...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness Fri, 22 Aug 2014 04:43:27 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer no The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer (The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer) 2006-2009 ...dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness IM Book Review: Our Great Big American God Fri, 22 Aug 2014 04:01:58 +0000 6d64bcd569c5bf49f7a4bdd4fb4bc36b6ce1aac2-987a0fb9c33a55b04233c8b2b7d74742-hero_image-resize-260-620-fill

Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity
By Matthew Paul Turner
Jericho Books (August 19, 2014)

• • •

Matthew Paul Turner sent me a preview copy of his new book last week (it’s now available – click the link above), and it ties right in with our emphasis in recent days upon U.S. evangelicalism and Christianity in America. MPT reminds us that our American experience has changed God, that is, our perception of God and the world’s perception as well.

Our Great Big American God is a breezy, irreverent romp through the history of our irrepressibly religious nation with a focus on the way the image of God has morphed right along with “we the people.”

It begins with a question: “Where would God be without America?” Whereas we might expect that to be asked the other way around, Turner’s friend Dave contends that America has been very good to God and that God would not be nearly as popular as he is were it not for what America has done to keep his reputation and work alive in the world. We have helped write his story. Turner says this about his friend’s argument:

[Dave's] not alone. To some extent, we are all “growing” God, stuffing his mouth full with ideas, themes and theologies, fattening him up with a story line we believe to be true. I’m not sure intentions matter when it comes to God’s image. For good or bad, we are all molding God to reflect our own personal, American interpretation of Christian faith. (p. 6)

pilgrimsAh, but which interpretation? Which God?

  • Is it the God of “America’s Pentecost” — in Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801, the second “Great Awakening” — when God showed up with tangible power, moving “through the crowd like a tsunami, slowly engulfing people in the Spirit, causing people to hop around like pogo sticks or to perform backflips off wagons and tree stumps”?
  • Or is it the God who brought the Puritans across the Atlantic to the New World almost 200 years earlier? This was the God of radical, sectarian Protestants with stern Calvinist theology, the God who spoke through preachers that replaced the nation of Israel in key O.T. texts with his chosen remnant who had come to the New World as if to the Holy Land. England had turned into Pharaoh and these were his once enslaved people he was planting in the land of milk and honey. They weren’t in search of a place of religious freedom as much as they sought a place where their religion could be practiced freely. That meant God had to be protected from people like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, and other Christian groups like Quakers and Anglicans and Baptists. So the sovereign God of the Puritans hired them to be police, judge, and jury to guard the boundaries of the Promised Land.
  • Perhaps it is the God of America’s greatest theologian and most unlikely revivalist preacher, Jonathan Edwards. His God was glorious and majestic, decked out in the finery of Edwards’ magnificent poetic language. Edwards was one step removed from the early Puritans, emphasizing more fully the personal presence and pleasures of God. He found proof of God’s electing love in the “Religious Affections” God’s true people experience. Edwards also painted the most grotesque and picturesque visions of hell ever preached: “The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath toward you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.” Is this the American God?
  • God changed under George Whitfield’s preaching into a God with “a true catholic spirit, free from sectarian zeal.” This preacher sought to preach Christ alone and stay away from matters that caused disputes. He was the first celebrity preacher in America, the first mass evangelist who reached out to people from different backgrounds and religious affiliations and led a great awakening among them. Those who responded became the first “evangelicals” in the U.S. and this was what their God looked and sounded like.

Charles Finney

And what shall we say of the God of Patrick Henry, for Whom the Revolution was a “holy cause of liberty”? Or the God of the early 19th century — years when the Methodists and Baptists spread throughout the land like wildfire — Who shook himself free from Calvinist doctrines in the second Great Awakening and raised up men like Charles Finney to proclaim human free agency and the right use of “means” to produce spiritual results?

Is God the slave-owning God, or the great Abolitionist? It eventually took a civil war and a century of reconstruction to work out the answer to that question.

Or is God most interested in personal holiness? That was the God of Phoebe Palmer, who, along with her husband, spread the doctrine of perfection and spawned such groups as the Church of the Nazarene and laid the groundwork for later Pentecostalism.

Perhaps God is a winsome, plain-spoken Businessman who is interested in making a transaction for your soul: like D.L. Moody, who invented modern crusade evangelism and ran it like a business, with superb organization and a gift for getting the fat cats of the Gilded Age to pony up the dollars. Billy Graham learned a lot from Moody, and took this approach even further in the mid to late 20th century.

We could go on to speak of the Dispensational God, the Social Gospel God, and the Just War God who waved the red, white, and blue when America went to war and, in essence, equated patriotism and faith. We must not forget the Pentecostal God, who was born at 312 Azusa Street in Los Angeles under the spiritual midwifery of William J. Seymour, a God who is still growing today and taking his act around the world with enthusiasm. Nor could we complete this survey without a nod to the Fundamentalist God and the New Evangelical God, and especially the Culture War God, the deity of people like Jerry Falwell and the Christian Right, who reached the pinnacle of American success when George W. Bush became president at the turn of the millennium.

Matthew Paul Turner tells these stories of God in America with wit, energy, and sass. He definitely has a point of view; that is beyond question. MPT views American history through a post-modern, progressive Christian’s lens, and I’m sure he will be criticized for slanting his accounts that way.

But this book is meant not so much as a serious historical analysis (though it is certainly well researched) as much as it is a social and religious commentary. That should come from a clear point of view so as to present a clear case and prompt discussion and debate.

And above all, Matthew Paul Turner is asking us to consider how we who are created in God’s image keep ourselves relentlessly preoccupied remaking him into ours.

That’s something we should all welcome as healthy and necessary.

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When America Believed In the Bible Alone Thu, 21 Aug 2014 04:30:27 +0000 gill_1852-3_camp-meeting

It was still “the Bible alone,” as proclaimed during the Reformation, that American Protestants trusted. But it was also “the Bible alone” of all historic religious authorities that survived the antitraditional tide and then undergirded the remarkable evangelical expansion of the early nineteenth century . By undercutting trust in other traditional authorities , the power-suspecting ideologies of the Revolutionary and constitutional periods had the ironic effect of scripturalizing the United States. Deference to inherited authority of bishops and presbyters was largely gone, obeisance to received creeds was largely gone, willingness to heed the example of the past was largely gone. What remained was the power of intuitive reason, the authority of written documents that the people approved for themselves, and the Bible alone.

• Noll, Mark A.
America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln
(p. 371)

The 19th century was the United States of America’s “evangelical” century. If we want to see examples of what it might look like when evangelical Christianity “wins” in the broader culture, the time between the American Revolution and the Civil War provides one.

In another post, we saw what it looked like When Christians Won the Culture War in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by leading the way in getting Prohibition passed. But earlier in 1800′s, it wasn’t a culture war. It was a “battle for the Bible.” A nation full of Bible-believers eventually came to blows battling it out over the “plain meaning” of the Good Book.

As historian Mark Noll says in the quote above, this country had been “scripturalized” through widespread religious awakenings in the late 1700′s and early 1800′s. Americans held a uniquely democratized theology, a synthesis of “evangelical Protestant religion, republican political ideology, and commonsense moral reasoning.” And at the heart of America’s evangelical mindset was “the Bible alone” — interpreted literally and considered the ultimate authority for all of life, culture, and society.

