in October 2017, I was a newly minted PhD shopping a revised dissertation manuscript around to a handful of publishing houses. Not long after an evangelical house decided to take it on, I found out that my title—something involving the phrase “the evangelical mind”—would be the first part of the project to feel the editor’s scalpel.
I was a bit surprised at my editor’s reluctance to include the phrase. Since the publication of Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in 1994, the idea of a so-called evangelical mind (or, as it turned out, its relative absence) became a topic of interest both inside and outside American evangelicalism. Over the years, the questions Noll raised were taken up and expanded by a variety of commentators, and discussions about the development or absence of an “evangelical mind” turned up in conferences, articles, and books ranging from Noll’s Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans, 2010), which contained a postscript titled “How Fares the ‘Evangelical Mind?,’” to Owen Strachan’s Awakening the Evangelical Mind: An Intellectual History of the Neo-Evangelical Movement (Zondervan, 2015). Indeed, at the same time that I was in the initial phases of correspondence regarding my book proposal, my editor was working on an edited volume that would be published the next year as The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections on the Past, Prospects for the Future (IVP Academic, 2018).
So, why the reluctance to include the oft-repeated phrase in my title? It was partly attributable to background noise—there were already a good number of titles containing the phrase. Some of the reluctance, however, pointed to a larger shift that was then gaining ground in some evangelical circles. In the fraught political and cultural wake of a Trump presidency, many evangelically inclined scholars and cultural commentators were beginning to doubt whether talking about an evangelical mind, let alone evangelicalism, continued to be helpful.
The question was not without some precedent. Commenting on a seldom quoted section of Noll’s Scandal, James K. A. Smith noted Noll’s distinction between “evangelical thinking and Christian thinking done by evangelicals” in order to highlight evangelicalism’s function “as a renewal movement that needs to find its fount and future in the broader Christian tradition—even as it is itself a gift to these older traditions.” For Smith, as for Noll, it followed that “the future of the evangelical mind is Catholic.” According to Smith, “The best thing for the future of the evangelical mind is to stop imagining that there is a distinctly evangelical mind.”
Before we start listing solas, we should note that this distinction does not necessarily imply that thinking Protestants should join the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church (though, as Smith notes, many one-time evangelicals are doing just that). Rather, he suggests that American Protestants “rekindle an unapologetic Protestant identity” that is both “confessional and ecclesial.” In part, this means that Protestants with evangelical histories and sensibilities have something to offer the church even as they allow themselves to be shaped by the global and historic church.
with the Church
Smith’s emphasis on rooting our efforts to cultivate a thinking Christianity in the life of the church strikes me as his most significant emphasis in a generally timely piece. Smith argues that from the time of Augustine through the Reformation and the birth of the modern evangelical movement, the church has been defined by an impulse toward the “democratization of knowledge,” whereby some of its greatest teachers have taken on the task of helping congregations learn to love God with both the heart and the mind.
The impulse to care for the hearts and minds of the whole church speaks to the sending nature of God and his call that his followers might be servants of all. It means that as Christians, our scholarly and educational endeavors should always be undertaken in an awareness of our rootedness—not primarily in the academy or our field, though those relationships certainly have their place, but within the family of God. As Smith asserts, “What evangelicalism ‘on the ground’ needs is scholars from the church for the church.”
For those of us who have spent any time around evangelical seminaries or university campuses with a robust community of historically orthodox Christians, it is probably easy to think about individual Christians and local congregations who seem to have a healthy balance of intellectual and evangelical sensibilities. Outside those circles, however, this is not the case in the evangelical (or, for that matter, Protestant) church. Enormous regional, cultural, and socioeconomic differences exist—so much so that even churches who share similar denominational roots may find another church in the denomination almost unrecognizable in its approach to helping those in the pew think Christianly about all of life.
