Book Review: The Younger Evangelicals, by Robert Webber
Many authors have set out to write about the shift taking place in today’s intellectual and spiritual world—call it a “mega-shift” or a “seismic change” or a “paradigm restructuring” or whatever other electric language you like. For the most part, books like that are a barrage of sound and fury, but really amount to very little more than a new survey on how we should re-organize our churches for the emerging “postmodern” market. Of course, we have to recognize that something really is going on these days: young people simply don’t think like their parents did, and they certainly don’t think like their grandparents did. There really is such a thing as postmodernism, and most of the kids in your youth group are probably saturated with it. The problem is thinking clearly about how the evangelical church should address this new worldview; that’s where the difficulty kicks in. Robert E. Webber has published a book entitled The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World, which allows us to “meet a new group of leaders who are shaping the future of a movement,” that “movement” presumably being evangelicalism.
The book opens with a very short look back at the history of twentieth-century evangelicalism. Webber divides evangelicals into three camps, all of which he says are still on the scene today: traditional evangelicals, who were dominant from 1950-1975, pragmatic evangelicals, dominant from 1975-2000, and younger evangelicals, from “2000- “. The term “younger evangelical” refers to “anyone, older or younger, who deals thoughtfully with the shift from twentieth- to twenty-first-century culture.” (16) Webber doesn’t spend much time detailing that shift. He just assumes a general acquaintance with its main contours (17), and then moves on in the main part of the book to discuss how these younger evangelicals have responded to the postmodern shift, as opposed to traditional and (especially) pragmatic churches. The largest part of the book is divided into two sections—“The Younger Evangelical Thinkers,” which deals with communication, history, theology, apologetics, and ecclesiology; and “The Younger Evangelical Practitioners,” dealing with everything from pastors to youth ministers to artists. Broadly speaking, the message of the book is picked up in the “Thinkers” section and the first chapter or two of the “Practitioners” section. From then on, it’s pretty much the same idea custom-made for each different position.
To be right up front, there is much of Webber’s book that I find exciting, things that resonate with the Bible’s model for church life. In fact, if Webber is right, then those churches which most faithfully conform to the biblical model will be the most attractive to the postmodern generation. On the other hand, though, I think Webber has omitted some crucial points from his vision of evangelical Christianity. First, though, the good:
As I understand it, Webber’s vision of the younger evangelical centers around three main pillars. Webber would probably name others as well, but these three emerged in almost every chapter of the book as central to younger evangelical life: Community, History, and Narrative. The interesting thing is that these pillars aren’t original to postmodernism—they are also central to the Bible’s own model of church life.
Community doesn’t get a chapter of its own, but it is shot through the entire book. Every chapter refers to the value of a living, breathing community of people who are relating to one another. Younger evangelicals, he says, are “interested in building organic Christian communities, not huge Wal-Mart churches that deliver a full range of Christian consumer goods.” According to one author, this amounts to “an incredible thirst for real community, real love and care.” (118) This isn’t a surprising trend, really. Most young people today have grown up without the loving, nurturing family structure their parents enjoyed, so the idea of a real church—the way the Bible presents it: bearing one another’s burdens, loving one another, and the like—is powerfully appealing to them. These younger evangelicals simply aren’t interested in growing larger, stream-lined churches. They want community—with all the rough and tumble, yet truly “authentic,” difficulty that can bring.
Webber also says younger evangelicals are reaching back into the history of the church to ground their faith. This is an emphasis I can applaud, especially in the wake of the last twenty years of Christians exercising a visceral urge to throw out anything not invented in the CD age. Now, though, Webber says many churches are not only using worship practices of earlier ages—liturgy, lectio divina, Celtic music—but they are also open to understanding the theology of earlier ages. Of course, there are dangers in this, and I wonder at times if Webber overly lionizes the early church fathers (84-87, e.g.). It’s fine to look to them sometimes, but wouldn’t it be better to return directly to the Scriptures themselves, rather than to stop with the church fathers? After all, as any good Protestant (not to mention Baptist) will tell you, the church fathers made some egregious errors. All in all, though, this new-found appreciation for history is a good thing. Including the creeds, hymns, and devotion of earlier Christians in the life of your church will not only resonate with a new generation, but it will add a depth and richness to your people’s spiritual lives that power-point and multi-media never could.
Finally, Webber makes the common observation that postmoderns are partial to narrative. Webber explains:
In the postmodern world, both believers and nonbelievers are people of faith. One has faith in the story of the Bible; the other has faith in the story of reason, science, some other religion, or the god of his or her own making. The case for the Christian faith is no longer reason against reason but faith against faith in opposing stories. (84)
For any Christian familiar with the grand, breath-taking vistas of the Bible’s storyline, this is exciting news! Essentially, it means Christian pastors need to learn how to tell stories—how to tell the story of God’s redemptive action in human history. If there has ever been a compelling, heart-wrenching story to be told, it is in the pages of the Bible. The preacher’s task then is to show his congregation how every book, every chapter, every verse fits into the overarching narrative of salvation-history. Graeme Goldsworthy has some excellent books on how to interpret and preach the Bible’s storyline—Gospel and Kingdom, According to Plan, and Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture give a concise and affecting model of how the Scriptures can be proclaimed faithfully in a narrative age.
