July 23, 2018

You can take the boy out of evangelicalism . . .

Chaplain Mike singing for kids in the village of Mangala, south India

Chaplain Mike and friends singing for kids at a hospital in the village of Mangala, south India

You can take the boy out of evangelicalism, but you can’t take the evangelical out of the boy.

I’m coming to terms these days with the fact that I’m a spiritual mongrel, and one of the strong components of my spiritual makeup is my evangelical heritage (in the modern sense of the word — the revivalistic tradition). Though I call myself a “post-evangelical,” that designation refers to my relationship with American “evangelicalism,” the conservative evangelical culture which has risen to public prominence in the U.S. in the past 45 years or so.

We’ve been over this before, but it bears repeating and it helps me to write it out as I reflect on getting reconnected this weekend with an important part of my evangelical experience.

Last night we had a meeting in our home, an open house for a friend from India who has been working for India Youth for Christ for twenty years. This was his first trip to the U.S., though we have been together in India in the past. We first met him in 2000, when we went on a mission trip to Mysore in south India. Through many intense experiences of ministry and conversation and prayer together, we formed a deep bond. We met each other again in 2007 in Bangalore and saw some of the fruit of our prayers and labors together in his family’s life and in the IYFC ministry. Yesterday we learned that he will be taking a high position in the organization, opening up new possibilities for further developing our relationship with him and IYFC in the future.

Now, there is no organization more identified with the evangelical movement than Youth for Christ. Billy Graham himself was the first staff member of Youth for Christ USA. YFC is synonymous with post-war evangelical parachurch missions and, along with other youth-oriented ministries in those days, YFC is largely responsible for making possible what Thomas Bergler called The Juvenilization of American Christianity. You know: Pop worship music. Falling in love with Jesus. Mission trips. Dressing casually for church. Spiritual searching and church hopping. An emphasis on discipleship in terms of “practical Christianity.” “Relevance” and seeker-sensitive outreach. Christianity as a “relationship” rather than a “religion.”

In short, most of the stuff, “post-evangelicals” like me now criticize.

However, India YFC serves in a vastly different setting. Although their focus is on youth evangelism, discipleship, and training, they have a much different relationship with the culture and the Christian churches throughout India than parachurch groups have had in the U.S. For example, our friend told us that IYFC encourages 99% of the young people who come to them from churches to stay in their own congregations and traditions for the ongoing sustenance of their faith. Many of the churches in India tend to be conservative and traditional in their worship and ministry, and he said part of their discipleship work involves counseling youth who wonder what to do when they contrast their enthusiastic youth meetings with the “dull” churches they come from. In other words, IYFC is not about changing church culture, it is about reaching youth with the Gospel and helping them integrate into the churches.

In short, there are a lot of evangelicals in India, but there is no “evangelicalism” as we know it in the U.S.

And the need that India YFC is trying to meet is vast. The number of Indians under the age of 24 is twice the entire population of the United States! About 600 million young people need to hear the Gospel there.

Mangala KidsAs a group, Christians represent a small minority of India’s vast throngs. Though it is the country’s third largest religion, with 24 million followers, that is only 2.3% of India’s population. This minority status causes believers to have a much different relationship to their neighbors and society than we U.S. Christians have. For example, our friend is a first-generation Christian. His father was a Hindu, his mother a nominal Catholic. Most of his relatives will have nothing to do with him now, and his father even told him he had considered killing his son for many years because of the shame he had brought on the family.

When our friend decided to go to Bible college and into ministry, he chose a life of relative poverty and obscurity. Soon, in the new position he will be taking, a large portion of his time and energy will be devoted to raising funds for staff around the country who live on about $100-150 per month, and are worried most months about getting that.