Sociologist D. Michael Lindsay highlights these polarizing trends in his 2007 book Faith in the Halls of Power. He notes that “as more evangelicals have entered the elite strata of society, a significant division has emerged within the movement” between what he describes as “cosmopolitan” and “populist” forms of evangelicalism. Lindsay, hovering on the edge of condescension, describes populist evangelicalism as “the domain of the PowerPoint sermon and the affect-oriented praise chorus,” noting that leaders within this stream of evangelicalism “derive their authority from the evangelical subculture,” which “remains their primary point of reference.” For Lindsay and his elite informants, evangelical Christianity at a popular level is a landscape littered with evangelical kitsch of the order of Thomas Kinkade paintings and Left Behind novels. He finds that cosmopolitan evangelicals are quick to distance themselves from this brand of evangelicalism in search of wider legitimacy—the pursuit of which Lindsay found to be “a principal concern” for his cosmopolitan evangelical interviewees.
Legitimacy, as it turns out, is not something these cosmopolitan evangelicals often found in church. Perhaps the most notable aspect of Lindsay’s study is not that these two general groups—or perhaps more accurately, a populist and cosmopolitan continuum—of Christians exist, but rather how little interaction individuals in either group have with the other. Lindsay found that most of his informants who gained elite status gradually distanced themselves from the local church in favor of involvement in parachurch ministries and personal interactions with individual pastors and teachers.
While Lindsay’s respondents enjoyed a level of social and cultural elitism far beyond what is attainable by most individuals, the general sensibilities and the ensuing cosmopolitan-populist divide he identified are often discernable to a lesser degree in American Christianity. If anything, this divide has likely grown in the fifteen years since Lindsay first conducted his research. Today, the need to anchor Christianity’s best thinking in the church and the church in Christianity’s best thinking seems more urgent than ever. To think, act, and pray Christianly requires that the American church explore promising avenues that seek to bridge the divides—including socioeconomic, racial, and intellectual—that mark the Protestant church in America. To think Christianly is to move away from disembodied faith and individualism and to discover afresh what it means to be an embodied human being made for holistic participation in the missio Dei as part of the people of God.
The Roots of the Divide
To understand the roots of this need, we have to understand the history and the cultural trends that have shaped the American church, both in its thinking and its overall sensibilities. Between the democratic impulses of revivalism and the sheer necessities of life on the frontier, the nation and its churches tended toward a pragmatic activism; in short, most early Americans were more accustomed to clearing land than clearing the shelves of a library.
Over time, however, Americans settled the land and correspondingly settled into more institutionalized patterns of intellectual engagement. The life of the mind began to find a greater place in American society in the last decades of the nineteenth century as German educational models caught on in American higher education. But for some evangelicals, these changes came with a price. While many Christians found a place within the new models, others found themselves increasingly at odds with formal education and the critical methods that seemed to run counter to traditional patterns of biblical interpretation. The stage for a controversy between fundamentalists and modernists was set.
By the third decade of the twentieth century, the bitter disputes of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies that wracked denominations and educational institutions during the 1920s had resulted in the transition of many fundamentalist Christians away from secular universities and mainline seminaries. A vibrant network of Bible institutes emerged to fill the educational void. Like the Sunday school training conferences and Bible camps that also proliferated during this period, Bible institutes offered courses specifically geared to help lay Christians prepare for evangelism and practical participation in the functions of church life. Their tendency to engage theological training with a pragmatic emphasis on apologetics, evangelism, and training for Sunday school educators often left little time for wider intellectual inquiry. To some, it seemed as if fundamentalists and other conservative Protestants had relegated themselves to the cultural and intellectual backwaters.
The Limited Neo-Evangelical
Among those who observed this situation with concern was prominent Boston pastor Harold J. Ockenga. A former student of J. Gresham Machen, Ockenga benefitted from Machen’s keen theological mind without maintaining his mentor’s separatist bent. Thanks to both his earned PhD from the University of Pittsburgh and his prominent pastorate at Boston’s Park Street Church, Ockenga emerged as a kind of evangelical statesman in the 1940s as he helped found the National Association of Evangelicals (1942) to engage American culture with a new evangelicalism.
Ockenga was convinced that further engagement with the broader culture demanded not just an organization to unite and organize evangelical churches and pastors, but also an educational institution capable of training pastors in a way that was both academically rigorous and theologically orthodox. Working alongside radio evangelist Charles Fuller and a band of evangelical scholars, Ockenga helped found Fuller Theological Seminary in 1947. From its campus in Pasadena, California, the nondenominational school filled a need for evangelical theological education in the American West.
