The evangelical life, then and now… Part 6

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. This song, so familiar to generations of Sunday school children, distills the true heart of evangelical Christianity. The truths expressed – a personal relationship with God and confidence in God’s word are so central to evangelicalism, that all of us kids sang it in the church basement, even as the pastor of our Presbyterian church was preaching upstairs on double predestination. I am so glad that Jesus loves me, Jesus loves even me is another familiar refrain that captures the evangelical ethos – that wonderful assurance of a loving Savior. I could go on, but limit myself to a cherished hymn sung as our own kids were baptized:

Children of the heavenly Father safely in his bosom gather; 
nestling bird nor star in heaven such a refuge e'er was given.[i]

An indelible strain of pietism – in its best sense – resides in the evangelical DNA; this sparrow-like trust, being cupped in the loving hands of Christ. The synoptic Gospels are univocal in recording the words of Jesus that one must enter the Kingdom of God as a little child, as if to emphasize its importance. Evangelicalism is not just about knowing God, it is knowing God as one’s closest friend and constant companion – and passing that love outwards. This is the beauty of the evangelicalism that surrounded me as I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s. But if infant is to infancy, is adult as to adultery? In many respects, as evangelicalism has matured over the decades, it has become so. As the movement has corporatized itself, a child-like faith has often come to be seen merely as childish. We are no longer the Children of God; rather we act like grown-up adolescents.

There is much to be admired within evangelicalism; much vibrant faith carried forward from its Reformation roots. There is much dross and lost direction. In that sense, this blog is a jeremiad; a lament which echoes Francis Schaeffer from his earlier years. “What is the use of evangelicalism seeming to get larger and larger if significant numbers of those under the name of evangelical no longer hold to that which makes evangelicalism evangelical,” he asked.[ii] His voice was one of many who saw that the term had become so nebulous, that many who profess to be evangelical contradict not only themselves, but the faith itself.

[i] Carolina Sandell, “Tryggare kan ingen vara” (“Children of the Heavenly Father”), trans. Ernst W Olson, Covenant Hymnal , Chicago: Covenant Publications, 1996,  #87.

[ii] Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian View Of The Bible As Truth, Wheaton: Crossway, 1994,  p. 147.

The evangelical life, then and now… Part 3

I am not advocating the repristination of by-gone days, where we pine for an imagined era, in which we reclined by the pots of meat and ate bread to the full. There are things I miss, but many more that I still squirm over. More often than not, our sermons were like lectures; didactic monologs drawing precepts from Pauline epistles and directed at the intellect. Another was that obligatory time in worship known as the “pastoral prayer” – typically a sermon recap more for the congregation’s hearing than for God’s. Sunday School sought to ground and grow worshippers in biblical truths, although the curriculum could be a bit stodgy. The relevance of an hour learning the dynasty of the Northern Kingdom – with their unpronounceable names – was pretty much lost on a squirmy 10 year-old like me. We knew John 3:16 by heart, which imbued within us a genuine concern for sharing the Good News – although at times it assumed a sort of awkward “plan of salvation” sales pitch. Then again, neither did we knock on doors hawking Republican voter guides.

         The church is ever in need of reforming, and the attempt to recapture some Golden Age of evangelical piety would be a disillusioning fantasy. Ours was a faith suffering its own fair share of morbidity, and we can offer thanks for windows opened by the Spirit to let in some fresh breeze. But we strove to be holy – a practice one rarely hears about today. We were a “dry” church; at least formally. Whatever “moistness” that went on at home was best kept private. We may not have been better Christians then – perhaps only more self-consciously parochial – with what Barth called the “odor of sanctity” thrown in.[i] We live with the tension between what we claim and who we are. Paradoxically, evangelicalism is both an expression of faith and a human project. As such, its adherents in each generation strive to do God’s will, but often fail miserably along the way.

[i] Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, New York: Harper and Row, 1957, p. 229.

The evangelical life, then and now… Part 5.

My concern is about telling changes in us as practicing Christians rather than in the practices themselves. Mine is not a call to some form of evangelical museum mentality. Mine is, in the words of Wilmer MacNair, “more than the last whimper of a lost understanding of religion in the face of the emerging God-industry.”[i] MacNair calls out two sobering departures from the evangelical prototype. “First”, he laments, “the mega-church does not conceive of God as awesome and holy.”[ii] What now passes for spirituality would once have been inconceivable. Transcendence and mystery are no longer our experience; holiness no longer our objective.

