Friday, 7 August 2020  

What Younger Evangelicals Want—and Are Getting!

Robert E. Webber is the William R. and Geraldyn B. Myers Professor of Ministry at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, one of the only seminaries in the country that offers a Master’s and a Doctorate in worship and which has intentional studies that integrate worship and spirituality into the program. He is also the President of the Institute For Worship Studies which offers a MWS (Masters of Worship Studies) and a DWS (Doctor of Worship Studies). He is also Professor of Theology Emeritus at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

Dr. Webber has lectured on worship in nearly every denomination and fellowship, and has authored or edited more than 40 books on worship including the eight-volume work, The Complete Library of Christian Worship. His most recent books include: Planning Blended Worship (Abingdon, 1998), Ancient-Future Faith (Baker, 1999), and Journey to Jesus (Abingdon, 2001).

His latest book, The Younger Evangelical (Baker, 2002), is attracting broad attention and interest because of its incisive look at a new emerging leadership in the church, while at the same time pausing to look at the leadership models of the 20th-century church.

Dr. Webber was scheduled to speak at a conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on Radical Orthodoxy, where Homiletics was to meet up with him for this interview. But he called a few days before the conference to say that he had had back surgery and wouldn’t be there. So we met with him in his home in Wheaton, where in the kitchen, and in a straight-back chair, he gladly and graciously discussed his observations about a church that is in the midst of change and the Younger Evangelicals who are leading the way.

Homiletics: To start, we should probably clarify the categories you develop for evangelicals in the 20th century and the early 21st century. You identify traditional, pragmatic and Younger Evangelicals. What defines these groups?

Webber: The underlying idea of these three groups is that evangelicalism seems to follow the curvature of culture and reflects culture. And if you look back over the last 50-60 years, culture has actually gone through three very distinct groupings: Boomers, Gen-Xers and now Millennials. It seems to me that as evangelicalism encounters each cultural shift that each cultural shift as they integrate with it gives a different shape and form, not so much to the message, but to the way in which the message itself is communicated. So if you go back to Traditional Evangelicalism, I see it shaped by World War II and post-World War II. And then the Pragmatics, who emerged in the ’80s or so under the leadership of Bill Hybels and others are essentially shaped by the ’60s and the revolution that the ’60s introduced — even though they didn’t begin until the late ’70s and ’80s, they are really children of the ’60s.

Now things are changing again. The rise of the Millennials (who have been born since 1982 — and these are not hard and fast dates) have been shaped by post modernity, and as a result of their cultural interaction with post modernity, they’re beginning to reflect in a different way on what evangelical Christianity looks like.

Homiletics: Does this mean that in subsequent generations, we can expect to see a different expression of the church?

Webber: Probably we will. If you look back over history, cycles took a long time. But since the 1950s, studies of sociologists like Strauss and Howe, in particular — two people on whom I lean for sociological analysis — show how rapidly the cycles are now occurring. So what used to take — good grief — 400 or 500 years or more, is now occurring within one or two generations.

Homiletics: So then, the Traditional Evangelicals function within a modern worldview that is rationalistic, and propositional.

Webber: That probably is the most distinguishing feature of the Traditionalists. They’ve been shaped by the Enlightenment. So they work with modern philosophy, a modern understanding of science, history, sociology. They’re modernists, and so they interpret the Christian faith through these modern categories. And what’s very interesting about Traditional Evangelicals is that the categories through which they interpret the Christian faith are almost regarded as sacred, almost as sacred as the Christian faith itself. So if you say, “Well, I don’t believe in evidential apologetics,” there’s something wrong with you.

Another way to look at these groupings is to look through a communication lens. So, for example, Traditionalists are given to print communication, are much more verbal. The Pragmatists emerging in the ’80s and ’90s, they’re much more given to the communications revolution that took place in the ’60s and ’70s, which is oriented around television and broadcast. So their churches are broadcast churches, and they want to show the gospel and present the gospel and entertain people with the gospel. So they’re very much shaped by a broadcast model of communication.

Now a third group, that I call the Younger Evangelicals, or the Millennials — they’re shaped more by the Internet. Therefore, their approach to worship and the church is going to be much more oriented around the interaction of the Internet.

