September 21, 2014

On Being God

cat as godI would like to take a few of the days allotted to me to write (you would think being the owner and publisher of this site I would have more control over these things, wouldn’t you?) about my journey out of the evangelical world I have lived in for more than 40 years. This is my journey; I am not saying anyone else will ever come to the same conclusions as I have. I simply want to provide a few snapshots of my journey out of evangelicalism. If you identify yourself as an evangelical, this is in no way meant to say you need to leave or that anything you are doing is wrong. But I am asking you that, as you journey with me, you look at your own motives and desires. If you feel led to leave evangelicalism, don’t get mad at me.

I was teaching high school in Ohio in the mid-90s when two of my students approached me.

“Mr. Dunn, we want to go see the Rolling Stones in St. Louis, but our parents won’t let us go unless we have an adult go with us. You’re the closest thing to an adult we know, so will you go with us? We’ll buy your ticket and pay for all the gas. All you have to do is go with us.”

I thought about it for two, maybe three seconds before saying Yes. Hey, I was all about furthering their education any way I could.

So on a Friday afternoon, right after the final bell sounded, we hopped in a Ford Bronco and drove to St. Louis. I really didn’t know what to expect from the show. I had never been a huge Stones fan, but I expected them to put on a good show. I was wrong. They put on the most incredible show I could ever imagine. As I sat (and stood) watching Mick and Keef rip through song after song, I just kept thinking, “Why do we Christians try to out-entertain the world?” Didn’t we have a message that could stand on its own without all the hype?

The answer I kept encountering was, “Maybe not.” This was the mid-90s. “Seeker sensitive” was still a relatively new phrase in church circles. It came with another phrase attached: “Felt needs.” As an elder and interim youth pastor in my church, I was in on a lot of strategy meetings where “felt needs” were discussed. What needs was the married mother of four coming to church with? We needed to address those with songs and messages and programs. What about the single moms? Their felt needs were different from the elderly. And then don’t forget the men. Their felt needs had to be addressed, usually in the form of “men’s groups” or the requisite golf league. It was voiced that if we didn’t meet these felt needs, the people would leave for the church down the street that did meet those needs with songs and sermons and programs. (And their golf league played on a better course.) And of course all of our services had to entertain. That was what was expected of any Christian gathering. After all, we couldn’t leave the entertaining up to the heathen Rolling Stones, could we?

1998 found me moving with my family back to Tulsa where I had gone to college, and then taught at that school. Now I was coming back to work in Christian media—first with an advertising agency, then with a publisher. I spent a dozen years trying to come up with products to meet felt needs. No, to be more precise, I was trying to manipulate the felt needs of consumers in order to sell products. As soon as we would come up with some catchy devotional title (“God’s Little Instruction Book” anyone?), we would branch it off into a version for women, then moms, then teens. The content didn’t matter. We farmed it out to writers who cranked it out quickly. We spent out time coming up with just the right color for the cover, and just the right sales sheet for the sales reps to use when they presented it to Sam’s and Costco. The product needed to entertain and to meet felt needs. This was evangelicalism as I knew it. And as long as things were going ok for me, I didn’t question it.

Through all of this—as a youth pastor, as an elder, as a preacher, as an editor and then literary agent—I avoided looking inside of myself very closely. I knew what I would find.

Nothing.

I was empty. On the outside, I was all that and sugar cookies too. But on the inside I was hollow. I knew my Bible. I could hold my own in theological discussions. I had my daily quiet time and was active in my church (which was one the “cool” churches that pop up like dandelions on a spring lawn here in Tulsa). When I lost my job (because the publishing world did just as I had predicted it would and stopped giving big advances and long contracts to people who had nothing to say and couldn’t say it), I slumped into a deep depression. I was a bottomless pit; there was no foundation for me to stand on. The free fall is not what hurt; it was the sudden stop when I hit bottom that made me realize just how empty I truly was. And I blame it on having a personal relationship with Jesus.

One of the strong tenants of evangelicalism is one’s personal relationship with Jesus. You are saved when you invite Jesus into your heart. We are told not to pursue “religion,” but rather a “relationship.” And that relationship is a personal one with Jesus. Me and Jesus, we got a good thing going …

And in all I was hearing in church and in Christian music and in Christian books was that God wanted to take care of all of my needs. He wanted me to be happy and entertained. I never need suffer through a bad day. As a matter of fact, I never need suffer. God loved me, and he knew all of my needs. He knew all of my felt needs, and he stood at the ready to meet all those needs. All I had to do was to … believe, pray, give, have faith, confess. Actually, there was a lot I had to do, but the bottom line was I was very important to God, so important that he took up residence in my heart, sticking very close in case I had the slightest want or need.

