June 26, 2017

The Thirteen Critical Problems Facing Evangelicalism

22749650.jpgUPDATE: C. Michael Patton extends the list and the discussion.

Someone asked me what I thought the biggest problems facing evangelicals were, and with as much as I’ve written on the subject, it was still difficult to get a short list.

THE THIRTEEN CRITICAL PROBLEMS FACING CONTEMPORARY EVANGELICALISM

1. Vast evidence of a growing doctrinal deterioration on the essentials and implications of the Gospel.

2. The expansion and influence of the “Prosperity Gospel” throughout evangelicalism.

3. The loss of the concept of meaningful church membership and the rise of the “audience-only” model of church participation.

4. The loss of the theological “center” in mainline churches at the precise time many evangelicals are open to reconsidering the mainline vision of worship, especially in Anglicanism.

5. The triumph and glorification of unchecked pragmatic entrepreneurialism, especially in worship, but in all areas of evangelical life.

6. The corrosive and compromised influence of Christian publishing in shaping evangelicalism, as exemplified in the rise of Joel Osteen, The Prayer of Jabez and the Prosperity Gospel.

7. Growing chaos in the theological and practical preparation of pastors, especially in the “emerging” church.

8. The failure of the “Seeker” model to use its vast resources and influence to produce a Christian counter-culture or challenge the “program centered/facilities centered” model of evangelicalism.

9. The lack of rising “Billy Graham” quality new leaders for the larger evangelical movement.

10. The failure of most evangelical denominations to broadly embrace and effectively mentor the current church planting movement.

11. The demise of quality Biblical preaching at the hands of technology and entertainment.

12. The apparently fatal infection of much of the emerging church movement with the failed theology of 20th century liberalism.

13. The cannibalism of evangelicalism on issues related to theological, cultural, social and political diversity.

Comments

  1. Hi, can you please expand a bit more on what you mean in #4? I’m not sure I understand what you mean by the ‘loss of the theological “center”.’

    Insightful list.

    thx,

    -steve

  2. Richard Hershberger says:

    It seems to me that most of these items are corrollaries to number 1. If you have no doctrine, you are adrift. The broader culture worships financial success, so that is the direction the doctrineless church will tend to go. The church then seeks to be “successful”, with this measured by numbers of cheeks in seats. The inevitable result is large rooms of people being told what they want to hear, with commercial enterprises working tirelessly to cash in.

  3. I wonder if you could elaborate more on your reference to the “failed theology of 20th century liberalism”. It strikes me as too sweeping for my tastes. Since you are one of a very small number of people I have encountered who uses the term post-evangelical, I assume you have read Dave Tomlinson’s book by that name. I loved it, and if your criticism of 20th century liberal theology is that it was shaped too extensively in reaction to the Enlightenment, then might the same not equally be said about 20th century conservative Christianity.

    Personally, I am eager to acknowledge the limitations of the Enlightenment approach, but not in a way that seeks to bypass the difficult questions it raises. As I’ve said on my blog in a recent post, the Enlightenment’s skeptical, rational approach is a bit like an adolescent phase: we don’t want to get stuck there, but we also can’t get to maturity without it.

    http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2007/10/enlightenment-and-enlightenment.html

  4. I was going to just post a comment that said, “AMEN” and leave it. Because I solidly agree, even if I seriously thought through this and came up with a different list many of these would be on mine as well.

    The reason why I could not just post amen, was that it makes me so sad. And it is the truth. What a wretched state of affairs evangelicalism is in.

    By the way, my sermonic shotgun is aiming at the prosperity Gospel this Sunday. I have Romans 8:18-25 for the text (Osteen should preach through EVERY verse of Romans). Our hope is in the future when our adoption as sons of God is complete. Our faith is not now, neither in our “prosperity” nor our attendance. There are people who do take aim at such people and I am encouraged by your blog.

  5. I’m fairly reluctant to say much about these. I’ve talked about each one in various posts and I don’t want to rewrite the essays.

