The Future of Evangelicalism
An interview with Dr. Walter Kim, President of the National Association of Evangelicals
Edited by Jessica Schroeder and Andrea Weyand
In a cultural context in which the term “evangelical” has become stigmatized, it’s no surprise that the notion of “evangelicalism” is often confusing and polarizing. Moreover, given the increasing secularization of the United States in particular, much is shaping the movement. How are we to interpret the movement and live into what it means to be evangelicals? Here we ask Dr. Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, about the current climate of evangelicalism. Despite the discouragement many may feel regarding political, societal tensions, concerns related to diversity, and so forth, Dr. Kim offers a perspective filled with hope for both the individual and the Church at large.
Denver Seminary: What core issues are shaping the evangelical movement?
Dr. Walter Kim: Evangelicalism is not a single experience or uniform group of people. There is a theological core that evangelicals share, but after that there is a set of issues that speak to the diversity within evangelicalism. And that’s going to be very important for the future.
[Evangelicalism is] shaped by a couple of things— cultural posture and sociological expression. By cultural posture I mean theological beliefs: a high view of Scripture and conversion to Christ, and an active expression of faith. But beyond that, there’s a posture toward culture that asks questions like: How do I reconcile questions of faith and reason? Can I trust secular sources of information, and how do I interact with them? Those questions are critical to the responses people have on issues of creation versus evolution, how we understand vaccination, and the like. The relationship between science and faith is answered in evangelicalism with greater or lesser amounts of synthesis or wariness based on the individual. As we look at sociological expressions, what region you’re in, your racial or ethnic background, your denomination, even church size—those are deeply formative in the ways that we understand evangelicalism and express our faith.
When I think about the future of evangelicalism, I think about it as this mix of diversity within the evangelical movement, and then the question becomes: Which segments of evangelicalism will thrive and in what ways will they thrive?
Denver Seminary: How do we reconcile our private and public faith in a space where people have such ingrained and polarized viewpoints? Dr. Walter Kim: Churches are magnificent at certain types of discipleship. When it comes to marriage, for example, they know how to do premarital counseling. They know how to do solemnized versions of weddings. And if your marriage is in crisis, they have classes, books, and seminars for you.
But there isn’t the same kind of discipleship when it comes to our civic engagement. There’s a general ethos in our country that certain topics are meant to be private issues—e.g., politics and religion—that are publicly debated. How do we posture ourselves, not simply in the realm of politics, but our relationship to culture, knowledge, secular institutions, pluralism?
Evangelicalism will need a much more robust discipleship in our public commitments as Christians. That is going to be vital for public witness. As Christians, I think we sometimes get it backward. Evangelicalism doesn’t need rebranding. It needs something much more fundamental. Evangelicalism needs a public discipleship of what it means to have a renewal movement, not simply of the soul, but of society.
Denver Seminary: What does this “renewal movement” look like? Dr. Walter Kim: Look at the way Jesus introduced himself to the world in Luke 4, when He went into the synagogue and rolled open a scroll. He said He came to proclaim good news, not for the forgiveness of sins, which is what a modern evangelical would say. He proclaimed good news for the poor, for the blind, for the prisoner, for those who are oppressed. In other words, it was good news for the fundamental social issues of the day. The good news is not an either/or; it’s a both/and. It deals with our personal forgiveness and eternal destiny.
Evangelicalism will need a much more robust discipleship in our public commitments as Christians. That is going to be vital for public witness. As Christians, I think we sometimes get it backward. Evangelicalism doesn’t need rebranding. It needs something much more fundamental.
But it also deals with the transformation of social relationships and the ordering of society as God intended. It is a renewal of all things. It’s recapturing the breadth of biblical faith and its application. And it’s working to detach moral principles from political partisanship. In the absence of good public discipleship, a lot of Christians have politicized faith because we understand that we need to get involved in society. And without good public theology and good public discipleship, we’re going to be formed by the media and our peers rather than a biblical vision of what it means to be the peacemaking people of God.
Renewal shows up in the catechism of our children—in other words, the way that we spiritually form our children—and in looking at what we pray for. It will require us to build relationships across differences. The Black Church, for instance, has a long and robust tradition of public theology. I think the more we cut across differences of race, of ethnicity, of economics, we’re going to see that there are pressing questions that different communities ask that need to be answered. And when we discover those questions, we discover that our faith right now is not sufficient to answer the breadth of what we are now encountering.
I’m excited about the future of evangelicalism because we are actually seeing a much more racially and ethnically diverse form of evangelicalism developing in this moment. And that diversity is bringing with it fresh questions, fresh demands on our responses of what biblical faith looks like. Our theological imagination is being stoked, but not because of political partisanship. It’s being stoked because these are communities and friendships that we’re developing—if these questions are important to you, they must be important to me.
Denver Seminary: These ideas are often seen as “us” versus “them.” How do we frame the future of evangelicalism as hopeful, rather than as if someone is being attacked?
