On Young Pastors and Churches

Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention writes the following insightful passage regarding young pastors and churches made up of younger people on pages 21-22 of his book Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel:

The Christian religion isn’t an ideology, like socialism or libertarianism, tracked by self-identification. The Christian religion is a Body. A lot of people saying to a pollster that they identify as Christians hardly represents a movement. The question is, “Who goes to church?” And, congregationally speaking, Protestant liberalism is deader than Henry VIII. If adapting to the culture were the key to ecclesial success, then where are the Presbyterian Church (USA) church-planting movements, the Unitarian megachurches?

That said, the older generations are mistaken if they assume the next generation will be more of the same, just with even more prayer for “revival” and “Great Awakening” in the land. The typical younger pastor is less partisan than his predecessor, less likely to speak from the pulpit about “mobilizing” voters and “reclaiming Judeo-Christian values” through political action and economic boycotts. This is not because he is evolving leftward. It is because he wants to keep Christianity Christian. As a matter of fact, the center of evangelical Christianity today is, theologically speaking, well to the right of the old Religious Right. It’s true that the typical younger pastor of a growing urban or suburban church doesn’t look like his cuff-linked or golf-shirted forefather. But that doesn’t mean he’s a liberal. He might have tattoos, yes, but they aren’t of Che Guevara. They’re of Hebrew passages from Deuteronomy.

His congregation’s statement of faith isn’t the generic sloganeering of the last generations’ doctrinally oozy consumerist evangelical movements, but is likely a lengthy manifesto with points and subpoints and footnotes rooted in one of the great theological traditions of the historic church. This pastor might preach forty-five minutes to an hour, sometimes calling out backsliding Christians from the pulpit with all the force of hellfire-and-brimstone revivalists of yesteryear. He is pro-life and pro-marriage, although he is likely to speak of issues like homosexuality in theological and pastoral terms rather than in rhetoric warning of “the gay agenda.”

Unlike the typical Bible Belt congregation of the twentieth century, the new kind of evangelical church has strict membership requirements, both in terms of what it takes to enter the believing community and what it takes to stay there. There aren’t likely to be four-year-olds baptized after repeating sinner’s prayers in a backyard Bible club, and the unrepentant often face what their parents never seemed to notice in their red-and-black lettered Bibles: excommunication. If this is liberalism, let’s have more of it.

These churches are often deeply culturally engaged, in terms of music and the arts, with often a more theologically-rich understanding of how to analyze common grace in cultural artifacts than the Christian subcultures of Bible Belt past, which too often replicated contemporary popular culture, at a lower level of quality, affixing Jesus at the end of it all. But they are often unsure of how to think of political engagement. Again, this is not due to liberalism but to theological conservatism. They have seen social gospels of the Left and the Right try to package a transcendent message for decidedly this-worldly, and sometimes downright cynical, purposes of pulling the levers of political power.

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