This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series: ‘The Post-Evangelical’ (Tomlinson)
Chapter 2 of The Post-Evangelical, by Dave Tomlinson, is entitled, ‘We’ve Never Had it so Good!’
Here, the author asks why, if evangelicalism has experienced such a resurgence over the past 30 years, many people have become dissatisfied with it.
Tomlinson notes a very considerable transformation that took place in British evangelicalism between 1980 and 1990. This was due to a considerable extent to the ‘charismaticizing’ of mainstream evangelicalism. Whereas the charismatic movement in its early days in the last 1960s and early 1970s was seen by many as a threat to evangelicalism, the former has been assimilated by the latter to a remarkable extent, so that much of the energy of current evangelical activity derives from charismatic believes and practices. Even the earlier hostily between the house church movement (now known as the New Churches) and evangelicalism has given way to positive co-operation.
Clive Calver, who took over responsibility fot the Evangelical Alliance in 1983, is representative of a whole new breed of leaders: charismatically inclined, theological fairly conservative, socially and politically aware, and eager to promote evangelical values within society as well as evangelizing of individuals.
Large events such as Spring Harvest (started in 1979) and the March for Jesus (dating from 1987) have been important rallying-points for evangelicals in recent years, and indicate their new confidence and impact.
Whereas the older evangelicalism opposed the ‘social gospel’, a commitment to addressing social issues is seen in the Festival of Light (early 1970s), in the teaching and influence of John Stott, and in the work of the Evangelical Alliance and other groups.
There has been much expectation of revival in evangelical circles, with some seeing the ‘Toronto Blessing’ as answering this expectation, at least in part. The Dales Bible Weeks, the ministry of John Wimber, and other factors fuelled the general expectation that God was about to do something special.
After reviewing the resurgence of evangelicalism, Tomlinson asks why then many are looking for an alternative. He suggests that beneath its surface the new evangelicalism has the same weaknesses as the old: it clings to the old certainties and is not prepared to radically rethink its beliefs and practices. The early days of the charismatic movement were marked by unselfconscious ecumenism, but evangelicalism has gone back to defining and protecting its boundaries and building up walls of separation.
Drawing on the work of Gilles Kepel, Tomlinson suggests that the resurgence of evangelicalism may been seen in the light of a drastic cultural shift that took place around the mid-1970s. At that point, it became clear that scientific rationality could not solve the problems of the human condition and there developed a longing for a more spiritual solution. This shift surfaces in religious communities in two contrasting ways: either there is a tendency to seek refuge in the old certainties; or there is a radical re-interpretation of faith in the light of the new cultural situation.
In this chapter, Tomlinson makes some interesting points about how evangelicalism has flourished form the 1970s onwards. His comment about the ‘charismaticization’ of evangelicalism is particularly apt. But he continues to worry, as he began to do in Chapter 1, about the ‘certaintist’ stance taken by evangelicals. He seems to believe that doubt is, on the whole, better than assurance. There is little doubt that he can appeal to post-modernity for support. It remains to be seen whether he can supply a persuasive biblical or theological rationale for this view.