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Who's Really Leading Evangelicalism, the Shepherds or the Sheep? (Hint: it's not the Shepherds)

Updated: Jun 14, 2020

Twenty years ago, when I was engaged to my future wife, a counselor told me, “The key to a successful marriage is not who you are on your wedding day, but who you are becoming. Healthy couples grow together over time, not apart.”

Based on that wisdom, the marriage between American evangelicals and their leaders is heading for divorce. What began following World War II as a marriage between evangelical leaders like Graham, Ockenga, and Henry seeking a biblical form of culturally-engaged Christianity and ordinary Christians tired of fundamentalism’s strident separatism, has now splintered into a house divided.

Since 81 percent of white evangelical voters lifted Donald Trump to the presidency, many of evangelicalism’s leaders are wondering what’s happened to the movement they are supposed to be guiding but hardly recognize anymore. For the last year they’ve been asking tough questions: Can evangelicals support immoral candidates and not lose their moral authority? How did “evangelical” go from a theological label to a political one? And, Who’s a real evangelical anyway? 

These questions have flooded blogs, editorials, and even the mainstream media via articles by luminaries like Tim KellerMark Galli, and Russell Moore. The latest is a book edited by Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, featuring a collection of essays from a diverse cross section of evangelical “insiders” wrestling with what it means to be an evangelical in the age of Trump.

All of this soul searching and hand wringing, however, is unlikely to have much impact because, as Michael Lindsay has observed, “There is a growing divide between ordinary evangelicals and evangelical leaders.” A decade ago Lindsay authored, Faith in the Halls of Power, documenting the influence of elite evangelicals in American society, but he also recognized how little they resembled the rank-and-file popular evangelicals throughout the country. Those evangelicals who lead denominations, para-church organizations, relief and mission agencies, who write well researched books, and publish editorials in The New Yorker may walk the halls of power but they are not the voices actually shaping popular evangelicalism. In fact, there’s growing evidence that even local pastors are having less influence on the evangelicals filling their churches.

During the 2016 election, for example, polls found evangelical pastors ranked Mr. Trump last among Republican candidates while ordinary evangelicals consistently put the malcontent mogul at the top of their lists. Responding to this finding Ed Stetzer said, “One of the few religious groups that national polls track are evangelical Christians, and it is hard not to notice a surprising gap between them and their pastors.”

2016 was not an anomaly. The gap between elite and ordinary evangelicals has been growing for years. Back in 2013 the “Evangelical Immigration Table” called the Obama administration and Congress to pursue comprehensive immigration reform that included compassionate treatment of undocumented immigrants and a path to citizenship. The effort made national news because it was led by the National Association of Evangelicals and its signers included leaders from virtually every evangelical denomination, college, university, para-church, relief, and mission organization in the country. Evangelical elites made their views on immigration clear and anchored it in a robust biblical theology.

Ordinary evangelicals, however, were having none of it.

That same year the Public Religion Research Institute found 63 percent of evangelicals believed the government “should make a serious effort to deport all illegal immigrants.” There is enough space between elites and ordinary evangelicals on the issue of immigration to build a big, beautiful wall.

These gaps on matters of politics and public policy can be easily explained away because most church leaders are silent on such matters. Few pastors want to talk about divisive issues like elections and immigration. This vacuum is filled for most ordinary evangelicals by pundits on cable news and talk radio—a problem I’ve written about before. Understandably, pastors would much rather focus on Scripture, doctrine, and spiritual truths. Unfortunately, a disturbing gap is evident there as well.

A 2016 survey by LifeWay Research found that despite claiming to be Christians, most Americans hold unorthodox and even heretical beliefs. That’s not very surprising. What is surprising, however, were the findings when LifeWay used strict criteria to isolate the responses of committed evangelicals. As reported by G. Shane Morris, “Everyone expected [evangelicals] to perform better than most Americans. No one expected them to perform worse.” LifeWay found that evangelicals were more likely than Americans in general to hold heretical beliefs about Jesus, the Trinity, and salvation. Based on the survey, if you’re curious about the Bible and Christian faith you’re better off asking a stranger on the street than the average churchgoing evangelical.

