FEBRUARY 15, 2016
LIKE MANY evangelical Christians, A. J. Zimmermann tells his conversion story with near-pointillistic detail. A 25-year-old recent divinity school graduate from Southern California, Zimmermann grew up in a non-religious household near Los Angeles with what he called “a lot of divorce” and an abusive stepfather. During his freshman year of high school,
there was this really cute girl in my Spanish 1 class. We started talking and she invited me to go to youth group. I had no idea what that was, but I thought, “She’s cute, maybe this will work out.” I’d never been in that context before — guitars and music and teaching about the Bible. I just kind of sat there and I was like, “Okay, I’m open to whatever’s here.” And I had this sense of love and peace come out of nowhere, and I was crying and crying, and I was just really curious about what this was.
Two days later, after learning “about Jesus and the cross and this whole salvation thing” at a second youth group meeting, Zimmermann committed his life to Christ. He became a regular churchgoer and went on to attend Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical Christian college east of Los Angeles. (The cute girl in Spanish class wound up dating his best friend.) Zimmermann graduated with a degree in biblical studies, enrolled in Azusa Pacific’s seminary program, married a fellow student (they struck up a conversation in a café after eyeing each other reading theology books), and began working part time as a youth pastor at a local church. He now directs a training program for prospective pastors at Life Pacific College, a Pentecostal seminary in San Dimas, California.
Zimmermann’s prototypical evangelical experience is emblematic in one additional, unexpected way. Since graduating from high school, Zimmermann has undergone a revolution in his thinking about evangelicals’ foundational text, the Bible, to the extent that he no longer regards the Bible as inerrant, dictated by God, historically accurate in all of its claims or even internally consistent with itself. “The Bible holds high authority in my life,” Zimmermann told me recently. And yet, he added,
I think it’s important to remember the intent and purpose of the biblical texts. These texts were not intending to portray exact historical fact but to show how God is moving with history, alongside people […] If we understand the term inerrancy to be “without error” then no, I don’t view the Bible as inerrant […] The Scripture is not trying to be without error. It is trying to communicate the love God has for His creation.
I was introduced to Zimmermann by one of his seminary teachers, an Azusa Pacific biblical studies professor named Karen Strand Winslow, who put me in touch with several of her students after I asked her what young evangelicals think about the Bible these days. In addition to his dismissal of biblical inerrancy, Zimmermann told me he no longer believes the biblical book of Genesis is “concerned […] with young-versus-old-earth, literal days of creation stuff.” He said biblical passages appearing to condemn homosexuality are products of their time and do not necessarily apply to present-day same-sex couples “committed in a consensual relationship.” The same goes for New Testament prohibitions against women in church leadership. “We often forget that Jesus’s ministry was founded by women and that the first evangelists were women,” he added. Overall, Zimmermann said, the days when evangelicals defined themselves by their uncompromising style of biblical interpretation are over. “Before my generation […] it was like, if you don’t believe this doctrine, you’re undermining the work of Christ on the cross. [My generation is] not as okay with the simplified answers.”
Evangelical Christianity in America is in the midst of a wholesale generational, cultural, and doctrinal transformation. Confronted by a secularizing and diversifying society, evangelicals are abandoning long-held political allegiances, softening their views on sexuality, grappling with the racial divide in their churches, and rethinking their entire approach to ministry and evangelization. Underlying all of these developments is a more fundamental change in the way evangelicals understand and interpret their most cherished text, the Bible. Though evangelicals proclaim themselves — and are portrayed in most media accounts — to be univocal followers of an inerrant, plainly interpreted Bible, in fact there is widening diversity in their approach to Scripture. Like Zimmermann, a growing number of evangelicals are abandoning “the simplified answers” and seeking a richer, more nuanced, more challenging engagement with Scripture, one grounded not in aphorisms or political ideology, but in what Zimmermann called the deeper “truth of who God is.”
This quest has led many evangelicals to revise their interpretation of key biblical passages (especially those addressing sexual or social justice themes), downgrade parts of Scripture as historical anachronisms, and reject the political call to arms still sounded by a dwindling generation of conservative elders. A new evangelical theology is taking shape, one that retains the Bible as its centerpiece, but understands it very differently. Evangelicals once summarized their approach to Scripture with a staccato catchphrase: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Today, especially among younger evangelicals, each part of that formula is undergoing revision. “I’ve never been in the camp of wanting to draw these hard lines,” Zimmermann told me. He went on:
My hard lines are sort of, “Just go with the basic statements of the faith.” Yes, I believe in Jesus, and if people don’t believe in Jesus, alright, there’s room for conversation there. I never want to be the one to count someone out. I don’t think that’s my job. What I’ve seen in the Scriptures is to love, and love, and love, and keep on loving until they kill you.
