Recently I shared the ‘presentation‘ text of a paper I gave at a theology conference in the USA. Whilst I’m British and that reflects my experience, I find evangelicalism in the USA fascinating. I left out this bit – from a book Mark Noll wrote over 20 years ago, which I think demonstrates remarkably thoughtful prescience – and definitely makes sense of the idea that history is well worth listening to in order to predict the future!
Noll closes his study with these words, which I quote at length as an example of an accidental prophecy, that should remind us that we stand at just another point in the ever-swirling maelstrom of questions and positions. Bear in mind that this was written over 20 years ago, at least, yet contains something of uncanny accuracy:
“North American evangelicalism will almost certainly be characterised by more pluralism than unity. The passing of Billy Graham, who celebrated his eightieth birthday in 1998, will mark the end of an important historical era. Unless unforeseen developments occur, the apparent unity that Graham’s presence bequeathed to a diverse movement will be a thing of the past. In addition, evangelicalism will no doubt continue to fragment because of differences in response to the demise of ‘Christian America’. Some may welcome America’s more pluralistic society as a chance to shore up the inner life of the church, some may combat it as the loss of a treasured inheritance, and some may retreat back into inner realms of personal piety. In theology evangelicalism will continue to witness a greater emphasis on practice than theory. In public life we are likely to see increasing cultural polarisation. In intellectual life, evangelical populism will probably continue to prevail over intellectual breakthroughs. If these predictions are correct, it means that we should expect more of what has gone on throughout the past century”
Graham family studies aside, I think Noll has predicted exactly what has happened. The notion of ‘Christian America’ is a touchstone for understanding of Kingdom theology. In public life we have seen increasing cultural polarisation. Popularism often does triumph over breakthrough. With various ‘options’ presented as ways forward for the church, perhaps the Vineyard can offer a way of being church that takes eschatology seriously enough to know that this present time is nothing new, nothing unexpected, and, ultimately, nothing that the ‘evangel’ does not have something to do with.