October 19, 2017

The Unresolved Tensions of Evangelicalism: Abandoning Christian Commitment Itself

I am continuing my series on The Unresolved Tensions of Evangelicalism.

Here is part 1 and part 2 and part 3.

4. Disillusionment With Christian Commitment Itself

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 “I 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.

Comments

  1. For us lectionary types yesterday was “Christ the King Sunday” with the gospel from Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the sheep and goats about the final judgment. I don’t read anything there about the issues in the so-called cultural war or even about what we might call belief systems. Instead, it gets down to how we see others, especially “the least of these.” If we see them, we see Jesus; if we don’t, we don’t. If one makes a commitment to follow Jesus, it brings one to caring for others. That can be a heavy responsibility as we all should know. Lord knows how many times that I have failed to do so, but I don’t see how that we can escape caring for others as the outcome of our commitment to follow Jesus. It may not be as “sexy” or juvenile as the Ed Young approach, but it seems to be the way of Jesus.

  2. You can be American without declaring a political party. But just try voting without an affiliation.

    Jesus may not be as “sexy” as Bono, but the food he asked us to distribute contained more than wheat.

  3. You may be planning to address this in your next post, but my question has to do less with “Should I be an Evangelical” as much as “Should I be in a position of authority?”

    In the past, at various churches, I have served as both a deacon and an elder. And I have taught adult Sunday School fairly regularly for the past 18 years.

    Yet, as I have become more “theologically humble” I question whether I should be in a position of authority. Ambiguity, uncertainly and intellectual humility are not welcome traits in teachers/leaders.
    At least, not at any churches I have been a part of.

    Should I just bag it all?
    In my mind, going to a “liberal” church, where ambiguity and uncertainly are trademarks, would not be an option. I will not sacrifice the fundamentals.

    But I find it increasingly difficult to toe the party line which is mostly non-fundamentals (Truth Project, culture war and all that.)

  4. Ed is not just a product of evangelical churches. It seems a lot of churches are turning out Ed’s.
    Evangelical Ed outnumbers Saddleback Sam by a long shot. So many people heard the truth of Christ and tried to follow by seeking to be decipled. The honeymoon period was wonderful, but as time went on the pronouncements, not opinions, but “Thus Saith The Lord” type things. How old, how many, when,where. No flexability, no doubts no ability to disagree, or even to opine. He found some things that could not be questioned, and other things that could not be mentioned.
    The problem? Ed’s head just didn’t fit in the jar.

  5. If it’s bad to have a cross-less church and sermon, isn’t it equally bad to have a crossless Christianity? The world is utterly desparate for goodness without Christ to remind us of that other stuff.

    As for abandoning faith for bad churches, a bad meal at a restaurant shouldn’t mean abandonment of restaurants. Same goes for TV.

    Maybe this story will help:

    An Iranian Moslem comedian talked about how the western media gets the viewpoint of a “Moslem”. The interviewee is dressed in a white robe, untrimmed beard, jumping up and down on one leg screaming “Death to America! Death to Israel,Death to infidels!…”

    The comedian asks how we’d like it if Al-Jazeera interviewed the Grand Dragon of the KKK for a Christian viewpoint?

    No one has openly encouraged abandonment of thought. Some just stopped thinking on their own because it was too much work. There is a parable of seed germination somewhere….

  6. This series of posts resonates with me, thanks for posting them.

  7. Thank you for these posts, Michael. I am reading Wicker’s book, and it is devastating. As I was meditating on these things, it hit me afresh that so much of what we see in evangelicalism and the megachurches, etc., reflects a total accommodation on their part to the spirit of the world. Your illustration of “Ed” is a prime example. Part of the world spirit in our culture relishes specialization, technology, defining things.

