Passing the Evangelical Torch that Illuminated a Path and Scorched the Earth

 Two generations of evangelical leaders are beginning to step aside for a younger group of thinkers, doers, and potential leaders. Evangelicalism has been led by a group of remarkable social entrepreneurs that built new churches and organizations and movements beginning in the 1950s by familiar figures such as Graham, Schaeffer, Henry, Ockenga, and Engstrom; and then by those that splashed across the front pages and airwaves from the 1970s to today–such as Falwell, Dobson, Colson, Robertson, and Bright. The giants are passing or getting long in the tooth, and tomorrow will belong to the often brash and confident young Christians who are somewhat anxious to carry the torch. 

 The evangelical torch that is being passed has illuminated a spiritual path for billions of people over the last 40 years. But that same flame has been wielded at times in a scorched earth policy that has left little good will for orthodox Christians, and insufficient cultural connections to the millions of people who still need to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. Today’s warriors are left with the good, the bad, and the ugly results of the bold engagement of their predecessors. 

 New generations rarely recognize the magnitude of the accomplishments of those who precede them. Today’s norms seem, well, normal, although they have often been achieved at a heavy price over many years:  

  •  Certainly World Vision would not be the largest private provider of relief and development for the world’s poor if 1970’s president Stan Mooneyham hadn’t been a maverick neo-evangelical voice for the holistic gospel, even to the point of sacrificing his own health, marriage, and life.
  • Millions of quality, affordable homes would not havebeen built for the poor if Millard and Linda Fuller hadn’t dedicated their lives and fortune to that cause and launched massive Habitat for Humanity.
  • And yes, abortion rates certainly would have not dropped on their own in the last 40 years if it wasn’t for the unpopular actions of the leaders of the pro-life movement and millions of evangelical and Roman Catholic activists.

 Nonetheless, “we are seeing a head-snapping generational change,” contends Michael Gerson, who was a speech writer for both President George W. Bush and Chuck Colson. “The model of social engagement of the religious right is increasingly exhausted ” Gerson says. At the National Association of Evangelical’s 2010 convention, Gerson offered three reasons for the change: a recovery of scriptural emphasis, a revolt against the tone and style of the Religious Right, and the effects of short-term mission trips on young Christians. According to Gerson, young Americans return from short-term mission trips with a changed worldview. Their exposure to poverty, HIV/AIDS, and economic injustice make them concerned about these issues and want to improve the problems.

To fresh minds, many of the standards of the status quo seem just the intellectual stubbornness of tired leaders. The need for change is obvious; it is the route and rate of change that will test these emerging leaders. There will be many opportunities to navigate turbulent times and to determine the wise use of a powerful torch. 

Over the next two weeks I will examine what I believe are the 10 greatest opportunities for a new generation of evangelicals.

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About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group (www.valcort.com). Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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