The founder of InternetMonk, Michael Spencer, once wrote a series of essays on the Coming Collapse of Evangelicalism. I found myself not only agreeing with Michael, but cheering on the collapse of this branch of Christianity that, from my vantage point, had grown heavy with pride, selfishness, greed and fraud. Evangelicalism was imploding, collapsing under the weight of church leaders who were bigger than God. I said good riddance, and waiting for Michael’s prophecies to come true.
Then Chaplain Mike recently asked if 2012 was the year of the collapse, and I found I had a different reaction. What if the collapse were actually occurring? I found myself wanting it to be a needed shaking, not a total destruction. I then thought of an essay Lisa Dye wrote on God’s alien work, with alien meaning destructive. God was clearing moving in a destructive way. Would evangelicalism be no more?
No, evangelicalism will survive. Whether or not it will be in a form recognizable to those in that world today is not really important to me. Will the future evangelical movement be something that glorifies God, or just another brick in the tower of Babel, man’s attempt to show God that God can be reached anytime man wants to do so?
Evangelicalism is worth saving, but only if it can be reshaped. It will be hard, and there will be much weeping and wailing and nashing of teeth. My suggestions for saving it are but the beginning, but we have to start somewhere. In this essay I will share what I think the church as a whole needs to consider. Next week I will look at what individuals can do.
How can evangelicalism be saved? Let’s start with these ideas.
Those in charge need to stop being leaders and become pastors. Do you know what a pastor is? A pastor is a shepherd. Do you know what shepherds do? They hang around dirty, smelly, rebellious sheep. Shepherds “lead” their sheep from behind. If the shepherd gets out in front of the sheep and marches on, he will soon find himself walking solo, with his sheep going every which way but forward.
Today’s evangelical churches are led by leaders, not pastors. Leaders are innovative and spontaneous and creative. Pastors plod on day after day. Leaders cast a vision, pastors visit shut-ins and the sick. Leaders motivate others into leadership. Pastors beg others to work in the nursery or help tear down tables after the missionary dinner. See why more people want to be leaders than pastors? Michael Spencer saw this when he wrote,
Today’s pastors aren’t servants as much as they are experts. They don’t so much love the church as they are energized by what they can lead the church to do. By seeing everything in the church as a means to an end, the end becomes all the more important. On that note, scripture is clear. Ephesians 3:21: “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.”
It is the sheep who miss out in a church led by a leader. Who will tend to the sheep? Eugene Peterson was a shepherd who knew his sheep, bandaged and clothed their wounds, and chased after the strays. He could have been a leader, but chose to remain a shepherd. Maybe in the evangelical church of the future all who claim the title of “pastor” will be required to read Peterson’s book by the same title.
Grow smaller, not larger. Do you ever notice just how horrible of a marketer Jesus was? Here he feeds 5000 with a handful of food and the crowds will not go away. They are getting so big it’s obvious Jesus is going to have to go to not only multiple service times, but probably have multiple sites. He has the Pharisees on the run. The disciples are starting to see things come together.
Then Jesus goes off script. His PR firm would never have approved of what he was saying. “Eat my flesh. Drink my blood.” Wait a minute, Jesus. This is not seeker-friendly material here. Let’s get back to what meets the felt needs of the people. How about serving them another free meal? But Jesus keeps at it until the only ones left standing are his disciples. “Are you going to leave me as well?” he asks. Peter says, “Where else can we go?” It must have been a very sad, lonely moment for them all.
That scene would never have happened in evangelicalism before the collapse. It was all about numbers and success and tearing down sanctuaries to build bigger buildings. It was about one leader being able to speak to lots of people at different sites at the same time through the miracle of fiber optics. The church growth movement of the 80s and 90s spawned mutant congregations who were fed with miracle fish and loaves week after week, but never had to come face to face with Jesus’ body and blood. If evangelicalism is to be saved, it must grow smaller. And the way to do that is to preach Jesus crucified. I attended Easter service this last year at a megachurch in my own city. The leader (he is in no way a pastor, as he never associates with the sheep) gave a completely Christless message. He talked about his own growing up and how we all long for family. Seriously. On Easter.
If evangelicalism is to survive, it will have to do as Jesus did and get rid of the crowds who only want their free meal.
Learn to think. Seriously, if I hear another church leader brag about how he barely got through high school but now, praise God, he leads a multi-campus church with ten thousand members, I’m going to puke. Being stupid is not something to brag about. You are given the responsibility of rightly dividing the word of truth. Take that responsibility seriously. Study. Think. Wrestle with ideas. What do you think of transubstantiation? Why do you think that way? Why do you agree or disagree? Can you mind be changed? Defend your position scripturally, then take the other side and defend it scripturally. Do you still think the same way?