    Churches have bought into this and have developed their own systems for classifying what a Christian disciple is and is not. Well, Ed doesn’t fit the system. One thing I have learned working as a chaplain outside the structures and expectations of the ecclesia is that I can simply approach others as fellow human beings, my neighbors. I can have real conversations with them about their lives, pray with them in down-to-earth terms about their needs, and be their friend. What a concept! I never felt so free when I was a pastor. I always had to be promoting the company program and trying to squeeze people through the spiritual machinery that would spit them out as true disciples.

  8. Hi Michael,

    Excellent posts.

    I have been working on a series of posts along a similar theme called “Distractions from the Gospel”.

    Part 2: Politics and the Culture War looks at how Canadian Evangelicals have been much less concerned about Politics and the Culture War, largely because of our relatively smaller numbers (both in absolute and percentage terms). I surmise that this lack of focus on the Culture War by Canadian Evangelicals has allowed us to focus much more on what Christians are supposed to do. As a result we have experienced significant growth rather than significant decline.

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Ed Young’s “Seven Day Sex Challenge”? WTF???

  10. Christopher Lake says:

    I sympathize with “Ed’s” plight and the plights of many such Christians. My time spent in less Gospel-centered (although not heretical) churches has helped me to understand why some sincere believers would want to leave the “institutional” church.

    As I read Paul’s letter to the Galatians though, I see a “local” church that is losing its focus on the Gospel and drifting toward a preoccupation with externalities (one example of which, today, would the Christian Right’s “culture war” mentality). Paul does not admonish the Galatian Christians to leave the local gatherings of the body, in order to stay at home and worship with their families. Rather, he exhorts them, *as* a local body of believers, to *return* to the Gospel. Leaving all organized church is, sadly, some believers’ solution to the problems in their particular churches. Such a solution, however, is not what the Bible prescribes.

  11. Christopher Lake says:

    Michael,

    To be clear, the “Ed” in my above comment is your friend, not Ed Young, Jr.

  12. Don’t disturb me. I’m working on the “Have Sex In Church” Challenge. After 30+ years working with students, I’ve got some great stories.

    There was a church a few weeks ago with a 30 or 40 day Sex challenge. That would lead to some divorces in most churches. Or murders.

  13. Unitarian Universalist says:

    iMonk, in these four posts you’ve outlined so well the journey I made from a zealous teenage charismatic/evangelical to a doubting college and seminary post-evangelical to a post-seminary post-Christian. (This post in particular getting that last leg of my journey.)

    I wish evangelical leaders would spend some time in true awe of the claims they make. The idea that God created the universe with the intention of publishing a book with all the answers in it is so absurd! For those who can honestly claim this as their belief, proclaim it boldly. But please stand in humility before these bold claims you make, and do so in the privacy of your prayer closet. (Quoting verses about God’s wisdom seeming like foolishness does nothing to convince me someone has done this; if anything, the opposite.) I don’t think very many evangelical leaders have taken even a minute to consider what they’re asking those of us who don’t already share their worldview to believe. They think about what it means for them and for those who agree (or mostly agree) with them, but not a lot of walking in our worldview shoes. It’s all very foreign to us, and most of it doesn’t seem to be about Jesus at all.

    In the end, I left, on the negative side, not because of the worldview claims but because “by evangelicals’ fruit I knew them.” Others have laid out so many sad stories on this blog, so I’ll let their stories stand in for my own. But I also left, on the positive side, because of the witness of true community I saw among homosexuals and other “others,” which led me to believe that God was too generous with his gifts and graces to limit the Spirit to Christian community. What if prevenient grace is much bigger and broader than we were taught, and saving and sanctifying grace available to everyone whether or not they know anything about God’s published thesis? (Betraying my Wesleyan roots here.)

    Calling it “too much belief” is dead on. I see the fruits of the Spirit flourishing in the sorts of places I was told they would never see the light of day. The call to be a “follower of Jesus” is hard and challenging enough without all the name brand dogma getting in the way. I’ll take grace wherever I can get it.