We live in a post-whatever-that-was evangelicalism, where hearing musty old words like “holy”, “sacred”, or “sanctification” is a thing of the past. It’s not just abandoning some archaic “Christianese”. We’ve moved on from good and evil to the pursuit of happiness. And when you no longer have a sense of awe and wonderment in God’s presence, it’s a good bet he probably is no longer there. We are the master of our own destiny and have settled on “a less mighty, increasingly inconsequential version of God.” [iii] A god who is much less demanding of us, and of whom we expect very little. We needn’t have worried about secularists claiming God is dead. In making him irrelevant, we’ve done their work for them.

Second of MacNair’s laments is the sense that God’s righteousness has been usurped by a cult of individual supremacy. We look to Jesus the Life Coach for our personal success – his response to us – not as the object of loving obedience to him. Today we assent to the concept of sin as good people occasionally making bad choices, in a flippant sense that complements a conscience-salving message. One can sit through an entire sermon series without hearing of sin as an offense against God’s righteousness, and the need for repentance and obedience. The assumption, it seems, is that a half-Christ is better than none. This is no longer Christ’s atonement for sins, but religion without the sin part. Where Jesus is for people who like, but don’t necessarily need him, it is not Christianity. The normative tradition of faith is now radioactive, seen as inviting people to walk out of churches, not seekers to fill them. What sort of faith these distortions are creating, and reflections on where evangelicalism should be going instead, form the heart of this blog.

[i] Wilmer E. MacNair, Unraveling the Mega-Church: True Faith or False Promises? Westport CT: Praeger, 2009, p. vii.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Mitchell Stephens, “The Rise Of The Diminished, Ordinary God”, Religion News Service, February 19, 2014. (accessed March 3, 2019).

The evangelical life, then and now… Part 4

Evangelicals are suckers for retro-topia. Many fondly recall the way things were during the Billy Graham heyday. But while there is much to be honored, basking in the past pushes historical realities aside. I’m not set on returning to a 1960’s neo-evangelical primal age any more than I want wind-up clocks, rotary phones, or typewriters. And like yesterday’s manna, we can’t attend yesterday’s church, nor should we want to. Our parents’ church was no more real nor authentic nor “better” than ours today. There was plenty of baggage then as well, replete with tacky church basement movies like The Gospel Blimp and Thief in the Night, “I Found It” bumper stickers, and 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. And, in our house, it was the saccharine music – either the Melody Four Quartet or the Chuck Wagon Gang playing on my dad’s hi-fi. Nor is it about vestigial practices gone off their sell-by date, because the church is a living being, not an artifact buried within a past culture. The charge of the church is to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, not be embalmers of the past.

Nevertheless, nostalgia has an evil twin: cultural amnesia. Nostalgia impounds the past; memory transmits its fruitful gifts into the present. Our formation as Christians takes root in spiritual soils enriched over centuries. And whether we realize or not, we contain both the fruits of what has gone before, and seeds of what is to come. The Church is the living tradition of a historic community, and the participation we play in it, as the beloved hymn Faith Of Our Fathers, Living Still, reminds. Memory (anamnesis) is at the core of the profession and practice of our faith. In fact, we are to be communities of recall and renactment: “Do this in remembrance of me”.[i] We can, however, consciously choose to disassociate from it, in what has been called “rhetorically consequential forgetting” – losing our sacred narrative through willful ignorance.

Today, many evangelical congregations are bound together in a unity of forgetting as much by what they remember in common. We live as story-less people in story-less times, the effects of which, notes Danièle Hervieu-Léger, are “structurally linked to the collapse of the framework of collective memory which provided every individual with the possibility of a link between what comes before and his or her own actual experience.”[ii] The longevity of a religious group depends on how successful it is in retaining its collective memory as a “lineage of belief.” We don’t need to go backwards, but we can’t know where we are headed unless we understand where we have been. And if they are wise, most drivers check the rear view mirror while their car is in motion. “The road to the future,” Robert Webber observed, “runs through the past.”[iii]

[i] Luke 22:19, ‎1 Corinthians 11:23.

[ii] Daniele Hervieu-Leger, The Collective Memory Reader, edited by Jeffrey K. Olick, et. al., New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981, p. 387.

[iii] Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999, p. 7.

The evangelical life, then and now… Intro

Having passed the 6-5 mark causes a “cradle” evangelical like me to reflect on personal memories of “legacy” evangelicalism.

Advanced age affords me some license to look with one eye back, and the other fixed on my concern over the spiritual rot in today’s new normal that is rapidly heading us along the wrong paths. Theologian Roger Olson of Baylor resembles my age and experience, and likewise finds disturbing how evangelicalism has trended spiritually. “I have no doubt something drastic happened to change it such that I barely recognize anything called ‘evangelical’ as continuous with what I knew of that spiritual form of life as a child and youth,” he laments.[i] Christ breathed the life of the Holy Spirit into the Church. It is alive and relevant in every age and in each particular culture – and for better or worse, is constantly being contextualized.