Though they use contemporary music and seek to relate to youth through language and means that are attractive to them, IYFC is still vastly more conservative than standard U.S. youth ministries. Many of the meetings we participated in over the years involved large groups of young people sitting quietly in rows, listening to presentations and preaching. When our friend described the “camps” they conduct to our group last night, it sounded like what we would call a study retreat or conference. The atmosphere of IYFC work reminds me a great deal of my early experiences as a teen caught up in the Jesus movement, with a focus on singing relatively simple choruses, learning the Bible, and being challenged with clear Christian guidelines about how to follow Jesus in our relationships and vocations. It’s low cost, low-tech, and more about communicating the fact that Jesus loves young people and gives new life than about putting on a show.

I can say without reservation that our trips to India over the years have transformed me as a person and follower of Jesus more than any other single influence in my life except for being married and having children — and I have been blessed beyond measure with rich influences.

Our relationship with India YFC, the trips we’ve taken, and the relationships we’ve formed have been nowhere near perfect, and we have had to struggle and work through problems in this context just as we have in every other area of our life and ministry. But from my perspective, what I’ve seen in these brothers and sisters is true evangelical faith of the Jesus-shaped variety. Resurrection life by grace through faith in Jesus. An emphasis on loving God and others through simple devotion and humble, sacrificial service that grows out of that new life.

If that’s “evangelical,” count me in. I hope it will always be a part of who I am.


  1. Faulty O-Ring says:

    “About 600 million young people need to hear the Gospel there.”

    What a narrow-minded, patronizing thing to say. India does not need any lessons from you. Do you not care that proselytism foments communal violence?

    • Dwight Schrute: So I expect you to be on your best behavior, which means none of you will be insubordinate, nor will you foment insurrection.

      Jim Halpert: Question. If we’ve already fomented insurrection, may we be grandfathered in?

      Dwight Schrute: Define “foment.”

      Jim Halpert: You define “foment.”

    • Why do you equate “hearing the Gospel” with “learning from [me]?” It is the workers in India themselves who are sharing the Gospel.

      FOR if you are going to argue that all missionary work is cultural imperialism, you will not find agreement from me and my response will be that yours is a tired argument that simply doesn’t fit all the facts on the ground.

      • Faulty O-Ring says:

        Is that not you with the guitar…?

        To say that there is somthing fundamentally wrong with the religions of 600 mil. people (i.e. the youth population of India), and seek to replace them with evangelical Christianity, smacks of cultural genocide. This is no different from the “bad” evangelicalism you criticize in this blog. How would you feel if your children were systematically targeted for conversion by people with no respect for your values?

        • First, you continue to mischaracterize what’s happening in tired stereotypical ways.

          Second, ultimately your argument is with Jesus, the apostles, and the whole history of Christian tradition. There is good news about Jesus to be announced to the world. We can have lots of discussion about what that means and how it should be done, but there is no denying that basic fact about the nature of the Christian faith.

        • “First, you continue to mischaracterize what’s happening in tired stereotypical ways.”

          Faulty, your critique is a blunt, unwieldy instrument, that hits some necessary targets. In the process, it flattens many, very different stories into one two-dimensional pancake.

          I am very ready to critique various forms of western cultural imperialism. And certainly the history of missions presents many problematic stories. However, the narrative to which you are appealing is one where everything the ‘imperialist’ does is negative, and she’s always doing something ‘to’ the other culture, which is being duped or oppressed or acted upon. Be careful here – in your critique, the ‘target’ culture is reduced to its target status. That is a problematic assumption.

          There is a huge literature on the history of missions, and while it tends to be very sensitive and critical toward the issues of power to which you allude, it also privileges the agency of *everyone* in the story, and tries very hard to describe why and how people adopt new ideas and practices and make it their own. It also strives to discover the complex cultural and interpersonal interactions in *both* directions across cultures.

          You are right that we shouldn’t have a naive or rosey view of mission, but we should have a complicated and nuanced one. You can’t get this picture unless you are listening to the voices of converts and looking for their agency.

          On that note, there is a needed, and growing literature, on “world Christianity,” which is beginning to tell the story of Christianity outside ‘the West’ far more in its own terms. This is where we need to get.

    • It’s clear from Mike’s guitar and Hawaiian shirt that he was fomenting violence.