Homiletics: So the Pragmatists are plugged in, the Younger Evangelicals are unplugged, i.e., wireless, the Internet.

Webber: Yes, that’s a good image.

Homiletics: Why do you use the word “pragmatic” to describe the boomer church?

Webber: I use the word “pragmatic” because they’re really shaped by the business model, the market model, the advertising model. Just as all the market and business and advertising began to emerge in the late ’70s and ’80s — and that’s observable to anybody who looks at magazines and television and notes how consumerism began to develop. It seems to me that they’ve created a consumerist church. The product is Jesus and the good life. It’s therapeutic Christianity. And they’re out to sell that. So they’ve asked themselves the question: “What’s the best way to sell Jesus and get people into the life of the church?”

Homiletics: And they’re very successful at it.

Webber: Very successful. In jest, I call them the Wal-Mart churches. There’s something for everyone. You walk in that door and no matter who you are, they’ve got something for you. I’m not saying that’s entirely wrong. I’m saying that’s a reflection of the culture, and the result of the Christianity they’ve promoted — and this is my judgment — is that Christianity accommodated itself so much to the culture, it has come to look like the culture. Christianity has been catechized by the culture as opposed to Christianity catechizing the culture itself.

Homiletics: Is this the Constantinian model of the church, or is that linked more to Traditional Evangelicals?

Webber: The Constantinian model is more oriented to the Traditional church. But then what I see is that this Pragmatic model is caught between the Constantinian model and the performance model. It still seems to be the tail end of the Constantinian model, although the Traditional church is probably more rooted in the church serving the cultural, serving the nation, a much more civil religion would be found in the Traditional church, although there’s plenty of it in the Pragmatic church as well.

This is where the Younger evangelicals are breaking with the past. They do not see the church as an accommodation to the culture. They don’t see it in terms of a civil religion. They see the church in a very countercultural way.

Homiletics: So they embrace more of a pre-Constantinian model?

Webber: Yes.

Homiletics: And by that you mean that they embrace what kind of core values?

Webber: I think they would all sense that the church is functioning in a pagan America. The notion that this is a Christian nation, or ever has been, or should be, is a notion that is really foreign to the new way of thinking. This is more of a missional model; it is a church that exists within the context of a post-Christian, a post-Constantinian, postmodern era. This era is essentially pagan in similar ways in which the church grew up or was early formed in a pagan culture. So my argument has been that if you want to know what the church should look like in today’s pagan American or pagan world, then we need to go back to the first three centuries in particular and take a look at what the church did at that particular period of history and translate that into our postmodern, post-Constantinian, post-Christian world.

Homiletics: Why do you use the comparative form of the word “young”?

Webber: For a couple of reasons: One is, the word does reflect the leadership of the young people. Second, it’s younger in the sense that it’s a new movement, and therefore expresses a younger spirit within the context of the Evangelical world, but it draws upon the experience of older people as well.

Homiletics: Have Hybels, or Warren, or others responded to the book The Younger Evangelical?

Webber: Traditionalists have by and large pooh-poohed it. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s made up a lot of this stuff. The book is at the cutting edge of the movement, and there are a lot of people who just don’t believe this is happening.

Let me give you an example. I was talking to a professor at Biola in California. He said that he’d read the book, and liked it, but he said, “You know, I just don’t see it.” Two weeks later I got an e-mail from some students at Biola who said exactly the very things we’re saying in The Younger Evangelical.

Pragmatists have completely ignored the book. The Younger Evangelicals, and primarily Web sites like The Ooze and Emergent Village, have raved about the book. They’ve basically said, “It’s me. I could have written this book. This is my life. This is the way I think; I thought I was the only person who thinks this way. I thought I was nuts. I thought we were the only group who thinks this way, and now all of a sudden someone is telling us that this type of thing is going on all over the world.”

Homiletics: What alerted you to the presence of this emerging new group of younger leaders?