    Failed theology of 20th Century Liberalism = Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity. Rerunning Bultmann + Democratic political positions. I’m for stopping at Karl Barth and going no further.

  6. (Note to moderator: please delete original comment. This is correct one)

    Hi Michael,
    Don’t think I see anything in here that maps to the issues raised by Mark Noll in “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”. Do you think these issues have been addressed by Evangelicals in the ~15-years since he wrote the book? Or are less important?

    On #4, as an evangelical disappointed in the Evangelical church but who has since found a home in an Evangelical Anglican church, I’m not sure there is a huge crisis here. To me, the Anglican church has a very healthy, very strong Evangelical wing. (Hey, anything that gives us Lewis, Stott, Packer, McGrath, Green, Wright, Polkinghorne etc. can’t be all bad!). Oh sure, if you look only at the news, things look REALLY terrible, but I think no matter what happens (and I fervently pray & hope there won’t be a split), there is still going to be a strong Evangelical Anglican presence.

  7. You’ll have to accept a bit of Americanism in my point of view on Anglicanism. The ECUSA has gone to the dogs right at the time many evangelicals would look to her with hope.

    I think Noll’s concerns relate to several of these directly, esp # 1.

  8. On #7, check out today’s “Out of Ur” blog.

  9. Tom Huguenot says:

    Hi Michael

    I need to say I do not understand what you mean in #12. Could you please clarify for me, please?

  10. Richard Hershberger says:

    “The ECUSA has gone to the dogs right at the time many evangelicals would look to her with hope.”

    I don’t get this reasoning. Yes, the conservative wing of the ECUSA is splitting off. I take it that the going to the dogs refers to the remaining, more liberal ECUSA; but so what? The conservative wing hasn’t disappeared. They just have a different diocesan structure than previously. If they fit your needs, what do you care if they answer to some guy in Nigeria?

  11. Tom Hugenot: If you differ from me on some matter not related to the Gospel, I declare you apostate, etc.

    See current meal featuring N.T. Wright for details.

    Richard: Conservative Anglicanism is practically non-existent for most of us. I live in one of the most conservative states in the U.S. There are 3 AMiA churches. The rest are solidly ECUSA on the gay ordination/marriage questions (with the exception of some priests who have managed to escape being found out as nonconformists.) See what the ECUSA did to conservative ECUSAers in Versailles Ky.

    The ECUSA and most of the mainlines are willing to go to the wall over gay marriage and ordination when a move to the center would open the way for thousands of evangelicals to take a second look.

  12. Absolutely right on the money, Mr. Monk. I don’t suppose I could trouble you for a follow-up post: “The Twelve Signs of Hope Within Evangelicalism”?

  13. It is inaccurate to call Bultmann a representative of liberal theology in the way that terminology is usually used. He objected to the classic liberal attempts to jettison elements that seemed to no longer be believable, while holding on to others that they identified as the ‘core’. Bultmann’s key theological contribution, in my opinion, was to realize that the message cannot be separated from the culture and language in and through which it was expressed as one peels a fruit. The message as a whole must be interpreted.

    Given Bultmann’s influence on Evangelicalism, I would have expected more appreciation! 🙂

    http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2007/09/on-millstones-and-stumbling-blocks.html