Have you heard the difference between dog and cat theology? A dog who lives in a house says of the man in charge, “He feeds me, he gives me shelter, he pets me. He must be God.” A cat in the same house says, “He feeds me, he gives me shelter, he pets me. I must be God.” After 40 years of this personal relationship, of everything being focused on my needs, I had become God. And I am tired of being who I was never made to be.

There is a God, and I’m very comfortable saying that I am not He.

Evangelicalism has tried to entertain me. It has tried to make me happy. It has tried to sooth me when I am in despair. In everything it has made it clear that I am the center of God’s universe, the very reason that the sun rises and sets each day. And after 40 years, I now see that has been a lie. I do want a relationship with God, but not one where I set the terms. I don’t want to get my own way just because I feel like it. I want to know God as he knows himself to be, not as I wish him to be.

Evangelicalism tried to tell me I was God. I’m not. I’m Jeff. I’m a mess on my best days. I make a much better dog than cat.

 

Comments

  1. This resonates very strongly with me.

    For my money, this is one of the best posts on imonk ever. Clearly voices what so many of us have gone through and are trying to move past.

    Thanks.

  2. I never identified any of that “God wants you to be happy and satisfied and for your relationship with him to feel like a big warm hug” rubbish as evangelicalism. So when I reject it, I never feel I’m rejecting evangelicalism too.

    But no doubt there’s more to your disquiet with the movement than just this.

    • I resonate, K.W.

      Maybe it’s a northeast thing, but in my 10 years in evangelicalism this sentiment has never been prevalent in any of the circles I’ve come across.

      But I’ll be fair and state that, from what I know about evangelicalism in the South & Midwest, I know I would never survive there.

    • KW, I agree. I love Jesus and the Trinity but life is not easy. I read something by Nadia Bolz-Weber where she remarked that the Christian life is a continuing, never ending cycle of death and resurrection. Luther would be proud of her. :-). This has been my experience as a Christian. We are called to lift up our own cross which has little to do with the prosperity gospel or “feel good” evangelism.

    • I would count y’all who haven’t encountered the “Big Empty” in Evangelicalism lucky. Jeff’s experiences aren’t unlike my own, though in a different generation.

      For me, it was the psychological whiplash of on one hand having the “joy joy joy joy” constantly while at the same time needing to feel my own sinful “wretchedness”. And I never really felt either one, which led to a few “What’s Wrong With Me?” moments.

      I live in Northern CA, and I believe that the EV Circus was always trying to be bigger and shinier than the promises of nice weather and success that characterize the secular life here. Being the West coast, we also lack the traditions that may exist in some EV churches on the other coast due to everything here being less than 150 yrs old. Churches definitely seem to come and go.

      Now, I just long for something quiet and sturdy, like an old cabin. Don’t know where that is yet.

    • I gotta agree with KW; I’ve never been taught in my 6 decades of evangelicalism that God was interested in either my happiness or my entertainment. I was taught he was interested in my holiness and the process tends to be very trying at times.

      • I disagree with the sentiment, which I hear at times from some preachers, that God doesn’t care about our happiness but only with our “holiness.” I certainly don’t see any passages in the Bible which conveys it.

        God never promises life will always be a bed of roses in the Bible, but nowhere does He say that he doesn’t care about our happiness, either. I think some Christians just make that assumption.

        If you’re trying to be holy – that will lead to an exercise in frustration. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to sanctify you.

      • “I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.”

        Perhaps the Evangelicalism of the North and East is somewhat different from that of the South and West, but for too long that promise of Jesus recorded in John 10 has been understood to mean that “abundant life” is equal to the Successful American Life. When we take what Jesus said and promised and hold it over against what he did, then we’ll immediately understand that Jesus was all about the kenotic path and not about climbing the ladder of success.

  3. Thanks, Jeff, for putting in to words, what I, (and others, no doubt) are thinking and experiencing, but are not sure how to verbalize it. It is posts like this one (echoes of Michael Spencer) is what first attracted me to this site.
    Ditto to what scrapiron said above!
    Your journey is a similar journey, just on a different path of that journey, and feel quite alone. But, I know it’s my journey, and your summary of it lets my heart know that it’s not just me. Definitely on the post-evangelical side, now.

  4. I loved this line:
    “And I am tired of being who I was never made to be.”

    beautifully written post, JEFF . . . thank you for sharing this with us

    I just wrote a comment on another blog that had asked a question, this:
    “Is It True That I Can’t Judge Until I’ve Walked In Your Shoes?”

    the premise was discussed by the author from both sides, and as I read his thoughts, this was the only response that occurred to me, and my comment reads:

    “judging others?
    isn’t it possible that we cannot judge others because we have not walked in His shoes?”