Webber: I’ve been doing workshops on worship all over the country since about 1994. I’ve gone to virtually every city in the United States and many of them twice to do workshops on worship. I suppose the first alert was when I was in California and a young woman stood up who was on the InterVarsity staff, and she said, “Finally, I’ve come to a conference where somebody understands my age group.” I started thinking about that. I kept meeting young people who kept coming up to me to tell me what they were thinking. In Albany I met with a couple of kids from the Salvation Army. They wanted to have coffee with me afterward. I sat there for about three hours and listened to them. I had nothing to say. Just listened to them. I was so impressed with the books they were reading. All the connections started to fall into place. When I got home, I sent a book proposal to Baker and forgot about it until later, my wife called me while I was on the road and said there’s a contract in the mail!

Homiletics: Let’s talk about the Younger Evangelicals in terms of different rubrics. How do they, for example, approach apologetics?

Webber: The underlying shift is away from Christianity as an idea to Christianity as a life. If Christianity is an idea, then you have to defend it. You have to marshal all the arguments you can to make it look good. One of the things I like about the Radical Orthodoxy movement and John Milbanks is that he claims that in bringing all the disciplines in support of Christianity, we’ve actually marginalized the Christian faith. And so the Christian faith needs to stand on its own and interpret the world instead of the other way around. So the shift is from the Big Idea to the real, authentic life. This is exactly what attracts younger people. They are saying that the very best approach to the Christian faith and to expressing it is to live the life. So they’re very attracted to St. Francis, who is reported to have said, “Everywhere you go preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.”

Homiletics: Worship?

Webber: Their approach to worship is an embodied reality. My sense is that they’re still pretty much all over the map in terms of worship. But one of the things that they’re really trying to do in worship is create a sense of transcendence. If you look at worship over the last 30 years, the movement has been primarily the nearness of God, the immanence of God, the friendship of Jesus, the relationship and even a lot of romantic terminology in contemporary music about a relationship with God. The Younger Evangelicals are sick of that stuff. They just think it’s shallow, not really real — all this romantic stuff about their relationship with Jesus. And they’re beginning to see God more on the side of God’s holiness, God’s otherness, God’s transcendence. They’re trying to create an atmosphere that allows for that. What are big with Younger evangelicals are candles, icons — they will either use real icons, or they will flash icons on the walls of the church. There’s a recovery of hymnology, there’s a recovery of liturgy.

I’ll give you an example that’s just a week old. The chaplain from my Institute for Worship Studies, which is down in Florida, called me with this story. The staff of a well-known contemporary gospel singer and writer called him and asked him to come every two weeks to do liturgy with them and be on staff to counsel anyone who needs counseling. So they sat him down and said, “Even though we write contemporary stuff, we hate it. When you do chapel, no contemporary songs, please. We don’t know what you’re going to do, but no contemporary stuff.”

The Institute is very much rooted in ancient traditions, so he translated what we do in our chapel, and did the first liturgy with them last week. He did the passing of the peace, some ancient hymnology, and even on the prayers, they would pray, and they would sing together [he sings] “Lord have mercy.” He said, “Blew them away.” That’s the kind of thing the younger person is attracted to, and some older people, too. They’re so sick of wearing your relationship with Jesus on your sleeve.

Homiletics: Sounds like evangelicals are thirsting for what has traditionally been an integral part of the typical mainline worship service.

Webber: There’s some truth to that. I think that there is almost like, “What the other person does is better than what we’re doing. We’re getting a little tired of what we’re doing.” But I’ve found, on the other hand, that mainline churches are going for the Evangelical praise stuff, and it lasts for a little while, and then it peters out.

Homiletics: So is praise music dead?

Webber: No, I don’t think it’s dead. But many of the people who are into praise music have never learned any of the hymns or any of the ancient parts of the mass, or things of that sort. So what is going to happen is that it will become integrated into the whole, and get lost as a movement in and of itself.

Homiletics: So do we have a problem with the word “contemporary”?

Webber: It’s a dead word.

Homiletics: Not a useful word.

Webber: No, people aren’t attracted to that. The words that are used more frequently are “authentic,” and “genuine.” The term I’ve used is “ancient/future.” There’s a longing for roots and connection, something from the past to give meaning to the present. Whereas the Pragmatists hate the past. They basically said it’s no good. Let’s start this Christian thing all over again. Of course that was the spirit of the ’60s. The children of the parents of the ’60s see the poverty of what the ’60s revolution produced in every way.