  14. A minor point here. I see there are two #6. That would make 13 instead of 12 critical problems.

  15. Too many technical buzzwords litter Christian blogs. A person must decode to understand. Why are so many afraid to speak “plain and simple”? The above may impress some, but not me. Calvinism does the same thing. They have their technical vocabulary that attracts. Sounds impressive but cloaks a core theology of unconditional election that runs contrary to scripture. The body of Christ, the church is “lukewarm”, complacent, lazy and devoid of truth, especially in regard to the Gospel. Gospels abound. Before we consider “evangelicalism” why don’t first get the Gospel right. Consider this, the suffering endured by Jesus Christ, while on the cross, was sufficient to satisfy God the Fathers demand for justice regarding the penalty of all sin, unlimited atonement. Upon hearing and understanding the Gospel all that is required is agreement. To agree is to believe, an issue of faith not validated by its fervor, but the perfect object it beholds, Jesus Christ. Repentance is simply a change of mind whereby one changes his/her thinking so that they are pointed to Jesus Christ, the end of the law, to obtain as a free gift what they were trying in vain to obtain through self righteousness, works. Once we believe, a single nonmeritorious command(Law of Liberty), God imputes or gives us the status of one “perfect”. A judicial status. So, even though we still sin in time were are considered “pure”, as one who never broke the law. When we do sin, God cannot condemn or impute the penalty of our sin since all sin has been judged. Enough said. I doubt if my comment will make it. I’ll his submit and see what happens.

  16. KP,

    I may be humor challenged, but is your post supposed to be in “plain and simple language” or are you making fun of buzz words by using a lot of them.

    It seems to me that you are using a number of words that the ordinary, non-Christian would have trouble understanding. I was raised in the Evangelical type of church, and do understand them, somewhat. But it isn’t clear, but very murky.

  17. Anna A,

    MODERATOR: Sorry KP, you need to reload and be a bit more gracious. You took it up a notch there. Anna made a criticism, but that doesn’t deserve a comeback questioning her salvation.

  18. It’s not about “reloading”. It’s your way of ignoring the truth of the Gospel. I did not question her salvation. Read again what I said. The problem with you is that you can’t stand truth when it hits you in the face. Dear sir, the real evil here is not my lack of grace, but your unwillingness to embrace truth and share truth. Apparently, you have other priorities. Thank God your not my doctor. Even if you diagnosed an illness you would probably fail to tell me since you wouldn’t want to be the bearer of bad news. People need a good “shakeup”(a buzzword). I’m off. At least you got a taste of the marvelous, wonderful Gospel.

  19. John Dyer says:

    14. People getting all huffy and puffy on blog comments.

  20. 15. A lack of grace for other Christians and the world at large.

    Not that we shouldn’t critique them; but some of us need to learn the difference between critique and ridicule.

  21. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    “1. Vast evidence of a growing doctrinal deterioration on the essentials and implications of the Gospel.”

    I agree. What would be your reasoned speculation for the top 3-4 causes of this doctrinal deterioration from a purely conservative evangelical viewpoint (i.e., leaving aside Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and liberal/mainline Protestantism)?

  22. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Oooops! That seems like a redundant question given your post. My bad!

    Please delete!

  23. Chuck Bridgeland says:

    Thou has nailed it.

    I recommend you give a listen to last weeks (Oct 14, 2007) White Horse Inn (http://www.whitehorseinn.org), on the loss of the gospel in contemporary evangelicalism.

  24. I personally believe there are two failures, at least that concern me, lying at the core of Evangelicalism itself and lean toward self-critique first.

    1) A futher failure of Evangelicalism lies in the premise that preaching remains relevant and that good, solid and informative preaching and people’s adherence is the centrepoint of our faith. Now, most Evangelicals won’t say that is the case, but if we stood in a corner and looked at good Evangelicals it would be more than fair to conclude that this is the case. For the most part the giving of information does not mean much in the lives of congregants. Otherwise good Evangelicals would’ve meaningfully changed the world already.
    2) A further failure of Evangelicalism lies in the inability to distinguish between its own culture and the gospel and other cultures and their faith traditions. As the postmod culture and thinkers move toward integration of culture and truth and spirituality I’d like to hear more positive input than “I think you’re wrong”.

  25. Richard Hershberger says:

    Replying to Michael about conservative Episcopalianism, I am not Episcopalian but I have ties to the Episcopalian church and have been observing it for some thirty years. There are certain aspect of it that are not immediately obvious to an outsider.