By the early years of the United States, in other words, Scripture had become the national book par excellence. Confidence in the ability of ordinary people to understand it fueled the formation of many new sects. The revitalization and expansion of Protestantism in the early republic rested upon a widely shared confidence in the trustworthiness of the Bible. Broad familiarity with its contents characterized both ordinary people and elites. (Noll, p. 372)

vintage_search_the_scriptures_illustration_1800s_postcard-r9815960f5179433997866eefea69ea50_vgbaq_8byvr_512Mark Noll notes that the number of Bible editions published in the U.S. doubled every decade after 1790 until 1830, and then from 1830-1865 an average of 27 new editions each year appeared. Everyone had the Bible. And they believed it. Robert Baird, a historian of American religion in the era, noted a common thread among all the diverse U.S. Protestant groups in those years: “they hold the supremacy of the scriptures as a rule of faith, and that whatever doctrine can be proved from holy scripture without tradition is to be received unhesitatingly, and that nothing that cannot so be proved shall be deemed an essential point of Christian belief” (p. 376)

Furthermore, Americans generally shared a common way of interpreting the Bible. Noll describes this as “commonsense” reading, or “literal” interpretation: “The assumption that people could see clearly and without ambiguity what the Bible said, and that this biblicistic knowledge qualified one to judge connections between moral cause and moral effect, was the common person’s counterpart to the Enlightenment confidence displayed by intellectual elites who employed learned formal moral philosophy to the same ends” (p. 381). This “everyman” concept cohered with a Reformed perspective that believed in a broad scope for the Bible’s authority (“every direction contained in its pages as applicable at all times to all men”).

The uniquely American evangelical approach saw the Bible as the divine guidebook for life (the Bible alone — to the exclusion of other authorities). It also became the prime motivation for various voluntary movements that sought reforms in culture and society. As André Siegfried, a French historian, opined as he considered U.S. religious history through its heritage of Reformed biblicism: “Born anew through grace, the Calvinist has a mission to carry out; namely, to purify the life of the community and to uplift the state. He cannot admit two separate spheres of action, for he believes that the influence of Christ should dominate every aspect of life.”

Sounds like a situation that should have led to near-millennial bliss: a nation of Bible-believing people who approached the Bible from a similar hermeneutical perspective and sought the betterment of society.

Unfortunately, one particularly pesky problem just wouldn’t go away . . . the issue of slavery.

With a common perspective on the Bible, the vast majority of American people in all parts of the land would have concurred with Mark Noll’s summary of the situation on the ground in the mid-1800′s: “On issues like the morality of slavery, they felt that the Bible spoke just as clearly as it did on questions of eternal life” (p. 379).

The problem was, as Abraham Lincoln put it, “Both North and South read the same Bible.”

And yet they came to conclusions that were diametrically opposed.

Even though they were reading the Bible from the same literal and Reformed hermeneutical perspective.

In the light of this dilemma:

  • On one extreme, some radical abolitionists believed that the Bible did indeed sanction slavery, and therefore should be abandoned. Given the widespread acceptance of Scripture in that time, this was a distinctly minority opinion.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, a large number of lay people and theologians, North and South, through their literal, commonsense reading of the Bible, likewise held that the Bible sanctioned slavery, therefore faithful Christians should accept its legitimacy in the U.S. out of loyalty to the Bible’s divine authority. To many, this was an open and shut case, the only legitimate interpretation that could be concluded from a plain reading of Scripture.
  • There were mediating arguments. These were more complex, not as easily argued or grasped in the prevailing atmosphere of commonsense biblical interpretation. For example, some argued that the presence of slavery in Scripture gave no necessary justification for the kind of slavery that existed in America. To accept this involved understanding the original biblical languages, the cultural background of the Scriptures, and proposed theories about how ancient words might be applied in modern life. This argument was some steps removed from the plain, literal understanding of the King James Version and not easily accepted by a large audience.
  • Other mediating positions sought to distinguish between the “letter” and “spirit” of the Bible — the historical situations the Bible portrays must be distinguished from the moral principles it teaches, and only the latter are normative and binding today. This was easier to grasp, and more widely appreciated by people of common sense.

But these more nuanced ways of reading the Bible still did not feel completely natural to people living in that time. As Noll puts it, “Many Northern Bible-readers and not a few in the South felt that slavery was evil. They somehow knew the Bible supported them in that feeling. Yet when it came to using the Bible as it had been used with such success to evangelize and civilize the United States, the sacred page was snatched out of their hands. Trust in the Bible and reliance upon a Reformed, literal hermeneutic had created a crisis that only bullets, not arguments, could resolve. (p. 400)

Mark Noll points out where this left the nation in the mid-1800′s:

il_340x270Representatives of the two extreme positions, which were relatively simple, and the middle positions, which were complex, had set out their views fairly completely as early as the 1830s. From that early period, it was evident that, especially given the reigning American conventions governing the interpretation of Scripture, the proslavery argument was formidable.

. . . All who wished to use the Bible in antebellum America for arguing in any way against slavery faced a double burden of staggering dimensions. It was the same whether they held that the letter of the Bible should give way to its spirit, or if they claimed that what the Bible seemed to teach it did not really teach, or if they suggested that what the Bible taught did not apply to the American situation and its system of slavery. Any who wished to make such arguments first had to execute the delicate intellectual task of showing that literal proslavery interpretations did not adequately exegete the apparently straightforward biblical texts. Then they were compelled to perform an intellectual high-wire act by demonstrating why arguments against slavery should not be regarded as infidel attacks on the authority of the Bible itself. In assessing the nature of biblical arguments on all sides, it is essential to remember that the overwhelming public attitude toward the Bible in the antebellum United States— even by those who neither read it or heeded it— was one of reverential, implicit deference. The moderate Congregationalist Leonard Bacon caught the essential predicament perfectly, as early as 1846 , when he wrote that “the evidence that there were both slaves and masters of slaves in the churches founded and directed by the apostles, cannot be got rid of without resorting to methods of interpretation which will get rid of everything.” (p. 391f)

This was what Noll calls “the hermeneutical crisis of the Civil War.” A nation committed to the authority of the Bible, the plain reading of the Bible, and the applicability of the Bible to modern life could not find the answers it needed in the Bible to reach agreement with regard to black chattel slavery. There was no means, short of war, for resolving their differences.

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Another Look: Ballyard Religion Wed, 20 Aug 2014 04:01:36 +0000 bunch of kids

Note from CM: This was written about a month after Michael Spencer died in 2010. I was coaching my grandson’s T-ball team at the time and remembering Michael’s love for baseball when I wrote it. It touches on a theme that was also a common concern for Michael and me: the dearth of understanding in evangelicalism about spiritual formation and the contemplative life. This has long been one of my major issues with American activist-style religion.

• • •

I had a vision of the evangelical church today. While coaching at my grandson’s Little League game (6-8 year olds), the heavens opened and a lot of things became clear to me, especially:

  • Why it’s so hard to be a Jesus-shaped follower of Christ in America today.
  • Why the evangelical church is not helping in that regard.