  14. I am ‘reducing Christianity to a far humbler expression of personal faith experience. Many Christians do not understand that, in my situation, God closed the church door of regular attendance because ‘church’ attendance became my religion. He has required of me that I ‘do’ the word and not ‘hear’ the same word ….over and over and over and over! My Christian joy has overflowed at some of my new experiences with those in the ‘highways and hedges.’

    For many years, church was so beneficial to me. Church makes disciples…but disciples need to move out and make other disciples. I can’t find harm in any of the ministries you mention in your posts. God ways are not man’s ways. I can see benefit in all of them. Besides, I have no time for analyzing others. Getting ‘me’ in the perfect will of God for my life….is a full-time event.

    There will always be a need to bear the weaker brethren…..evangelicalism.

  15. “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.”

    Brilliant! Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m on the same page as IM, then with statements like this, I know I am.

  16. So because I’ve moved around going to different colleges, I’ve regularly attended or visited EV Free churches, Calvary Chapels, 4 different Baptist churches, a couple emergent mega-churches, and one Anglican, one Lutheran, and one Presbyterian church each. I have also friends in almost every demonination.

    These posts are starting to get me down – partly because I’m starting to have a hard time separating the problems being listed here as just problems of evangelical churches. I see many of these same problems from your young, hip emergent churches to your Reformed traditional liturgical churches. (sigh) Well, God is in control and his using us to start doing things right should be reason to be cheerful. Sometimes, the whole thing seems just really tiring though.

  17. What Ed wants to avoid is somehow stating “I am a follower of Jesus. Look and listen to me to know what God is all about.”

    I think this may actually get to the heart not only of Ed’s problem but also of Evangelicalism’s.

    Being a follower the Lord of Lords and King of Kings, the only son of God, the one who will return to judge the quick and the dead, the focal point of all creation and recreation, etc. etc. should be something to be excited about!

    And his followers should have an agenda, a program, a mission, a way of being in the world that moves the world towards new creation! We should be able to say, “This is what God is doing in the world!”

    Why can’t we? Because we’ve almost entirely lost our way, our bearings and our center.

    What can we expect of Ed? Poor guy. On the other hand, maybe this radical solution to the state of the world, this glorious project of YHWH restoring his creation is not for Ed. Maybe Ed is not man enough to be a part of it.

    But let’s at least offer him something to be a part of, for God’s sake — not this saccharin smile used-car dealership with free mochas called American evangelicalism.

    On the other hand … I honestly think things are turning a corner. I really can’t believe they’re going to get much worse before the church arises again with a sense of mission, a spirit of unity, and a vision for dramatic social change that can utter, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and Give to God what is God’s” with the same kind of swagger that Jesus uttered it and not as some Veggie-Tales morality bit.

  18. J.P.

    I see the same problems, perhaps with a bit different name, in the Catholic Church. I suspect that it is a human problem, because we are not as open to Christ-bearers that are different from us; who have come different pathways, etc.

    But, I take courage from these discussions because you cannot solve a problem unless you identify as one, and know that it is a problem. And, even if, each person who comments here is unable to do much in their tangible arena, at least we know that we are not alone. We are a community for however short a season. That is good.

  19. Ed here. My partner of 10 years is also an Ed. I came from Bob Jones University, he graduated from a Catholic seminary.

    I think it’s safe to say that Myrddin is the problem, not the solution.

    Yeah, Myrddin. That’s right. We’re just not man enough. Haven’t got that swagger.

  20. >Maybe Ed is not man enough to be a part of it.

    Sheesh, Gordo. Could you be more on target.

    What the crap does “man enough” mean?

  21. Well … going way back behind Christianity, there is still the call of Christ who said, “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” That’s what I mean by “man enough” though it may not have been the best phrase. Wait, though … you know what? No. I do like it. It works. Interpreted, perhaps. But it works.