    From the outside, the ECUSA looks like a very top-down hierarchical organization, with the bishops issuing orders for the parish priests to follow. In other words, it looks like the Roman Catholic church. This is largely illusory. An Episcopal parish that is financially sound is independant in many respects. It controls its own finances and its vestry (Episcopal for “board of directors”) hires and fires staff, within limits including the clergy. In the Catholic church the parish priest is appointed by the bishop, and the finances are mostly held by the diocese and controlled by the priest.

    Where the ECUSA really is similar to the Catholics is with respect to real property. The parish land and buildings are held by the diocese. The hiring of clergy is also limited in that the candidate must meet certain qualifications. In this the ECUSA is like most, although not all, denominations.

    The other thing to understand about Episcopalians, and Anglicans in general, is that to them “schism” is a very dirty word. This is foreign to many protestants: even in my (American Lutheran) tradition the idea of a congregation moving from one church body to another doesn’t provoke a “schismatic!” reaction.

    What this means in practice is that a conservative parish in a liberal diocese (or a liberal parish in a conservative diocese) can largely do its own thing, but within certain limits. Attempting to leave the diocese is a firm limit, and with it the gloves will come off.

    The parish doesn’t approve of gay priests (or, going back a few years, women priests)? No one is forcing a gay (or female) priest on the parish. The parish wants to condemn gay (or female) priests? It can even do that, so long as it works within the system.

    As for Versaille, Ky., I take it you mean the matter reported here: http://diolex.org/advocate/archive/0401/040102t.htm I was not previously aware of this, and I am quite sure I don’t have the whole story, but this looks like a move toward leaving the diocese that was headed off, or at the very least some shenanigans with the search for a new rector. There also seems to have been a division within the parish members.

    The upshot is that some people felt they could not worship with a sign out front that was similar to the signs out front of churches they disliked, so they left. It’s a free country. They formed their own congregation, presumably as part of a hierarchy more to their liking. What they didn’t get to do was take their nice building with them.

    I am not personally a fan of this form of organization. My leanings are more congregationalist. I see the individual congregation as the fundamental unit of the church, and higher level organizations should be there merely to support the local congregations. But the ECUSA has, and has always had, different rules.

    There likely are more conservative Episcopal parishes in your area than you know. They don’t have their own category in the phone book. Were I looking for one in my area I would not expect too much difficulty finding one, but I would have to take it as a research project. (Helpful hint, by the way: don’t go looking at the Anglo-Catholic wing. You might expect them to be ultra-conservative, but actually tend to be a bastion of Episcopalian gay priesthood.)

  26. Mr. Spencer could I suggest you create a 13 part post explaining each answer? I’d enjoy the read.

  27. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    “A further failure of Evangelicalism lies in the inability to distinguish between its own culture and the gospel and other cultures and their faith traditions. As the postmod culture and thinkers move toward integration of culture and truth and spirituality I’d like to hear more positive input than “I think you’re wrong”.” (Tim Victor)

    I think underlying this failure to differentiate and distinguish between gospel and culture is biblical literacy by the laity, and perhaps the clergy for not urgently requesting *and* implementing biblical literacy for the parishioners.

    I would add biblical literacy to the internet monk’s list of critical problems facing evangelicalism. At least get some literacy which I would hope as a beginning foundation would then spur pew-sitter interest in exegesis, hermeneutics and application in clergy preaching and teaching.

  28. Could part of the overall problem just be education? (I’m speaking in broad general terms, not related to any specific school.)

    I have seen in comparing two systematic theology textbooks, that the older one was much more rigorous in content. (I think that both were for seminary students. ) I’ve seen it also in chemistry, that the later edition of the same textbook (college level) was much weaker.

  29. My 0.02c:

    1. Evangelicalism has lived by the ‘fad’ since it’s earliest days. “If you live by the fad, you’ll die as a fad”.

    2. Related to (1), evangelicalism has been relying on invention. And as you all now, necessity is the mother of all invention. Question is, how did the necessity arise?