      The balloons are a dead giveaway too.

      • A real wolf in sheep’s clothing, that Mike. A regular Molotov cocktail throwing Christian anarchist.

        • Faulty O-Ring says:

          As a matter of fact, incidents of Christian proselytism are known to provoke other religious groups to attack Christians of all types, including non-evangelicals.

          • Yes, I think we all understood the implication of your comment.

            As CM pointed out, much or most of the Christian proselytism in developing nations at this point is the result of native Christians sharing the gospel. These people are willing to risk life and limb for the sake of witnessing to Jesus Christ, just as the historic martyrs did, and they are obviously more aware of the threats they face in doing so than you or I. Inter-religious violence is unfortunately a widespread phenomenon in many places around the world; does this mean that striving for religious liberty is wrong? Are you opposed to people striving for religious liberty, FOR?

          • So Faulty O Ring – do you blame teachers who teach evolution in schools for the weird response they get from fundamentalists? Is the answer to ban science?

            Imagine a society where everyone who had an opinion that some people did not like was shut down by the authorities. It’s not hard

    • What a narrow-minded, patronizing thing to say. India does not need any lessons from you. Do you not care that proselytism foments communal violence?”

      What a narrow-minded response.

    • I concur wholeheartedly if you are referring to prudish neurotics hell bent on conquering a culture and remaking it in their image. In that case you make a valid point. On the other hand, if you are against sharing good news (gospel), then you are lacking logic. If I could share a cure for polio or a system for creating clean drinking water and you told me not to share that information because it risked upsetting someone I would think you had some sort of agenda that was not in the best interests of the recipients. You appear to hold the death and resurrection of Christ in an unfavorable light; something to be kept back. Or do you just not trust any flawed humans (that would be all humans) to properly share that news? I know Ghandi said he might even be a Christian if not for Christians but that says that he found the message to be of value, he just had a little issue with the messengers. So which is it? One or both?

      • Faulty O-Ring says:

        Just because you see your religion as the greatest think since sliced bread, doesn’t elevate it above the level of personal opinion.

        Gandhi admired Jesus, and Christians such as Tolstoy, but this is similar to his attitude towards other religions such as Islam. It is also the predominant attitude of Hindus towards other religions. Christians could learn a lot from him. None of this makes him a Christian, or a fan of foreign missions.

        • I assume, FOR, that you don’t hold Gandhi responsible for fomenting the violence that attended his peaceful protests, do you?

    • And again I say, “Yawn.” Tiring. Utterly tiring.

    • OldProphet says:

      600 million Indian kids don’ need to hear the gospel. Being a Hindu is the same as a Christian. All Gods are equal. There is no hell. Religion does not mater. What you believe doesn’t matter. Being a non believer doesn’t matter. So if there is an afterlife, all will be there. Can’t. Wait to meet Stalin, Adolph,Mussolini, et
      All. What a party!!!

    • Yes, when a culture responds to new ideas with violence, the solution is most definitely to stop giving them new ideas. They’re clearly too stupid to ideologically evolve with the rest of society.

      /end sarcasm. Wouldn’t that be a condescending and patronizing thing to say, though?

  2. This is a beautiful piece, Mike. I love the advocation for a healthy, Jesus-shaped evangelicalism.

  3. ” For example, our friend told us that IYFC encourages 99% of the young people who come to them from churches to stay in their own congregations and traditions for the ongoing sustenance of their faith.”

    But didn’t Billy Graham always do this?

    • He did.

      The question evangelical modes of thinking and believing, and its sheer activism, raise is always, “will this energy to back into established institutions, or create new ones?” There seem to be examples of both developments. There have long been evangelicals in old institutions and denominations; but typically evangelicalism is activistic and pragmatic, and intensely pietistic, so it cafes easily at old structures or move outside of them.

      I wonder what the situation in India is. The spread of denominations there must be somewhat different, and being a small minority must mean that the network of Christian institutions is relatively thin. In the US at midcentury, the situation was the reverse.