    I think sometimes evangelical people take on too much and assume too much, not out of mean-spiritedness, no; but they are so eager, so impatient to ‘save’ others that they forget to be servants of Christ and become judges of men.
    What follows is usually the ‘you are on the road to hell’ condemnation if the person they are trying to help does not respond to their concerns in a timely enough way. I suppose that the person who did not respond as the evangelical hoped is left confused more than helped when that happens that they have not been able to satisfy the need of the evangelist to save them.

    • I just wish American evangelicalism would recognize and stop teaching the attitude that “becoming saved” or being an uber-Christian who lives/works/breathes churchstuff elevates you to a place where you’re supposedly a better person than everyone else, under God’s special favor, with permission to be God’s proxy, judging others and demanding respect from your lessers. Especially since Jesus emptied Himself and became a servant. The people I’ve met (pastors, ministry leaders, congregation members) who embraced that miserable attitude — all of them typically arrogant, ignorant, and insecure, with no one willing to (or able to) correct them — drove me thoroughly out of evangelicalism.

      • @ sarahmorgan.

        I know what you mean. It’s also a larger trend in Christianity these days.

        CT published a post about it:
        Here Come the Radicals!

        David Platt, Francis Chan, Shane Claiborne, and now Kyle Idleman are dominating the Christian best-seller lists by attacking our comfortable Christianity. But is ‘radical faith’ enough?

        These types of preachers tell you that you must be on fire for Jesus 24 / 7, sell all your possessions, go live in a mud shack in a third world country, etc, to be a “real” Christian.

    • “not out of mean-spiritedness, no; but they are so eager, so impatient to ‘save’ others that they forget to be servants of Christ ”

      good point

  5. Nice piece, Jeff.

    Yes, I have been to some of those Evangelical worship services and felt as if they were trying to hand me back to myself. Giving me more of myself. Just what got me into this mess in the first place.
    There seems to be NO dying in places like that and that is exactly what Jesus bids us to do.

  6. Would you do me a favor? Read the post on Jesus Creed of 9/17/2013 called Restoring the Soul and comment on it. It is actually a summary of “The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith, Gary Black, Jr.

    • I agree with much of what is stated in that post. I like much of Willard, and the parts I struggle with are probably because I’m not smart enough to get what Willard was saying. Thank you for pointing me to this …

  7. pamela wood says:

    Thanks for the deeply personal post, Jeff. I identify with some of it, having spent 60 years in the evangelical wilderness. I have been through all the various iterations of evangelicalism from the hell-fire and brimstone preaching of the 50′s, the influence of the hippie movement in the 60′s and 70′s , the ‘Showtime’ atmosphere heralded in with the contemporary Christian music scene, to the current ‘seeker sensitive’ culture of today. I am thankful for the emphasis on Bible training I had as a child for it gave me a wonderful base of GOD’s words to draw upon in this journey. I have been as guilty as any of biting into and practicing the narcissism of the ‘me-isms’ cloaked in personal relationship terms. I have tried to strong-arm people with witnessing programs from L.I.F.E. (GOD has a wonderful plan for your life) and Lay Institute for Evangelism, etc., etc. (gag…)

    However, I don’t think all the misconceptions and idiocy can be laid at the feet of evangelicalism. I believe that in most Christian institutional churches, shame and performance based methods are used to herd the sheep, because that is how, as people, we operate for the most part. (At least that’s what I hear from fellow travelers who come out of mainline denominations.)

    Currently (for 3 years), my husband and I have taken a break from what we have done all our lives on Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights (and any other time the church institution doors were open). We meet with a small group of 9 people in our home, share a meal, talk about Jesus, share our lives, and try to live out our faith in all seven days of the week. We haven’t ‘fallen away’, ‘fallen into error’, or anything else we were warned about so strongly by the institutions. I don’t know if this is what we’ll be doing a year from now…we want to be where our Father wants us to be, and, for right now, this is it.

    • Sounds like a great gathering you have going there!

    • @ pamela
      What you and your husband are doing (meeting with other believers over food, sharing your lives, talking about Jesus) sounds like church to me – which I mean as a compliment.

      I think that is what church is supposed to look like, not the stuff in Baptist and evangelical churches these days, where you sit in a pew and listen to a guy drawl on for however many minutes.