    3. Evangelicalism has yielded to “gnostic pelagianism” – see my old post on the matter – http://scyldingsinthemeadhall.blogspot.com/2007/05/when-simon-met-pelagius.html

    4. Too many beside-the-church ministries. That should not be the case.

    5. Too much empasis on numbers.

    6. Frankly, most of the nicest christians I know are not evangelicals – they are Orthodox, Lutheran etc. I don’t know what this means, but it is so.

    BTW, I distinguish between evangelicalsim, and evangelical as the term originated within the Lutheran church. Not the same entity.

  30. Having spent the early part of my faith journey in liberal mainline churches, I have to say that #12 is bang on the money—but I keep being told I’m wrong about that.

  31. I don’t understand #7 – please expound.
    I can also add a few:

    14. Having a persecution complex, while at the same time agreeing with Evangelical parachurch leaders that Evangelicals are the “kingmakers” in the political process.

    15. An inherent distrust of anyone who’s taken the time to study (the, “I’m sorry, I don’t know Greek – I just read my Bible” response).

    16. Taking up the worst tendencies of post-urban fundamentalism and re-hashing the fundamentalist/modernist controversy while ignoring major Christian doctrines like the incarnation.

    17. Left Behind.

    18. A revisionist and “blinders on” understanding of American History.

  32. Sewing:

    Don’t forget the backlash/reaction to #12.

    Liberal mainline churches ended up with a Gospel without salvation. The reaction was the fundies/evangelicals, who ended up with a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation. Just as far out of balance, but in the opposite direction.

  33. #1-The Church is made up of brokenness, imperfect people, and the world is made up of 6 billion unique individuals.

    There is ONE truth, and sadly there are many one-sided opinions all OVER the place as far as what is wrong and what is right and how it should be. Statements are broad and generalized which project a completely inaccurate view on certain “niches” of “church” (pre-this; post-that; seeker-what-have-you).

    It is as simple as this. Focus on your relationship with Christ. Less of you. More Him. And He will work out his purpose in you, sans necessary Greek studies, sans Billy Graham, and inspite of our own frailties.

    I believe it was Colson who said (my paraphrase) the reason people don’t identify with the Church is because the Church itself is in the midst of an identity crisis. Unity is the most effective form of evangelism, and to be quite frank, most of the church universal has proven to be quite ineffective in expressing true unity to a world who is looking to us for it.

  34. Phil Bradshaw says:

    No mention of the LACK of discipleship? Or was that embedded or implied in the 13?

  35. Perennial problems facing all Christians aren’t on this list.

    I see a lot of discipleship in evangelicalism. We’re turning out more versions of what we already are.

  36. 1. Vast evidence of a growing doctrinal deterioration on the essentials and implications of the Gospel.

    1John 2:3-7 We know we have come to know Him if we obey His commands. The man who says, “I know Him”, but does not do what He commands is a liar and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys His word, God’s love is made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus walks.

    The biggest problem with the whole “church” is that we are not walking as Christ walked. If the church were living out the gospel we wouldn’t be having the problems we are. We would be such a positive influence on our world that people would be breaking down the doors to get a piece of what we have.
    The reason we are not living out the gospel is because the vast majority of those attending church don’t know it. They don’t know it because they are not given a reason to know it.
    The get rich quick books and self improvement books are selling as quick as they can be printed because they offer something tangible.
    I’m sure those involved in discussions as these are involved in things other than theological exercises, but are we living a life that others want a part of? Are we setting an example of walking as Christ walked that open the door to explaining our salvation and how it changed our lives?
    We need to live it and not just talk it.

  37. KP wrote: Before we consider “evangelicalism” why don’t first get the Gospel right. Consider this, the suffering endured by Jesus Christ, while on the cross, was sufficient to satisfy God the Fathers demand for justice regarding the penalty of all sin, unlimited atonement. Upon hearing and understanding the Gospel all that is required is agreement. To agree is to believe, an issue of faith not validated by its fervor, but the perfect object it beholds, Jesus Christ. Repentance is simply a change of mind whereby one changes his/her thinking so that they are pointed to Jesus Christ, the end of the law, to obtain as a free gift what they were trying in vain to obtain through self righteousness, works. Once we believe, a single nonmeritorious command(Law of Liberty), God imputes or gives us the status of one “perfect”. A judicial status. So, even though we still sin in time were are considered “pure”, as one who never broke the law. When we do sin, God cannot condemn or impute the penalty of our sin since all sin has been judged. Enough said.