Dr. Walter Kim: If we explore the Scriptures, we will realize the people of God have been in this situation before. In the Old Testament, people were persecuted by empire after empire in political turmoil. The books of Samuel and Kings are one long story of the people of God experiencing polarization. Look at the New Testament. The gospel flourished when it was a minority faith oppressed by the Roman Empire. Today you can look at some of the most vibrant churches thriving in nations of political persecution.
When I think about our situation in America, one of the things that gives me deep hope is that God’s people have been here before. They are currently here. And God has not abandoned them.
So, what will the Church in America do? The people of God have appeared throughout history and even now globally as faithful followers of Jesus under the most adverse situations, declaring in an even more profound and beautiful way that Jesus Christ is indeed the hope of the world. And that gives me tremendous hope. This is about evangelicalism. In this moment, we are seeing a realignment and reacquaintance of communities that are coming together and saying enough is enough. Let’s build some bridges. Within the National Association of Evangelicals, we are beginning to see a kind of ethnic diversity and denominational diversity that seems robust. It is happening quietly, but it is happening. And to me, it promises a form of evangelicalism that I think is much richer, much sturdier, and much more capable to enter into this future.
Denver Seminary: Most of us aren’t privy to the hopeful information about the Church that you are. What can leaders do to continue to share this hope in churches or communities?
Dr. Walter Kim: Because of my position, I do get a front row seat to some of the most beautiful things that are happening within evangelicalism. And that’s a great privilege. This is not the story that is unfolding before a lot of people. There are a lot of churches that are undergoing crisis right now; divisions have riven churches because of political affiliations or issues of race that have come up. There is a balance between the pastoral and the prophetic that evangelicals have not gotten right. There are those who are in this kind of pastoral work that do see some of these wonderful changes happening, and they need to speak more prophetically to society at large. And there are those who are speaking prophetically that need to understand that there are challenges to society and to the evangelical community that will result not simply in a critique and a crumbling, but in a transformation. They will need to learn how, during that prophetic stance, to pastor people into that transformation. And I am trusting that is in fact what is happening in this moment.
And there needs to be a convergence of both the pastoral and the prophetic because there’s not uniform evangelicalism right now. The pluralism that lives in our country is a pluralism that lives within the evangelical movement itself. We need to be more nuanced and rapid in our ability to be both prophetic and pastoral. And that means for some of us, we’re going to need to take a more public stance and we’re going to need to think about what our endgame is. Is the endgame to critique or to make a change?
Denver Seminary: What are some things that we can do as individuals to continue to demonstrate true evangelicalism?
Dr. Walter Kim: First, we need to be praying. I think American Christianity by and large is not a praying Christianity. There isn’t the desperation that often exists in the global Church—many of our brothers and sisters throughout the world are reduced to understanding their own poverty, their own dependence upon God, and the absolute inability to strategize out of it. I think in America we are much more apt when faced with a challenge to try to find a book, seminar, or video to give us the right five-step plan in order to see change. I would say we need a deep, deep humbling of ourselves before God and a recognition that the American “can-do” spirit may, in fact, be to our detriment right now.
The second thing I would recommend is not only to humble ourselves before God, but to seek out what it means to listen to those who are different from you. Seek out conversation partners on the ideological spectrum, seek out people who are different from you ethnically, racially, socioeconomically, and learn what questions they have. There’s not only so much to learn from those kinds of conversations in terms of what other people have to offer, but there’s so much to learn about how much we have to grow. When we humble ourselves, we’re much more open to God challenging us in our own self-righteousness.
And third, begin to make the causes of others your cause. Find out what makes others weep and what makes them rejoice. In that solidarity, begin to expand the breadth of what you understand as the scope of Christian faith.
Lastly, expand your diet of information. Have news sources that demonstrate a breadth of information. Read theological works that talk about the application of the gospel in deeper spaces. If we want to grow in our public discipleship, then we need to read works that talk beyond, “How can I improve my prayer life?” and explore, “What does it look like to have a faith that engages with our social issues, that engages with the complexity of our moment?” That requires curiosity and humility.
Denver Seminary: Where does theological education fit into this picture of our future?
Dr. Walter Kim: I think this is where theological education is going to need fresh models for the future. There’s going to be a deep need for recognition that the formation of the person— not just individually, but the person within the context of culture and society—is a much more complex work. I’m hopeful that theological education is in this very fertile moment reassessing and realigning what it looks like to provide theological education. I have a deep desire and hope that theological education is able to send forth pastors who have been formed deeply, not simply in the leadership of pastoral care of private personal issues, but pastors who understand deeply because they have been discipled deeply in the public engagements of the Christian faith. We are going to need shepherds of the flock who have been formed and who are forming God’s people for the future.
Dr. Walter Kim became the president of the National Association of Evangelicals in January 2020. He has spent nearly three decades preaching, writing, and engaging in collaborative leadership to connect the Bible to the significant intellectual, cultural, and social issues of the day. He serves on the boards of Christianity Today and World Relief. Dr. Kim received his PhD from Harvard University in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, his MDiv from Regent College in Vancouver, and his BA from Northwestern University, and he is a licensed minister in the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference.