitical, believing that the local ekklesia (body of Christ) is the new polis and the kingdom of God is the true government. Beyond that, their political positions are enormously diverse.
*appeal: believe that there has to be something more to Christ and the church than what the first three streams present.
*search: discovering and displaying Jesus Christ in authentic, deep, and profound ways.
*identification: Most have come out of one of the other three streams. They belong to no particular movement, tribe, or denomination. And they do not belong to any single expression of church. Those who have moved beyond evangelicalism can be found in all church forms and structures.
They are not seeking a theological system (stream 1). Concepts and ideas don’t appeal to them. They are seeking spiritual reality. They view Scripture as fully inspired and true, but approach it as a narrative rather than a system of propositional ideas.
They are not seeking any specific cause (stream 2). Religious duty doesn’t appeal to them.
They view “good works” as being the natural outflow of living by Christ. They regard pursuing Jesus Christ and seeking causes that are related to Him as being two different things.
They are not seeking a supernatural experience (stream 3). They believe that the emotions (as well as the mind and will) can either reflect or hinder the work of the Spirit. One’s feelings are not synonymous with the Spirit’s leading. Miraculous demonstrations don’t appeal to them either, unless they supremely unveil and glorify Jesus Christ.
They are in pursuit of a Person above and beyond ideas (stream 1), activities (stream 2), or feelings (stream 3). They emphasize God’s work in and through the human heart, and believe that mind, will, and emotion are to be governed by the Holy Spirit.
Those who have moved beyond evangelicalism want to know Jesus Christ in reality and in the depths. They aren’t quietists, pietists, passive mystics, or gnostics. Outward activity is important, but it’s like fruit falling off a tree. It’s the natural result of living by the life of Jesus.
As previously stated, those who have moved beyond evangelicalism emphasize four key themes:
- The centrality and supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ.
- Living by the indwelling life of Christ.
- Experiencing church as a Christ-centered, shared-life community.
- Living for the eternal purpose of God.
Despite the fact that this fourth stream is largely ignored by mainstream Christianity at the present time, it is growing and becoming more visible.
The common link that ties all four streams together is this: Each group believes that classic evangelical Christianity is inadequate. It has failed to give robust answers to their most serious theological questions and depth to their deepest spiritual longings.
Looking for More?
This post is a full chapter from my book, Beyond Evangelical, which explores these themes in great depth.