Having lived long enough to remember what evangelicalism set out to be, and what it by and large has become, I lament so much good that is now gone. I knew what evangelicalism once stood for; what it has now become is more comparison than resemblance. “Leaders like Franklin Graham and James Dobson, with their unwavering Trump support, have risked any sort of connection with millennials going forward,” notes Stephen Mansfield.[iii] Half of unaffiliated millennials (nones) polled by the Pew Research Center in 2018 cited political partisanship as turning them off to organized religion.[iv] An article of that same year in The State observed that churches were shedding thousands of members – no less in South Carolina, the buckle on the Bible Belt.[v] While their elders were voting for Donald Trump, younger Christians were voting with their feet – right out the church door.

That evangelicalism has skewed itself towards the “55-to-dead” demographic might seem to portend disaster, but for a new generation zealous for a deeper relationship with God, who are neither dismissing the orthodox faith nor battling with the Bible. Many are exercising a new-found freedom to seek answers, after decades of being told it was sinful to ask awkward questions from which their elders sought to shield God.

[i] Roger E. Olson, “Growing Up ‘Evangelical’ in the 1950s/1960s: ‘Look What They’ve Done to My Religion’, Patheos, December 28, 2014. (accessed January 10, 2015).

[ii] “Is Evangelical Theology Changing?”, Christian Life, March 1956,  p. 20.

[iii] Samuel D. James, “Stephen Mansfield: Why So Many Conservative Christians Wanted a ‘Pagan Brawler’ in the White House”, Christianity Today, October 20, 2017. (accessed November 23, 2017).

[iv] Becka A. Alper, “Why America’s ‘Nones’ Don’t Identify With A Religion”, Pew Research Center, August 8, 2018. (accessed August 19, 2018).

[v] Sarah Ellis, “Losing Faith: Why South Carolina Is Abandoning Its Churches”, The State, August 8, 2018. (accessed August 20, 2018).

The evangelical life, then and now… Part 2

Back in the day, our church wasn’t in the entertainment business, so our altar hadn’t yet been gutted into a rock concert stage. We weren’t in competition to capture the upwardly-mobile demographic. Warts and all, our congregation and our neighborhood were side-by-side. We did not choose our companions; they were chosen for us. We looked to Christ’s saving work on the Cross and took the Lord’s Supper regularly and seriously. The bread and cup weren’t a power bar and energy drink for the already healthy; they were medicine for our wounded souls and healing for our journey of faith. We gathered around the Table not because we were strong, but because we weren’t. Today, the strong moment signifying our union with Christ may fade to a glib afterthought in a buffet line as you dismiss. “I was amazed at the blandly efficient nature of this activity,” writes one visitor encountering a contemporary worship experience. “We could have been passing pretzels and soda pop.”[i] Communion has itself become consumption. It’s almost as if no one would mind terribly if you helped yourself to seconds.

“Over the past thirty years,” notes Dean Curry, “American evangelicalism has witnessed the homogenization of its theology and the convergence of worship content and style as denominational identities have been strategically de-emphasized. Almost all evangelical churches have the same look and feel on a given Sunday.”[ii] The look and feel of our church drew on a faith heritage going back centuries. We were no free-floating faith brand that just appeared out of thin air. We were examined for membership, after classes to at least to become familiar with our Creeds and Confessions. It was less indoctrination than imparting a sense of belonging in a sustained narrative of community and grounding in an enduring faith tradition. We never thought to hide our denominational affiliation, honoring community and custom over consumer choice. Communal memory and continuity were valued above autonomy and evanescence. Ours was not an anti-ecclesiology, serving up story ex nihilo for ourselves. We had a deep sense of belonging to a story made from whole cloth, handed down to us from generation to generation.

Nor did we have a self-invented pastor. A process of discernment preceded ordination of our clergy, who then sat under the discipline of denominational authorities. All pastors had completed seminary degrees which required them to exegete in the original languages. By the way, they didn’t preach in T-shirts and skinny  jeans. We found our identity and purpose in proclaiming, explicating and applying the Word of God, and sermons were more than empty calories that pose as the Gospel. In the days before “teaching moments” and low-content slides, we were scripture-literate and followed the text for the day in our Bibles. We took notes on the sermons as kids, and eagerly memorized scripture to win Bible verse-inscribed pencils as prizes. By force of habit, I still stumble through our congregational readings, subconsciously reverting to KJV as I had learned the verses.