Homiletics: Youth ministry?

Webber: Youth ministry is moving away from parties, picnics, Fear Factor kinds of things, to much more serious Bible study, prayer and things of that sort. I was at a Methodist conference in Pittsburgh, and the speaker was talking about youth ministry. He said he had tried everything in the book to get youth to come to the church: pizza parties, retreats, the whole thing. One day, he said, it was like God spoke to me: “You know, these kids have plenty of parties connected with school and so on.” So I shut the whole thing down and just started a Friday night prayer meeting and Bible study. He said, “I’ve no room for all the kids that are coming.” That’s a phenomenon that other people speak of. Howe and Strauss talk about this. There is a new seriousness about young people, millennial people. They don’t want to be entertained. They want to be challenged. They want a faith that is challenging as opposed to a Christianity that is entertaining.

Homiletics: What does the Younger Evangelical pastor look like?

Webber: This pastor is just the opposite of the Pragmatist, CEO model, the Standard Oil CEO operation, running a big business, which is exactly what the megachurch has become. It’s become a big business. The concept of the pastor for the Younger evangelical is to go back to being the shepherd. They don’t like big churches. They don’t want big churches. They want small churches. There’s a church here in Wheaton. One of the younger pastors decided he was called to go down into Chicago to start a series of neighborhood churches. So he talked to the church about this, and the church decided to support him. They encouraged some of their families to actually move into this Chicago area where they’re going. And they did. They started a church that is essentially a neighborhood church. Their goal is to have 100 neighborhood churches in this area in Chicago, and they would come together once in a while to have worship — more like the New Testament model, the house church.

I find this going on all over the United States. They don’t want to be known. This church I just referred to was mentioned in my book, but they only agreed to let me use their example on the condition that I wouldn’t identify them or say where the church is located. They said, “We don’t want to get known.” They want to be known in our community, but our goal is not to get known. This is very different from the goal of the Pragmatists.
So you find a servanthood model, a shepherd model. You also find a team model in the new emerging church. As opposed to having, say, a senior pastor. No one would use that term. No one would stand up and say, “I am the Senior Pastor.” They would only say, “I’m one of the pastors.” The other thing, too, is that a lot of these younger people are willing to work, to be schoolteachers, or trades people. They want to go to the city. There’s a tremendous interest in rebuilding the city. So they’ll work during the week and pastor the church on the weekend.

Homiletics: But don’t you agree that while there are the Traditionals and Pragmatics, and the Younger Evangelicals, they all in a sense resonate with certain elements of the culture and that together they provide a holistic approach, and no one model is going to work for everyone? Certainly the approach of the Younger Evangelicals is not going to connect with everyone.

Webber: The diversity lends itself to the unity of the church. But, frankly, I think the Younger Evangelicals with their small group fit the biblical model better than others.

Homiletics: Would you have said this 20 years ago when the Seeker-Sensitive approach was acclaimed as the New Big Idea?

Webber: I thought from the beginning that it was shaped more by culture than by biblical principle. Now I don’t deny that a lot of people have been very much helped by this. I was at a conference one time, and someone asked me what I would say to Bill Hybels if I sat down with him. I know what I would say to him: “Thank you for all the people you have helped, because you’ve helped some of my former students who have fallen astray.” So obviously I want to affirm the good that has been done and acknowledge it, but at the same time say that this approach to the Christian faith has been shaped by the culture. Granted, we always interact with culture one way or another, but I see the Younger Evangelicals as interacting toward a countercultural model that reflects more of what was going on in the first three centuries. I mean, I can’t discount Constantinian religion, or the medieval church, or the Eastern church, or the Reformation.

Here’s a history of the church. The Christian church began as a mission in Jerusalem, it moved to Rome and became an institution, it moved to Europe and became a culture, it moved across the ocean and became a big business. [laughter all around]. That’s the history of Christianity in four easy steps. But it does speak some truth in terms of the way Christianity is so flexible. It does speak to cultures in different ways. But now we’re facing new cultural issues, and I don’t think the Pragmatic model is going to survive in the long run. It may have a long history yet of 25 or 50 years. The Millennials are bringing a new type of leadership. My book is not a historical book, but a projection of where the church may go, based on sociological studies out there, and based on my study of Younger evangelicals who are already moving in this direction.