    The Anselmian doctrine of substitionary, propitiatory atonement, which developed into the concept of penal substitution, came many, many centuries after, e.g., Athanasius’ ON THE INCARNATION. Surely Evangelicals should ponder what the historic defender of Christ’s Trinitarian divinity wrote was the nature of Christ’s salvation of man. In order to “get the Gospel right,” one should also look at what the Early Christians and Early Church considered the Gospel to be.

  38. I’d like to address # 6 with a response at my blog,Faith Fuel. Just my view point -but reading a book like Prayer of Jabez is not going to take down the Church at all. His third (or fourth?)book, The Dream Giver, inspired my husband and me at a low point in our lives- after having been in mainline evangelical churches, after pastoring and trying to bring renewal to some hard liberal New England churches. We were “hard pressed” and almost broken. “Corrosive” Books such as Prayer of Jabez and the Dream Giver were instruments to encourage and reignite us. We’re still contending for the Gospel of Christ alone, as tainted, now, as we are from having read these books.

  39. KP,
    Unlimited atonement means all are saved. My question is, What is meant by the “elect” in Matt 24:22-24 if everyone is saved? there is a definite separation in these verses between the lost and the elect in the end times.

    words like “chosen”, elect, separated, narrow gate vs wide gate, wheat and tares, etc. all refer to a limited atonement.

    “simply a change of mind” means that we are fully capable of making that choice ourselves, instead of the Holy Spirit changing our “hard hearts” so we are capable of receiving the grace and stepping in faith. It is nothing we do; it is only by the grace and mercy of God that any of us are saved.

    Unlimited atonement is wishful thinking but is not supported by the Bible. Some say why would God allow people to go to Hell? Without God providing a Savior none would be saved. It is a balance between His Holiness, His Mercy, His Grace, and His Judgment.

    living daily in His grace and mercy, God Bless

  40. Michael,

    I appreciate this entry (I was directed here by a post on Revolution in Jesusland). I also appreciate Steve Martin’s and Richard’s perspective on the Episcopal Church. I, like Steve, am a convert to the Episcopal Church after 20 years as an Evangelical.

    I want to make a comment on #4. You wrote that the mainline churches have lost their “theological ‘center’,” and later illustrated this by the Episcopal Church’s willingness to “go to the wall over gay marraige and ordination.” All this at a time when Evangelicals are open to the Anglican style of worship.

    I think characterizing the Episcopal Church as loosing it’s theological center is slightly inaccurate (though it does sell newspapers). The Anglican Church’s theology is not doctrinal, it is liturgical. That is, to speak broadly, what unites us is not common belief but common worship. So when the General Convention of the Episcopal Church started ordaining women, and recently ordaining members of the GLBT community, it’s official doctrine had changed – perhaps contrary to what many consider to be orthodox Christianity – but its central theology didn’t.

  41. I just wanted to let you know that I used some of your thoughts in a blog post today:

    http://cwhisonant.blogspot.com/2007/10/renewed-call-for-reformation.html

    Happy Reformation Day!
    Chris

  42. I was referred to this post through the GeoChristian blog (http://geochristian.wordpress.com/). As one involved in the worship ministry of my church, I’d be interested in more detail about #5, or at least a pointer to previous blog posts discussing it.

    Thanks. It is a very thought-provoking list.

  43. 8. The failure of the “Seeker” model to use its vast resources and influence to produce a Christian counter-culture…

    By “Christian Counter-culture” I assume you DON’T mean the usual “Just like (whatever’s trendy), except CHRISTIAN!”