I love these kids at the ballyard, and we have all kinds on our team. There’s this tiny kid, Johnny, who just stares at me with a goofy look on his face whenever I try to tell him something. Then he does whatever he wants. We have Big Jimmy, who has grown faster than his peers. He can hit the ball hard, and we have to make sure the younger ones aren’t picking their noses or playing in the dirt when he’s at the plate. Then we have L’il Jeffrey, the small athletic child who is quick as a fox and plays with abandon. Our team has two little girls in the lineup. They are among the younger ones, and they don’t really get this baseball thing yet. Nor do a few of the boys, who dig their spikes around in the dirt, blow bubbles with their gum, and watch what’s happening in the stands as much as what’s on the field.

The majority still can’t catch a fly ball unless it happens to fall directly into the web of their glove. Catchers duck and let the ball go to the backstop rather than making any effort to stop it — if they even see it coming, that is. The concept of a “force out” mostly eludes them. If you ask one of them what he was thinking when he threw the ball to the wrong base, or kept running when the coach told him to stop, he’ll probably shrug his shoulders and say, “I dunno.”

What they do know is that they get to wear a uniform, swing a cool bat, be with a bunch of other kids, and have a snack at the end of the game. They don’t talk much about winning and losing, and when they do, their words don’t reveal much emotion. They’re kids. It’s about having fun. About the only time tears fall is when someone gets embarrassed or is made to feel ashamed for something he’s done or failed to do. Or gets hit by a ball or scared by one.

This is instructional league. Kids are there to learn the basics and have some organized fun. Coaches focus on teaching proper fundamentals. How to hold a bat and swing it. A good batting stance. How to be ready in the field. Throwing at a target instead of just heaving the ball somewhere. Listening to the coach. What to do and where to look when running the bases. We don’t even have “game situations” to worry about at this age. We just play and help kids learn the game. Hit the ball. Throw the ball. Catch the ball. Run. Support your teammates. Be a good sport.

It’s kinda like church, I thought. Just a bunch of kids trying to be like Jesus.

tballAs I stood there in the third bases coaching box, watching one of our young hitters at bat, it suddenly hit me how loud it was. The kids in the field were chanting in chorus, “Hey batter, batter! Hey batter, batter! Hey batter, batter, SWING!” Our team in the dugout raised their own cry, “Here we go, Johnny, here we go (clap, clap)!” Three or four coaches were yelling encouragement and instruction. “Get a rip, Johnny!” “Johnny, back off the plate!” “Get your bat up!” “Watch the ball now!” “Level swing!” Johnny’s parents and other team parents were in on the act too, of course. “C’mon Johnny! Remember how we practiced it! Get your elbow up! Keep your eye on the ball! Let’s go, Johnny! You can do it!” Between pitches, even the coach on the other team, who was standing behind the catcher to help keep the game moving along, would walk up and help our hitter stand himself correctly in the box and hold his bat in proper position.

With each pitch, the cacophony restarted. When Johnny hit the ball, everyone screamed, “Run! Run!” And then a chorus of admonition rose like a wave from the other team’s bench and stands. “Catch the ball, Billy!” “First base, first base!” “Watch the runner going to third!” “Don’t hang on to the ball, throw it!” “Tag him, Mark!”

Mostly, the kids just played while everyone else was yelling for them and at them. It seemed to me that only a small percentage of what was screamed in their direction was heard. They simply tuned it out. Whether the coaches and their parents liked it or not, the players reverted to their own habits and did it their way. A number of them have shown progress by steps over the course of the year, but rarely do you see them alter their stance or do something dramatically different in the midst of a single game.

And suddenly I thought of something else about the contemporary church.

And how we are supposedly trying to help people be like Jesus and follow Jesus.

And it hit me that what we usually do is yell at them and expect them to perform.

This is the evangelical church. It’s ballyard religion.

A new believer comes up to the plate and we yell encouragement and instruction to him.

  • Read your Bible!
  • Pray every day!
  • Make sure you’re in church each Sunday!
  • Take our discipleship training course!
  • Become a member of the church!
  • Get involved and get busy serving the Lord!
  • Be generous with your money! Give to the church!
  • Discover your spiritual gifts!
  • Have a heart for missions!
  • Take a stand on the important cultural issues of the day!
  • (Pick one:) Husbands, love your wives! Wives, submit to your husbands! Children, obey your parents!
  • Become a member of a small group!
  • Listen to Christian music!
  • Go to this special conference we’re holding!

Every time a believer goes to church, attends a small group or Bible study, turns on Christian media, walks into a Christian bookstore, reads a Christian magazine or goes to an online Christian site, attends a Christian conference or concert, or gets together with evangelical friends at a coffee shop, it seems like the conversation is about what we should be doing, what our church should be doing, what Christians should be doing. What book we should be reading. What seminar we should be attending. What Bible study we should participate in. What concert is coming to town. What friends we should be praying for. What political decision is proof positive that America has finally departed completely from God and is going to hell in a hand basket, and what we should do about it.

The pastor is telling me to keep my eye on the ball. My Bible study leader is challenging me to keep a level swing. Various program leaders in the church are saying, “Run! Run!” Leading evangelical spokespersons are telling me I’m doing it wrong and I need to adjust my stance, get my hands up, and step toward the pitcher when I swing.

Everybody is telling me what to do. At the same time. With urgency.

The ethos of evangelicalism has always been that of activism. We are saved to serve. Growing in Christ happens when we exercise properly. There is no shortage of voices calling out help and encouragement. But it’s often like the ballyard. The voices are white noise. It’s hard to pick out anything that will really help me know Jesus better.

Besides, I already live in a world like that. A noisy world. A world full of opinions blasting out all around me 24/7. Why would I want to go to a church that just does the same thing in religious terms? And why do we do it anyway? Do we Christians think we have to raise our voices and shout to be heard above the crowd?

bade_largeIn my earlier coaching days, I used to join the chorus of voices. I don’t think I was very effective. Now, when I want to tell a player something, I call his name until he looks me directly in the face. I say one thing that I want to get across, in as simple language as I can muster. I ask, “Do you understand?” Then I say, “Go get ‘em!” I try to get a small victory, a miniscule change, a moment of communication.

I’m convinced evangelicalism has a poor understanding of the processes that lead to true spiritual formation in Christ. We don’t need a ballyard full of people yelling out in a cacophonous chorus of encouragement and instruction. We need pastors who visit us and help us know Jesus better. We need friends who let us be ourselves and patiently walk with us in our journeys. We need mentors who will model the way and take us under their wings. We need spiritual directors who will patiently teach us to listen to the quiet voice of the Spirit. We need to learn spiritual practices that will form us and shape us into the image of Jesus.

We need quiet. And slow. And personal. One voice at a time. Face to face. Unhurried conversations. Time. Patience. A willingness to make mistakes, and a willingness to let others do the same. Small victories. Miniscule changes. Moments of reflection.

And it all needs to happen in the context of day to day life, because when it comes to faith, that’s where the game is played.

I love the ballyard, I just don’t want to try to play the game of life with Jesus when everybody’s yelling at me like that.

