A slow sadness is settling its weight on my soul in recent years. It is a sort of mourning for something lost and a failure observed. As I enter my fourth decade of life within the Protestant evangelical church, I now sense a crumbling and a cracking and wonder when the roof will fall in. This indeed sounds rather dramatic, but there is a sense in which the lack of a recognition of a broader crises is really what is the more dramatic.
By Protestant Evangelical churches I am speaking most broadly of churches that look like this:
- High and conservative view of Scripture (“Sola Scriptura”)
- Swimming in the the Reformed and Calvinist stream generally (but certainly not only)
- Missional and Evangelical in orientation
I have compiled a list of symptoms of the disease that I will now lay before you. This list is not exhaustive nor can I claim to have fully and properly diagnosed the disease. My simple hope is that you will see that the patient is sick enough that we need to spend some time on this matter.
This list is not in any order as much as together these things are present in so many corners of our churches such that I challenge anyone to seriously cull this list.
1. A cult of personality and charisma takes precedence over proven, wise leadership connected to the broad historic precedents and history of our faith.
Far too many churches rely on the charisma and vision of one man unconnected to the broad stream of Christian precedent that goes back to the birthing of our faith. Paradoxically, “Sola Scriptura” and the broader Reformation, with the good that they did in opening a window of fresh air needed at the time, also swept away both baby and bath water. The irony is lost on far too many people when two pastors in the very same city can claim to be committed to the very same “Sola Scriptura” and yet disagree on substantive points of doctrine through their own individual interpretations. How ironic and sad. These same pastors would indeed argue for the authority of Scripture alone, and yet the scandalous result is not further unification, but further schism..
2. Outsiders view Christians as involved in church for their advantage and as a balm needed by weak people.
A casual outsider catches glimpses of “Christianity” largely on social media, or TV and soon conclude that we must be Christians because we believe it will benefit us in the here and now. If you pay attention to the typical sermon it is likely you will see a variation on a general theme: Now you are saved, God is on your side and will help you. “I know your life is now a mess, but Jesus can clean it up”. Not untrue at all, but out of the broader discipleship-follower context and discipline it becomes something that is really not Christian at all.
3. We have not really answered the core question to non-believers – why should I believe?
The evangelium to our world involves a certain narrative of the pain, loss, incompletion, injustice and hatred we observe around us, and how that God is also pained by this and sent Jesus the Christ to begin the work of redemption. We were sent from the Garden, and Jesus provides the way back. Following Jesus does not magically un-do in this time all of the momentum from human sin and ignorance, but begins by connecting us back to the Source of redemption. This journey is hard. This journey is long. The road is narrow at points. But we find immense joy and love and peace in that journey.
This is not the tonality of most of the Gospel messages I have heard in the Protestant world. Most examples of Gospel preaching reduce the Gospel to a message that makes it primarily about God providing a solution for personal failings and sin. Indeed, it contains this idea – which is most hopeful. But preaching the Gospel this way is akin to describing the Mona Lisa by a focus on her nose alone. I hope you see my general point.
