Scandal of the Evangelical Memory

Missio-alliance1

Over at the Missio Alliance blog, Geoff Holsclaw, affiliate professor of theology at Northern Seminary and co-pastor at Life on the Vine on the north side of Chicago, has been sharing an interesting series entitled, Scandal of the Evangelical Memory. It’s a play off the title of Mark Noll’s book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

Thus far, Holsclaw has posted 3 of 5 articles in the series. I think it’s well worth your time to read. Continue reading

The SBC and Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan-Merritt_avatarWhen I first came to Christ in 1997, I joined a larger Southern Baptist church in the Memphis area. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is America’s largest evangelical denomination. This Baptist church in Memphis is where I cut my teeth on the things of Christ and our faith, developing a great love for Scripture and evangelism.

In 1999, I joined with a newer charismatic church plant and have been working with that group (Global Horizons) ever since.

Be that as it may, over the years, I’ve slowly become more and more saddened at some of the events and situations I have read about within the SBC. It has to do mainly with what could be termed as ‘bullying’ by some of its leaders, ostracising themselves from the outside world in large part due to the ever-growing nature of the ‘culture wars’. These culture wars get extremely ‘political’ at times, which leads to efforts of ungracious rhetoric, getting strongly caught up in less-important issues, leading to mark out who is really ‘in’ and who is really ‘out’ in regards to true Christian faith. (By the way, I believe the gospel is political – announcing Jesus is King – but not in the sense that comes through some American evangelical expressions.)

Enter in Jonathan Merritt. Jonathan is a faith and culture writer and also part of the SBC, with his father serving as president of the denomination from 2000-2002. I’ve read his book Green Like God and have recently been reading some of his articles online. He is definitely a fresh voice within the SBC context.

Continue reading

Our Near-Sightedness

I remember when I first left America. Well, I had actually been outside of America before for shorter holiday trips and mission trips. But I am talking of the time I moved outside of my good ol’ home of the USA to that land across the pond, as they say – the UK. That was in 2003.

It was not a culture completely unlike that of America, but it was different. Still, I had visited there twice before. So I had had my tasters. And at least they speak the same language, or pretty much the same (interestingly enough, I have shifted into more British linguistics). Therefore, it wasn’t too different.

But living there for 3 years actually made it feel much different than home. Very much different. I began to take on parts of the culture – loving pints of beer at the pub, fish n chips, Indian food, football (soccer), and every saying word like cheers and mate.

During my 3 years in Britain, I was part of a ministry training college that was in major transition and reconstruction. And this college was filled with some 10 to 12 differing nationalities, not to mention its focused purpose in praying for the nations. Therefore, my eyes were greatly opened to the rest of the world in those 3 years. We all know there is much more going on out there. But I had my vision widened, lengthened, and stretched beyond into the nations. I am deeply grateful for that time, even with another sub-culture of a culture, which focused on the nations of this planet.

Presently, as I come up on two and a half years in Brussels, Belgium, I have lived the better part of the last 5 out of 7 years outside of my homeland of America. I am immensely thankful and humbled for the opportunity. I wouldn’t trade it for anything right now, not even for a chance to live back in my land of birth and upbringing. I am very content to live out my life here, or elsewhere, as God directs in the months, years and decades to come.

With this opportunity to live abroad, as well as opportunities to travel into other parts of western Europe and Africa thus far, I have had a desire in me stirred to see the bigger picture a little better. I don’t see it fully, nor do I see clearly what I now already see. But I have moved at least just a little bit beyond my former glory of too much near-sightedness.

And, for many of us, we might just be stuck with such short-sighted glasses upon the bridge of our noses (I seem to be bringing up the metaphor of glasses and lenses a bit lately). What I mean is that, when I talk to people, they speak as if the status quo of their own particular local church, group of churches, or possibly national setting is the exact same across the entire planet. Well, they probably wouldn’t say it that way. But their words at least imply such.

I personally don’t get excited when I hear people speaking of the church in apostasy. Sure, we can all quote the verses, such as 1 Timothy 4:1, that says some will depart from the faith in latter times. Though, interestingly enough, it does not say those that are truly part of the church will be the ones departing from the faith, but only that some will depart. And notice it says some, which does not necessarily mean a large portion. It simply means some. And I would counter those who would say the word some must refer to most with words like those in Isaiah 2:2, which I share more here.

Nevertheless, let’s move on……

With the declaration that the church is in grave apostasy, I simply ask: Is it really? Well, we can point to numbers in western Europe and America. But this is where we have our near-sighted glasses affixed firmly in front of our eyes. Do we not realise that the church in the ‘western world’ makes up a lesser percentage than the church in the rest of the world? It is most probable that there are now more Christians in China alone, than in the US. Some might guestimate that the church in China has now reached well over the 100 million mark. It’s just that most of them are in the underground church, hiding from the government. That means that at least 1 out of every 10 Chinese are now Christians, and this in a Communist-closed nation.

Let’s not forget to mention what is going on across India, especially in places like northern Indian Nagaland. A close ministry friend of mine works into Nagaland and has just shared with me that about 80% of these people are Christian. He said they have very little, but the Bible training is superb for these Indian believers.

And let’s move on to Africa, South and Central America, not to mention the seeds that are beginning to sprout up across Eastern Europe. God is very much at work in His world, since it does belong to Him (Psalm 24:1).

But, where things might not be as stirred in certain places of America or western Europe right now, we can find it easy to look around and think that this is the base condition of the church in the world. Yet, this is simply not true. Actually, it is quite far from the truth.

Or, at times, we make judgment statements based upon what is happening with our church tradition, denomination or background. But our church group, small or large, is not representative of what is happening today in our world. It is a part, but a small part at that.

You see, we need to guard against blanket statements about what is going on in the world today, especially in regards to the work of God in seeing His glory cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). The church is alive and well. No, not in every nook and cranny. But Jesus is still Lord of heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18) and he is still building his church (Matthew 16:18). It might not be going as we had planned, but I am glad God was not interested in consulting us in regards to His plans and purposes in seeing His rule extended in the four corners of the world.

And some might say that I am not seeing clearly myself. I have been duped to actually think things are in a good state today. I’ve buttered it all up. Well, I didn’t say that things are perfect. True, they are far from the goal of a Bride prepared to marry its Bridegroom. Still, I am convinced the purposes of God are moving forward, His kingdom rule is expanding, and His church is being built up, even while there are still definite needs for change and transformation.

But reality all seems to point to the fact that God is still in charge and He is still very, very active amongst His people, as well as drawing plenty of new sons and daughters to Himself on a regular basis. I could give you accounts of what I have seen and accounts of what other leaders and missionaries have witnessed in just the past 10 years, not to mention the accounts prior to such a small-minded approach as to only consider the past decade.

So, though many who read these words live in the same hemisphere as I, that of the western world, please be careful of living too much with a near-sighted and somewhat myopic perspective. It can be damaging to our own faith and the faith of others as we pass on that which does not represent the full picture.

I don’t want to paint a fluffy picture that is actually not there. There is much to be done to see the body move towards maturity and the gospel of the kingdom continue to be proclaimed to all peoples. But God has called His people to catch a God-vision as best we can, though it will continue to remain dim in this age (1 Corinthians 13:12). Let us be stirred to know that God is keeping His word in His world, for He could do no less amongst that which he claims as His – the world.

Guarding Against Consummerism

A couple of weeks ago, I shared some thoughts in regards to Michael Spencer’s (iMonk’s) thoughts on what he calls The Coming Evangelical Collapse. Here are most of the summary words from my article:

Revivalism, evangelicalism, ecumenicalism, protestantism, roman catholicism, or any other ‘ism’ is not necessarily inherently evil. But all ‘isms’ and movements usually get caught up in their own mindset, their own perspective, and this generally leads to such followers being steered from the truth of the kingdom rule of God. So a shaking will come, must come, and those things that are not truly grounded in the kingdom rule of God will shake, collapse, and fall. There is no doubt about it, for Scripture teaches us this will happen (Hebrews 12:26-29). And I believe this is a good thing. Not easy, but good.

If someone’s faith is shattered because American evangelicalism collapses, or any other ‘ism’ collapses, then that is a good thing. It shows that their faith was not founded firmly upon Christ and His kingdom alone. But the good news is that God would use this time of shaking and collapse to rebuild something on the true foundation of His kingdom. Thus, I would openly welcome an American evangelicalism collapse.

But let us all be challenged to found our beliefs and actions on Christ and His kingdom, rather than on the philosophies of American evangelicalism, or any other ‘ism’ for that matter.

If you want to read my full article, click here. But, I now move on to consider some new thoughts tied into this whole area.

One of the biggest struggles I have with the church in America, and noting its influence into western Europe and the rest of the world, is its insatiable appetite for bigness.

While I have no problem with growing, though I think growth should first start with the body of Christ growing up into Christ (Ephesians 4:15-16), there seems a non-stop effort in herding people through the doors. This is all in large part due to the ‘church growth movement’ of the past couple of decades. America has, now, thought of everything possible to get people into our buildings, including that we’ve thrown in the kitchen sink. And it all seems summarised in these three words: captalism, consumerism and entertainment.

Ouch, that smarts.

The American church seems to have taken on the mindset of a free-market economy where we all try and outdo the other contenders in our market with providing the best product and services available to the people.

It’s almost like the goal, from the beginning, is to capture people with the ‘Wow factor’. How fast can we get people to say, ‘Wow!’ once they walk through our doors?

No, that’s probably not the literal thinking that is going through someone’s mind on the outreach or vision team of a local church, or whatever snazzy name we’ve come up to define this team. But I think the American church has operated under that mindset for quite some time now. The great pastoral theologian, Eugene Peterson, states it this way:

‘A huge religious marketplace has been set up in North American to meet the needs and fantasies of people just like us. There are conferences and gatherings custom-designed to give us the lift we need. Books and videos and seminars promise to let us in on the Christians “secret” of whatever we feel is lacking in our life: financial security, well-behaved children, weight-loss, exotic sex, travel to holy sites, exciting worship, celebrity teachers. The people who promote these goods and services all smile a lot and are good-looking…

It isn’t long before we are standing in line to buy whatever is being offered. And because none of the purchases does what we had hoped for, or at least not for long, we are soon back to buy another, and then another. The process is addictive. We have become consumers of packaged spiritualities.’ (Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places, p125)

This does describe a lot of what is going on in the American church.

How many of us have walked through the door to be greeted by the aroma of Starbucks coffee at a state-of-the-art coffee bar. We even look around and wonder if the lobby furniture is worth an amount that might help save a small third-world nation. We walk into the ‘worship centre’, or whatever name its called by, and our eyeballs open wide to the fact that there are three video screens, multiple video cameras, coloured spotlights pointing at the stage, a ten-person team of musicians, plush seats, and so much more for our enjoyment. It’s like we either went to the cinema or we are at a Coldplay concert.

Or, maybe our eyes don’t widen in awe any longer. Its become the status quo, the regular expectation.

Now, of course, none of these things I mentioned above are evil in and of themselves. My local church uses PowerPoint on a screen on Sunday mornings. We have a couple of coaches and chairs to lounge around in. But, with all of these things combined together with a certain mindset, one gets a sense that this is a far cry from what we read about in Acts and the New Testament letters.

‘Hold on. Wait a minute,’ someone might say. ‘This is the 21st century. They didn’t have such things in the first century, but they are available today. So we can utilise them for the kingdom.’

That is completely true. That is why I commented that none of these things are evil in and of themselves. But, if one really takes time to contemplate what they see, considering it with the approach to ministry in most of these types of churches, one senses there might just be something a little off base. We actually wonder if this is anything like what Jesus or Peter or Paul of John spoke of, for remember, ministry simply means service.

Now, of course, those Christians of the first century didn’t have video projectors, PowerPoint, lights, cameras, coffee bars, and other such things. But, with what they had, believe me, people knew how to throw a party. Think of it this way: If Caesar came into town, the people knew how to roll out the proverbial red carpet, make banners, call out the band, make a feast, pop open the wine, make a celebration. They knew how to do things. And it would have been spectacular.