As noteworthy as the early vision of Fuller Theological Seminary was, the school’s top-down influence on local congregations could only ever be one part of a larger effort to help American churchgoers think Christianly about all of life. During the first three quarters of the twentieth century, evangelical seminaries and their well-trained staff focused on a small subset of clergy-men—a double minority in most evangelical churches where laywomen made up the majority in the pews each Sunday. If the American church had a chance to adopt more rigorous and theologically aware patterns of thinking, it was going to need to engage its laity—men and women—more intentionally.
The Promise of Lay Theological Education:
L’Abri, Regent College, and Ligonier
For evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics alike, the 1960s was a season of innovation and openness, especially as it related to the role of the laity. While evangelicals did not have a Vatican II moment, some evangelically inclined Protestants demonstrated a remarkable ability to innovate during the late 1960s and 1970s.
Among the most influential of these innovators were Francis and Edith Schaeffer, an American missionary couple who made their home in a chalet on the edge of the small Swiss village of Huemoz. From this alpine outpost, the Schaeffers helped catalyze a loosely connected movement dedicated to bringing thinking Christianity to individual Christians and their churches and workplaces in the United States and around the world.
After several years as missionaries with the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, the couple decided in 1955 to launch L’Abri, an independent ministry centered around hospitality and spiritual conversations. L’Abri gradually developed into a well-known destination for a generation of footloose spiritual seekers and intellectually inclined young Christians. By the late 1960s, the Schaeffers’ ministry had expanded to include several other chalets and a chapel building that doubled as a study center called Farel House. Farel House students listened to Schaeffer’s tapes in the morning and worked on tasks like gardening or meal preparation in the afternoon.
Many of those who made their way to the Schaeffers’ Swiss retreat in the late 1960s and early 1970s found L’Abri to be a multifaceted community. At a basic level, L’Abri was a spiritual community but also one defined by open-handed hospitality and intellectual curiosity. As the Schaeffers helped students wrestle with intellectual questions in philosophy or modern art, they did so in the context of hospitality marked by generosity and a deep appreciation for cultivating beauty in everyday life. In so doing, they offered a generation of young people—most of them members of the laity—a framework for living a holistic Christian life in which their faith impacted every aspect of life.
Today, few would say that either Francis or Edith Schaeffer was right on every point. The Schaeffers’ strength lay in cultivating a hunger for beauty, truth, and goodness in many of those who stayed at L’Abri or encountered their work in print. Indeed, as Os Guinness and others have noted, Francis Schaeffer was a “door opener.” Together with Edith and the community at L’Abri, Francis helped enlarge the horizon of the possible by granting access not just to ideas but also to a hospitable community and an internationally connected relational network engaged in pursuing a life holistically affected by the gospel. Furthermore, because L’Abri was not a seminary and was open with an extremely minimal fee to anyone who could make the trip, it offered a chance for any man or woman who could find enough for a one-way ticket to Europe to take part in the community.
At the same time L’Abri was beginning to gain international prominence, a group of Plymouth Brethren businessmen and scholars in Vancouver, British Columbia, were kicking off their own experiment in the theological education of the laity. Led by Marshall Sheppard and a talented board, the Vancouver committee hired Oxford geographer James M. Houston as principal and chartered Regent College in 1968.
The new college was both a reflection of the times and of the Plymouth Brethren’s historic aversion to professional clergy. As folks like Sheppard looked around North America, they were convinced that a better educated laity would demand better educated teaching from its pulpits. Graduate training was needed. For Houston, however, the need went even deeper. From his position as a fellow and then bursar of Oxford’s Hertford College, Houston had witnessed the growing influence of the university within an increasingly professionalized society. His hope for Regent College was that it might be a place where laymen and laywomen could prepare to think theologically—to “think Christianly,” as he put it—about their profession and life, while the college simultaneously sought to impact the larger university through rigorous academics, publishing, and formal affiliation with its neighbor, the University of British Columbia.