The story continues…

[i] D. H. Williams, “Contemporary Music: The Cultural Medium and the Christian Message”, Christianity Today, June 24, 2011.  (accessed March 25, 2015).

[ii] Dean C. Curry, “Evangelical Amnesia”, First Things, October 1, 2007. (accessed May 12, 2017).

The evangelical life, then and now… Part 1

I grew up in a conservative evangelical home, where my father led me to the Lord; his dog-eared Bible in hand. Typical among evangelicals, I have a ‘time and date stamp’ for my own cathartic experience, akin to St. Paul’s bolt-out-of-the-blue conversion. “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”[i] Soon, I became active in youth groups, summer camps and rallies, and was an eager badge-winner in our gospelized equivalent to the Boy Scouts. Baptized as an infant, as a teen I publically “rededicated” my life to Christ. By the time college came around, I’d read through the Bible several times. I went to Wheaton College – where else? I studied for a time at Fuller Seminary. I’ve served the local church in every lay office imaginable. I’ve worked for several overseas missions and parachurch organizations. I could boast my evangelical pedigree as Paul did of his own tradition, “a Hebrew of Hebrews”.[ii] As such, I am the product of mixed parentage: Puritan Calvinists – who “started” church history for us, the transformed fundamentalists who first styled themselves neo-evangelicals, together with pietistic revivalists who all seemed to finish each other’s sentences. I am also a Boomer, and have fallen prey, to one degree or another, to the temptations and idolatries characteristic of my generation of American Christians. I interpret being evangelical through my own locatedness in that experience.

Before the halcyon days of the Moral Majority, Fox News, or Rush Limbaugh, we evangelicals were patriotic, but didn’t draft Jesus into wars of cultural identity. Admittedly, we supported America’s wars, whether right (those we won) or wrong (those we didn’t). Political persuasions didn’t determine who we’d sit with at potluck dinners. We used to avoid something called sin, and we were more concerned about the wages of death than the wages of success. Now, many bypass the Good Friday cross of obedience and death en route to their exurban megachurch of Easter entitlement here and now. Growing up evangelical, our awe (and dread) of God’s mysterium tremendum meant avoiding practices that encouraged contamination by “worldly” values. Today there is anodyne rapport with consumerist society, and we glibly hang out with a good-humored god whose only wish is that we unlock the latent happiness in our lives.

To be continued….

[i] Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be”, Psalms and Hymns, 1738.

[ii] Philippians 3:5 (NET Bible).

Who is a theologizer?

Whether by professional vocation or spiritual calling, we are all theologians. As a newly-minted Christian, I was blessed to have an older man in our congregation take me under his wing. He avidly read new books by prominent evangelical theologians as they came along . He’d then pass them along to me, and we’d share our thoughts. George was not a Theologian by vocation; he was a layperson with an avocation like mine. Theologizer comes to mind as a handy description.

I am a lay theologizer, encouraging others to think critically about evangelical tendencies leading people away from Jesus, rather than towards him. Theology is how we think about our faith. It belongs to the church, and it should be an in-house responsibility.

In our conversations with the Bible, we all do “small – t” theology; it is a work of God’s people. “Theology,” writes  Anthony Robinson, “is a way of seeing life, a way of seeing ourselves, our neighbors, and our world. It is the lens through which we view life and according to which we live life.”[i] Ours is a human-lived hermeneutic, comprising the depth and intentionality of conversations and interactions “ordinary” believers use to work out answers to the down-to-earth questions our faith encounters.

Evangelicalism for many has become an unthinking faith. We have taken for granted that theology is the exclusive domain of professionals called to an academic vocation. This in no measure downplays theology as an academic calling; it is more important than ever. But it must likewise be diligently practiced, both intellectually and spiritually, by its true owner, the local assembly. For over a thousand years, theology was done “in-house,” with the church assuming primary responsibility for in-depth teaching on the Bible, theology, and the Christian traditions.[ii]

We must think through what a Christ-like faith means, and be transformed by Holy Spirit, so that we can act as fuller partakers in the life and mission of the church. Sadly, the rigor of self-reflection has become rare in the life of the local church. For that reason, theology desperately needs to be repatriated back into the midst of the congregation, where many have become “children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine”.[iii]

[i] Anthony B. Robinson, Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ., 2008, p. 77.

[ii] Ryan P. Bonfiglio ,“It’s Time To Rethink Our Assumptions About Where Theological Education Happens”, Christian Century, January 31, 2019. (accessed January 15, 2019).

[iii] Ephesians 4:14 (KJV).