  8. Thanks Jeff. One of the best “dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness” we’ve had here in a long time. It is especially important because of your intimate involvement with so many behind-the-scenes aspects of evangelicalism. It’s time to start paying serious attention to the man behind the curtain.

  9. Forgive me for thinking aloud via the keyboard, but I think too much time is spent analyzing Evangelicalism in isolation from the rest of Christendom. Not that your post is not helpful, Jeff, but I get the feeling that you spent a lot of your time in places where Evangelicalism was the only game in town. Your mention of Ohio and St. Louis leads me to believe that this is not entirely so, but Tulsa is very definitely a place where the evangelical/charismatic presence would dominate.

    I mention this because there is a sense in which, to me at least, Evangelicalism seems to me to be parasitical on older forms of Christianity. I grew up in Western Michigan where there was very much a “Death Star” vs “Rebel Alliance” mentality between the baptisitic and “brethren-istic” Evangelicals and the two established ethnic Dutch churches, the RCA and the CRC. The baptistic and brethrenistic Evangelicals didn’t consider the Christians in the two Dutch churches to be “Christians” in any substantial sense, but considered them ‘worldlings’ in desperate need of evangelization.

    I think the Baptists and Brethren were completely gobsmacked when the Charismatics turned the tables on them in the 1970s and began to portray them as defective Christians who were “only” born again and who lacked “Spirit baptism”. Suddenly, the Evangelicals were fighting a two-front war. I don’t know if the Pentecostals were prepared for their sudden success in the 70s and the 80s. Millions of Catholics, simultaneously confused and liberated by the changes in the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council, flooded into the Pentecostal megachurches and gave them real demographic muscle. I heard a couple of Pentecostal statesmen refer to the late 70s and early 80s as the time of God’s harvest for the Catholics.

    A lot of this was framed by the Presbyterian J. Greshem Machen in his book Christianity And Liberalism. There was a real warrior mindset in the PCA when I was part of it, and I think it was engendered during these polemical battles when the Fundamentalists were expelled from the the Protestant Hegemony. The liberalizing mainline Protestants went from strength to strength until their floodtide in the mid sixties. I don’t think it’s entirely inappropriate to consider the Civil Rights movement as the last great achievement of classical American Protestantism (although most of the credit should go to the African-American churches). As David pointed out in a reply to the previous post, the Evangelical exiles were caught on the wrong side of history on this issue. Certainly, even after the resurgence of the 70s and 80s, the revitalized Evangelicals were never able to achieve anything anywhere near as significant, although it wasn’t for the lack of trying.

    My thinking on recent American church history, meaning post Second World War, which is where most texts on American religious history end, is all over the map. There are some smart people on this board who could be very helpful in helping me clean up this lumber yard, and I would be eternally grateful for any assistance rendered.

    • David Cornwell says:

      I would never for a moment question Jeff’s struggle, for in many ways it is the same struggle all of us face. However just a word of caution. I just read an article written by Stanley Hauerwas, “The end of American Protestantism,” in which he states:

      “Archbishop Francis George of Chicago often remarks, Catholicism in America has largely become a form of Protestant Christianity. Catholics in America, like their Protestant sisters and brothers, are likely to assume that there is no essential tension between being a Christian and being an American. As a result Catholics in America think the distinction between the public and the private (and their “faith” clearly falls into the latter) is a given that cannot be questioned.”

      Hauerwas is deep reading. One cannot simply glance at his text for a sound bite, or digest it in a glance. But here he has a point, or at least I think he does. Is he reading Archbishop Francis George in context?

      Is American Catholicism now just another form of Protestant Christianity? If so, is it any better? I don’t know the answer, just raising the question.

      • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

        Well, typically, in countries where Catholicism is not persecuted, the typical mindset of typical parishioners is that being Catholic is part of their heritage/nationality/etc. E.g. my mom’s side of the family considers moving out the barrio and converting to Protestantism to be essentially the same thing.

        But, y’know, I think that’s typical of any person who was born into their religion. It’s more often the convert that doesn’t see their religion as part of their family, national, racial, etc. heritage. That doesn’t mean that it’s only converts who are serious about their faith, of course. But there’s a certain zeal that comes with being a convert that’s not often there with the native-born churchman.

      • As a plain cradle Catholic, with no credentials except my faith and eight years of a Catholic education starting at age 14, I think that David has raised an excellent point. [Not to hijack the thread, as Jeff has described what I see of evangelical Christianity from the outside, and appreciate his honesty and lack of confrontation...]