Homiletics: Are these postmodern kids reacting against postmodernity in the attempt to recover what was a part of the pre-Constantinian ethos or are they apart from the postmodernism? Have they stepped outside postmodernism to critique postmodernism?

Webber: Actually, most of the Younger Evangelicals are very well informed about post-modernity, and see themselves as a counter-cultural movement.

Homiletics: But do they see themselves as within postmodernity?

Webber: Oh yes, definitely.

Homiletics: So they see themselves as postmoderns, but it seems as though they’re speaking out against postmodernity.

Webber: Yes, well in the same way that Radical Orthodoxy is, too. We live in a post-modern world. Is there an alternative to postmodernity? And what they’re saying is that Christianity is an alternative to the relativism of postmodernity. What I do is say, “Okay, the relationship of the church to the culture is always countercultural, but always affirms the culture.” So the countercultural shape is that the Younger Evangelicals are not going to go with ethical relativism, spiritual relativism and religious relativism. They’re not going to allow Christianity to be shaped by that. So they will affirm, as they do, that there are absolutes, that spirituality is not just New Age stuff. They are affirming even more clearly than ever the uniqueness of Christ, that he is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

But they’re cultural in the sense that they will address globalization issues, technology, environmental concerns, because they have a better grasp of creation and re-creation than their predecessors.

Homiletics: How does a Younger Evangelical pastor preach?

Webber: Since the Younger Evangelical likes a smaller community, the Younger Evangelical is much more of an interactive preacher. There are two different ways to do the interaction. If you’re with a small group in a house church, you might get up and begin with a question, or you might begin with a passage of Scripture, make comments on it and answer questions about it in the same way that the rabbi did. They are very Bible-oriented and much more exegetical than the Pragmatics, who are more oriented around topics, topics that may pertain to having a better life, winning the race, having a better spouse. Younger evangelicals don’t seem to be interested in that.

The other approach is what I call a “Talk Back Sermon.” A person delivers a sermon, and at the end of the sermon, would say, “We have a couple of minutes to turn to each other and ask, ‘What did God say to you through the reading of Scripture and the sermon?’” And then if it’s a small group they may take a Q and A time. It’s much more interactive, as is the whole service. The prayer time is interactive. Everything is interactive in their worship.

Homiletics: Do they not like to use technological aids in their worship?

Webber: No, they don’t. They hate it. They do not like PowerPoint. They don’t like outlined sermons. The only way they will use PowerPoint is to flash icons on the walls. They want it to create atmosphere, but they don’t like it for sermon purposes. They don’t like video clips?

Homiletics: And why do you suppose this is? Bored with it.

Webber: I’m not sure. I think the answer is that they want authenticity, and they don’t regard PowerPoint and outlines as authentic. They see them more as entertainment.

Homiletics: What do you think the landscape of the church will look like in 10 years?

Webber: I think all three of these will survive. It’s not that one will supplant the other. The Traditional church may experience a resurgence because the Traditional church is actually a bit closer to where younger people are today. The dean of a college where I gave some recent lectures told me that he read my book, and he said, “I’ve got this phenomenon going on in my own home. In my church, we do a contemporary worship service, and we do a traditional service. I go to the contemporary service. My 20-year-old son hates it and goes to the traditional service.” So I say to the Traditional churches, “Don’t go contemporary, but go more liturgical.” I would say to almost every church, “Go higher, higher and higher in your liturgy. But integrate the more immanent side.” God is both transcendent and immanent, and we tend to emphasize one side or the other. The Traditional church has typically emphasized the transcendence of God. But there’s this caveat: The Traditional church has expressed the transcendence of God through dry, intellectual, boring preaching. That’s not transcendence; that’s just bad communication.

Homiletics: Made God utterly inaccessible.

Webber: Utterly inaccessible. Then we shifted to immanence with this Pragmatic group. And the immanence of God has been spoiled by the romantic relationship with God that has come out of our choruses.

So maybe we have the opportunity to bring together true transcendence and true immanence.

To order Dr. Webber’s book, The Younger Evangelical, go to his Web site: and click on the “Bookstore” link.



Robert E. Webber

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