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Characteristics of Convergents: Where Now?

November 19, 2016

A couple of days ago I posted a brief critique of Pastor Don Johnson’s description of Convergent Christianity. I suggested that his list of characteristics really didn’t do much to clarify who or what these so-called Convergents are. What I would like to do is to go back over his list one item at a time. In my discussion I would like to do two things. First, I wish to take a guess at explaining what each item might mean. Second, I would like to evaluate whether that item really differentiates Convergents from either fundamentalists or mainstream evangelicals.

I’ll be doing this for fun and not out of any obligation. Consequently, I’m only going to work on it when I feel like it. Don’t expect to see something every day or even every week. And don’t expect my discussion to be researched and documented. I’ll be relying upon more than a half century of life within fundamentalism, forty years of which have been spent in the formal study of and research into the fundamentalist and evangelical movements.

As background, it is worth noting that both separatist fundamentalism and the New Evangelicalism developed out of an older mainstream evangelicalism. This older evangelicalism, which dominated American Christianity from about 1870 to 1920, was not really a movement. It was simply the way things were. Just before the turn of the century, awareness dawned upon these people that a new heterodoxy was invading their denominations. There were various efforts (e.g., The Fundamentals) to restate Christian orthodoxy in the face of this theological liberalism, but few attempts to oust the liberals from their increasingly powerful positions of influence.

The first concentrated political opposition to liberalism was the Conference on Baptist Fundamentals in 1920. This militant group wanted to truncate the influence of liberalism in the Northern Baptist Convention. These leaders both clung to the great fundamentals and meant to do battle royal for the fundamentals. Curtis Lee Laws called these men fundamentalists, and the name stuck. Similar groups arose both in other denominations and within interdenominational evangelicalism.

It is worth noting that not everybody who was orthodox (evangelical) was fundamentalist. It is also worth noting that the fundamentalists themselves were of different sorts. Some hoped that smiling protests would prove an adequate way of addressing liberalism. Others wanted to purge the liberals out of their denominations, but failing that, they were content to remain within the denominations and in fellowship with the liberals. Still others were determined to end fellowship with the liberals, even if it meant leaving their denominations.

In the long run, the fundamentalists did not succeed in ousting the liberals from any denomination. Also in the long run, only those who left the denominations kept the name fundamentalist. Non-fundamentalist evangelicals had various reasons for remaining in their denominations. Some still thought that they could fight the liberals in a sort of rearguard action. Others accepted fellowship with liberals as a sort of permanent stasis. It was this last group that eventually turned into the New Evangelicalism.

Fundamentalism first defined itself against liberalism; now it also defined itself against the New Evangelicalism. Fundamentalists saw liberals as enemies of the gospel, and that meant that New Evangelicals must be traitors to the gospel. Given this perspective, some form of separation had to occur. At minimum, the fundamentalists refused to cooperate with or participate in Neoevangelical enterprises. Many also critiqued the New Evangelicals for their lack of separatism.

It is important to note, however, that neither fundamentalism nor Neoevangelicalism constituted a majority of American evangelicalism. Most evangelicals fell in between. They saw liberalism (and its descendents) as a denial of the gospel, and they broke fellowship with it. Yet they could not bring themselves to limit fellowship with their New Evangelical brethren, or even to rebuke them publicly. The majority position was one of quiet disapproval of the tactics of New Evangelicals, but celebration of the results that the New Evangelicals achieved in evangelism and scholarship. This Silent Majority could be called the moderate evangelicals, and they controlled the principal institutions of American evangelicalism: the colleges and seminaries, the publishing houses, the mission agencies. They were the evangelical mainstream.

Some fundamentalists tried to act as if evangelicalism were divided into a two-party system, but that was never the case. By demanding that the moderate evangelicals choose sides, these fundamentalists tended to frighten them into the arms of the New Evangelicals. Over time, the influence of Neoevangelicalism began to flourish and that of separatist fundamentalism began to wane.

At the same time, each of the extremes was pushing further in its own direction. Some fundamentalists spun further and further Right into a hyper-fundamentalism, while some Neoevangelicals pushed the boundaries of inerrancy and other issues until they constituted the Evangelical Left. Reactions also took place on both sides. Shocked by the ugliness of hyper-fundamentalism, some fundamentalists began to soften their separatism. Appalled by the concessions of the Evangelical Left, some erstwhile New Evangelicals pulled back toward the moderate evangelical center, and some (e.g. Harold Lindsell) even began to consider using the name fundamentalist again. For a brief moment it looked as if the reactionary segments of the two movements might actually converge.

It did not happen. The evangelicals were not willing to surrender their identification with the broader evangelical movement (including Neoevangelicalism), and not many fundamentalists were willing to surrender their critique of the New Evangelicalism. What did happen is that those evangelicals who were moving to the Right began to stake out new territory of their own. They were eventually joined by the victorious conservatives from the Southern Baptist Convention. Together, these constituted what came to be known as Conservative Evangelicalism.

About ten years ago, Pastor Bob Bixby began to talk about what he called the “emerging middle.” As I understood him, he thought that younger fundamentalists were reacting against some of the extremes and abuses that they had seen in separatist fundamentalism. At the same time, he thought that Conservative Evangelicals were becoming more separatistic. He foresaw the possibility that these two streams might converge, resulting in a new via media between fundamentalism and Conservative Evangelicalism. In fact, some who spoke of an “emerging middle” seemed to hope that mainstream, separatist fundamentalists and Conservative Evangelicals would discover that they actually believed in and stood for exactly the same things, eliminating the need to maintain distinct movements.

Of course, the situation was more complicated and the positions were more nuanced than many were willing to recognize. It quickly became clear that no middle was going to emerge; indeed, I once heard Dan Ebert refer to the idea as an “emerging muddle.” Yet the hope of a middle ground has not disappeared.

While the FBFI has not been quite clear, I think that they are using the label Convergent to specify this never-realized-but-still-hoped-for middle group, this tertium quid between separatist fundamentalism and Conservative Evangelicalism.  At best, Convergence is presently a mood or attitude, represented by scattered advocates here and there. So far as I am aware it controls no institutions and has started none of its own. At most it is represented by a handful of bloggers.

The FBFI does not think that this Convergent position is a healthy one; I am inclined to agree with them. It is likely that Convergence, if it ever concretizes into a movement, will be indistinguishable from Conservative Evangelicalism. For the moment, however, I am more interested in trying to understand more clearly what defines this mood. And I’m going to be using Pastor Johnson’s list of characteristics as my starting point.

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