Lent 2012: A Journey through the Wilderness
The Unresolved Tensions of Evangelicalism, part 4
A classic Michael Spencer iMonk post from Nov. 2008
NOTE: On Sundays in Lent, we will run these classic essays from Michael Spencer on the evangelical wilderness.
I am continuing my series on The Unresolved Tensions of Evangelicalism.
In these posts, I have explored the various personal reasons evangelicals have for leaving the church. I have discussed the difficulty many have in coming to terms with the “Biblical worldview” as it is increasingly interpreted within conservative evangelical circles. I have examined the abuse of Christian experience and the multiple failures of Christian community that are bringing many evangelicals to leave the institutional church.
As I expected, these posts have received many confirming comments as well as the predictable criticism for allowing these disillusioned voices to be heard. Some are concerned that I am allowing these posts without endorsement or criticism of the point of view. Our fears of the implications of these voices are understandable, but the choice to hear them cannot be ethically avoided.
One last personal experience of disillusionment with evangelicalism needs to be heard before I write a response to all four. This is the disillusionment that leads a Christian to question or abandon Christian commitment itself.
At the outset I want to be clear that I am not necessarily talking about apostasy or embracing atheism or another religion. Not at all. Moving away from explicit Christian commitment is, for many people, a vital part of their own faith journey.
Let’s use “Ed” as an example. Ed is a friend who has been a Baptist evangelical for many years. No one experience has moved Ed out of the church. He is educated and thoughtful; he is not impulsive or demanding regarding church. He sympathetically understands various forms of evangelicalism and is not a highly critical person. Ed’s lifetime experiences in evangelicalism have been overwhelmingly positive. A graduate of two evangelical schools, he is an academic today and a mentor to many college students.
But Ed is reluctant to call himself a Christian. His family is not part of a church. While his family practices the Christian faith in their own way, they do not do so as part of an evangelical faith community. They would never choose to do so under the present configuration of evangelicalism. This is not because of a crisis of belief as much as a matter of personal authenticity and individuality, values that are very important to Ed and his family.
Ed only calls himself a Christian when pressed to distinguish himself from other kinds of commitments. What Ed wants to avoid is somehow stating â€œI am a follower of Jesus. Look and listen to me to know what God is all about.
Ed’s posture is one of considerable humility regarding matters of faith. He respects the choices of others and feels no need to evangelize or proselytize. He feels the burden of Christian commitment particularly heavily in his friendship with a gay colleague. The response of most Christians to this gay man is predictably negative. Ed feels it is important to accept this friend and to not burden the friendship with all the baggage of evangelicalism’s moral obsession with homosexuality.
Ed is a Christian, but he does not feel he is in a competition to be a “good Christian” or a “strong witness.” His faith expresses itself in the way he treats his students, his colleagues, his friends and family.
Ed’s mother has made many attempts to get him into church, but Ed finds the seeker circus to be impossible to tolerate. While his mother finds the entertainment oriented “worship” meaningful, Ed is tortured.
Ed may seem on the verge of agnosticism to some, but his faith is genuine. For Ed, the journey out of evangelicalism has been a journey away from making public declarations of Christian commitment.
Is Ed an anomaly? I do not believe so. I believe that evangelicalism has fostered forms of Christian commitment and behavior that many find untenable and impossible. For the sake of the authentic practice of their own faith journey, many people are unwilling to “check one of the answers” that evangelicalism necessitates as “true commitment.”
This situation is made much worse by the high public profile of many evangelicals in the culture war. How many readers of Internet Monk have, at some time, listened to or read about a pronouncement in the culture war, and your immediate reaction was “This is not my religion?” You want to say “That’s not me.” You may joke that Buddhism or agnosticism seem more reasonable.
This response is common in a culture where the fulminations of James Dobson and various high profile pastors are everywhere.
For example, on my lunch hour I was subjected to Ed Young, Jr. promoting his “Seven Day Sex Challenge.” This kind of Americanized, prosperity Gospel influenced freak show makes me want to run from evangelicalism at high speed.
In fact, I would count myself among those more than willing to lose every public use of denominational labels and even to minimize the use of the term Christian. Like Kierkegaard, I suspect that the profession of being a Christian may, in fact, be the adversary of actually being one, especially in our culture.
We should also note that many who have journeyed with evangelicalism through its various ways of including those who have never personally embraced the faith are likely to find it remarkably easy to move to generic deism, agnosticism, atheism or no religious/philosophical profession.
Evangelicals like to act as if they are involved in a battle of belief systems, but many of the disillusioned are simply jettisoning what, they believe, is too much belief. They are not so much rejecting evangelicalism as they are reducing Christianity to a far “humbler” expression of personal faith experience. They believe that a religion that is telling people who to vote for and how often to have sex is claiming too much.
I think these persons are currently everywhere in evangelicalism, and their departure from evangelicalism will be a significant development. While new seekers will be attracted to the evangelical show, the evangelical wilderness will be full of those who simply cannot call themselves Christians by the evangelical definition of the term.
• • •
Next: My response to these four kinds of personally disillusionment.