Despite an emphasis on the Bible and teaching in most evangelical churches, and despite the avalanche of resources offered via evangelical media and publishing, ordinary evangelicals are not being shaped by the orthodox views held by the elite evangelicals producing this content.

Furthermore, there’s evidence to suggest ordinary evangelicals are not adopting the views of their own pastors on key matters of doctrine either. Roughly half of evangelicals have dispensational beliefs about the end times. (Think Left Behind, the rapture, antichrist, etc.) While a much smaller percentage of evangelical pastors hold these views, and among pastors with seminary and theological training—the evangelical elites—the number drops even lower.

So, the data suggests there are dramatically different sets of theological, cultural, and political views held by those leading evangelical institutions and those populating them. Of course, one should expect some distance between the views of leaders and followers within any group. After all, without a gap there is no where for leaders to lead.

However, the dramatic disparities now evident between elite and average evangelicals on politics, social issues, public policies, and even doctrine is alarming. It signals something much more disturbing and, I fear, unsustainable. It verifies the divide Michael Lindsay identified a decade ago, now, however, the gap may be so wide that it may be incorrect to call elite evangelicals “leaders” at all, because if no one is following are they really leading?

What does this mean for the future of evangelicalism? As the gulf between elite and ordinary evangelicals continues to widen, it may become an existential threat to elites—the early signs of which we may already be witnessing with the flurry of articles and books grasping to make sense of the current dynamics. It’s worth remembering that the organizations they lead, and from which their elite status is derived, are funded by the ordinary evangelicals they no longer resemble. The resulting tension may eventually force leaders to choose between accommodating the populist/nationalist views of their donors and members, or maintaining their evangelical convictions but risk losing their positions.

There’s evidence that such tensions are already occurring. Consider the backlash Russell Moore faced within the Southern Baptist Convention for his outspoken criticism of Donald Trump’s immorality and his defense of religious freedom for Muslim-Americans. Moore was simply expressing long-held Baptist and evangelical beliefs, but the base of the SBC was outraged and called for Moore’s removal. He survived the coup, but as the gap between elite and ordinary evangelicals widens he may not be so fortunate in the future.

I’ve also spoken to administrators at evangelical colleges navigating increasingly frequent conflicts between faculty (elite evangelical) and the parents of students (ordinary evangelicals) who are distrustful of campuses that affirm political, cultural, and intellectual diversity. The “big tent” evangelicalism championed by Billy Graham 70 years ago and embraced by institutions like Fuller, Wheaton, and Gordon is being challenged by siege-mentality evangelicals wanting a safe place for their kids to avoid liberals and their ideas. “We haven’t moved one inch from our evangelical convictions,” one exasperated university official told me. “It’s the people in the churches who’ve changed.”

I suspect in the coming years there will be a reckoning. Apart from a dramatic realignment or unforeseen intervention, the center will not hold and the divide between elite and ordinary evangelicals will become an irreparable breach. Evangelical’s elites will find themselves having to choose between finding new pastures or maintaining their institutions by falling in line with, rather than shepherding, the sheep.

As the divorce between elite and ordinary evangelicals becomes more likely, one question remains unanswered. Who will get the kids?

1 Comment

John Norland
John Norland
Oct 20, 2020

Christianity as a body of belief, without the response to Jesus invitation of follow me, and community built upon a heretical perversion of Justice and Mercy, into a call for Law and Order. I'm old enough to remember when Evangelical was still associated with it's root meaning - one who shares the good news. The good news was always ideally expressed as a welcome into freedom, family and fellowship - the community a place to find support, unconditional acceptance, and encouragement. Sad to see that so much effort today is spent attempting to control - to divide - to require conformity to rigid standards such that the poor, the rejected, the sick, the prisoner, the foreigner no longer h…

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