      • *to back = go back

      • Richard Hershberger says:

        Playing amateur sociologist (a role for which I am utterly unqualified), it seems to me inevitable that an organization like IYFC will take a very different form in India than it does in the US. For all that some Christians want to play the role of embattled minority, Christianity is a majority religion here, and even most non-believers comes from the tacit cultural assumptions of Christianity. Christianity has been in India a very long time, but it has always been a small minority religion there. There is no way an international organization could take the same form in both countries.

    • Yes he did, and received a lot of criticism for it from the fundamentalists.

      But Billy Graham was only the face of a much larger movement which morphed in the 1970’s and beyond. The parachurch ethos came into the church and through the church growth movement and many other factors, became the “evangelicalism” we know today.

      • Billy Graham said one of his biggest regrets was that we had so many people get up and say the prayer and the majority of them went home and their lives never changed. I’m not sure what to say to that or what that means to me just yet. I only know that I am seeing the same thing and it breaks my heart. I am looking and seeking and I will find the answer He has for me on this and what that will look like in my life. I am at least sure that it might knock me out of my comfortability.

        • I think it means that your “free will” decisions don’t really account for much, when it comes to the things of God and ‘choosing Christ’.

        • It’s an inherent weakness of revivalism. The apostle Paul had an experience on the Damascus Road, but it wasn’t until he went and was baptized and became part of the church that he was truly “saved” from his former life. Graham made an effort to have churches follow up converts, but revivalism doesn’t place the same “saving” value on the church. It sees salvation as a personal experience or decision, not as the incorporation of one’s life into a family.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Just “ME & Jesus and Nobody Else.”

            Which means there’s no peer support system to maintain the change.

          • it also says that he conferred no more with flesh and blood after he spent time fasting. I understand what you are saying and I am rereading it over and over. Hug’s extreme is demeaning I think it somewhere in the middle but then again with the radical love of living in the eternal and no more placing any kind of worth on flesh here I would imagine there would be very few who could walk beside you. I’m sure Paul’s closest friends were few. The son of man walked alone here nearly all the time and was completely misunderstood most of the time if not all of it till after the Holy Spirit. Again I don’t think it’s either or but I spend the largest part of my time here alone other than the one who loves me. In actuality nobody knows my innermost thoughts or where my heart is at all but Him. It is that personal isn’t it? If you see it please respond how you see fit. thanks

  4. Hopefully someday this other type of evangelicalism circles back to US… but we’ll have to change our exceptionalist mentality in order for it to do any good…

    • We’d be too busy correcting those evangelists who come to America. Because, after all, there is “theology” (read: “our true right THE only theology”), and then there is “label + theology”, which is what everyone else believes.

      Come to us and be fed, we’ll set you straight.

  5. India is a great mission field. Yes there is violence. Seems if God is calling you to be there you should go. FOR quite some time I have come to realize that Evangelicalism such as the kind of the Billy Grahams in the world is entry level and needs the rest of the body of Christ to continue on in spiritual growth. I have come to realize my frustrations begin here and also end here as I find peace. My friend Lou who was the first years ago to come into my life after hitting my bottom and crying out to God was exactly what I had needed at the time. He loves evangelical endeavors and is constantly reaching out to the ones who are just starting into deeper waters. it isn’t long though and those who want to continue soon find they need to leave him and move on. It is a source of great sadness to Lou because he doesn’t understand why he has no lasting close friendships but has so many friends.

    Where the outreaches always seem to fail to me is in the depth. Where Christianity seems to fail to me in the USA is in the depth. It is like teaching tithing and not teaching it from the heart of God. it is like teaching about our enemies are not flesh and blood and then leaving it like your work is done. The depth is in what that means. It is like teaching relationship and leaving out the religious aspects of what relationship truly means. These things aren’t either or, they must work together. Everytime I say we need the whole body of Christ I mean it. We need evangelicals and Baptists and Catholics and Orthodox and all the rest that I leave out to do what is necessary to continue what Evangelical’s have started for the ones who find a home with them. This isn’t competition it is love. Ultimately I believe Jesus when He said He would teach me and He is doing just that.