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My So-Called Evangelical Life (2) Tue, 19 Aug 2014 04:01:35 +0000

In spite of the televangelism scandals and the failed presidential run of Pat Robertson, the evangelical right remained the political and cultural baseline for measuring the status of religion in American public life. The emergence of groups like Moral Majority, wrote theologian Richard John Neuhaus in the mid-1980s, “kicked a tripwire” in the ongoing church-state debate. Perhaps, as wise minds across the political spectrum once again argued, religion was vital to the health of American democracy. In the Age of Evangelicalism, “religion” was often translated, however inaccurately, as “evangelical Christianity.” Yet many evangelical elites saw themselves as an embattled minority even as they sought—and gained— public influence. In the 1990s, the audacious Christian Coalition and other born-again banes of President Bill Clinton shared the stage with a disproportionately prominent group of moderate evangelical scholars and public intellectuals. They, in turn, coexisted with (and chafed at) the booming evangelical music and entertainment market. Two metaphors profoundly informed discussions of faith and public life in the fin de siècle United States: the “naked public square” and the “culture war.”

The Age of Evangelicalism

This excerpt from Steven P. Miller’s book on public face of American evangelical Christianity from the years 1970-2008 speaks to what happened in the 1990′s, after the rise and triumphs of the Christian Right in the 1970′s and 80′s. During this decade, evangelicals consolidated their power, engaged in spirited discussions about the role of religion in public life, and continued to participate in a process of reshaping historic alliances and loyalties. As Miller writes, “A nation that once thought in terms of Catholics or Protestants (or, more specifically, Polish Catholics or German Lutherans) had become a society of pro-lifers and pro-choicers. A conservative Southern Baptist now might have more in common with a traditionalist Catholic than with, say, Jimmy Carter. The new coordinates were easily politicized. Such divisions threatened to tear apart American society.”

The lines were drawn in the 70′s and 80′s. One scholar described the 1990′s as public evangelicalism’s transition “from revolution to evolution.”

As for me personally, this was the decade in which I served in an evangelical church in Indianapolis, a “community” church. It was a “daughter church” that had been planted by another congregation which was, at least in the context of our county, a megachurch. This group of churches was founded by pastors and missionaries in the Methodist and Wesleyan traditions. The congregations were intentionally non-denominational and independent of one another, based on a ministry philosophy of evangelism, discipleship, church-planting and missions, non-doctrinaire, non-liturgical, and elder-led with strong senior pastor leadership. Bible-based, they emphasized practical Christian living rather than in-depth study or theology. They were committed to church growth, and a great deal of that growth came from Christians who migrated from other congregations.

As a pastor in such a church in the 1990′s I tiptoed my way through the minefield called “worship wars.” The more I studied worship and read people like Robert Webber, the more I questioned what I was doing as a “worship leader” (now an official category of vocational ministry in evangelicalism) and whether we evangelicals understood much about worship at all. I spent countless hours in Christian bookstores. I went on mission trips and watched my children go on them as well. I coached Little League and developed a life outside the church and thereby realized more and more the “Christian Bubble” I and my fellow evangelicals were living in. Thankfully, the senior minister with whom I worked was more of a traditional pastor than a church growth practitioner or CEO, so our congregation was less “driven” than some others.

We were not a politically-obsessed people. Occasional remarks like, “No true Christian could ever vote for Bill Clinton,” were thankfully rare and not the focus of our conversations. But that had more to do with our pastor and the atmosphere of unity and focusing on essentials that he worked hard to maintain among us.

The 1990′s were good years for me. However, many of the seeds of later dissatisfaction with evangelicalism were planted and/or watered during that decade. They did not break the surface until the 2000′s.


The 1990′s were the years we became familiar with:

  • The culture wars
  • Influential writings by Richard Neuhaus (The Naked Public Square, First Things journal), James Davison Hunter (Culture Wars), Stephen Carter (The Culture of Disbelief), Mark Noll (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind)
  • Pat Buchanan’s “culture war” speech at the 1992 Republican Convention
  • The Fundamentalism Project
  • Voices of “thoughtful” evangelical intellectuals: George Marsden, Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, Randall Balmer, Richard Mouw
  • Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), Neuhaus and Charles Colson
  • The “commoditization” of evangelicalism: “The booming “Christian lifestyle” phenomenon took many forms, ranging from contemporary Christian music to megachurches and the rise of such Christian-friendly citadels as Colorado Springs and Branson, Missouri.”
  • ralph_reedThe widespread growth of Christian bookstores.
  • Christian music artists “crossing over” into popular music and the development of “Praise and Worship” music.
  • The rapid expansion and establishment of megachurches and the “seeker” approach. Bill Hybels and Rick Warren. The expansion of the Willow Creek Association. The Purpose-Driven Church.
  • Founding of the Christian Coalition. Ralph Reed.
  • The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the evangelical answer to the ACLU. Jay Sekulow.
  • The rise of conservative talk radio and cable news. Rush Limbaugh.
  • The Clinton Presidency, the Republican triumph in the 1994 mid-term elections, Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America.
  • The Promise Keepers men’s movement. Their emphasis on racial reconciliation.
  • Resurgence of the evangelical left: Habitat for Humanity, Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency, Tony Campolo.
  • The Clinton impeachment hearings, led by independent counsel and evangelical Kenneth Starr.

At the end of his chapters covering the 1990′s, Steven Miller summarizes where we were with regard to evangelicalism in public life:

As the impeachment crisis revealed, the evangelical right held more power in the House of Representatives than in society as a whole. Public distaste for the impeachment process was a pointed reminder that, while evangelicals might occasionally form a moral plurality, a true majority was out of reach. That distinction became particularly important a few years later, by which time the Christian Right again was the talk of the Beltway. “We are going to have to invent a presidential candidate for the year 2000,” Ralph Reed declared after Clinton’s reelection victory in 1996. Four years later, Reed found his man.

The Age of Evangelicalism

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Another Look: The Coming Evangelical Collapse (3) Mon, 18 Aug 2014 04:01:22 +0000 panoramic-lightning-storm-and-prairie-church-mark-duffy

Note from CM: Here is the last of the three “Evangelical Collapse” pieces that Michael Spencer wrote five years ago. I think five years provides a good mile marker at which to look at what he said then, how it compares to the landscape today, and what we might see ahead. We’ll stick to discussing U.S. evangelicalism in one form or another throughout this week. If you haven’t been following along, we started last Monday, and I’d encourage you to peruse those posts and comment threads so you’ll know what ground we’ve already covered.

• • •

church lightning3. Is all of this a bad thing?

I’ve received many notes and emails over this series of posts, and I’m glad that it has been provocative and discussion-producing.

Is the coming evangelical collapse entirely a bad thing? Or is there good that will come from this season of the evangelical story?

One of the most encouraging developments in recent evangelicalism is the conviction that something is very wrong. One voice that has been warning American evangelicals of serious problems is theologian Michael Horton. For more than 20 years, Horton has been warning that evangelicals have become something almost unrecognizable in the flow of Christian history. From the prophetic Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism to the incredible In the Face of God to the most recent Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, Horton has been saying that evangelicals are on the verge of theological/ecclesiastical disaster.

Horton’s diagnosis is not, however, the same diagnosis as we saw in the heyday of the culture war, i.e. that evangelicals must rise up and take political and cultural influence if America is to survive and guarantee freedom and blessing. Horton’s warning has been the abandonment of the most basic calling of the church: the preservation and communication of the essentials of the Gospel in the church itself.