I am not saying all pastors have to graduate from seminary, but I am not one who says seminaries ruin a good many would-be pastors. Even liberal seminaries can train one to think. Even the greatest train-wreck of a professor can help one learn to learn. Yes, you can steal others’ sermons from the Internet, mix in a few examples of your own, add a movie clip, and come across as a great entertainer, but is that what Jesus meant by “feed my sheep”? If you are to feed his sheep with something substantial, something that will keep the sheep going on this long journey, don’t you think it should be something more than cotton candy?
What are church leaders reading these days? How many have traded books by classic theologians for books about Steve Jobs? Can evangelicalism survive if its leaders cannot think?
Close down the God Shop. God is not WalMart. You cannot go to him with, well, with anything and demand he meet your needs. He is not a vending machine. Jesus will not dispense wisdom for having a good marriage, performing well in bed, raising problem-free kids, increasing your investment portfolio, or taking inches off your waistline no matter how many coins you shove in the slot. Evangelicalism loves transacting business with God. It is yet another way we think we can control him. If I do or say this, then God will have to do that. It springs from thinking that our salvation is based on a transaction with God, a false view that Michael took aim at with an illustration he borrowed from NT Wright.
It is the time of the Roman empire, and a small village on the outskirts of an outlying Asian province has received a messenger from the capital. The village elders have gathered the whole city to hear the message from the outside world. After the formal greetings, the messenger stands and speaks.
“The new emperor, Tiberius Caesar, sends you greetings. Our divine emperor extends his benevolent rule to this village, and proclaims his power and wisdom to all your citizens. In the future, taxes and tribute from you will be brought to Tiberius. Those who submit to his rule can expect peace and justice. Those who rebel against him will find justice and punishment. Tiberias Caesar is Lord!”
Is this a description of a transaction between the citizens of the city and the new emperor? The language of the messenger at first appears to be transactional, as much of the language of the New Testament appears to describe a “give and get” arrangement between God and the Christian. But is that really what’s going on?
What we actually have here is an announcement of a new order. The villagers are being informed of the new order and realities of that order. Their acceptance or rejection of the announcement is secondary to the reality of whether their behavior now conforms to the new order. Tiberias isn’t opening a business and looking for customers. He’s informing his subjects of what the future will be like. Tiberias is Lord. “Accepting” him as Lord isn’t a transaction; it’s an embracing of reality. Sending taxes to Tiberias may bring Roman protection, but no one is “buying” the friendship of the emperor. They are wisely sending on to Tiberias what already belongs to him. If a new road appears in the city, it is not a transaction with Tiberias that brought the road; it is the “will” of Tiberias that brings roads and blessings; war and peace.
Is “transaction” the word that best applies here? Or is it recognition? The messenger is proclaiming the advent of a new order and the wise benefits of recognizing that order. While his language may sound transactional, the realities of the situation make it obvious that something entirely different has arrived. Various persons in the city may “repent,” “confess” and “believe” in the new order, but does anything new happen at those points? Or do these responses simply indicate a rearranging and recalibrating of the person’s life in line with the new order and reality of Tiberias?
Evangelicalism that survives will be such that it no longer encourages its followers to transact business with God, but one that proclaims God has set up a new order, a new kingdom with new laws, and invites all to enjoy the peace and prosperity that comes by living in this new kingdom. The emphasis must be on what God has done, not what we want him to do for us. No more telling us that if we would just be more moral, read our Bibles more, pray more, give more, we would have more. The story must be told over and over of how we are completely and utterly bankrupt, but God in his mercy paid our debt. Then we can be sent on our way to rejoice throughout the week. That is the message of the evangelicalism that survives.
Give up on the culture wars. Need I say more? Just stop with trying to “return America to its Christian roots.” No more “taking Hollywood for Jesus.” Stop already. We are told to be lights in a darkened world. The world around us will always be dark. But fear sells, and for way too long evangelical leaders have preyed upon us by telling us if we don’t pony up some money and defeat Satan, our children will be snatched away before they know what is good for them. Good grief. Let’s give God a little more credit than that, shall we?
These are a few of my ideas for an evangelicalism that can go forward as a Gospel-proclaiming movement, one that lifts up Jesus the crucified and risen king. If this is not the aim, then I say let it collapse and burn, and the sooner the better.