The Eclipse of Evangelical Leadership

This has bothered me for a while now and I’ve had several conversations with friends recently about it.  I don’t know what exactly can be done about it and I’m not really sure that I have much of a stake in it.  Nonetheless, it’s a situation that I find lamentable.

I’ve been struck recently by how much contemporary American evangelical leaders are unlike those of the past.  Evangelical leaders who emerged between 1945 and 1970, such as Carl Henry, Harold Ockenga, and Kenneth Kantzer were quite unique.  They were conversant with wider cultural trends and their leadership was “big-hearted.”  It would be easy to see things as far rosier than they were, but they sought to be catalysts for the development of evangelical culture and theology.  They expected and celebrated diversity, cheered on the work of others, and didn’t get hung up on the parochial issues over which evangelicals may disagree.

Evangelical leadership today seems to be consumed with drawing lines, picking petty fights, and discussing nothing other than the parochial issues over which evangelicals disagree.  They aren’t conversant with cultural trends, except to see them as signs that the sky is falling, and their leadership is “small-hearted.”  A spirit of competition has overtaken the generous and hopeful vision of a very different generation.

There’s doubtless much else and much more to be said about this.  But I just find it unfortunate.

10 thoughts on “The Eclipse of Evangelical Leadership

    1. timgombis

      I thought of him, Sharad, and he is indeed a good example. What’s more, he’s a pastor who manages to avoid getting hung up on drawing tight rhetorical boundary lines.

  1. benespinoza

    I agree 100%, Tim. I long for a robust evangelicalism that engages in hearty dialogue for the sake of mutual growth, understanding, and engaging broader cultural and theological themes. Many evangelicals have retreated to their own denominational traditions and refrain from stepping out of their comfort zones and engaging other traditions. We lose so much of the rich heritage of the Christian faith when we fail to be optimistic about ecumenical conversation.

      1. timgombis

        I had been thinking of negative examples, only because they’re more visible. It seems that some who are ill-suited to the positions have taken it upon themselves to act as evangelical statesmen/spokesmen with the passing of people like Kenneth Kantzer.

        On the positive side, though, I’d say that there are some who knew that generation and really ‘got’ what they were all about — those who caught that optimistic vision and generous spirit. People like Rich Mouw at Fuller, Walter Kaiser. In fact, Scot McKnight reflects this spirit on his blog pretty well, which is why he may have fit well at a place like TEDS of the 1980’s.

      2. David Moser


        One of the reasons I wrestled with the prospect of attending seminary at TEDS was the very reality you stated above: it seemed to be awash in conservative fundamentalism, having drawn close associations with organizations like the Gospel Coalition. I’m not going to leap to any sort of ‘defense’ of TEDS, but after visiting twice and engaging some of the faculty there, I can say the attitude and ethos of the seminary is far less fundamentalist than it used to be and, moreover, it’s becoming a new center for good and serious evangelical theology.

        I know you were probably not looking to name certain people, but one question that I asked when I visited TEDS was the extent of Dr. Carson’s influence over the atmosphere of the seminary. I was surprised to find that some folks appreciated his work in the gospels, but were hesitant to support his work on the emerging church or the New Perspective on Paul. Some folks did support him, however, and that led me to think that the spirit at TEDS wasn’t in any way univocal. Obviously, I was very grateful to understand this.

        I’m thinking that their recent hire of Dr. Vanhoozer, Dr. Joshua Jipp, who completed his PhD at Emory, and a new systematic theologian from Marquette are going to help them pioneer the way to becoming a more robust institution of evangelical seminary education. I especially think Dr. Vanhoozer’s influence and leadership will lend much to this endeavor.

  2. David Moser

    Now, I don’t think you stated that TEDS was “awash in conservative fundamentalism”, but I took that to be the implication of what you said. Just clarifying.

    1. timgombis

      Hey David,
      I’m not really thinking about contemporary dynamics at TEDS, though it’s great to hear that there is a measure of diversity there. Just that the kind of leadership that had a generous evangelical outlook was on display there in a major way in an earlier day, with figures like Kantzer and Kaiser. They seemed to have the strength to recognize the heart of evangelical life and keep the institution from being hijacked by any singular theological posture. My point isn’t that TEDS has changed. My only point is that major figures and voices in evangelical culture don’t have that sort of character, strength, and big-hearted vision. There may be some exceptions, but there’s just a whole lot of empire-building, which involves drawing lines, maintaining constituencies, identifying good guys and bad guys, and other destructive dynamics. I think the conservative evangelical/fundamentalist voices are the ones being heard these days.

  3. Don Bryant

    Your thoughts are mine exactly. The Neo-Puritans are certainly not game for “big hearted” interaction. As a fellow who grew up in southern fundamentalism, I can feel the “itching for a fight” instinct that I see in the movement. I am not sure where to look anymore. Big tent Evangelicalism looks like it has almost disappeared. I am convinced it is out there waiting for someone with the courage and ability to piece back together a movement that is not confined to a more narrow confessionalism.

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