From the start, Regent College differed from L’Abri in its commitment to engaging the university and the wider academy. Regent was meant to be a springboard to thoughtful Christian influence within the university and, especially after the first decade, the realms of business and politics. As subsequent work has shown, L’Abri also exerted some influence on these spheres of society, but it did so more as a byproduct than as a goal. Houston was much more intentional, noting that the university had become “the central institution of our time.” He urged young Christians, “Do not desert the campus for the church.”
But what Regent and L’Abri had in common was also significant. As communities dedicated to shaping the hearts and minds of lay Christians, they both did what traditional evangelical seminaries could (or would) not do. They could educate men and women on topics that included traditional seminary fare (e.g., church history, biblical studies, theology), while also providing opportunities for students to engage literature, modern art, and other contemporary issues. Both L’Abri and Regent could also do so more affordably and with greater flexibility and relational connection than a traditional seminary or Christian liberal arts college.
These shared emphases gave L’Abri and Regent College a magnetism that few other educational institutions or Christian communities could match. It also prompted a handful of folks to want to recreate the experiences they had within these communities back home at their churches or campuses, and for their own friends, family, and neighbors.
One of those who sought to build on the pattern of L’Abri as a living and learning community was a young Presbyterian pastor named R. C. Sproul. In 1971, after consultation with Francis Schaeffer, Sproul moved with his family and a couple of friends to Stahlstown, Pennsylvania, a rural town about an hour east of Pittsburgh in the Ligonier Valley. From 1971 until 1984—when Sproul and his board moved the ministry to Orlando and began focusing more exclusively on video distribution—the Ligonier Valley Study Center functioned as a regional hub for lay people and parachurch campus ministers seeking to develop a more theologically robust understanding of faith and life. Thanks in part to the ministry’s location, Sproul and his team at Ligonier made pursuing this type of intellectual engagement feasible for a wider subset of American evangelicals. For evangelicals from Pennsylvania and surrounding states, the cost—in terms of time and money—of taking part in the programming at the Ligonier Valley Study Center was relatively manageable, thus giving access to more people from a greater socioeconomic and geographical spectrum.
L’Abri was Sproul’s primary model for the study center in Stahlstown, but the more likely scenario during the mid-1970s for those who were starting up living and learning communities was an amalgamation of the methods and ethos of L’Abri and Regent College. Whether it was campus-based efforts like the Center for Christian Study (f. 1975) at the University of Virginia, and New College Berkeley (f. 1977) at the University of California, Berkeley, or city-based study centers like the C. S. Lewis Institute near Washington, DC (f. 1976), many of the most significant efforts in the decade had direct ties to both L’Abri and Regent College. Leaders who had spent time at both L’Abri and Regent were a common feature in each community. In many cases, the influence of Regent College showed up in an explicit commitment to the theological education of the laity, whereas the connection to L’Abri manifested itself through a commitment to creating hospitable spaces where honest questions could find honest answers. By the late 1990s, the Center for Christian Study in Charlottesville began to emerge as a model for university-based study centers that would eventually form the Consortium of Christian Study Centers (f. 2009) and take their place within a growing study center movement.
Assessing the Study Center
Of course, the institutions connected to this study center movement have not and cannot singlehandedly reshape the ability of American Christians to think Christianly about all of life. But then again, that has never been the goal. That project is far larger and more multifaceted than one approach could ever hope to encompass. Most of the institutions mentioned above are extremely local. Like stick-built homes, most have been painstakingly constructed with their immediate context in mind. Though some study centers, like Sproul’s Ligonier Valley Study Center or the C. S. Lewis Institute, eventually expanded to regional or global ministries, many study centers, and virtually all the study centers that hold membership in the Consortium, are intentionally local with deeply embodied ways of ushering students into community, study, and spiritual discipleship. They are more than ideas; they are places where people and ideas thrive, comingle, and grow. In so doing, they also have an opportunity to help a generation of students who come through their door consider more fully what it means to think Christianly with and in the church.
Thinking Christianly with the Church
Historically, the educational efforts of most study centers have drawn strength from their connections to local churches. New College Berkeley had First Presbyterian Church, Berkeley. The Center for Christian Study had Trinity Presbyterian Church. Regent College had the folks at Granville Chapel. These local churches supported the innovative efforts of study center founders by providing everything from built-in audiences and potential board members to financial contributions and access to mailing lists.
Connections to a local community of believers have always been important for study centers. If early study center leadership were members of a local congregation, the connections might be organic. In many cases, however, study center leaders had to work intentionally to cultivate good relationships with local churches. In 2009 when Bryan Bademan took over the role of executive director at the MacLaurin Institute (later renamed Anselm House) on the edge of the University of Minnesota, one of the first things he did was reach out to church leaders across the Minneapolis-St. Paul region to help forge connections between local congregations and the study center. The goal of these efforts was to link the parachurch ministry to local churches so that Bademan and his team could “do theological work on campus in ways that our churches would recognize as valuable.” Judging from the fact that Anselm House receives financial support from around thirty churches—some of which are from suburban or rural contexts and are solidly populist—it seems that Bademan’s efforts are paying off.
From the beginning, Bademan chose not to limit his efforts to evangelical churches. Though his own denominational affiliation was with the PCA, Bademan was intentional about reaching out to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox leaders in his community. This openness to thinking with the whole church—not just an evangelical subset of it—eventually led Bademan and his team to change the name of the study center at the University of Minnesota to Anselm House, a name that was more recognizable to Catholic students and one that demonstrated the range of Christian thought on offer at the study center.
This movement toward thinking with the church historic, not the just the church as fractured by internecine rivalries in the American church or even the fragmentation that accompanied the Protestant Reformation, has been gaining momentum within the study center movement for years. Part of it is attributable to leaders like Regent’s James Houston and New College Berkeley’s Susan Phillips, who helped pioneer what became known as “spiritual theology.” Leaders like Houston and Phillips drew on methods of spiritual formation ranging from the spiritual practices of Jesuit founder Ignatius Loyola to investigations of the spiritual discipline and theology of early Puritans. In so doing, these leaders and the institutions they led learned how to think with the wider church.
Thinking Christianly in the Church
The impulse to form a Christian mind and not simply an evangelical one is an important way in which study centers like Anselm House and Chesterton House are helping Protestants of various stripes as well as their Catholic and Orthodox peers think Christianly with the wider church. But how can this thinking move from thinking with the church at a distance to thinking in the church? To quote James Smith again, how can places like study centers play a part in raising up “scholars from the church for the church”?
Although there is no one answer to this question, there is one trait that any answer will have to include—intentionality. Raising up scholars and thoughtful Christian voices from and for the church will not just happen.
Fortunately, there are reasons to be hopeful that this kind of intentionality is starting to gain some momentum. In addition to the clarion calls of prominent thinkers like Smith for deeper engagement between Christian scholars and local churches, some ministries like the Center for Pastor Theologians (f. 2006) have the explicit goal of connecting thinking Christianity to local congregations and wider networks of church leaders. Another notable example of this effort to help folks learn to think Christianly within the church is The Fellows Initiative.
Founded in 2006 in the Washington, DC, area out of preexisting Fellows Programs, the Fellows Initiative is a post-college gap-year program with deep connections to the study center movement. Unlike university-based study centers, which center their ministry in a free-standing study center building, the Fellows Initiative centers its ministry within local churches. Participating churches host anywhere from four to sixteen fellows for a nine-month residency program that includes host families, part-time work in the student’s field, a mentor, service in the local church, and theological education through a local Christian college or seminary.
Fellows Initiative executive director John Kyle sees the program as a twofold blessing, both to the fellows and to the churches. The fellows, who are typically recent college graduates who are attempting to think theologically about their fields at the onset of their careers, benefit from the intellectual and relational engagement they get from the program, while churches benefit from having a cohort of engaged and capable young adults serving with deep intentionality. Today, almost thirty churches in fourteen states host fellows through the Fellowship Initiative, and the number is likely to grow in the coming years.