    Don’t get me wrong. As I’ve said in the past few days, I barely survived some points of my engagement with the Evangelical tradition, including four years at a conservative Christian college in S. California. Speaking as an Evangelical, I don’t think we’re getting it right. Let nothing I say about Ed’s situation minimize that.

    And I do think that we are largely to blame for putting folks like Ed in the place he’s in. Heck, I’ve been in Ed’s place.

    But if … IF (hear me correctly here) … IF at the end of the day someone still wants to avoid saying, “I am a follower of Jesus Christ. Look and listen to me to know what God is all about.” Well … maybe they are in the position of the man who says, “Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house.” And that is their freedom. We can never create a perfect church that will overcome that fundamental obstacle of choice.

    All these criticisms aside, IMonk (and I agree with them), at the end of the day stands the simple figure of Jesus Christ. Don’t you think? There will be those who reject him.

    Honestly, I wish we were more out of the way, and people rejected him less because of us. But perhaps if our call was more like his, more stark, more prophetic, more transformative … Ed would have something to really respond to. Something more like, “Join the revolution.”

    But that might really mean demanding sacrifice and serious dedication (I am not, for God’s sake, talking about anything like that extended by Bob Jones University).

    Does no one really know the distinction I’m trying to make here, or am I just making it badly? It’s been … oh … about 15 years since I’ve been mistaken for anything but a heterodox quasi-liberal among conservative Evangelicals — certainly not a Bob Jonesian.

    Maybe I’ve been reading NT Wright too long and forget how radical his type of Evangelicalism really is.

    (As for “swagger,” here’s an interesting quote from C. Baxter Kruger of Perichoresis on ‘apostolic swagger.’ And I think he’s right.)

    I respect what you have to say and am hoping to hear you address some of these criticisms you’ve been making in your comments. I’m looking for a way forward for the church out of this morass — excited about some proposals I’ve heard, less excited about others. Intrigued to hear yours.

  22. At the risk of accusations of being an analytical-type, I think you, iMonk, hit upon a nice little equation in this post:

    worldview tension + experience tension + community tension = commitment tension

    If a person has the first three, the fourth will almost inevitably follow.

    (I’m an engineer… it works in my head better that way…)

  23. I am trying to convince my wife that there is a 7 times 70 sex challenge out there. Help anyone?
    I know the “evangelical swagger” I can live with it, but am I the only one who has experiences the “evangelical smile” where gritted teeth are bared and breathed through with a wet rhythmic laughing/grunting sound? Usually used while waving a bible [KJ] and meaning “I just won the argument God said so!”
    I am serious, I struggle with this one. I get an urge to knot cords. If you have a hint of what I speak let me know.

  24. Willoh, I’ve been “made and example of” from the pulpit… in front of God and everyone, as it were. But it was a lib’rul congregation… he used the RSV.

    I can’t help you on the 490-day challenge… the longest (har har) I’ve seen is 101-days.

  25. OK, just for clarity’s sake, you may still wildly disagree with me and I suspect for some this would make absolutely no difference, but I somehow misread the last paragraph of “Ed”‘s story and was thinking that had eventually left the church in the sense of abandoning any faith committment.

    I would still stand by the majority of what I said with respect to the church and the topic of “Christian committment itself;” but that difference certainly changes things with respect to “Ed” himself. Sorry, Ed.

    I don’t think my perscription would change much, though.

  26. I’m feeling Ed’s pain. But there was a sentence in the post that stuck out to me: “While his family practices the Christian faith in their own way, they do not do so as part of an evangelical faith community.”

    Maybe this is part of the problem for evangelicals and the evangelical dissatisfation. We want it OUR own way. Perhaps there has been so much emphasis on “Jesus and me” that many (most?) evangelicals no longer see the Christian life as “Jesus and us.”

    This rampant individualism promoted by an individualistic gospel makes the church unnecessary and more of an appendix – I’ll get to it if I have time and it fits with what I’M doing. Perhaps this is part of the problem.