        I read gazillions of Catholic and Christian blogs, so I hope I can be forgiven for not being able to credit my source, but I read an excellent piece about 2 months ago which asserted that prior to the late 1960′s/early 1970′s, it was VERY easy to be an American and a Catholic. Save some hostility from the anti-papist, “Catholics aren’t Christian” crowd, what Catholics did on Sunday and what they believed in morally were not too much different than the neighbors. Sexuality only within marriage, discomfort with divorce & abortion, being honest and helping neighbors—pretty much unanimous agreement up and down the block on these issues.

        When society and many churches started to change their tune, an issue which has increased exponentially in the last decade or two, the Catholic Church did NOT change, putting Catholics at loggerheads not only with secular society but also with many Christian faith expressions. Now, more than ever in modern history, it is counter-culture to believe in and act on the tenants of the Church.

        This has led to many leaving the Catholic faith, and others who remain active but pick and choose amongst dogma and beliefs. It is not necessarily a bad thing, in my opinion, to question one’s faith and understand WHY you are part of a denomination or faith community. I know that non-Catholic Christians tend to “church-shop” much more than we Catholics, and often for reasons related to music and outings and youth groups but NOT to belief systems, For me, there is one and ONLY ONE reason to belong to a church or denomination—and that is because it is the most true and accurate representation of what Jesus Christ came to the world to preach, do, and require.

      • Thank you for that reference to Hauerwas. I recognize a lot of my own muddled thinking in his much clearer prose. Of course, he has the benefit of being paid to think about things like this. :)

        He’s not the only one who thinks that AmCath (TM) is the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the US. I noticed this right after Vat2 when they tore down the funky RC chapel with the plaster saints and gaudy Madonnas and put up a “modern” looking sanctuary with some abstract sculpture in the altar area. No saints, no Mary except for some “generic feminine” wooden sculpture off to one side. I remember thinking at the age of about 12 “This used to be a religion. Now it isn’t. Just another moral self-congratulation society like my folks’ church.”

        • Richard Hershberger says:

          I had the same reaction to the (Episcopal) Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, when I visited it some ten or twelve years ago. They took spectacular architecture and filled it with the most banal platitudes of the Church of Multiculturalism. I was so repulsed that I made an unplanned side trip to the (Catholic) St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which still knew what a church was, to get the bad taste out of my mouth. The thing is, I admire much about the Episcopal Church. I would probably be an Episcopalian if there were no Lutheran church available. But when Episcopalians go bad, it is not a pretty sight.

          • Currently living down the street from them both, I would concur with your sentiments on interior decor. I at first attributed the drab interior of the ginormous St. John to the Puritanical aesthetic dominant in Calvinistic traditions. But a closer inspection does reveal puny petty progressive platitudes, once you get over the size of the pillars. Though St. Patricks could indeed fit inside of St. John’s, Pat is much more “Christian” on the inside, and far less political. It is also far more beautiful. St. John looks like something out of “Lord of the Rings,” when they visit the mines of Moria. Drab is the word.

      • I am not yet willing to concede fully to Cardinal George’s worry, but his comments are worth pondering: his fear is that the growing divide along political party and issues lines threatens to divide the Church family community at its core.

        At the risk of venturing too deeply into Catholic inside baseball, this week’s issue of America Magazine (a Jesuit publication which tends to be liberal on the political spectrum) has an article about the deepening political divide present in American Catholicism (http://new.americamagazine.org/issue/murray%E2%80%99s-mistake) US secular culture exerts a powerful force on faith, constantly offering the temptation that we must divide into virtual enemy camps in order to “win” debating points when considering most any discussion or dispute. We as a people, as evidenced in our media, seem to thrive on this conflict. Cardinal George mourns that the Church has likewise been subject to such community-dividing, “protestantizing ,” temptations. One of the spiritual joys of Catholicism is its embrace of the “both-and” paradigm instead of “either/or” to resolve what appear to be conflicting truths. Embracing “both/and” is vital to understanding truth and preserving unity. The US political and cultural milieu is decidedly protestant — emphasis small ’p’ — in its modern formulation and seems unable to process a more oriental framework that embraces truth in paradox or even consider that joy in faith can actually be found there.

    • My dad grew up in Kansas in the ’20s; he also lived in OK for a couple of years as a child. His family was Catholic. He once told me that when and where he grew up, if you were a Catholic you were lower than a N-. I remember him being very tense once Kennedy had been nominated for president. Our TV went kaputt in the middle of he Kennedy/Nixon debates, and he insisted we replace it the very next morning so he would not miss a word. Even though in both places where I lived growing up Catholics were the majority of churchgoing folk, my dad fully expected that Catholics would experience persecution by some Protestants and non-religious people if Kennedy won, because of the hostility toward him expressed by people elsewhere in the country.