This is a big, variegated change, with profound consequences for evangelicals’ distinct religiosity and their often combative relationship with mainstream American society. So far, no single observer has captured the change, or its ramifications, in its entirety. But the picture is coming into focus as journalists, scholars, and evangelical leaders grapple with increasing sophistication and candor with evangelicalism’s uncertain future in a secularizing America. An array of recent publications, both online and off, portray a church taking determined steps to survive by rethinking some of its basic approaches to faith.
One of the sharpest and most recent of those accounts is a book-length immersion into the hitherto underreported world of progressive evangelicalism by Deborah Jian Lee, a religion journalist and visiting scholar at Cornell University. In Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women, and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism, Lee tells interlocking stories of gay, black, Asian, and women Christians agitating for change in a faith tradition characterized by its doctrinal and cultural conservatism. Combining immersive reporting with brief forays into historical research, Lee profiles key activists and cites an array of sociological data showing that evangelical churches are diversifying ethnically and stratifying generationally as younger evangelicals cast aside hostility to gays and seek to end their faith’s alienation from mainstream America.
“For a long time, whatever white evangelical leaders said was theology was theology with a capital T,” Lee said when I spoke with her recently,
Today, because of the demographic shifts and because of where young evangelicals are theologically and the influx of people of color, we’re seeing that theology can come from many different places […] Theology is becoming more inclusive of the people who are within the church.
Evangelical observers do not dispute such claims. “There’s a shift as older generations are passing away and new generations are coming of age,” said Jonathan Merritt, an evangelical author and columnist for Religion News Service, whose coverage has closely tracked evangelicals’ evolving attitudes toward Scripture. He added:
You’ve seen a fracturing of the movement. You’ve got an approach now where when people want to know what the truth is about something, young Christians are still consulting the Bible. But oftentimes they’re bringing the Bible into conversations with other forms and sources of knowledge […] To see the Bible as a one-stop shop for everything, science, history, every matter of faith, and anything and everything you need to know is contained there — that’s been a perspective that’s shifted.
Thanks to America’s recent about-face toward same-sex relationships, that shift is now observable in real time, both in print and online. “I’m opening a can of worms,” writes Ken Wilson, a prominent Michigan pastor, at the start of his 2014 book, A Letter to My Congregation: An Evangelical Pastor’s Path to Embracing People Who are Gay, Lesbian and Transgender into the Company of Jesus. In 216 densely argued pages, Wilson tells how what began as a “fleeting unease” grew into a wholesale reevaluation not only of what the Bible says about sexuality, but of basic assumptions about biblical truth long considered sacrosanct within evangelicalism.
“We become understandably concerned when we think the authority, value, or trustworthiness of Scripture might be at stake,” Wilson writes. Nevertheless, he concludes that over-interpretation of a handful of biblical prohibitions against homosexuality has obscured a deeper biblical message:
We are called to practice the gospel discipline, the gospel glory, the gospel enactment, of mutual acceptance […] It seems to me that this ethic is emphasized so strongly because the Jesus movement knew all too well the danger of over-zealous or harmful application of the Bible.
Sexuality figures prominently, too, in megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton’s recent book-length effort to persuade evangelicals that many of their most cherished biblical views are the product of convention, not timeless truths. “There are statements on [the Bible’s] pages that I don’t believe capture the character and will of God,” Hamilton writes at the beginning of Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today. Hamilton, named a Distinguished Evangelist by the United Methodist Church, goes on to dismiss many totems of conservative Christianity — the six-day creation of the world, subordination of women, opposition to homosexuality — replacing them with what he calls “an attempt to honestly wrestle with the difficult questions often raised by thoughtful Christians and non-Christians concerning things taught in the Bible.” One thing his book does not contain: claims of biblical inerrancy or scientific accuracy, which he calls “flawed […] When the Bible is read while holding these assumptions the reader will, at some point, become confused, misguided or profoundly disappointed.”
To the dismay of conservative leaders, views like Hamilton’s are gaining ground. Just one in five of all Americans — and only 13 percent of those under age 30 — currently believes that “the Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally, word for word,” according to the American Bible Society, which each year conducts what it calls a national “State of the Bible” survey, measuring American attitudes toward Scripture. Most Americans hold a more nuanced opinion of the Bible, viewing it as either an inspired text with historical errors or “just another book of teachings written by men.” Close to a majority believes “the Bible, the Koran and the book of Mormon are all different expressions of the same spiritual truths.” In a 2009 study by the Barna Group, an evangelical research organization, more than 20 percent of self-proclaimed “born-again” Christians disagreed that the Bible “is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches.” Sixty percent of born-agains denied that Satan is real, and nearly 40 percent said they did not believe “Jesus lived a sinless life.”
