The “I” in Evangelicalism, Part 1.

Evangelicalism is religion of the first person singular. I remember years ago being trained to witness using The Four Spiritual Laws. It came with the adviso that the tract must be read verbatim. Like an incantation, any deviation might render the prospect’s salvation ineffectual. I have decided to follow Jesus, so goes a chorus popularized by Billy Graham. Aptly, his eponymous Association’s magazine is entitled Decision. “Accepting Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Savior” is evangelical shorthand for either responding to, or deciding on (depending on which side of the Calvinist/Arminian fence one swings) God in faith. This experience often occurs in an extra-ecclesial setting: one can experience the epiphany of deliverance alone in a hotel room with a Gideon’s Bible, or at home, kneeling as a TV preacher makes his pitch. The problem with an emphasis on this immediate experience of grace lies in its attempt to meet the minimum requirements to be a Christian. Here is a deal too good to turn down, “eternal security at nothing down, no future payments, just simple verbal assent. The deal specified nothing about life change.”[i]

To many an evangelical mind, the purpose of evangelicalism is to convert people to evangelicalism. That is, they mean to say the identity of the Church is determined by its mission. Evangelists use their abilities to get other people to respond to evangelistically-correct questions, like “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Many thousands came to a saving faith through Billy Graham’s ministries, including those like Jerry Falwell, Charles Colson, Steve McQueen, or Louis Zamperini, who heard the Gospel through someone else who had. Graham’s legacy in making converts is unassailable, but his contribution was lessened by the very nature of his parachurch organization, essentially a private corporation functioning separately from the institutional church. Recidivism statistics are hard to come by, but one recent study concluded that only a slight percentage of those who opened the doors of their heart to Jesus ever step through the open doors of a congregation.[ii]

 “Many people in our churches are simply missing the life of Christ, and a lot of it has to do with what we’ve sold them as the gospel, i.e. pray this prayer, accept Jesus into your heart, invite Christ into your life,” an SBC official commented.[iii]Given that salvation is a personal matter of the heart, the inward nature of this soteriology diverts one away from the beloved community and into the private self and its attendant experience for reassurance. The transactional nature of revivalism allows for a return to the conversion event for another installment. When someone backslides, there are magic words at the altar to re-ask Jesus into one’s heart again, and hope that this time it will take. For example, Donald Trump, President and baby Christian, has “been saved so many times,” according to Jim Bakker.[iv] Conceivably, this rinse and repeat cycle can take place outside of a nurturing church family. The visible church “ultimately becomes soteriologically irrelevant”.[v]

[i] Ron Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World?,  Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005,  p. 56.

[ii] Stoyan Zaimov, “Being Born Again, Giving Heart to Jesus Doesn’t Greatly Increase Church Attendance: Research”, Christian Post, March 22, 2018. (accessed March 27, 2018).

[iii] Ted Olsen, “Southern Baptists Debate the Sinner’s Prayer,” Christianity Today, June 20, 2012.  (accessed December 7, 2012).

[iv] Kyle Mantyla, “Jim Bakker Says Trump Has Been Spiritually ‘Saved So Many Times’ Since Becoming President”, Right Wing Watch, February 22, 2019. (accessed February 26, 2019).

[v] Stanley Grenz, Renewing The Center: Evangelical Theology In A Post-Theological Era, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006, p. 307.

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