      I and most of the Catholics I knew did not feel either confused or liberated on this side of V2. We simply went with the flow because we were good Catholics. As a teenage guitar player, I really liked the folk masses; I didn’t experience anything stranger than a nun (in a modern habit, not street clothes) doing a tasteful liturgical dance, and that only once. Whereas the Latin Mass was something that really marked Catholicism and Catholics out as different when I was very young, we (and the Episcopalians) were ahead of everyone else with guitars in worship, when that was a scandal among most of the Protestants in my small town, especially the Baptists (the majority of the Protestants – but there were 3 different Baptist churches!). I remember the beginnings of the Catholic Charismatic movement, but its influence only extended to some of the songs we were using in the folk masses. There was more influence by the time I got to the college Newman group.

      When I was growing up, we didn’t really know from “Evangelicals”. Churchgoers belonged to recognized denominations, and that is how we Catholics identified them, and how they identified themselves, until the late ’60s and early ’70s, when it was not cool to identify other than “Christian”. In my neck of the woods – northern CA – that was synchronous with awareness of and rise of Evangelicalism and the Jesus Movement. The blurring of denominational identity was one of the things that was attractive about it as I was finishing High School and heading off to college.

      As I was leaving RC (the very last time I took Communion as a Catholic was in Italy at age 20, and on my way back the pew I realized I didn’t belong there anymore), it was the Pentecostal/Charismatic Evangelicals that drew me, and there were plenty of them, and plenty of ex-Catholics among them. We commiserated together about how we “never heard the Gospel in the Catholic Church” but most were not bitter, and I heard a lot of the same complaint from kids who grew up in other churches, too. I think because I had some familiarity with the Catholic Charismatics, and because a lot of Charismatics at the time were not anti-intellectual, it was easier for me to fit in to that kind of church than going to the geeky, overly serious Baptist-types or AG. (Never considered Reformed at all, even as a big F. Schaeffer fan.) I basically remained in that sphere until the late ’80s. My Vineyard church was the healthiest of the ones I was involved with, and that was the last overtly Charismatic church I attended. We moved, and choices were limited in the new town, defined more by class than theology. I ended up at an Ev Free church, and after a few years, as my theology began changing (the result of trying to make sense of my life experiences and finding very little help in what had been given me in the Protestant tradition), I found myself in the “Evangelical wilderness” for about 10 years.

      I hope this helps you sort through the piles, Mule. My experience leads me to think you are right about the parasitic nature of Evangelicalism, and I think it can be traced to the groups who urged people to “come out” of the older denominations in order to maintain some kind of notion of purity; this reached an intensity with the Fund/Mods, and in their wake. There was a lot of zeal that came to the fore (Isaac’s comment) because of multiple instances and levels of conversion, from then until at least the ’90s. Evangelicalism enjoyed success because most of the people who made it grow so fast in the ’70s and ’80s had some kind of Christian background, and became disenchanted with it for whatever reasons.

      Dana

      • Forgot to mention that I have had essentially no experience with the RC since I left, other than rare occasional visits, so I have no idea what its tenor in this country is now, except for what I read on blogs… so cannot comment. I think Cardinal George’s observation is quite interesting, and that Hauerwas would quote him.

        Dana

        • Also think, after reading Tokah’s and Christiane’s comments below, that at least one large reason the prosperity/megachurch arm of Evangelicalism has taken hold as it has in California is that so many here, especially in the agricultural communities in the Central Valley, and in places in and around LA, came from the South in the Depression years.

          Dana

          • Then perhaps the prosperity gospel has taken advantage of these vulnerable people especially?

            I think of Pope Francis driving an old Renault himself (no chauffeur) and then I think about the wealthy preachers of prosperity and how the contrast must look to the poor
            . . . perhaps being bidden to come and die is a very harsh saying for people who have already suffered hell on Earth
            . . . they long for some respite from their suffering on this Earth and, of course, they might listen with hope to those who promise that God wants them to have what the Earth can give.

            But there is one message that offers even more hope to the poor: the one Our Lord gave to us all:

            “Peace I leave with you,
            my peace I give unto you:
            not as the world giveth, do I give unto you.
            Let not your heart be troubled,
            nor let it be afraid.”

            (the Gospel of St. John 14:27)

  10. Jerry Goodman says:

    I have also traveled these roads. So (even though I wrote this recently, I think) i heard from another source: “Before the Gospel (Jesus Christ, the Cross) it was what Paul (insert our name) did for God, now (big now!) it is what God is doing through Paul(insert your name here)” THE MOST AMAZING GRACE WE WON’T COMPLETELY UNDERSTAND IN THIS LIFE. Blessings

  11. Bill Metzger says:

    Amen.