Conservative evangelicals have tried to counter such trends with their own publishing efforts — salvos in what a recent Christianity Today editorial called “the New Battle for the Bible.” Two years ago, Kevin DeYoung, a prominent Michigan pastor and co-leader of a national network of theologically conservative churches, published Taking God at His Word: Why the Bible is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me, a book expressly intended, as he put it to me, “to help reassert for a new generation the divine inspiration and total trustworthiness of the Scriptures.” DeYoung said he “often hear[s] from older Christian leaders that they’ve never seen more hunger for the Bible, more of a willingness to learn, and a more of commitment to sound theology in younger generations than they see today.” But he acknowledged that preserving traditional biblical interpretation in contemporary evangelicalism has become a challenge. “I think we are seeing the beginning of a big sort in American Christianity, and among evangelicals in particular,” he said,
I have no doubt many young people are more flexible and less traditional in their understanding of the faith, especially when it comes to sexual ethics […] I don’t think there is less formal allegiance to Scripture in evangelical churches. But practically, the authority of the Bible can be neutered when churches don’t think it’s clear, it’s sufficient, or it’s all that understandable.
DeYoung’s careful distinction between evangelicals’ “formal allegiance to Scripture” and their actual adherence to biblical principles is on point. Though evangelicals continue to portray themselves in public — especially to their opponents in political debates — as unwavering upholders of biblical orthodoxy, in practice even many high-profile evangelical leaders appear increasingly comfortable jettisoning those parts of the Bible that might interfere with their ministry to contemporary America. “I believe the Scripture is without error in its original autographs, as I Tweeted the other day,” California megachurch pastor Rick Warren said in a 2011 online interview. Nevertheless, despite Jesus’s unambiguous prohibition of divorce in three different New Testament gospels, Warren’s Saddleback Church not only welcomes America’s sizable population of divorced evangelicals, it offers them a special ministry led by Saddleback members who, according to the church’s website, “have healed from the impact of divorce and can minister to those who have just completed the walk.” The divorce ministry is not unique to Saddleback. It is a video-based program called DivorceCare developed by Church Initiative, a North Carolina para-church organization that crafts ministry products for Christian single parents, divorcees, and the grief-stricken. “How can God produce something good out of something as bad as divorce?” the DivorceCare website asks. “This segment [of the 12-part DivorceCare program] will show you how to grow closer to God as you go through your divorce experience.”
Similarly, Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, flagship of a global network of thousands of evangelical congregations, employs women pastors and elders despite clear biblical prohibitions against women leading in church. “A few isolated scriptural texts appear to restrict the full ministry freedom of women,” a statement on Willow Creek’s website explains,
The interpretation of those passages must take into account their relation to the broader teaching of Scripture and their specific contexts. We believe that, when the Bible is interpreted comprehensively, it teaches the full equality of men and women in status, giftedness, and opportunity for ministry.
“I don’t know of anybody who’s a biblical literalist,” New York City megachurch pastor Tim Keller says in a 2009 online video tutorial about biblical interpretation. Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and co-founder of the national conservative church network where Kevin DeYoung serves on the governing council, is widely hailed by evangelicals for successfully ministering in a secular city without compromising biblical integrity. Keller’s official position on the Bible is that “Scripture is our final authority” for all matters of faith. Nevertheless, he carves out room in his tutorial for skeptical New Yorkers to reinterpret individual biblical passages that conflict too discordantly with modern life. Keller says he himself doesn’t take the creation story in the first chapter of the biblical book of Genesis literally because it is not written:
as historical prose narrative […] Obviously, Genesis 1 has a big impact on how you understand evolution and so forth. So, I would consider myself a person who believes in the full authority of the Bible, and yet even if you believe that, there’s room for debate about what parts of the Bible you take literally or not.
At a recent Sunday morning service at Redeemer, I spoke with Aaron Link, a 28-year-old software engineer for Google who teaches first graders in the church’s Sunday school. He told me he was, like most Redeemer members, theologically conservative, believing the Bible to be “the Word of God, therefore it’s inerrant, it’s trustworthy, it’s authoritative.” Yet Link was flexible when it came to particulars. The creation narrative in Genesis? “I’ve heard different things from people here […] I’m still trying to figure it out.” Should women be allowed to lead in churches? “It’s not something I’ve looked into. If a person argued that it’s scripturally based, I’d go with that.” Should all parts of the Bible be taken literally? “Just because you believe a part of the Bible is metaphorical, you’re not compromising the inerrancy of Scripture.”
