Evangelicalism as a Mission Field for Evangelical Scholars

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Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith delivered the final plenary lecture at “The State of the Evangelical Mind” conference last week.  Very early in his talk Smith announced that “everything going on in this conference has no connection whatsoever to evangelical churches.”  He was right.

Smith began by addressing the “elephant in room.”  Up until this point all of the speakers danced around the links between the the so-called “scandal of the evangelical mind” and Donald J. Trump.  Smith called out the 81% of American evangelicals who voted for the current POTUS and even gave a shout-out to my work on the “court evangelicals.”

Smith was not optimistic about the state of the evangelical mind.  The “evangelical mind,” he lamented, is a “minority report at best.”  If such an evangelical mind does exist, it is found almost entirely in “confessional groups.”  In other words, it is not thriving, or perhaps even existing, in non-denominational churches. These congregations have grown from 194,000 in 1990 to eight million today.  According to Smith, those concerned about the evangelical mind should be devoted to closing the gap between the scholarly world and these churches.  Evangelicalism, he argued, is a “mission field for evangelical scholars.”

Following Smith’s call will require boldness on the part of Christian scholars.  Smith urged us to consider a “scholarship for the masses,” a “scholarship without condescension,” an “outreach scholarship, and a “translation scholarship.”  Our work with the church should be something akin to the work we do in undergraduate classroom teaching.  Smith imagined bringing our general education programs into the churches

Smith calls Christian scholars to critique American evangelicalism while at the same time working for reform.  The Christian Right, he said, is “invested in the anti-intellectualism of evangelical churches.”  They rely on non-thinking Christians in order to advance their political agendas.  The fulfillment of Smith’s vision will require evangelical scholars to stay in their churches and engage in a “come alongside scholarship.”  He reminded us that “you can’t be a prophet on your way out the door.” Such work will require scholars dedicated to the church, Christian colleges and universities willing to provide time to faculty who want to pursue this work, and patrons willing to fund such an effort.  Where is the Christian scholar MacArthur grants?  Why isn’t the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities developing a program to promote Christian scholarship along the lines of the National Endowment for the Humanities?

There were times during Smith’s talk when I wanted to stand up and cheer.  As many of you know, I have been trying to live out Smith’s vision for over a decade and it has been a somewhat lonely experience.  To hear a leading evangelical intellectual like Smith affirm the kind of things I have been doing through my speaking, my writing, and my work at The Way of Improvement Leads Home gave me hope.

7 thoughts on “Evangelicalism as a Mission Field for Evangelical Scholars

    • David – yes. I think they are the hardest place of all. If in the past we tended talked about the rough terrain of the “secular academy” for Christian scholars, I think we might now need to start talking about the challenges of teaching in an Evangelical colleges…

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  1. This is wonderful. Do you have any ideas on next steps? I am trying to pioneer such a program in a local church context right now. I am studying historical theology at DTS and I hope to teach church history to laity.

    Also, do you know if they will they be releasing transcripts or audio of the plenary session?

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  2. – ‘The fulfillment of Smith’s vision will require evangelical scholars to stay in their churches and engage in a “come alongside scholarship.” He reminded us that “you can’t be a prophet on your way out the door.”’

    I sympathize with this at a 40,000-foot level, but at ground level I think it’s not so helpful. For example, if you’ve been attending FBC Dallas (Robert Jeffress’ church), do you stay, with the hope that you’ll get a chance to counter his effects in some small group setting, or do you go? In more moderate churches it might work to stay, but in one of these churches that’s run by one of the authoritarian “court evangelicals” and pastors like them, my view is you’re better off to “wipe the dust off your feet and move on.” The court evangelical “type” of leader will never give you a forum to express anything contrary to their view.

    Of course, each person must make their decision depending on their interpretation of the situation.

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    • I wrestle with being encouraged and frustrated at the same time by Jamie’s comments. On the one hand, it is great to hear his affirmation of the need for scholars to walk alongside evangelical congregations. On the other, I feel like this is exactly what I and many others have been trying to do for the almost twenty-five years since Noll’s “Scandal” appeared. Jamie seems to regard evangelical scholars treating evangelicalism like a mission field as a novel concept. In my case, I have tried to fulfill that role first as a bi-vocational pastor in the Southern Baptist tradition from 1995-2002 and then as a faculty member at Christian liberal arts colleges since 2006.. And the state of “evangelicalism” seems worse now than it did when Noll penned his intellectual jeremiad. My experience has been that it really does not matter whether you are considered “in” the tradition or not. If they do not want to hear what you have to say, they will find an excuse not to hear it. The “you are no longer one of us and therefore what you have to say is irrelevant” card has been played to devastating effect by a number of religious leaders in recent history to avoid being held accountable for their actions once people escaped their control and stories started to trickle out. People who share their stories after they leave situations rife with spiritual abuse and intimidation often tried their best to foster change on the inside with limited results. I understand what Jamie means, but I am concerned that his words could be used to dismiss people who have important things to say. Things that evangelicals desperately need to hear.

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