    I am learning to love His way. It is hard for me because most of my life has been a twisted way in love. Jesus, my precious Jesus has not left my side ever. I mean not ever. I realize the garbage dump of sheol He found me in and I know why He hung in the one He did. It was for me and there can be no greater love than this of my creator. How could I not want to share this good news. How could I not want for others to know the depths of such love and how to enter into the heights of loving that way. It’s never an either or it is always, always.

    Last week as I listen to the sermon I realized how childish the word being given was and I looked around and realized how childish we can be. I realized that those I once saw as these great spiritual giants I could be at peace with when I once wasn’t. I realized that I could smile and not be made nervous by them. I might now be a threat to them because we love our control don’t we.

    I keep seeing those that question are being shown the door and I wonder about where I am now. I will go with eyes open this morning put my gift in the basket and sing my heart out to the one or two verse songs of contemporary worship all the time while begging my Lord to please just one hymn this morning just one. Show me how to love Your way Lord I need it so much, so much.

  6. w, believe it or not, your experience is not uncommon, but IS reflected in the church experience of many, many believers. But the problem can devolve into looking a people and judging them by our own experience. I catch myself doing that when I begin to think I have arrived at some “spiritual level” and delude myself that I am “growing” in faith. All of those terms are highly subjective and I find myself just as “lost” as any other pew sitter.

    It is up to each of us to seek the face of the Creator and to endeavor to conform to the image of Christ. Sure, the holy spirit helps us, but we also have to do some heavy lifting. And those others around us that we “see” with our new “spiritual” eyes? They are just like US, and we are just like THEM!

    Thanks for the paragraphs, and a great post.

    • I do agree Oscar very, very much. Everytime I get one thing right I have ten more staring me in the face that I could do so much better on. It seems I only ever touch the tip of the iceberg and it is enough to wreck me.

      Today I saw the 70 some year old women who stands throwing her hand in the air during singing and there is probably not something right with her but I don’t know what the disorder is mentally. She was in the grocery store I rarely visit trying to purchase a half gallon of ice cream this past week. She went to walk out without it because she only had a dollar or two. I stopped the clerk and said I got that. She went on, oh thank you my husband died and my children left and I am all alone except for Him as she pointed to the sky. I said I’ve seen you in the church I go to but she didn’t recognize me. There are 700 to a 1000 there. I saw her this morning and I wanted to go give her a hug. I know how she is loved and I am just like her.

  7. I can thoroughly identify with the thought of being a spiritual mongrel; each day that I live, I work to come to grips with the consequences of what that means in the world I move through. Chaplain Mike, I’m grateful that you have found an enduring bond with the brothers In India; I pray that it persists.

  8. Thank you, Mike, for this post. I’m one of those who probably fall into the category of the “fundies” so brutally criticized and ridiculed in lots of posts here. I’m not part of what I think you would consider mainstream evangelicalism, but was definitely raised in a conservative, Western, imperialist, Southern brand of Christianity. I have wavered for years about continuing or not passing by imonk and reading. (Your Saturday Ramblings probably kept me here as much as anything). As a long-time missionary in Latin America I heard about Michael Spencer, unfortunately, when he already had been diagnosed with cancer. In his words I found a searching soul, a questioning mind, a brave heart ready to critique whatever seemed to point in any direction but Christ. And lots of words from Michael cut me to the core. But I never felt belittled or ridiculed by his words. I felt there was a humble spirit that saw in himself the need for growth, for a deeper faith, for a more simple trust, and I always felt like he invited me along, rather than telling me what I needed to do so I was could ‘get with the program’. In fact I go back and read some of his things not so much to learn as to be healed. Your words in this post about IYFC encouraged me, as it showed that you understand how strong those roots are and that, no matter how much we may change or grow, that past is not evil, and is fundamentally a part of who we are and who we can become in Christ.