The coming evangelical collapse will be, in my view, exactly what Horton has been warning us about for two decades. In that sense, there is something fundamentally healthy about accepting that, if the disease cannot be cured, then the symptoms need to run their course and we need to get to the next chapter. Evangelicalism doesn’t need a bailout. Much of it needs a funeral.

But not all; not by any means. In other words, the question is not so much what will be lost, but what is the condition of what remains?

As I’ve said in the previous post in this series, what will be left will be 1) an evangelicalism greatly chastened in numbers, influence and resources, 2) a remaining majority of Charismatic-Pentecostal Christians faced with the opportunity to reform or become unrecognizable, 3) an invigorated minority of evangelicals committed to theology and church renewal, 4) a marginalized emerging and mainline community and 5) an evangelicalized segment of the other Christian communions.

Is it a good thing that denominations are going to become largely irrelevant? Only if the networks that replace them are able to marshal resources, training and vision to the mission field and into the planting and equipping of churches?

Is it a good thing that many marginal believers will depart, leaving evangelicalism with a more committed, serious core of followers? Possibly, if churches begin and continue the work of renewing serious church membership?

Is it a good thing that the emerging church will fade into the irrelevance of the mainlines? If this leaves innovative, missionally minded, historically and confessionally orthodox churches to “emerge” in the place of the traditional church, yes. Yes, if it fundamentally changes the conversation from the maintenance of traditional churches to developing new and culturally appropriate churches.

Is it a good thing that Charismatic-Pentecostal Christianity will become the majority of evangelicals? Yes, if reformation can reach those churches and produce the kind of unity we see in Wesley and Lloyd-Jones; a unity where the cleavage between doctrine and spiritual gifts isn’t assumed.

The ascendency of Charismatic-Pentecostal influenced worship around the world can be a major positive for the evangelical movement if that development is joined with the calling, training and mentoring of leaders. If American churches come under more of the influence of the movement of the Spirit in Africa and Asia, this will be a good thing. (I recognize, btw, that all is not well overseas, but I do not believe that makes the help of Christians in other cultures a moot point.)

Will the evangelicalizing of Catholic and Orthodox communions be a good development? One can hope for greater unity and appreciation, but the history of these developments seems to be much more about a renewed vigor to “evangelize” Protestantism in the name of unity. For those communions, it’s a good development, but probably not for evangelicals themselves.

Will the coming evangelical collapse get evangelicals past the pragmatism and shallowness that has brought about its loss of substance and power? I tend to believe that even with large declines in numbers and an evidence “earthquake” of evangelical loyalty, the purveyors of the evangelical circus will be in full form, selling their wares as the promised solution to every church’s problems. I expect the landscape of megachurch vacuity to be around for a very long time. (I rejoice in those megachurches that fulfill their role as places of influence and resource for other ministries without insisting on imitation.)

Will the coming evangelical collapse shake loose the prosperity Gospel from its parasitical place on the evangelical body of Christ? We can all pray and hope that this will be so, but evidence from other similar periods is not encouraging. Coming to terms with the economic implications of the Gospel has proven particularly difficult for evangelicals. That’s not to say that American Christians aren’t generous….they are. It is to say that American Christians seldom seem to be able to separate their theology from an overall idea of personal affluence and success American style. Perhaps the time is coming that this entanglement will be challenged, especially in the lives of younger Christians.

lightning umbrellaBut it is impossible to not be hopeful. As one commenter has already said, “Christianity loves a crumbling empire.” Christianity has flourished when it should have been exterminated. It has conquered when it was counted as defeated. Evangelicalism’s heyday is not the entirety of God’s plan.

I think we can rejoice that in the ruins of the evangelical collapse new forms of Christian vitality and ministry will be born. New kinds of church structure, new uses of gifts, new ways to develop leaders and do the mission- all these will appear as the evangelical collapse occurs.

I expect to see a vital and growing house church movement. This cannot help but be good for an evangelicalism that has made buildings, paid staff and numbers its drugs for half a century.

I expect to see a substantial abandonment of the seminary system. How can a denomination ask its clergy to go into huge debt to be equipped for ordination or ministry? We all know that there are many options for education from much smaller schools to church based seminaries to internet schools to mentoring and apprenticing arrangements. We must do better in this area, and I think we will.

In fact, I hope that many IM readers will be part of the movement to create a new evangelicalism that learns from the past and listens more carefully to what God says about being his people in the midst of a powerful, idolatrous culture. There are encouraging signs, but evangelical culture has the ability to disproportionately judge the significance of movements within it.

I’ll end this adventure in prognostication with the same confession I began with: I’m not a prophet. My view of evangelicalism is not authoritative or infallible. I am certainly wrong in some of these predictions and possibly right, even too conservative on others. But is there anyone who is observing evangelicalism in these times who does not sense that the future of our movement holds many dangers and much potential? Does anyone think all will proceed without interruption or surprise?

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One Big Problem with Evangelical Worship Sun, 17 Aug 2014 04:01:40 +0000 On his blog and Facebook timeline last week, Tim Challies posted the following picture and quote. In my opinion, it represents a point of view that is a constant problem for evangelical worshipers. Challies represents the new calvinist tradition, so the quote takes on a distinct cast, but other evangelical groups share a similar perspective, even though the specific requirement they place upon believers might be different.


The big problem this quote reveals might be labeled pietism. Evangelicals of all stripes tend to approach worship from a pietistic perspective. What I mean by this is that the emphasis falls on what believers bring to worship rather than on God’s actions in worship. In the end, this approach is about my piety or lack thereof. That’s what makes things really happen.

The quote from Donald Whitney clearly recommends this. It is the believer’s mindset that determines whether or not worship occurs. The burden falls upon each individual, therefore, to make sure his or her mind is right when worshiping in the sanctuary. If we sing without concentrating on God, then it is not worship.

Which begs the question, how fully must I be “thinking about God” in order for worship to occur? What percentage passes the test? How can I be sure I’ve thought hard enough, long enough, rightly enough to satisfy the requirement?

Other evangelical groups might stress something different. Perhaps it’s not so much a matter of “thinking about God,” but “experiencing God’s presence,” or “feeling the Spirit.” Perhaps in those churches it’s about people clapping or raising their hands, closing their eyes, swaying to the music, smiling, singing enthusiastically, dancing, speaking in tongues or expressing spiritual ecstasy in some other fashion. Maybe the emphasis is not so much on our thoughts, but on our feelings or certain specific experiences or spiritual manifestations that the particular community recognizes as evidence of “real” worship.

As one commenter last week wrote, “One old girlfriend said she left Evangelicalism . . . because she got tired of having to be excited all the time.” Excitement!!! is the requirement, apparently, in a lot of evangelical churches.

Is this really what coming before God in worship is about? Trying to work up the right thoughts and feelings? Making sure I don’t sully the divine presence with unworthy concerns and emotions that are weighing me down?

I don’t think so.

Burden-BearerI’m thankful I have a God . . .

