Horton: To Be or Not to Be? Reformed Christianity And American Evangelicalism

Somewhere along the way, however, the evangel became increasingly separated from evangelism; the message became subservient to the methods. Today, it is taken for granted by many that those most concerned about doctrine are least interested in reaching the lost (or, as they are now called, the “unchurched”). We are frequently challenged to choose between being traditional or missional, usually with little definition offered for either. Where the earlier evangelical consensus coalesced simultaneously around getting the gospel right and getting it out, increasingly today the coalition is defined by its style (“contemporary” versus “traditional”), its politics (“compassionate conservatism” or the more recent rediscovery of revivalism’s progressivist roots), and its “rock-star” leaders, than for its convictions about God, humanity, sin, salvation, the purpose of history, and the last judgment.

Mike Horton (2010)


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  1. You make an important observation that some (much?) of the problem with traditional/missional discussions deals with lack of definition. My denomination, which had previously defined itself as “reformed, evangelical and presbyterian,” voted at GA a couple years back to add “missional” to that self-definition. Our very next act was to ask our permanent theology committee to come up with a definition of what it means to be “missional” so that we could adopt that the next year. So in essence, we defined ourselves as something and then said we have no idea what that definition means.

  2. These days I think being “missional” (for Evangelicals) means thinking like a business person. If you look at Willow Creek’s web site for “The Summit” (their huge leadership conference the week-end of August 5-6) less than 50% of the speakers have a traditional “ministry” background – a clear majority are from the business world. “Missional” in Evangelicalism means having a business-like approach to growth – research an underserved market, design a product that will reach it, and market the product to the target audience. Establish quantifiable goals, tweak the product and the marketing, blah blah blah.

    One of the speakers at The Summit is Jack Welch. He was famous for saying that every year a company should give the boot to the 10% of its workers who aren’t cutting it. I wonder if Evangelicals will apply this to their churches. Go through the membership list every year and say to 10% of the people, “You’d probably do better at another Church.”

    I still think that its amazinig that at an Evangelical conference on Church Growth less than half of the speakers (about 38% by my calculation) have any formal training in theology. The irony is that in the bad old days Evangelicals critiqued fundamentalists for being opposed to education and formal training!

    • Neutron Jack advising Willow Creek on Leadership is merely the end point of a trend which judges everything pragmatically rather than subjecting it to Scriptural (or even cultural) critique.

      I can’t help but wonder if a lot of these churches are one remove away from fairly significant declines in attendance, as their own teaching subtly undermines the importance of a weekly gathering and as their members decide that the world does immersive entertainment a whole lot better. In this context the Reveal survey from a few years could be a harbinger of worse things to come.

  3. This piece by Mike Horton is profound and I profoundly agree with him. I especially appreciate his conclusion: specifically the part about broader evangelicalism being the “Village Green” where we meet but don’t live.

    The only place where I feel that slight emendation/clarification is necessary is with regard to his definition (or non-definition really) of “evangelicalism”. It seems to me essential that the term “evangelical” should only encompass those who are not preaching a false gospel of salvation by works or by any other means than the grace of God given to us by faith in Christ.

    When defined more carefully we might very well find that true evangelical churches are a relatively small subset of the set of churches that are so labeled in the more popular use of the term. And further, a more careful drawing of lines with regard to true evangelicalism might have the effect of somewhat broadening the scope for agreement and cooperation among evangelicals in furtherance of the gospel.

    But such cooperation can never come at the expense of the core doctrines of the gospel (witness Warfield’s comments on the proposed “creed” in Mike Horton’s article). And it is a little hard to imagine what concrete form such cooperation would take — in general “parachurch agencies and coalitions” do not seem like particularly effective means as they do seem to come with a lot of baggage.

    And, I also hasten to add that I think Mike Horton is profoundly correct that the predominant place where God’s grace will be made evident is in the local church with its ministries of “preaching and sacrament, catechesis and fellowship, singing and liturgy, outreach and diaconal care”.

  4. “I wonder if Evangelicals will apply this to their churches. Go through the membership list every year and say to 10% of the people, “You’d probably do better at another Church.”

    Forget the “evangelicals”, this is going on in the PCA right now, per Keller’s redeemer model; Big funnel to small funnel, weeding out not based on confessional commitments but are you”winsome” enough and are you monied or not. The PCA is well on it’s way to being hijacked, between Redeemer and CTS’s “Missional” commitments.

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