Friday, September 05, 2008

Evangelicalism's Greatest Failure Redux

Several friends and even one daughter-in-law took offense at my indictment of evangelicalism. Suffice it to say, I did not intend for my earlier posting to dismiss the evangelistic intentions or pragmatic effectiveness of any of the evangelical leadership of today. They are, and have been consistently, quite adept at presenting the Gospel in a winsome and attractive way as witnessed by the geometric growth of some of their ministries (regardless of our intramural differences over tactics or style). Nor do I quarrel with their expansion to speak about Christian action in the arenas of poverty, injustice, or illiteracy. Most of the great social improvements of the 19th century (e.g., the abolition of slavery, establishment of hospitals and retirement communities, etc.) came through the sacrificial efforts of Godly evangelical leaders who saw their mandate as involving more than "church work."

My concern is not that evangelicals are unable to stage large scale evangelistic efforts, creative programs, or innovative small group/video campaigns. This is obviously one of our strengths in the evangelical wing of the church. However, if you will audit some of the sermons preached in evangelical churches today that are dealing with anything other than evangelism per se, I believe you will find a shocking misuse of Scripture, tendency to psychologize the message for the goal of "relevance," and moralistic readings of Biblical texts.

Despite what anyone might say, the purpose of the Noah narrative is not to tell us to love animals and avoid inflicting pain upon them. That may be true enough. However, such a "reading" of Genesis is wrong, not because the "moral" is not a true statement, but because it misses the clear point the biblical author is presenting to us.

Luther's greatest contribution is often taken to be the rediscovery of the doctrine of sola fide, justification by faith alone. Luther, however, thought otherwise. He always opined that his greatest theological contribution was the differentiation of Law and Gospel, the Do and the Done. I am certainly more Calvinist than Lutheran and do not employ the Lutheran homiletic in my own preaching. However, his point is quite valid.

When we forget Luther's admonition, we will end up with a focus on feelings and good works. Schliermacher, father of modern liberalism, even defined true religion in terms of the interior life of the individual and the "sense and taste for the infinite" consisting primarily in feeling in Der christliche Glaube (The Christian Faith). When the liberals of the 19th and early 20th century following him left the grand theme of God and Gospel they ended up making it all about man, losing the Gospel in favor of Law. For them the "Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man" meant that our access to God is through our good works done in the service of our neighbor.

The fundamentalist explosion in the early 20th century objected that if religion were merely about "religious feeling" and our good works, it was no longer Christianity. J. Gresham Machen, in one of the most important books of the century, contended that liberalism was no longer Christianity at all but another religion entirely.

Against the control of the denominations by liberal scholars, the so-called "five fundamentals" put forth by the nascent "funamentalist" movement of conservatives held:

1. The Deity of our Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:1; John 20:28; Hebrews 1:8-9).
2. The Virgin Birth (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23; Luke 1:27).
3. The Blood Atonement (Acts 20:28; Romans 3:25, 5:9; Ephesians 1:7; Hebrews 9:12-14).
4. The Bodily Resurrection (Luke 24:36-46; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, 15:14-15).
5. The inerrancy of the scriptures themselves (Psalms 12:6-7; Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20).

Another twist came in the 1940s when Carl F.H. Henry and Harold John Ockenga proposed the term "evangelical" (actually neo-evangelical) as a way of keeping the core of the faith in continuity with the Reformation and Puritan tradition while eliminating the anti-intellectual and judgmental elements of American fundamentalism. The founding of Fuller Seminary, Gordon-Conwell, and the National Association of Evangelicals was part of their effort. Again, the emphasis was certainly "evangelistic." However, the content of the Gospel determined the message of the evangel.

In contrast to some of my gloomy prognostications in the last post, theologian Allister McGrath has painted a fairly rosy picture of the future of evangelicalism. He observes that we come from three interacting historical traditions: Reformational Christianity, Pietism, and the Puritan movement.

My concern is that in recent times, the first and last are relegated to the dustbin of history and we follow an almost exclusively pietistic and subjective compass for navigating the troubled waters of modernity and post-modernity. In a pellmell haste to "get back to basic Christianity and to ignore all of the traditions," we have tended to forget the crucial elements of our evangelicalism that are made up of sturdy Reformation doctrine and the experiential Calvinism of the Puritans, accepting largely uncritically an unconscious acceptance of the pietist tradition.

My concern with much contemporary evangelicalism is not with our evangelistic sermons or programs. It is when we are talking about almost ANY thing else than "getting saved" that we tend to become adrift. Preaching law will be either painfully judgmental or will inevitably degenerate into moralism. And, moralistic preaching is what I was objecting to in my original piece.

Enough with self-help how-to bromides and platitudes. Hurting people sensing that they are drowning in their troubles need something sturdier and more stable on which to hold than a plank of pious good wishes and a life preserver of the latest evangelical self-help “classic.” Only the bold declaration of the grace of a Sovereign God towards us sinners, the mercy he shows to us in the atoning death of Christ, and the confident peace that comes from him as the Provident One who will sustain his creation (and us) will enable us to cross these rapids of post-modern waters safely to the other shore.

When a preacher reduces the message to a list of pointers on how to vet a presidential candidate, we have missed a golden opportunity to declare that the redemptive historical metanarrative of the Bible points to a reality larger than Caesar, even these current applicants for the post. Helping Christians think through concrete decision-making is a worthy enterprise and should be part of a sermon's application, not the substitute for it.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Evangelicalism’s Greatest Sin: The failure of the evangelical experiment as illustrated in the recent Saddleback Civil Forum

Evangelicalism, not the classic meaning of the term in church history and theology, but the unique constellation of doctrinal, sociological, and historical characteristics that are part of today’s American religious life is a movement in trouble. For a few years now I have been struggling vainly to find the key to unlock my growing disquiet with a movement so broad as to encompass Bill Hybels and Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham and that Lakeland Revival guy Todd Bentley, Robert Schuller and John MacArthur, Jack Hayford and Michael Horton, Fuller Seminary and Dallas Theological Seminary.

Historian David Bebbington describes this movement, shaped by revival and molded by resistance against “liberalism,” in terms of its characteristic beliefs and emphases: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

Some observers have noted that belief has less to do with the movement than technique. Mega church pastors like Rick Warren boast of “training” more than 400,000 pastors and sending out a newsletter weekly to 230,000, many of whom simply copy his sermon notes for their own Sunday messages. As evangelical Christianity has morphed in America, it has proven more ingenious and mutable than a pesky virus in a CDC laboratory.

Quick to embrace new technologies, whether Luther’s use of the printing press to flood Germany with Reformation tracts, Charles Fuller’s early employment of radio in his “Old Fashioned Revival Hour,” or the 24/7 coverage on numerous religious cable television stations today, conservative Christians have been among the first to adopt and adapt new technologies to the service of proclaiming their brand of Gospel. And, in the process, they have changed not only “how” they do church, but the very content of the Good News (the root meaning of the Greek “euangellion” or “evangel”) itself.

Shamed and scolded by “liberals” for decades for being so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good, evangelicals have begun to address these criticisms. In the past few years we have seen Bill Hybels invite Bill Clinton, ordinarily a pariah among religious conservatives such as James Dobson, and industry titans like Jack Welch to his annual Leadership Summit for church leaders. Warren has stressed AIDS relief, made common cause with U2’s Bono, and developed his own P.E.A.C.E plan to tackle the five “global giants” of spiritual emptiness, self-centered leadership, poverty, pandemic disease, and illiteracy.

The recent Saddleback Civil Forum reveals evangelical Rick Warren doing what socially conscious liberal Christians have long advocated: engaging the culture politically. But, in typical Saddleback fashion, it was done on a big scale, bigger than anything ever attempted by a pastor before now. The two presumptive candidates for our nation’s top office each sat for their genial hour long interview with the purpose driven pastor-in-chief, all before the glare of television lights and cameras.

A report on the event by Weekly Standard’s publisher, Terry Eastland, finally got to the heart of my growing discontent. Evangelicals have responded to the complaints of our cultured liberal interlocutors by selling, bartering away, and down-right squandering their birthright. In short, the evangelicals have no Gospel, no Evangel anymore. In place of the liberating good news of the Gospel, they have substituted the same tasteless recipe responsible for the decline in the liberal mainline churches over much of the last half century. Rather than Gospel, evangelicals have settled for Law, or as they practice it today, moralism.

Eastland reported that on the day after the forum, Warren preached to his 22,000 people a message “The Kind of Leadership America Needs.” Using 21 citations from the Bible, including 13 from Proverbs, two from the Psalms, three from the Gospels, one from Philippians, and two from James, he buttressed his case and supported his points.

However, as Eastland observes, something was missing? The Gospel!

"Notably absent from the message, however, was the distinctive content of the Christian faith, even though this was a worship service. Warren didn't discuss the verses he used in the context of the Bible's overall redemptive message. Had he done that, he would have made it to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Even when citing a text explicitly mentioning Jesus, Warren didn't go into what it was actually about. "When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:36) is fundamentally not about how leaders need to be compassionate, though they do, but about how Jesus the shepherd has come for his lost sheep."

Then, in words as prescient as they are indicting, Eastland concluded that “Plenty of pastors mine the Bible for moral teachings and character lessons. Warren's approach to Scripture on this particular Sunday was hardly unusual. And taken as a civics lesson, his message was fine. But as a sermon for a church, it left something to be desired.”

“Leaving something to be desired” politely states the obvious: Evangelicalism, so full of desire to be relevant to the unchurched and frankly, so anxious to be taken seriously by both the secular and the liberal religious establishment today, has essentially become the liberal religious establishment of yesterday.

Rather than being the party of faith, Scripture, and Gospel, evangelicals have gradually become what they started out to oppose. The fundamentalists of the early 20th century took the Gospel seriously enough to withdraw from the mainline denominations where it had decayed into maudlin moralism. The formation of the neo-evangelical movement in the 1940s, with Fuller Seminary as its flagship, attempted to strip some of the more noxious and socially unacceptable attitudes from ugly fundamentalist extremism in America.

However, the most characteristic expression of theological liberalism has been Law, not Gospel. And, church history teaches us that when it decays, as surely as a radioactive isotope, Law leads inevitably to legalism and moralism. Evangelical moralism is no better than the fundamentalist flavor, which in turn is no improvement over the sappy moralistic nonsense of the liberals in the last century.

Now that the movement has aged to the point of feeling its power, staging a civic forum where candidates are summoned to make their appearance might make some sense. At least they are engaging culture rather than hiding from it. But, the lessons learned from their critics were learned both too perfectly and too inadequately. Following up on the liberal critique, evangelicals have begun to “care about” HIV, poverty, peace, and the qualifications for the next President of the United States.

But, rather than learning from the liberals’ loss of the Gospel, we seem intent on replicating it. Today, evangelical preaching, even the “Bible based expositional” kind tends toward moralistic, Bible laced versions of old liberal standbys. David becomes an example of five principles for having a good friendship. Elijah's battle with the prophets of Baal turns into a lesson on depression.. Ephesians becomes a formula for better marriages. And, as in the case of the Saddleback sermon, Proverbs and Jesus help us to choose a president.

Citing a lot of verses from the Bible does not a biblical sermon make. Quoting from the secular Weekly Standard again, “notably absent from the message, however, was the distinctive content of the Christian faith.” And, unless the verses used are put into the “context of the Bible’s overall redemptive message,” preaching will border on the shallow, the sappy, and the sentimentally self-help oriented. In this sense, slick Joel Osteen rather than smart and effective Rick Warren should be seen as the ultimate exemplar of evangelicalism today. Osteen’s “Become a Better You” more faithfully represents what evangelicalism has become in this post-Christian era than anything written by the affable and sincere purpose-driven pastor of Orange County.

As Eastland concludes,
The irony of Saddleback is that one of the two candidates--it was not McCain, but Obama, in his remarks about Christ dying for his sins and redeeming him--actually said more about the Christian faith in the civil forum than America's most influential pastor did in his message on Sunday to his congregation. Such are the oddities that attend the present moment, in which our faith-involved politics carries on, triumphant.

What is missing in the midst of all the Law is the redemptive sound of the Gospel. Until preaching recovers the victorious pronouncement “done” of the Gospel, the current preoccupation with reducing everything to a seeker sensitive mass of moral lessons and self-improvement “how to” applications will sound like a lot of “do.” Sadly, the man behind the Saddleback Civil Forum received his doctorate in ministry from Fuller, the school begun in 1947 as the new “evangelical” alternative to mushy liberalism.