Note: The following commentary is adapted from the new book “Reagan’s Children: Taking Back the City on the Hill” by Hans Zeiger (Broadman and Holman, June 2006). Used by permission.
For far too long, evangelical Christians have lacked the energy and passion of reformation and awakening that so transformed the world in the Word. This deadness in the church has not only accompanied the earthquakes of civilization that have occurred in the past couple of centuries, it has in many cases precipitated those sweeping cultural and intellectual changes. But a reaction is in the offing – a reaction to postmodernism, secularism, sin and to the deadness of churches and the comatose state of hearts. According to Robert Webber, our generation appears “to be the first generation of people coming out on the other side of the crisis.” Young Christians, both in America and around the globe, are being prepared by the hand of Providence for a 21st century great awakening.
If things go as they have, the awakening will take a while to get going. But for the first time since the churches of early America, the next generation of Christians is becoming ecumenically unified. In colonial days, the various denominations often differed doctrinally, but they could not escape God’s plan for revival in the land. Lately, the church has been more divided than ever before, and the recent movements toward ecumenism have tended to champion theological liberalism and compromise on core tenets of the faith.
But the new ecumenism is different. Many young Christians seem to mix ecumenism and genuine faith in a new way. Colleen Carroll points out that “many committed young believers excel at ecumenism, precisely because they can clearly articulate the distinctiveness of their faith traditions and they believe that universal truth is knowable. If these young believers continue to embrace opportunities to work across denominational … lines without airbrushing significant theological differences, they have the potential to transform American religion and culture.”
Young Christians may attend different churches, but they are united by a common faith that stands out more than it once did. Young Christians are no less concerned for the purity of the church than previous generations, but there seems to be a sense that purity is first an individual matter of righteous living before God. In the community of the visible church, unity is a high cause.
There are three reasons for the new ecumenism.
First, younger evangelicals “have been shaped by a more open view of the world and of the unity they share with all Christians of other cultures and geographical areas,” Robert Webber says. We are the most global generation in history, and an increasing number of young Christians spend their summers on short-term mission trips to foreign countries. Many young Christians participate in missions conferences like the Intervarsity Urbana Convention, which drew nearly 20,000 college students from around the world to the University of Illinois in late 2003. For five days, missionaries shared their testimonies and students of almost every denominational background joined in worship and Bible studies, all for the purpose of challenging “college students and recent graduates to seek their place in God’s mission.” Naomi Schaefer Riley calls us the “missionary generation.”
Second, young evangelical Christians have renewed an interest in the Christian heritage. According to professor Dale Dirksen, “There is a significant trend toward a greater valuing of history among our 18-to-24-year-olds. They are very intrigued with old stuff, possibly because they have lived in a world with only new stuff their whole lives.”
There is a renewed interest in the common basics of the faith expressed in the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed. The gospel is a historical faith, and history is more than just facts and dates. It is a story of which we are a part, and to fully understand that is life-transforming.
Thomas Oden, author of “After Modernity … What?” says, “The sons and daughters of modernity are rediscovering the neglected beauty of classical Christian teaching. It is a moment of joy, of beholding anew what had been nearly forgotten, of hugging a lost child.” Whether it was fundamentalism at war on love and unity or liberalism at war on truth and eternity, there was no advantage to the late crises in the Christian body. Our generation shows some signs of rising above that tired clash.
Webber makes the link between the rediscovery of history in faith and the growth of the new ecumenism:
“We may ask what impact the new interest in recovering a historical perspective has made on younger evangelicals. It has made them more zealous for truth, for Christian life and action. Yet they are humbled by the complexity of truth, and they are gentle and generous toward those who differ. The younger evangelicals are not fighters intent on splitting churches. They are not dramatic zealots or mean-spirited close-minded bigots. They seek to hold to that which has always been held by all and affirm affection for those with whom they differ. Their love of the ancient and their return to tradition has given them this [what John Wesley called] ‘catholic spirit.'”
Finally, since Christians are a small minority in their high schools, colleges and universities, and workplaces, the importance of intentional fellowship is greater than ever before. The community of young believers becomes more critical to individuals when it stands outside of the come-and-go-as-you-please world of the mega-church and the liberal mainstream church.
There is nothing like a common enemy to unite Christians of different denominational backgrounds on campus. Carroll suggests that the anti-Christian attitude of professors catalyzes “an ecumenism of orthodoxy that unites students and allows them to collectively challenge the secular liberalism of their school and its professors.”
It was in a pluralistic, secular culture a bit like ours that the early Christians witnessed the rise of the church. It was an age of bold preachers, of simple men and women who loved their Savior and did everything they could do to win souls and serve fellow Christian laborers and seek the will of God. Are we here for such a time as that? Or is it to be a day of mediocrity?
No minority facing the social consequences for its ideas can avoid the testing and trying of its commitment. It is not a time for Christmas-and-Easter Christians. This is no day for hypocritical, nominal Christians. Lukewarm Christians, like those of the early church, are good for nothing but to be spit out. It is a day for champions, for real men and real women who reach toward the highest mark, who are saved at the highest price, who make their appeal to the highest God. And we must have faith that He will use a little minority.
Related special offer: