A Word to Millennials Repenting of Their Fundamentalism

I am now almost two and a half years into my PhD program at the University of Edinburgh. Though I feel way out of my depth pretty much 99.9% of the time, it’s been a joy and privilege to engage with some fascinating thinkers (even when I can only understand about 10% of the things they are talking about).

Here in Edinburgh I have a large number of broadly evangelical American peers, and though we all disagree on many things, I’ve noticed one thing that binds us. We all bemoan the fundamentalist and anti-intellectual evangelical cultures that so many of us grew up in.

A few years ago, I was made aware of a church planter in NYC whose vision was: “Calling Thinkers to Believe, and Believers to Think.” This is no doubt a vision that drives many of my fellow evangelical peers. It sure drives me. In fact, many of us are writing theses to indirectly strike back at our former fundamentalist contexts.

Over the past decade or so, evangelical millennials like myself and my peers (and possibly even you), could be found across the country, repenting of our former fundamentalist ways.

We’ve put away our moralistic understanding of Christianity. We’ve reclaimed what is essential: Jesus, and his gospel. We’ve tossed aside our simplistic, and less than nuanced answers to those who criticize our faith and worldview.

Aided by an Internet-powered, Information Age, we have set out to re-engage culture in a fresh new way, following Tim Keller and Russell Moore on one end of the spectrum, or Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans on the other.

As those who will soon lead the church, we are convinced that we are called to a new vision of cultural engagement and mission.

As far as we are concerned, gone are the days of separatism and retreat from cultural defeats such as the Scopes Trial. And we’re convinced that Jerry Falwell’s insensitive, reckless, and brash Moral Majority with its triumphalistic agenda was the wrong way to go.

Additionally, we are unconvinced that Trump will make America great again, and we are also unsure of how great America ever was. We cringe over how the media has lumped us in with a politicized notion of evangelicalism, in which evangelicals are not gospel people, but worshipers of a Republican agenda. Instead, we would contend that not all evangelicals are truly evangelicals in the best sense of the word.

Regardless, we know for sure that we must choose a different way. We take it upon ourselves to show the world what it means to be gospel people.

Therefore, we’ve raised our sensitivity to xenophobic nationalism, misogyny, gay-bashing, microaggressions, and anti-intellectualism. For us, being uninformed and un-’woke’ is shameful and most harmful to our Christian witness.

Instead, we have taken up the mission to winsomely engage the brightest of thinkers in order that they might believe, and to prophetically rebuke the most narrow-minded of evangelicals in order that they might think.

We see far too little cultural influencers operating out of a biblical framework. And we’ve seen too many of our friends leave the faith due to overly simplistic, unsatisfying, and stale apologetic answers to their genuine contemporary questions.

We want to articulate, in a Keller-esque fashion, an attractive “third way,” between the liberals and the conservatives, between the irreligious and the religious. And in doing so, we hope to find a better place to stand, where we are neither apostates nor anti-intellectuals, neither prodigals nor older brothers.

So we continue to study Scripture and affirm its absolute authority, while still paying close attention to contemporary culture, the media, and the academy, seeking common grace insights from them, and wrestling with how to interpret and make sense of their findings.

We heed Peter’s exhortation that we be prepared to make a defense to all, while reminding ourselves of James’ admonition to be quick to listen, and slow to speak, even when it comes to a secular culture such as ours.

We don’t settle for just being Christians, but we seek to be informed, knowledgeable, and sensitive Christians. And by God’s grace, we sometimes do find a way forward, a third way, in which we actually become “believers who think,” equipped to interact with “thinkers” who don’t believe.

And discovering a “third way” feels good. It’s the rewarding feeling of progress, and confidence — confidence in the fact that we’ve found more thoughtful and persuasive answers than the ones our Sunday School teachers gave us 20 years ago. But it’s also the feeling of transcendence, and if we’re not careful, arrogant superiority.

Arrogant superiority feels good too, but it doesn’t last long, and always leaves us only wanting more. So we study Scripture harder. We study culture harder.

We want the confidence of superiority over both believers and unbelievers.

And we begin to place our primary confidence in knowledge, finding ourselves offering burnt sacrifices of time and energy at the altar of Information, only to find that there’s yet still more to know.

In fact, we soon find that all the information we’ve acquired cannot save us in every apologetic situation.

While we once believed it irresponsible to not have good answers for our church’s college students upon their return home, we find that it’s impossible to always be prepared with well-thought-out and perfectly articulated answers for everything we encounter.

Who can always reply “yes” to every “But have you considered this…”-kind of question?

And then, perhaps, “over-repenting” of our former fundamentalism, we are tempted to become agnostics ourselves, throwing up our hands in frustration at how much more there is to know, and how impossible it is to know it all.

With a hint of envy, and yet with our intellectual integrity still intact, we begin to scorn our more fundamentalistic brothers and sisters, who walk with unwavering (and in our opinion, unfounded) “faith,” which we are convinced is merely due to their ignorance.

We think to ourselves, “If only they had all this knowledge that I’ve so slavishly compiled through my Information worship. How irresponsible of them to be so confident when they lack so much knowledge!”

But wait. How much does one need to know to be a responsible Christian?

If we’re honest, “how much one needs to know to be a responsible Christian” is really a matter of personal context and calling.

For example, Ravi Zacharias is called to know more than me about certain things, and to be able to interact with critics and defend the faith in contexts that I am not.

In truth, each member of Christ’s body has its own function. Yes, even the fundamentalist members.

This does not mean that I should ever be complacent in my ongoing process of learning. But in the end, let’s be reminded that this question of “how much” is not the most important question.

Perhaps it’s time to take a step back for a second, to remind ourselves that it’s not “how much” one knows that makes him or her a “good” Christian, but Who one knows, Jesus Christ, crucified and raised, and in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Today is Monday. I’m back at my desk, hitting the books, and seeking to equip myself with more and more knowledge to engage the world with the gospel. But may my first desire always be to know Christ more.


Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

4 thoughts on “A Word to Millennials Repenting of Their Fundamentalism

  • November 27, 2017 at 10:12 am

    What you describe is not “repenting of fundamentalism.” It is merely using one’s God-given brain to apply the Bible and Jesus’s teachings. Which every Christian has been called to do since the time of Jesus. Perhaps more definition of “fundamentalism” is needed. I know fundamentalism as sola scriptura, one Word of God, infallible immutable. This is not a strange concept to reformists.

    • November 28, 2017 at 1:50 am

      Hi Walter,
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      You’re right. I took for granted a very context-specific, personal (and perhaps arbitrary) definition of fundamentalism that has tripped up a handful of readers, including yourself.

      In all honesty, it’s probably inconsistent of me to want to reclaim the term ‘evangelical’ while trampling upon the term ‘fundamentalist.’ I’ll try to be more careful as I continue to write.

      In terms of what a fundamentalist is in the historic sense of the term, yes, I am still very much a fundamentalist and would affirm biblical inspiration/infallibility, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, substitutionary atonement, and the miracles.

      However, in terms of how people (including contemporary evangelicals) talk about and view fundamentalists today, I would still want to distinguish myself from that label, at least strategically for the sake of my Christian witness. In my mind and I think in the minds of most of our blog readers and most lay people today, fundamentalism brings to mind the Religious Right and the Moral Majority before it brings my mind to Machen and the original five fundamentals. Most of our readers probably never even heard of Machen and are unfamiliar with the historical terms. Hopefully that can clear up some confusion.

      I know I didn’t explicitly define what fundamentalism is, but I did try to describe it implicitly when I wrote about the kind of Christians that evangelical millennials are trying not to be.

      You’re right, in a sense, that a big part of it is “using one’s God-given brain to apply the Bible and Jesus’ teachings,” which “every Christian has been called to do since the time of Jesus.” But I think an extra point to add to that is that not being a fundamentalist is about actually engaging with those who disagree, and engaging in a charitable and winsome way. I don’t think the Religious Right and the Moral Majority were not using their brains, but I do think that there was a dismissive posture that was fostered amongst them that turned into a radical and impenetrable echo chamber which vilified all outsiders. That’s really what I was getting at with how I used the term “fundamentalism.” Hope that clears things up.

      Again, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

  • November 28, 2017 at 6:23 am

    Thanks for your thoughtful and gracious reply. My comment was a bit pushy. The reason being that I lament how solid, descriptive terms like “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” or even “baptist” have become soiled by those who misrepresent them and those who subsequently use the labels in a derogatory way. In addition to reclaiming the ways of Jesus from the Bible-thumpers or whoever, let’s also reclaim our labels. 🙂

  • July 23, 2019 at 9:09 pm

    Well written article! This rang true to me as I am 59 years old, Bible college graduate, and still carrying horrible baggage from being raised as a PK in the separatist fundamentalist camp of believers of the 70’s. However, the bottom line is that our faith must be based on a reliable God who keeps promises. It was at that point, I realized that the difference between factual reality and God’s promises are further apart than the opposite edges of the Grand Canyon. The Christian God to me is similar to Lucy holding the football while promising poor, sincere Charlie Brown over and over that this time she will hold it and let him kick it. But there is always some irrational reason that she doesn’t. And so, unlike Charlie Brown, I have walked away from all the irrational, internally inconsistent lies and expectations that I was raised with. I’m done with God always pulling the promised ‘football’ away; I’m done rationalizing as to why bad things happen to good people, why prayers are not answered, why, why, why. . . Currently I feel comfortable in agnosticism, but really am angry at the years of my life that were wasted living in fundamental delusions and as the ‘Borg’ on Star Trek might say, “religion is futile, god is irrelevant.” As your article says, I have a little bit of envy at those who seem to believe without questioning, but there’s no going back.


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