Not only that, but let’s go into the religious arena. The only glimpse we get into such action is what we refer to as Jesus cleansing the temple, found in Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19 and John 2. Interesting that all four Gospel writers felt it important to refer to this account. Here we see Jesus overturning the tables of the money-changers, even having the audacity to make a whip to drive the people out. But Jesus saw these people, all in the name of religion, making money off of God. What? Are you serious? How can this be?!

But here is a first century example of consumerism within the faith. You better believe Jesus burned with anger over this.

And, so, going back to Eugene Peterson, he continues with these thoughts:

‘This [what we see in North America] also is idolatry. We never think of using this term for it since everything we are buying or paying for is defined by the adjective “Christian.” But idolatry it is nevertheless: God packaged as a product; God depersonalized and made available as a technique or program. The Christian market in idols has never been more brisk of lucrative.’ (Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places, p125)

And America keeps on churning out its lights, camera, action, books, t-shirts, bracelets, conferences, coffee shops, etc, almost if we are trying to become the spiritual McDonald’s of the world. But, I think most of us know true Christian spirituality and McDonald’s don’t fit well together. Yet, so many have been blinded to the fact that capitalism, consumerism and non-participatory entertainment drives our thinking.

So, while the first century didn’t have the technological capabilities that we have available to us today, they had there own ideas of how to make a buck off God. And this grieved the heart of the divine Son, Jesus. But thankfully He didn’t give up on us. He still washed our feet, still was nailed to the cross, still came out of the grave as victor over sin, the enemy and death.

But we need a major change in the way we think. We don’t need to ‘do’ church another way, as some would say. We just need to get on with being the church, which is first and foremost about being family.

Not that you need my permission, but I’m ok with us using PowerPoint. As I said, I happen to use it on Sundays. I’m ok for Christians to write books. I have a blog. I’m even ok if you have some nice coffee to serve on Sundays. I enjoy coffee, especially what we have over here in Europe. But it’s our mindset that must change.

We need a renewed understanding of what church, or ekklesia, is all about. It is about the people of God, the body of Christ, the family of God, gathered together, even if that’s only 2 or 3 of us (considering Matthew 18:20). In its essence, church is not about our great youth programs, or many-membered worship teams, or 5-year building funds, or whatever peripheral issue we could discuss. Its about the people of God in relationship with the Trinity and with each other.

So, again, if American evangelicalism collapses, as iMonk suggests, I will be quite ok with it. And, if it does, I know that the stuff worth standing on will stay standing. And it’s on that rock, that unshakable foundation, that we can begin to rebuild with a kingdom mindset.

If interested, here are some recently posted thoughts from Michael Spencer (iMonk) that are connected with the topic of this article.

The Collapse of American Evangelicalism?

One of the hottest recent discussions in the Christian blogosphere is centred around Michael Spencer’s (otherwise known as iMonk) thoughts, maybe predictions, concerning the coming evangelical collapse. If you click on this link, it will take you to an article on his blog, which also has the necessary links to his three articles on this topic.

IMonk summarises his thoughts with these words:

I believe that we are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity; a collapse that will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and that will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West. I believe this evangelical collapse will happen with astonishing statistical speed; that within two generations of where we are now evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its current occupants, leaving in its wake nothing that can revitalize evangelicals to their former “glory.”

So much discussion has arisen around this topic that it even made it on the Drudge Report on 10 March, and this site has some 25 million hits each day! iMonk’s thoughts also made it onto the Christian Science Monitor website, and just recently the senior managing editor of Christianity Today wrote up an article about these ‘predictions’.

I have also noticed that two other blogs I regularly frequent have referred to iMonk’s articles in their most recent posts – Parchment & Pen and Christians In Context.

My point in posting all of these links is to show how recently important these thoughts seem to be in the Christian blogosphere world, at least for the blogs I hang around.

I have noticed that a few of my non-American friends have not easily understood iMonk’s thoughts. Well, it’s not that they haven’t understood the words and phrases put together in the articles, but, knowing they come from Europe, the articles have caused some confusion. They are just not as aware of current American culture.