  27. Justin, I have unfortunately made a practice of treating sword wounds. I am sorry it happened, I’d like to hear about it. Willoh@epix.net

  28. After sleeping on the discusssion….I awoke with new clarity.

    Bottom line….God is God. The only Truth is His Truth. The only way is His way. Those who are not for Him ARE AGAINST HIM for the enemy of God (Satan). The ‘Book’ was intended to be written as one way He communicates with man. He is the perfect Creator. His plan is perfect. The victory is His…and no other. The point is simple. How do we become one with Him? NOTHING ELSE MATTERS.

    THERE IS AN ETERNITY OF “LIFE” FOR THOSE WHO FIND HIS TRUTH. THERE IS AN ETERNITY OF “DEATH” FOR THOSE WHO REJECT HIS TRUTH.

  29. Are Ed and his family simply frustrated with what is occurring in the Evangelical world, or is their family makeup simply one of rugged individualism? For those on the individualism kick I have spent time with, I’ve noticed a great flirtation with relativism, no absolute right and wrong. For some not on the road to relativism I notice an ego issue, the “my way/my interpretation/my faith walk” is the real truth. Ed and his family may not fit into any of these categories and may truly be humble believers; I just have not encountered anyone like this in my faith walk (unless they are Buddhist).

    In the Catholic world we don’t vote as a block and there are many different focuses and subcultures under the Catholic umbrella. And yet, in my observation we face these issues as well, many who do not attend a church yet stay loosely affiliated, at least in name. My own view is that as a community, as imperfect a community we are, there is that association that keeps us on track, keeps us from falling into error, from losing ground spiritually, from feeling like an island, or a rock.

    Maybe there is more pressure to be a specific type of individual in the Evangelical World; a pressure I am not aware of because I am so encapsulated in my own faith tradition. I just hope it is not a trend growing so rapidly that in a generation the communal model of Church will be extinct as we know it.

  30. I can relate on many levels with Ed.

    When asked if I am a Christian by someone or what denomination I am part of I answer the question by telling them what specifically I believe. Partially because many people will put you the category of a particular stereotype or caricature of a Christian and then just take you less seriously based on their experiences with other people claiming to be Christians.

    I’d rather turn people off through my own failures.

    I think the bigger problem many people like Ed are having is one of epistemology.

    Most outspoken Christians I know have no idea of the difference between knowing something and believing something.

    Ed and the rest of us are often being asked to pretend that we know something that we know that we don’t know. We may believe it and be willing to invest our lives in it, but are not certain enough to say we know.

    You would get the impression from many Christians that they have had a meet and greet with the resurrected Christ (which some people may have genuinely had), when in fact if the would hold their own experiences and understanding to the same scrutiny that the hold those “obviously” wrong other worldviews, they would have a much looser hold on what really just amounts to hope mixed with arrogance.

  31. “Maybe there is more pressure to be a specific type of individual in the Evangelical World”

    There is.

  32. Tangled up in blue…

  33. Christopher Lake says:

    Michael,

    You write about “considerable humility” on your friend “Ed’s” part, when it comes to matters of faith. I think that I understand what you mean here.

    However, you write that because of this humility, he “feels no need to evangelize.” Is this really humility on Ed’s part? It seems more like arrogant disobedience to Biblical admonitions in the *guise* of humility.

    The same would seem to be true of his choice to leave all local, structured church for worship with his family (not even house church, but just worship with his family– not that family worship is unimportant). In light what I wrote above about Paul’s admonitions to the church at Galatia (to *not* leave the church but to return to the Gospel, *as* a church) , Ed’s choice to leave *all* structured church also seems more like arrogance than humility.

    I’m speaking in terms of Biblical admonitions here, on both counts (believers evangelizing, and gathering as the church, in local bodies), not simply in terms of personal opinion. Your thoughts?

  34. I am an Ed too, in my own story. Much of the comments here only underscore the divide between those who seek to understand and those who seek to have me understand. I hope to be the former.