This whole vision of the church Webber sets over against the “pragmatic churches” of the 1980s and 1990s. The ideal is no longer the big, shiny church built by survey and market analysis. In fact, younger evangelicals, he says, are really not all that interested in big churches at all, so long as they are able to impact people’s lives in a real and authentic way. According to Robert Webber, the church growth movement of the late twentieth-century is obsolete—swamped by a new generation more interested in authenticity than in excellence.
However helpful this vision might be, there are some problems and omissions to take care to notice. First of all, Webber seems to have accepted the idea that in a postmodern church, narrative and community will entirely take the place of propositional truth—that is, statements about God, the world, and humanity that claim to be true. “Jesus is Lord” is an example. After a confused discussion of foundationalism in chapter 6, Webber makes two statements: “For postmoderns, reason has no power to bring a person to truth. . . . In the postmodern world, truth cannot be known. It is completely relative.” Those are two very different statements. The first is merely to say that reason no longer enjoys the high acclaim it used to; but that is a far cry from saying that truth cannot be known at all. And it is even further from rejecting propositional truth entirely. When you get right down to it, it is simply absurd to say that the Christian gospel needs to “go beyond” propositions. The Christian gospel is largely about propositions; to say “Jesus Christ” is to make a propositional statement. It is to assert that “Jesus is the Messiah.” What does Webber mean by saying that younger evangelicals “seek to maintain historic Christianity” and “are attracted to absolutes” if they reject propositional truth? No one would deny that there are truths other than propositional ones, but Christianity simply dissolves if it does not make propositional, dogmatic statements about the nature of God and the way of salvation. In their passion for community and narrative, postmodern Christians cannot forget that.
Webber also dismisses inerrancy too quickly. On page 98, he quotes Millard Erickson’s statement of inerrancy: “Our doctrine of inerrancy maintains merely that whatever statements the Bible affirms are fully truthful when they are correctly interpreted in terms of their meaning in their cultural setting and the purpose for which they were written.” Webber understands the phrase “in their cultural setting” to be a massive concession to postmodernism. He says,
This statement is a clear shift away from the hard-line “propositional inerrancy” set forth by Henry and Lindsell. The older view of inerrancy is purely objective. It says, “Here in the Bible are the cold hard facts that anyone, whether from America, Asia, or Africa can plainly see. . . . Erickson, by saying ‘in their cultural setting,’ allows inerrancy to contain a subjective side.
But when Erickson says “in their cultural setting,” he’s talking about the cultural setting of the Scripture, not of the reader. The statements of the Bible are fully truthful when they are interpreted correctly in their (the Scripture’s) cultural setting. Besides, if Erickson were making a concession to subjectivity, what in the world does he mean by saying the text must be interpreted “correctly?” The word would make very little sense if Webber’s understanding is correct. Besides this clear mistake, Webber ought to remember that Christianity would not have a narrative to advance without an inerrant Bible. Where do you get the Christian worldview if not from the Bible? And how do you trust that worldview if you think the Bible is shot through with error? Maybe historical mistakes are acceptable in a spiritualized religion like Buddhism or Hinduism—or even “Christian” liberalism—but true, robust Christianity is rooted in the events of history. The cross was an event in history; so was the resurrection. If the Bible misses on the history, then the Christian story is no more important or life-changing than “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”
One last concern with Webber’s book—I am afraid he underemphasizes the Bible altogether. The book really says very little about it. There are few (if any) biblical citations, and the general tenor of the book seems to put experience and “worship” at the center of the Christian church, instead of the Word of God. I understand that the objective communication of God doesn’t resonate with postmodern sensibilities. Contact with Him through things like icons, Taize worship, and art are much more attractive to them. Yet it is through an objective Word that God has chosen to speak, and that Word must be the center of any community claiming to be Christian. If younger evangelicals intend to build biblical—and not just postmodern—churches, they must center them on the Word of God.
I think there are some exciting trends identified in Webber’s book. The Bible gives us a model of church life, and in some ways, postmodern culture itself seems to be moving in that direction. So far as it does, Christians ought to welcome the shift—what do we have against community, history, narrative, a visible church, mission, servanthood, relationships, and action? Nothing! But there are other aspects of postmodernism that are not so happy: the rejection of propositional truth, the rejection of inerrancy, the de-centralizing of the objective Word of God. What it finally comes down to is that Christians ought to build their churches according to the Bible’s example and instruction, happy when postmodern culture resonates with them but doggedly loyal to the Bible anyway when it does not. Perhaps then postmoderns will be both attracted to and instructed in the Christian faith.