I am writing an essay on Carl Henry’s ecclesiology, for the Evangelical Theological Society meetings in November, and have just finished reading his 1986 autobiography, Confessions of a Theologian. I was especially taken with the relatively pessimistic tone of his concluding reflections on the state of evangelicalism. Much of what he says sounds familiar—not unlike some recently publicized predictions that the evangelical movement may soon become extinct.
In Henry’s case, he worried much about the “shallow” character of evangelical life and thought. During the 1970s, he had been actively promoting the cause of establishing a major evangelical university, an academic research center that would bring together the best evangelical minds. By the time he was writing his memoirs, however, it was becoming clear that he would not see such a thing happen in his lifetime. Understandably, he was disappointed—a disappointment that took the form of worries about a lack of evangelical intellectual depth.
I don’t share Henry’s pessimism; nor do I endorse the more recent predictions of evangelicalism’s demise. My own optimism is linked to the very factor that was a key focus for Carl Henry: the state of the evangelical academy. He simply failed to discern where the strength might emerge.
I find it puzzling that the recent expressions of concern about the state of evangelism do not pay much attention to what is going on in the evangelical academy. As the president of an evangelical seminary, I can find much to celebrate in what is happening in evangelical theological education. But what I want to point to here in assessing the health of the evangelical movement is the network of Christian liberal arts colleges. The Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities now has 111 member schools, all of them claiming an evangelical identity. I spend time on many of these campuses as a visiting lecturer, commencement speaker, chapel preacher and the like. And I always come away very hopeful about the future of the evangelical movement.
When the sociologist Alan Wolfe wrote his Atlantic cover story on “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind” several years ago, he singled out Calvin College, Wheaton College, and Fuller Seminary as prominent examples of academic communities that produced scholarship that, as he put it, is as good as anything being done at the Ivy League schools. My own travels in the evangelical academy tell me that these three institutions—while some of the best known—are not rare as strong centers of evangelical scholarship. George Marsden put it well in a recent essay, written from Harvard, where he has been serving as a visiting professor this past year: the “colleges such as those in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities have been maturing academically and offering the sort of well-rounded collegiate experience that one might imagine was more characteristic of Harvard and other liberal arts institutions of half a century ago”
Wherever I go in the evangelical academy, I find vital intellectual pursuits taking place. The faculty are gifted scholars who are encouraged in their efforts by the administrators. The students are wonderfully engaged, socially and intellectually. They ask the big questions without being threatened by the possible answers. They care deeply about the environment, human trafficking, serving the poor, cross-cultural relations, ethnic/racial equality. And in all of that, they love Jesus and they are eager to worship him. In contrast to the “compulsory chapels” of my undergraduate experience, this is a generation of Christian students who gather voluntarily, singing songs that both commit them to working for justice and testify enthusiastically to their being “bought with the precious blood of Christ.”
There was some buzz recently about a book published by a student at Brown University, himself a secularist in outlook, who went under cover for a spell as a student at Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell. He was pleasantly surprised by the intellectual level and spirit of civility that he discovered there. The same themes show up in the journalist Hannah Rosin’s book about time spent at Patrick Henry College. Each of those schools is associated with “right wing fundamentalism” in many minds. Neither institution is a member of the Coalition. Yet even in those campuses there are clear signs of intellectual vitality.
What I do worry about in all of this is whether the evangelical churches are prepared to receive and nurture the students graduating from these colleges and universities. On many of these campuses, Lilly-funded programs on the importance of seeing one’s daily work as “vocation” have inspired students to see so-called “secular” occupations as Kingdom service. They are looking for the kind of preaching and sacramental life, as well as continuing education, to which they have become accustomed on their undergraduate campuses. If the evangelical churches fail to meet their expectations, they will go elsewhere. It will not likely be in the direction of liberal Protestantism—more likely they will move toward Anglicanism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Or maybe they will contribute to new forms of evangelical church life.
Those of us who care deeply about the health of evangelical congregations have our work cut out for us—in responding to an assignment being given to us by the evangelical colleges!