4. Neo-evangelicals are projecting Jesus as an ethical teacher whose ways of peace will let us all just get along.
Of course, they will deny this, but it is the practical out-working of their approach. It is the old liberalism wrapped in new evangelical clothes. The medium is twisting the message. By overtly trying to be anti-church and anti-religious these churches project an image of Christ as modern (in its bad sense) and embraceable rather than as scandalous and forcing us either to our knees or to reject him. Jesus said he did not come to bring peace, but then I can name a few churches now whose tag line is built up on the “peace teachings of Jesus”. I hesitate to write this since those in these churches (some, my friends) think they are onto something so different and powerful that it is the new and pure gospel…when it is not. Please understand this, Jesus came to bring peace as an ideal that marks what the Kingdom of Heaven is like indeed, but that is not the same as saying we should worship at the altar of “peace” as the prime target. And since these “peace churches” aim for this, I have grown abhor them since the effect is to cutely kick one of the legs away from the stool and yet hope it stays upright. Justice and obligation and duty and also part of what Jesus brings. Separation and conflict. But these notes are not played in the new “Symphony of Peace Church” or are played so quietly as to not disturb the slumber of those who only want to hear the calming harmonies. The peacefulness of Jesus is not the theme of this symphony. It is indeed contained in it and is an out-working of sorts of a life lived on our knees in service to God and our fellow human beings. We are indeed to be peacemakers and never to seek personal revenge for personal offences. But broader systems of justice and retribution as well as police forces and the like are not counter indicated by the teachings of our Lord and for these churches to imply such belies their poor theology and a lack any connection to the logic of “two spheres”. Proper views have been well defended by St. Paul and thousands of years of theological development in the West and Eastern lungs of our Christian faith. But the Red Letter/neo-Jesus movement is skating on dangerous thin ice if they see their view as the full and total summation of wisdom on society and politics more broadly. One anecdote for me is that most of these peace churches teach that to be a full follower and in full agreement with their views you should not also be a police officer since police officers might, in extremis, have to use violence. Now, Jesus never taught against violence per se, rather He taught against hatred in your heart. Ironically these peace churches usually teach that we must judge the goodness of actions on the intents of the heart. Is it then assumed that at the moment the officer has to use violence to reasonably restrain broader harm and to resist evil he is operating in a paradigm of hatred? Nonsense! Do people become police officers to hate? Nonsense also. The ones I know do so to serve and contribute to a just and peaceful society. Jesus would be proud. So should we be.
Red Letter/Neo-Jesus churches are not delivering the proper and complete gospel. Theirs is a poor reflection of a much deeper and wider message deliver by the Word to Mankind.
5. Typically the youth of today are leaving.
The causes are many but I now have overwhelming personal evidence that the 20 somethings of today who were taken to Church by their baby boomer parents have a very high-level of disengagement and often drift into non-attendance and scepticism. The above four factors play into this. But there are more. In and of itself this is an indicator that the patient is sick and needs urgent attention. And is it not puzzling that today there are more and more churches who have adapted to new formats hoping to engage these same youth (great worship bands, solid speakers, the comforts of a Starbucks in the church lobby, kids programs, padded seats, etc) and yet the overall base of evangelical attendance in most cities in the 20-30 demographic is actually fading.
This crises is indeed masked by what I call “target fixation error”. The churches today getting press are the new-evangelical new format churches and newpapers write about how they are humming along and growing. In point of fact largely it is a recycling on old-line attendees and their kids enamoured with a new, cool and engaging vibe and a Pastor with Jeans and beard who asked you to call him “Chad”. While we focus on the great and temporary success of these few churches we are missing the utter death of many traditional evangelical Baptist or Alliance or Pentecostal churches across North America.
This missive is far too brief and a sort of “100,000 ft” flyover and so I have exposed my weak flanks far too readily. My critics can indeed point out incomplete thoughts and assumptions, but then let’s engage and debate. Do we not at least recognize a modest amount of truth in these observations? If you reject them completely are you prepared to say that they are not valid at enough of a level to be a flaming concern for the state of evangelical Protestant Christianity today?
The future of the church demands we at least have the debate. Why are denominations and leading evangelical seminaries not gathering Protestants together to debate and discuss these issues (and others) and take a critical view of how we are doing as a collective? Corporations do this regularly. Yet we can barely muster a whimper. Sadly, some of the reason we cannot engage a representative leadership group in evangelicalism today itself proves the case. I can see the local Pastor saying “no thanks we are a Bible-believing church and I don’t see a problem here since we have the truth in its entirety and have nothing to learn of gain from this meeting.”
Protestant Evangelical Christianity has become ghettoized to such a degree that my current prayer almost sounds like a hope that these churches fail and send Christians running into the streets seeking something better. I can only hope. And Pray.
On a personal note, I have become so disillusioned with Protestant Evangelical church today that I am now attending a Catholic Church and using this time to connect with the history of our faith in a way that is proving both rich and enlightening. I am repenting of my prior condemnation of our Catholic brothers and sisters when as a participant I am finding the rhythm and structure intensely powerful and a better way of reconnecting me to the reality of Jesus as God-Man of history, not comforting Guru to the modern age.
Thank God for the Church. The very Gates of Hell will not prevail.