  • who accepts imperfect sacrifices from distracted people whose minds are a thousand miles from where they should be on a Sunday morning.
  • who welcomes me into his presence through Christ even when I can’t sing or smile or lift my hands.
  • who hears my unspoken prayers, my fears, doubts, and laments, my unbelieving hesitations, and even my rebellious rants.
  • who doesn’t give a hoot if I fit in to the accepted patterns of “worship” some church community tries to impose on me, either through specific teaching or general peer pressure.
  • who simply invites us to come, we who are “weary and laden with burdens,” so that he might give us rest.

He invites us to a place where he speaks a Word so alive it can cut through the distractions, and even when it seems like it doesn’t, it still finds ways of doing its work in our lives.

He invites us to a table where he provides food that sustains the weary, worn out, and empty of heart, mind, and spirit.

Next time you’re in worship, whether you are singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” or some other hymn or praise song, go ahead, try to focus on God, who he is, what he’s done to bring newness of life to us all in Christ. Nothing wrong with that, and if you can do it, great. And if the song lifts your spirit and brings a rush of emotion or a manifestation of God’s presence in some special way, be thankful.

However, if you can’t stop thinking about your finances or your kids or something that upset you at work or all you have to do this week, don’t beat yourself up. You are still there, in worship, with God and with your brothers and sisters, many of whom are probably equally distracted and finding it hard to concentrate. And I have good news for you: God is still present and active. God will still speak to you. God will still feed you. God will still call what you are doing “worship.”

Pietistic expectations with regard to worship are cruel. They put the burden on us, rather than inviting us to come and have our burdens relieved by the One who never stops thinking graciously toward us.

Now that’s something to think about.

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Saturday Ramblings — August 16, 2014 Sat, 16 Aug 2014 04:01:47 +0000 Eggs_Expressions_Happy_Sad

Hello, fellow iMonks. It has been a sad, scary week in the world’s news. Iraq. Gaza. Ferguson, Michael Brown. Robin Williams. Ebola. Kevin Ward. Ukraine. Suffering right before our eyes on the TV screen and a whole world of hidden suffering we can scarcely imagine. With all the bad news, we’ll seek respite in a bit of humor and distraction today, digging out a few odd and wondrous gems from that little source of information and entertainment we call the internet. We won’t ignore the serious stuff, but heaven knows we need some laughter-medicine too, don’t we? However, I’ll warn you, I’m in no mood to be cute or subtle (or nice) today.

Anyway, I invite you to join me, your grumpy Chaplain, as we ramble through the good and the bad, the silly and the sobering.

• • •

Four-Pillars-Law-Firm-Happy-Sad-Eggs1I know what we need! An app that makes Satan shut up and flee! Yeah, that’ll do it. According to Kevin Winkler, the “Shut Up, Devil!” app is just the ticket to overcome evil. He writes:

screen568x568We activate Scripture as a weapon in our lives when we speak it. In fact, this is the model Jesus used during His temptation in the wilderness. Three times He countered Satan’s temptations with scripture, responding, “It is written…” In other words, “Shut up, devil!” Scripture silenced Satan and forced him to flee (Matt. 4:1–11).

I found speaking scripture crucial to keeping Satan silenced in my life too. My strategy began with note cards on which I penned personalized versions of scriptures relevant to whatever issue I faced. I kept these cards on me throughout the day, intending to speak them aloud as often as I needed. Still, despite my best intentions, I frequently forgot or became too lazy.

With this, I implored God for something more convenient—something always with me that could help me remember. That’s when I received a download from heaven. Over the next day, God revealed to me the blueprints of what is now known as the Shut Up, Devil! app.

Now if we could just airdrop a bunch of these into northern Iraq (along with smartphones, of course), where actual evil is revealing itself with all its might, we could help those folks do serious battle with the devil, IS, and all things jihad.

Sheesh. I think the only “download from heaven” KW received was the anointed trifecta of bad theology, evangelical silliness, and hucksterism.

nfl_a_rice01jr_400x600Four-Pillars-Law-Firm-Happy-Sad-Eggs1Meanwhile, here in the land of the fat and the home of the tailgate, many of us are saving our best energies for that which is truly important — College Football (let us pause for a moment of silent reverence). We’re less than two weeks away from a historic season, when, for the first time, NCAA Division I football will have a playoff system. The final four teams will be decided by a panel of “experts,” one of whom was a surprise choice some football folks didn’t like. That would be former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

Though I disagreed vigorously with many of the policies she represented under President Bush, I have long admired and liked her as a person. But boy, you thought she had a demanding job as National Security Advisor and then as Secretary of State? As we speak, Rice is preparing to tackle (pun intended) the toughest assignment of her life. Rice, now a professor at Stanford and a lifelong football fan, will put her prodigious talents to work on the aforementioned 13-member panel College Football Playoff, Playoff, Postseason, Selection Committee.

Good luck, Madame Secretary. Let’s see, what poison would you pick? Dealing with the aftermath of 9/11 + weapons of mass destruction + the Afghanistan and Iraq wars + trying to find Osama bin Laden? Or duking it out with SEC fans? Yikes.

article-2552005-1B34EBB700000578-754_306x423Four-Pillars-Law-Firm-Happy-Sad-Eggs1Oh, and just for fun, we did have more Ken Ham “news” this week. With tongue firmly in cheek, Bible scholar and blogger Pete Enns imagined a scenario in which “Ken Ham blasts God for not taking the Bible seriously.” Here’s a taste:

In a recent statement from his Creation Museum office, Ken Ham blasted God for “not taking the Bible seriously and undermining its authority.”

. . . “Once you start reading the Pentateuch, you get a clearer picture of God’s unbiblical agenda,” Ham alerted his followers.

“Just look at the laws. In Exodus God says to roast the Passover lamb and definitely not boil it. In Deuteronomy God says to boil it. In Chronicles God says to roast and boil the Passover meat. This is nothing less than a blatant liberal attack on the Bible.” [Exodus 12:8-9; Deuteronomy 16:7-8; 2 Chronicles 35:13]

Enns is making a crucial point with this bit of fun — it’s important for us to deal with the Bible we actually have, not the one we wish we had.

Four-Pillars-Law-Firm-Happy-Sad-Eggs1vicky-beechingYet another CCM artist has “shocked” the evangelical world. Vicky Beeching, a popular writer and singer of contemporary worship songs, came out as gay Wednesday in an interview with the U.K. newspaper, The Independent. I’ve been told that her most popular anthem is “Glory to God Forever,” which is one of CCLI’s top 100 songs.

According to an article in CT, Beeching “still considers herself an evangelical, although she no longer attends charismatic evangelical services and now prefers the more traditional services of London’s main cathedrals.” I’m sure this will give some people ammunition to say she’s abandoned the gospel (Oh my God, not only is she gay, she’s Anglican!), but there is no indication her faith has changed.

Christians had better get used to the idea that a certain small percentage of people in their families, churches, and ministries are gay and stop turning each new coming out into (SHOCKING!!!) headline news, followed by gnashing of teeth, wringing of hands, and casting of stones, ad nauseum.

Four-Pillars-Law-Firm-Happy-Sad-Eggs1Speaking of nausea, it’s State Fair time here in Indiana, time when Hoosier people “let ‘er fry.” With that in mind, let’s run down the five finalists for this year’s State Fair “signature food” award. [See the gallery below -- click each pic for a larger image.]

