The Evangelical Christian movement that was committed to spreading the gospel no longer exists in America. Rather, it has morphed into a demographic subset with certain belief and behavior patterns that, day in and day out, have very little to do with any historical conception of what it meant to be an evangelical – even if some exceptions still "evangelise."
Evangelicalism generally exists today in order to preserve itself and its institutions or to advance the agendas of people who happen to be committed to preserving evangelicalism and its institutions. A movement that began with preachers standing on boxes in the fields and riding from one town to another to preach the gospel has now fragmented, and evangelical leaders have adopted the agendas of politicians and theologians as their own personal preservation projects. This is a far cry from the historical roots of evangelicalism in the 1700s and its resurgence in the 1950s.
Evangelical Christianity saw some of its most significant growth under the preaching and vision of John Wesley and George Whitfield, who traveled far and wide preaching the gospel. In his book, How To Pray: The Best of John Wesley on Prayer, Wesley shared:
"I continue to dream and pray about a revival of holiness in our day that moves forth in mission and creates authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God's creational intentions."
Note how Wesley says nothing about "godly leaders" or "moral values."
Modern day evangelicals still look back to the ministry of evangelist Billy Graham as the gold standard for what it means to be an "evangelical." Graham shared his heart in an interview:
"I want to tell people about the meaning of the cross. Not the cross that hangs on the wall or around someone's neck, but the real cross of Christ... With all my heart I want to leave you with the truth, that he loves you, and is willing to forgive you of all your sins."
It's worth noting that Billy Graham deeply regretted the times he got involved in politics, especially with Richard Nixon.
While these statements from evangelists who defined the evangelical movement capture the heart of evangelicalism, theologian Roger Olson gives us a more concrete picture of what evangelical Christianity is:
"Historically, theologically, and spiritually it is a trans-denominational movement of mostly Protestant Christians who share belief in the necessity of a personal decision for Christ for authentic Christianity. It is a movement that emphasises the Bible as supernaturally and uniquely inspired and authoritative for faith and practice. It is a movement that believes salvation comes only through Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection. It is a movement that practices evangelism and social transformation in a variety of ways. Finally, it is a movement that values traditional basic Christian beliefs."
Evangelicalism started and thrived as a movement that shared the message of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to save us from the power of sin and death and addressed social needs such as ending the slave trade, opening orphanages and schools, and providing hospitals where there were none. Today, evangelicalism has fragmented into a political voting block rather than a movement for sharing the gospel. Several key factors are driving the dissolution of evangelicalism in America:
Using evangelical platforms for political ends
It's no secret that Republican candidates see Liberty University, a school that at least has evangelical roots (I'm not sure how evangelical it is any more), as a key platform for launching their campaigns and speaking to voters. While there is something to be said for inviting leading public figures to engage in debates and discourse in a university setting, we have to admit that Liberty has become more of a campaign platform that political leaders can use to spread their own messages rather than a platform for preaching the gospel.
If you want to destroy evangelicalism, keep using evangelical platforms to spread the messages of politicians. Politicians will keep coming to us because they understand the influence of evangelicals better than we do.
Evangelical leaders aligning themselves with political leaders
Evangelicals have long abandoned a prophetic role in society where they remain neutral in the midst of political debates. Whether it's Jerry Falwell Jr. openly endorsing Donald Trump or Rick Warren giving a "Wink, Wink" endorsement of Marco Rubio by joining an advisory committee, evangelicals are using their personal influence for the sake of presidential hopefuls rather than the gospel. This diverts their attention and waters down their potency as messengers of the gospel as their politics create yet another wedge between themselves and those listening to their preaching.
Unlike Paul, who viewed himself as a soldier for Christ who was duty bound to avoid any distractions or secondary causes, evangelicals tangled up in politics continue to divert attention away from the cause of Christ. Mind you, the Bible does not prohibit Christian leaders from engaging in voting and civic activities according to their convictions. But it's the misuse of their power for a cause other than Christ, and even the potential confusion of a political cause with the cause of Christ, that's the issue.
Using the gospel to save America rather than using America to preach the gospel
Our religious freedom gives us tremendous opportunities to speak boldly and openly about the new life found in Jesus. We are free to serve and love others in the public sphere because of our faith.
However, many American evangelicals have turned this around and used the gospel as a tool to save America from God's judgment. Rather than using America's freedom to advance the gospel, they are putting America first by employing the gospel as a cultural modification tool. While culture warriors would point us to the stories of the Kings of Israel and Judah as justification, there is no evidence in the Gospels, book of Acts, or epistles that Christians came remotely close to this misuse of the gospel message.
Defending boundaries and cultural gains at the expense of the gospel
If I asked you to list some of the most influential or at least quotable American evangelical leaders today, how many of them would be known for preaching the gospel? How many would be known as culture warriors or combatants for a particular strain of biblical interpretation?
Would you guess that American evangelicals today are driven by Jesus telling his followers to go out into all of the world to make disciples? It's more likely that you'll see evangelicals fighting each other over interpretive issues, trying to cast out would-be heretics, and attempting to enforce the moral biblical teachings as secular law.
For many, the command of Jesus to go and make disciples has been replaced by a new mandate to stay and defend a narrow definition of orthodox Christianity, essentially "un-discipling" anyone who can't check off every box on our theological score cards.
Can evangelicalism be saved?
Saving evangelicalism is what led us into this mess in the first place.
Evangelicalism arose because of a burning desire to be transformed by the saving love of God and the message of the cross and resurrection. Until we rediscover the power of that experience and allow it to drive us to share it far and wide, we'll never see anything that resembles the early days of the evangelical Christian movement in America.
Ed Cyzewski (MDiv) writes at www.edcyzewski.com. He is the author of A Christian Survival Guide and Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together.