So, what is evangelicalism, at least from an American standpoint, since iMonk predicts it will collapse? And that is a good question. Unfortunately, while Americans tend to write to Americans (which makes sense), their thoughts are going to be read amongst a wider audience, especially if things get plastered on the Drudge Report. Yet, it is easy to forget that others might come across their words. And that’s fine. It’s just that we forget that clarification can be helpful (for semantics is important, right?). So, someone in a western European culture, or subcontinent Indian culture, might just wonder what Spencer (iMonk) might be getting at.

What most people don’t realise is America is the only current nation with a Christian subculture. There are probably more Christians in China or India by now with the rapid growth in the past 20 years, but America is the only place where a subculture of Christianity has been created. And it is this subculture which we could call American evangelicalism. Or Michael Patton over at Parchment & Pen describes it as pop-evangelicalism.

To be evangelical simply points to such facts as believing in justification by faith alone through grace, the Bible is the final authority of the believer’s life, that we should look to communicate the good news (evangel) to nonbelievers, and an emphasis on a personal conversion, or new birth, experience.

None of these are necessarily bad. And, actually, they are all quite helpful.

But the American evangelicalism subculture, at least in the past 20 years, has tended to work itself out in such ways as megachurches housing multiple thousands of members (or local churches hoping and aiming to become megachurches); very media-frenzied or at least having a cool sound system with lights, cameras, and action; leaning heavily towards the political religious right; performance and program driven with non-participatory audiences that want a product to be served up to them.

I know these words are harsh, but this is what has come to be defined as American evangelicalism in the past two decades or so, or at least partly define this subculture. And I will be honest, it’s a far cry from what I read in Acts and the New Testament letters. When you read the New Testament, you get this idea that the church, God’s people, were all about family. But, unfortunately, America has let both capitalism and consumerism dictate church expression in the 21st century. As one friend of mine aptly put it:

‘In Biblical times, the greatest institution upheld was that of the family, and therefore God’s people were referred to and functioned as such. In 21st century America, the Church mainly functions like a business because that has become the greater institution of our culture.’

No, I am not suggesting we all become Amish or isolate ourselves in monasteries. It might be hard to fulfill our commission to be salt and light then. But I am saying that our expression of Christianity, our life as the church, the body of Christ, should first and foremost reflect what the New Testament reflects. And it is America, or at least American evangelicalism, that has moved itself quite far away from such Biblical understanding.

So, for my European friends, that is my take on American evangelicalism, the subculture that iMonk says will soon collapse.

As I end, I just wanted to share a final few thoughts in regards to the shaking of American evangelicalism.

The reason I believe this particular subculture of America is, and will continue to be, shaken up is that all ‘isms’ are bound and determined to collapse. What do I mean? Hebrews 12:26-29 teaches us that there was a shaking that took place in the past, but there will be a future one to come:

26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.

I don’t share these verses as some gloom and doom date predicter about the soon-coming destruction of the world. But I always remember these verses when considering any ‘ism’ or movement in our world.

Revivalism, evangelicalism, ecumenicalism, protestantism, roman catholicism, or any other ‘ism’ is not necessarily inherently evil. But all ‘isms’ and movements usually get caught up in their own mindset, their own perspective, and this generally leads to such followers being steered from the truth of the kingdom rule of God. So a shaking will come, must come, and those things that are not truly grounded in the kingdom rule of God will shake, collapse, and fall. There is no doubt about it, for Scripture teaches us this will happen. And I believe this is a good thing. Not easy, but good.

If someone’s faith is shattered because American evangelicalism collapses, or any other ‘ism’ collapses, then that is a good thing. It shows that their faith was not founded firmly upon Christ and His kingdom alone. But the good news is that God would use this time of shaking and collapse to rebuild something on the true foundation of His kingdom. Thus, I would openly welcome an American evangelicalism collapse.

So, check out iMonk’s articles. See what you think. Check out the other links that I’ve posted as well if you have time. I might share some more thoughts along these lines in the near future. But let us all be challenged to found our beliefs and actions on Christ and His kingdom, rather than on the philosophies of American evangelicalism, or any other ‘ism’ for that matter.

Click here to read some more thoughts of mine on this topic – Guarding Against Consumerism.