  12. Journeying through the evangelical wildnerness is an awesomely unique thing.

    Also being from the northeast, I never encountered the face of evangelicalism you describe. The prosperity gospel, in both it’s implicit and explicit forms, was regularly derided and preached against. The church was a thing you joined, one congregation at a time, not something you formed to your own needs. My own choice of evangelical church as an adult had been founded in the early 1800′s, and we still had descendants of those original 16 or 17 folks, still celebrated Easter morning in the historical building with a cemetery full of resting saints of the last 200 years behind. There were roots to be had.

    In fact, the vast majority of problems discussed on this site with regards to evangelicalism never did match my experience. It wasn’t all about conversion, but also discipleship, with both meaty sermons and practical helps. The elderly and needy were as valued as the young and healthy, not forgotten. Commitment to right doctrine was accompanied by excellent orthopraxy and true caring. Old hymns were liberally mixed with the new stuff. We took communion regularly.

    Where it fell down for me was the pervasive mismatch between the practical theology and practice of evangelicalism as I experienced it and the stated sources of our theology and approach to practice that we proclaimed. Truthfully, if I hadn’t moved, I think I would have continued to worship in the evangical church (with sneaky trips to the local catholic parish for cool christian holidays evangelicalism threw out) for quite a while longer. There was no great fall for me, just a constant inching away that began when I was 8 or 9 and took until I was in my late 20′s to bear visible fruit.

    Thank you for sharing your very different journey, Jeff. May the Lord bless you and keep you as you wander.

    • …and bless YOU for your insight. Having lived all over the place due to a military life, it does seem that the prosperit y gospel, the “happy, clappy Christians” who have money, looks, perfect marriages and kids, etc tends to be a southern interpretation. I cannot imagine this thinking in a Methodist clapboard church in Maine!

      Jeff nailed it….while we relate to God as individuals, we serve and worship Him in community….you know, that bit about loving God AND one’s neighbor?? While the Lord loves each of us as IF there were only one of us, we still have to live together and serve each other here on Planet Earth!

  13. Were you looking over my shoulder when you wrote this “testimony”>?

    Thank you.

  14. Great post Jeff. I remember the days I believed that a life with God in this fallen world was supposed to be smooth and easy. I thought that was what God wanted. But then my eyes opened and I looked at the life of Paul. Shipwrecked multiple times, bitten by a poisonous snake, stoned and left for dead and eventually beheaded. Could I really expect a different life? Dieing to our selves is hard and difficult. And yes we find joy and peace but it has nothing to do with my circumstances. What if a little stress and pain in my life put me in the right place at the right time to share the gospel? Jesus does care about us deeply but he is not my fix it man, he is my savior.

  15. Jeff, I’ve admired your insight, transparency, and skillful articulation of your personal journey for a long time now. So I’m a bit shocked at the sweeping broad-strokes of the following lines:

    “Evangelicalism has tried to entertain me. It has tried to make me happy. It has tried to sooth me when I am in despair. In everything it has made it clear that I am the center of God’s universe, the very reason that the sun rises and sets each day.”

    “Evangelicalism tried to tell me I was God.”

    By no means do I want to put you on trial here. But based solely on this post, it reads like you are trading in one “-ism” for another “-ism.”

    You were deeply involved, and even earned your living to a degree, in a way that ultimately spiritually backfired on you. Yet…

    “Through all of this—as a youth pastor, as an elder, as a preacher, as an editor and then literary agent—I avoided looking inside of myself very closely. I knew what I would find.
    Nothing.”

    I’m… not sure how to articulate my feelings. I guess I’m wondering, at what point should you have been responsible for the care of your soul at an earlier stage, and attend to this emptiness by doing whatever it would have taken? Why now? Why the bridge-burning language while crossing over it?

    I’m not trying to defend the brand of the faith that you’ve been steeped in (because I don’t think I’ve encountered it much but for the blogosphere). Yet it’s hard for me not to feel included in the sweeping indictment. There’s definitely a healthy, sober, and needed critique that I receive from your story. But there’s something else as well, which doesn’t not quite settle with me.

    You have 30 years of experience on me as a Christ-follower, and I need your perspective & wisdom. Can you help me understand?

    • Oh how I long for an edit button on this forum!

      I want to emphasize that my last two sentences at the very end is the place in my heart that I am writing from, and what I want to engage you on. Everything prior to that is my stream of consciousness reaction. I hope I am not coming off as too defensive, because I do respect the hell out of your journey. For the record.