What remains unclear is whether evangelicals’ gradual loosening of biblical strictness will enable them to overcome the significant demographic challenges coinciding with their change of course. Last year’s most important religion-related publication might well turn out to have been the Pew Forum’s 2015 Religious Landscape Study, a comprehensive survey of the nation’s religiosity that found a startling 5-million drop in the number of American Christians since 2007. The number of evangelicals rose by 2.4 million, but the increase was not enough to keep pace with overall population growth. If current trends continue, evangelicals will be outnumbered by non-religious Americans in just a few years. A closer look at the Pew numbers suggests even the growth evangelicals experienced was powered largely by mainline Protestants and Catholics fleeing their own declining congregations. More than a quarter of all evangelicals were raised either as mainline Protestants or as Catholics, according to Pew, compared to just nine percent converted from outside Christianity. Among millennials, the youngest age cohort surveyed by Pew, just one-fifth are evangelical, compared to 35 percent professing no religion at all.
“Most teens will walk away from faith when they graduate from high school,” said Guy Wasko, an evangelical pastor in New York City with whom I spoke about the challenges of sustaining Christianity in a secularizing America. He was referring to an emerging body of research showing that up to 80 percent of Christian young adults turn their back on faith. Two-thirds of those dropouts eventually find their way back to church later in life. But that remains a high rate of attrition — roughly a quarter of children raised as Christians walking away from their faith. Among those who depart, according to the Barna Group, an evangelical research organization, close to a majority — 41 percent — said they left because their church seemed “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “unfriendly,” or “unwelcoming.”
Wasko said his church, Trinity Grace, a 9-year-old megachurch headquartered in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan with 10 satellite branches throughout the city, has succeeded in luring back young church dropouts by replacing the “vehemently opposed to gay marriage fire and brimstone guy on Sunday morning” approach to Christianity with what he described “a current, more relevant expression of the faith.” “More relevant” includes Wasko’s earrings and tattoos, “Philosophy and Faith” nights with atheist guest speakers, “artist salons” featuring “drinks and wine and cheese,” and sermons about the irony of irreligious Manhattanites worshiping at the altar of work and success.
Most importantly, said Wasko, Trinity Grace does not insist that its members adhere to a strict, literal interpretation of Scripture. “A lot of damage has been done by the preacher on a soapbox shouting out hellfire and brimstone,” he said. Trinity Grace offers a different form of Christianity:
We invite people into community. We invite them into groups exploring the Scripture and no question is taboo. Let’s look at the text and read it together and ask for wisdom from those who have gone before us and the Spirit itself […] I would make a lot of enemies in the evangelical world if I was quoted saying that parts of the Scriptures are parabolic, that there wasn’t a six-day creation […] [But] let’s argue that the Scriptures as a whole are parabolic in nature. Does that make them less true? Sheep don’t cry wolf but the parable still delivers a truth. At a 30,000-foot level, if we can agree with that, then maybe we can get past some of the hang-ups people have toward the text.
Trinity Grace’s online statement of faith begins with the declaration — standard in evangelical churches — “We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the infallible, authoritative Word of God.” In practice, said Wasko, church members do not read all Bible passages with the same interpretive lens:
If my whole faith is ruined because all of a sudden creation wasn’t six days or Jesus didn’t walk on water, that’s not really faith. I still believe lots of crazy-sounding things, like Jesus’s resurrection from the dead. If you reject that, you’re moving away from orthodox Christianity […] I’m just saying that if my God of the Scriptures is not bigger than my ability to make sense of them, that’s not God. If I can figure everything out, then that’s pretty pathetic. A lot of people like to work with bricks, not rubber bands and springs. But I think life is more dynamic than bricks.
Zimmermann told me, his own evolution away from biblical literalism began with his first Bible class at Azusa Pacific. Though the college’s official statement of faith also begins with the words, “We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative word of God,” professors nevertheless introduce their students to the basics of biblical scholarship, and to what Karen Strand Winslow, Zimmermann’s seminary teacher, called “the human side” of the text’s origins and meaning. Zimmermann said he instantly realized the “aphorisms” he was taught in church youth groups were woefully simplistic. “We were given these answers that worked for our parents but didn’t work for us,” he said.
Zimmermann said his goal as a Christian, what he called his “capstone project,” was to win back disenchanted young evangelicals by showing them a richer, more open-ended way to read the Bible. “How do we bring alive these texts we’ve heard over and over again? How do we address our generation?” he said. He concluded:
There are some people who come into faith through logic and seeing that God is the only way. But we’re people of feelings, and we just want to know that we’re loved […] I think it’s a lot easier to create doctrinal statements and say, “These are true, and if you don’t believe them, you’re out,” than it is to say there’s room for ambiguity and relationship, and we’re all just different people trying to figure this thing out together.
Works considered in this essay:
Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism (Beacon Press, November, 2015).
Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today (Harper One, 2014).
Kevin DeYoung, Taking God at His Word: Why the Bible is Knowable, Necessary and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me (Crossway, 2014).
Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” (May 12, 2015).