The Deepening Challenge: Thinking in and with the Whole Church
Examples like those described above offer some of the compelling reasons to be hopeful about what the future might hold for the cultivation of hearts and minds within the American church. My own work of over nearly a decade to chart the history and influence of a study center movement within North American evangelicalism has reminded me time and time again that there are amazing thinkers with deep spirituality within evangelical churches and the larger church in America. There certainly are many Christians who have demonstrated the ability to think well and to think Christianly. For this, I remain grateful.
At the same time, my optimism is checked by a growing sense that significant blind spots and limitations remain. In an increasingly polarized society, where “populist” and “cosmopolitan” evangelicals and Christians of all traditions generally self-sort along lines of education and affluence (to name only a few), bringing Christian scholarship and the instinct to think Christianly about all of life to bear on the church as a whole—and not the church in a few affluent, well-educated parts—does not happen haphazardly. It takes intentional, Spirit-led effort to cross boundaries, to invest with kingdom sensibilities rather than market-driven metrics alone.
The reality is that from where I sit in rural America, I don’t see much of this.
This is part of the problem with our discussions about an “evangelical mind” and any discussion about helping evangelically inclined Protestants think Christianly about all of life. A vast majority of American Christians live in communities relatively untouched—and largely unsought—by the ministries and individuals who possess the resources that could truly help folks think Christianly. Instead, it is “experts” like Ken Ham, David Barton, and other celebrity communicators channeled through Christian radio, cable television, and mass market content ministries, who seek an audience in small towns like mine and thousands of other overlooked rural and urban communities across the country.
The study center movement has historically been one option that has had the intellectual tools and missional sensibilities to expand the horizons of the possible for everyday American Christians by offering an alternative vision of what it means to think Christianly about life. Even if the movement has not specifically targeted folks from the nonaffluent fringes of American society, it has (at least historically) been somewhat accessible. Places like L’Abri and the Ligonier Valley Study Center were open to all and relatively affordable once one got there. That is why a person such as African-American photographer Sylvester Jacobs, jaded by the racism he encountered in America, could purchase a one-way ticket to Europe and find his way to L’Abri and a new way of thinking about faith. Today, the path is more difficult. As significant as the university-based study center movement is in terms of helping students think Christianly, the very fact that most are located at elite state and private institutions means that selective university admissions committees are now determining which students have access to these ministries. In many cases, the students who get into places like Yale, Cornell, or the University of Virginia hail from affluent suburban or urban areas that primed them in a host of ways for academic success. More than a plane ticket, getting to these study centers takes years of work and planning in addition to the nod of a university administrator.
Don’t get me wrong. It makes sense that elite schools and affluent communities are among the pioneers for study centers and fellows programs. What doesn’t make sense to me, from a kingdom perspective, is how little effort I have seen put forth to expand the robust heart-mind programs I have witnessed in cities like New Haven and Charlottesville to the small campuses and towns where thousands upon thousands of evangelical students and congregants live largely unaware of the spiritual, intellectual, and even relational depth that the church at its best can offer if one knows where to look.
Perhaps the real crisis of the American church’s ability to think Christianly is more a failure to winsomely and intentionally engage the church outside the scholarly communities and affinity groups that more cosmopolitan evangelicals have worked so hard to carve out of secular campuses and urban cityscapes. I’m not downplaying the hard work of these groups at all. In fact, I’m commending it, so much so that I’m asking folks with the intellectual, relational, and financial resources to partner with local churches and communities to extend it to places that make strategic sense and to places that don’t. Where are the investors, thinkers, and partners willing to invest in the overlooked, nonstrategic corners of America’s countryside or cityscapes? Deep needs can be found in both places.
We need Spirit-led vision and imagination fueled by the goodness of the gospel as it relates to all of life. To think Christianly is not just to think well about scholarship or theology. It is that, but it is not only that. It is also to think with Christ and his church as we harness the resources that he has lavished on us to be the servants of all. This is a countercultural vision that just might be able to span the growing divides in our culture and orient our efforts to the whole church, not just the parts of it we recognize.
Charles E. Cotherman (PhD, University of Virginia) is pastor of Oil City Vineyard Church in Pennsylvania and program director of the Project on Rural Ministry at Grove City College.