      • First of all Sean, remember what I said at the beginning. This is my journey. Any “broad-strokes” are only painted on me.

        Evangelicalism was my home for 40 years. And in those 40 years I constantly heard—in church, in Christian music, in Christian books—that God was here to solve all my problems. And thus I found myself sitting on the throne, with God there to serve me.

        Yes, I read other books that challenged this. C.S. Lewis and Eugene Peterson have been constant guides with me. And yes I sat under some very good pastors who did not get off the tracks into self-help Christianity. But the voices that were off-track drowned out these right-track speakers in my life.

        Thus my need to find another home. There is plenty good in evangelicalism. It is a place I will continue to visit. I just can’t live there any longer. More to come in the coming weeks of my story. And remember, this is just my story.

  16. I am sorry if trying to meet people’s felt needs made you feel hollow or what not, but people do in fact have needs, and the Bible does instruct Christians to meet them (whether financial, emotional, e.g., Christians are instructed to give food to the hungry, to weep with those who weep, etc).

    I perhaps misunderstood the author’s views or intent, but he seems to be critical of Christians trying to meet people’s needs, and if so, I cannot agree with that.

    I was raised in a family where Mom did all the parenting, and Dad seldom did. My mother, who was a devout Christian, was unfortunately a very codependent person who felt that her needs were not important, nor were her feelings.

    My Mom lived life as a doormat and catered to other people’s needs and feelings all the time. She felt that Christian women were supposed to be sweet at all time (even in the face of abuse or rudeness). She raised me to be the same exact way, and I lived that way for my entire life, up until about a year or two ago. And it was hellish.

    Denying your own needs and putting other people first at all times is not what the Bible teaches. It’s called codependency.

    There’s nothing shallow, selfish, or superficial about getting one’s own needs met (or in helping others get their needs met). There are Christian psychiatrists and therapists who have written books about this topic, complete with Bible citations if you need to see them (one such book is called “Boundaries” by Drs Cloud and Townsend).

    One of my biggest problems with Christianity is the opposite of what the author of the post is describing:
    I am not seeing most Christians even attempting to meet the needs of hurting people, or, if they try, they are hypocritical in only meeting the needs of their pet causes/groups (some churches or Christians choose homeless crack addicts to serve, for example, while another church may chose single mothers and not care at all about the crack addicts).

    The church that gets weepy and compassionate over the crack addicts will treat the recently divorced ‘Joe Blow’ Christian in their congregation like trash if he comes up to them for help over the divorce… ditto the widower who is lonely, or the person who is grieving because their loved one recently died. Churches don’t seem to care about these “run of the mill” suburbian type Christians who are wounded and who need help.

    They seem to feel helping homeless crack addicts or starving orphans in Africa is more exotic, more “Christian,” or more worthy.

    These types of hurting Christians who need the love and support of fellow Christians, the average Joes who are hurting, will often instead get insensitive lectures about “you should go to church to serve not be served,” “Jesus is sufficient to meet all your needs,” “stop having a pity party” and so on.

    I know some types of Christianity preach a message of “you will never have pain in your life” and some add on, “especially if you pray enough, tithe regularly!, [etc],” but I never believed that life would be pain free or without problems.

    The author seems to be saying God alone is the solution/ answer…. but God sometimes works through people. There are parts of the New Testament that tells Christians to encourage one another – God doesn’t always directly encourage you when you are down in the dumps or struggling with something.

    There were aspects of the post I related to or kind of agreed with but not all. It was an interesting read.

    • I didn’t mean for the last half of my post to wind up in italics. I must have left of the closing tag on the “i” tag.

      • “Felt needs” is a marketing term used by those who are trying to manipulate the emotions of potential buyers, whether it be to sell laundry soap, a new car, or a church. I never said Christians shouldn’t meet the needs of others. Of course we should. But manipulating emotions is wrong.

    • Daisy
      I think you have misread Jeff on this one.

      I think Jeff is saying that the effect it had on him was to make him more self-centered and he is tired of that. And this springs directly out church leaders being overly influenced by marketing techniques that are used in our culture.

      I would have to agree with him. I can’t count the number of times I heard ‘witnessing techniques’ that appealed to a person’s selfishness. Do you want to be happy? Do you want to go to heaven?

      Perhaps the reason you have seen Christians not wanting to meet the needs of others is because of exactly what Jeff is talking about.

      I am NOT saying Jeff was this way, but maybe reread what he says through the eyes of someone who has discovered that he has not cared enough about others, and maybe just tried to sell them a belief system, only to discover his/her own bankruptcy and need for God. I hope I have represented what Jeff is trying to say.