Funnel Cake Ice Cream Sandwich, made by Urick Concessions. It is soft-served vanilla ice cream sandwiched between mini funnel cakes. It’s then topped with powdered sugar and a chocolate sauce.

Colossal Grilled Cheese Sandwich with a Salted Chocolate Caramel Shake, made by the American Dairy Association. It’s three columns of breaded mozzarella with American cheese on sourdough bread. It’s served with a salted chocolate caramel milkshake.

Cheeseburger Basket on a Stick, created by Barto’s Catering. It has seasoned ground beef and sharp cheddar cheese in a hash brown potato ball. It is then rolled in season breadcrumbs and fried.

The Mac Daddy, made by Gobble Gobble. It’s homemade macaroni and cheese topped with BBQ pulled turkey.

Fruit Twister Shake-up, created by Goodwin Family Products. The drink has fresh lemons, oranges, pineapple and strawberries. It’s shaken with sugar or Splenda, ice and water.

239905-cf3f5 239906-f4a2b 239900-4944f 239908-fceb6 239902-e84ee

Four-Pillars-Law-Firm-Happy-Sad-Eggs1During the Assyrian Empire, the Aramaic language was like English today — a common language that was spoken from India to Egypt. An article by Ross Perlin in Foreign Policy says that a tragic effect of the Islamic State’s persecution of Christians in northern Iraq is the potential extinction of the Aramaic language, one of the three biblical languages and most likely the tongue Jesus himself spoke. This would be a significant historical and cultural loss to the world.

Nearly three millennia of continuous records exist for Aramaic; only Chinese, Hebrew, and Greek have an equally long written legacy. For many religions, Aramaic has had sacred or near-sacred status. It is the presumed mother tongue of Jesus, who is reported in the Gospel of Matthew to have said on the cross: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) It came to be used in the Jewish Talmud, in the Eastern Christian churches (where it is known as Syriac), and as the ritual and everyday language of the Mandaeans, an ethno-religious minority in Iran and Iraq.

The Syrian civil war scattered inhabitants from locales where Aramaic was spoken and so, “until early August, the best hope for Aramaic’s survival was in northern Iraq, in the diverse North-Eastern subgroup, with its greater number of speakers and its roots in larger communities.” It is feared that the subsequent scattering of these communities from the plains of Nineveh will prove a mortal blow to the language.

Unless quickly reversed, the murderous presence of the Islamic State on the Nineveh plains may be the final chapter for Aramaic. Globally, languages and cultures are disappearing at an unprecedented rate — on average, the last fluent, native speaker of a language dies every three months – but what’s happening with Aramaic is far more unusual and terrifying: the deliberate extinction of a language and culture, unfolding in real time.

Four-Pillars-Law-Firm-Happy-Sad-Eggs1Finally, if there is one thing I have learned as a pastor, and especially as a hospice chaplain, it is that when someone dies, the best comment is no comment.

In the face of death, just shut up. Your opinion, in the face of a tragic suicide, means less than nothing. So keep it to yourself. There is no need to comment. Just mourn. Respect the dead and those who love them.

So I’m going to try and practice what I preach with regard to the sad passing of Robin Williams, who has given me great joy over the years. Rest in peace.

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Another Look at Church Collapse Statistics Fri, 15 Aug 2014 05:54:22 +0000 statsI would like to preface this post by saying that I do not have any joy in reporting these statistics. My hope and desire is for vibrant, growing churches, that are an increasingly effective witness in the communities in which they are found. That being said here is a snippet from a couple posts that I wrote five years ago in support of Michael Spencer’s contention that we were/are on the verge of a major evangelical collapse. It also began my ongoing collaboration as a writer for this site.

“We are on the verge within 10 years of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity.”
According to ARIS, currently 21% of adult Baptists are over the age of seventy. (I keep using Baptists in my examples as they are a good representation of evangelicals and it helps to keep things consistent for now.) In ten years, based on what we know of life expectancy, roughly this number of Baptists will have died. Yes, some of those who are currently older than 70 will still be with us, but at least a corresponding number who are currently under 70 will also have died. They will be replaced by the children of those Baptists who are now in the eighteen to twenty-nine year range, which as mentioned previously is 11% of adult Baptists. Assuming that those who are in the eighteen to twenty-nine year range roughly reproduce themselves over the next ten years, you will have a net decrease in Baptists over the next ten years of roughly 10%.
So as Michael has said, the next ten years should be the beginning of the collapse, and as was shown earlier in the article, this collapse should continue for several decades until half of the Baptists are gone.

Mainline Christian churches have been declining in Canada for 50 years. In 1965 the Membership in the United Church of Canada stood at 1,064,000. By the end of 2012 was down to 463,879. and average weekly attendance was 158,510.

Statistics in the Anglican church of Canada are even more startling. They hit a membership high of 1,365,313 in 1964. The Anglicans stopped producing statistics in 2007, but at that point membership was 545,957 and average weekly attendance just 141,827.

How do you lose over half your members in under 50 years. Quite simply you just have to lose about 1% per year.

I had predicted in 2009 that “you will have a net decrease in Baptists over the next ten years of roughly 10%.” Well, attendance at Southern Baptist churches peaked in 2009 at 6,207,488. By 2013 attendance had dropped to 5,834,707. That is a 6% drop in just four years. My prediction of a 10% drop in 10 years is looking fairly accurate.

You should also note that this is a yearly percentage decline that matches that of the Canadian Mainline churches. If the Southern Baptists continue to decline like they have done over the past four years then their fate will likely to be very similar to those churches in Canada where many congregations are struggling to keep their doors open.

Again, I take no joy in reporting this, but your thoughts and comments are welcome.

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Another Look: Evangelicalism as a Way Station Thu, 14 Aug 2014 04:15:47 +0000 IMG_0193Note from CM: We will continue with Michael Spencer’s “Coming Evangelical Collapse” series and get back to an overview of the “Age of Evangelicalism” in the U.S. — roughly 1970-2008 — in a day or two. But for today, here’s another look at a suggestion of something that evangelicalism does well. This reflection was first posted in April, 2013.

• • •

I want to say something in praise of evangelicalism today. Evangelicalism has played an important role in my spiritual formation, and I know from experience that it has done the same in the lives of many others.

The graph of my spiritual history is simple: from mainline Christianity to adolescent rebellion to spiritual awakening through evangelicalism to gradual dissatisfaction with the world of evangelicalism and back home to mainline Christianity.

I have met others who have followed a similar path. Just the other day my pastor told me about a young man who had grown up in the Lutheran church, left the church as a teenager, was “converted” in an evangelical church, then became “burned out” in that church environment, and one day stumbled back into a Lutheran congregation, where he is now settling in as an adult.

Evangelicalism is at its best when it gets the attention of prodigals, gets them moving, and points them toward home. Evangelicalism provides a way station where people weary of the world can stop in, find rest and refreshment, get some guidance, and then find their way home. Evangelicalism has a missional mentality and focus. It is good at attracting people, waking them up, and getting them back in touch with God. It is spiritual CPR. It’s a voice in the wilderness that gets people into the waters of Jordan to repent and believe.

But what happens then? In my opinion, evangelicalism, for reasons often discussed on this blog, works best as a mission but not as a church tradition. In general, it does not have the theological depth, historical heritage, ecclesiological and liturgical traditions, or institutional ballast to provide a stable home where people may be formed into communities with the ability to pass the faith on for generations and centuries.

To be sure, mainline traditions have not always grasped the importance of being that home, nor have they always been keen to support missional efforts to “seek and save the lost,” preferring rather to maintain their traditions and institutions rather than do what was necessary to reach people. Nor have the historic traditions been immune to chasing silly fads or getting distracted by political agendas — though they were certainly different ones than the revivalists, church growth practitioners, and Christian Right of evangelicalism have been running after.

IMG_0194Nevertheless, where liturgy has been faithfully practiced, tradition honored, and historical memory maintained, there is hope of a good foundation and solid structure in which one may leave the pilgrim life for a more permanent home.

Back in 2007, Michael Spencer wrote that this may be the very moment when the mainlines and historic traditions have just what disaffected evangelicals are longing for:

It’s a moment that — believe it or not — some people actually want to go to something that looks like church as they remember it, see a recognizable pastor, hear a recognizable sermon, participate in the Lord’s Supper, experience some reverence and decorum, and leave feeling that, in some ways, it WAS a lot like their mom and dad’s church. It’s a moment when reinventing everything may not be as sweet an idea as we were told it was.

Perhaps it is time for evangelicals and mainline Christians to recognize what each has to offer the other and to work on creatively forging new understandings and partnerships that will allow each to do what it does best.

As for me, I am thankful for both. But only in a historic mainline tradition have I found a home.

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Another Look: The Coming Evangelical Collapse (2) Wed, 13 Aug 2014 04:01:54 +0000 panoramic-lightning-storm-and-prairie-church-mark-duffy

Note from CM: Looks like we’ll be on this subject for a couple of weeks. Since we’re five years out, I will re-post all three of Michael’s “Collapse” pieces, reflect on “My So-Called Evangelical Life” through the lens of Steven P. Miller’s “The Age of Evangelicalism,” and . . . well, we will see what else.

• • •

What will be left after the evangelical collapse?

1. An evangelicalism far from its historical and doctrinal core. Expect evangelicalism as a whole to look more and more like the pragmatic, therapeutic, church growth oriented megachurches that have defined success. The determination to follow in the methodological steps of numerically successful churches will be greater than ever. The result will be, in the main, a departure from doctrine to more and more emphasis on relevance, motivation and personal success….with the result being churches further compromised and weakened in their ability to pass on the faith.

For some time, we’ve been at a point that the decision to visit a particular evangelical church contained a fairly high risk of not hearing the Biblical Gospel. That experience will be multiplied and expanded in the years to come. Core beliefs will become less and less normative and necessary in evangelicalism.

2. An evangelicalized Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Two of the beneficiaries of the coming evangelical collapse will be the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions. Evangelicals have been steadily entering these churches in recent decades and that trend will continue, with more media and publishing efforts aimed at the “conversion” of evangelicals to the Catholic and Orthodox ways of being Christian.

A result of this trend will be the increasing “evangelicalization” of these churches. This should yield interesting results, particularly in the Orthodox church with its ethnic heritage and with the tensions and diversities in Catholicism that most converts never see during the conversion process. I expect the reviews of the influence of evangelicalism in these communions to be decidedly mixed.

3. A small portion of evangelicalism will continue down the path of theological re-construction and recovery. Whether they be post-evangelicals working for a reinvigoration of evangelicalism along the lines of historic “Mere Christianity,” or theologically assertive young reformed pastors looking toward a second reformation, a small, but active and vocal portion of evangelicalism will work hard to rescue the evangelical movement from its demise by way of theological renewal.

This is an attractive, innovative and tireless community with outstanding media, publishing and leadership development. Nonetheless, I believe the coming evangelical collapse will not result in a second reformation, though it may result in benefits for many churches and the beginnings of new churches. But I do believe many evangelical churches and schools will benefit from this segment of evangelicalism, and I believe it will contribute far beyond its size to the cause of world missions.

4. I believe the emerging church will largely vanish from the evangelical landscape, becoming part of the small segment of progressive mainline Protestants that remain true to the liberal vision. I expect to continue hearing emerging leaders, seeing emerging conferences and receiving emerging books. I don’t believe this movement, however, is going to have much influence at all within future evangelicalism. What we’ve seen this year with Tony Jones seems to me to be indicative of the direction of the emerging church.

storm-clouds-gather-over-church-ian-middleton5. Aggressively evangelistic fundamentalist churches will begin to disappear; they will exist only as a dying form of church. The Southern Baptist Convention will experience dramatic losses in the numbers of churches in the next 25 years. By 2050, the SBC will have half the number of churches it has today. (Who know how many members it will report.) The SBC will become “exhibit A” for the problems of evangelicalism, with fragmentation appearing everywhere and a loss of coherence on many fronts.

The fundamentalist ghetto has been breaking down in my own lifetime, and I expect this will continue. The “Jerry Falwell-Jerry Vines” type of fundamentalist Baptist will become a museum piece by the middle of the century.

6. Charismatic-Pentecostal Christianity will become the majority report in evangelicalism. Within that community, the battle for the future of evangelicalism will be fought by those who must decide whether their tradition will sink into the quicksand of heresy, relativism and confusion, or whether Charismatic-Pentecostalism can experience a reformation and renewal around Biblical authority, responsible leadership and a re-emergence of orthodoxy..

I see signs of life on all those fronts, but the key issue of leadership and the preparation of leaders leaves me with little hope that Charismatic-Pentecostal Christianity can put its house in order. The dynamics of leadership within this tradition have conspired to bring the worst kinds of leaders to the forefront.

The stakes in Charismatic-Pentecostal Christianity are very high. It has become a worldwide missions phenomenon, and it has become a community carrying the most virulent and destructive heresies and errors in evangelicalism. The next 15-25 years will be crucial for this community. I am hopeful, but not optimistic. I see and hear little from this community’s younger leadership that indicates there is anything close to a real recognition of the problems they face.

7. A hope for all of evangelicalism is a “rescue mission” from the world Christian community. If all of evangelicalism could see the kind of renewal that has happened in conservative Anglicanism through the Anglican Mission in America and other mission efforts, much good would be done. It is time for missionaries to come to America from Asia and Africa. Will they come? Will they be able to bring to our culture a more vital form of Christianity? I do not know, but I hope and pray that such an effort happens and succeeds.

At present, most of evangelicalism is not prepared to accept pastors and leadership from outside our culture. Yet there can be little doubt that within our western culture there is very little evidence of an evangelicalism that can diagnose and repair itself.

8. A vast number of parachurch ministries are going to become far less influential, and many will vanish. The same will likely be true from everything from Christian media to publishing. This will throw what remains of evangelicalism back on the local church, and that moves us to my last post, a consideration of whether this collapse is a good or bad thing.

9. I believe that the missionary sending agencies of evangelicalism will survive the coming collapse, but will be greatly weakened by significant decreases in the giving base. It is time for mission strategies among evangelicals to change, and it is long past time for westerners to use their resources to strengthen work within a nation and not to just send Americans to the mission fields.

Next: Is all of this a good or a bad thing?

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