By Chaplain Mike
IM has been long known for its pointed critiques of evangelicalism. In less than a month, Michael Spencer’s book, Mere Churchianity, will be released, and I guarantee it will make a huge splash in this ongoing conversation.
(I hope you’ve had a chance to download the first chapter and read it. You can do that and also pre-order your copy of the book from the sidebar on this blog.)
As we prepare to listen to Michael’s voice again through his book, I will be sharing more of my personal perspectives that have grown out of my own “post-evangelical” wilderness journey. In this series of four posts, I am reworking some articles from my previous blog, “otium sanctum”. These thoughts were written during the time we were trying to find a church, and when we settled in the Lutheran congregation we now attend.
Today, we start with three matters of ecclesiastical theology and practice that I became dissatisfied with in evangelical church culture over a long period of time. These were the primary issues on my heart and mind as we were looking for a church home.
My Issues with Evangelicalism
After thirty years of worshiping and serving in mostly non-denominational evangelical or fundamentalist churches, we chose to become members of a mainline congregation — a Lutheran church (ELCA).
In retrospect, this should not have been so surprising. My own studies and experiences have led me to question many aspects of contemporary evangelical church culture, particularly in the area of ecclesiology. I have long been a contrarian against conventional church culture and practice, and on many occasions I found it difficult (even as a pastor) to not to laugh (or cry) at the all too common assumption that following Christ should be equated with participating in someoneâ€™s clever church program.
My critiques grow out of a personal disillusionment, not only with certain church practices, but with a much larger culture — the culture of American middle class suburbia. At its root, my critique is that contemporary evangelical churches have, by and large, uncritically adopted the perspectives and values of American suburban affluence rather than allowing the story of the Bible, Jesus, apostolic Christianity, and the history of the church throughout the centuries, to inform their ecclesiology and practical theology.
In this post, I will give a general outline of three areas of dispute that caused me to look away from the contemporary evangelical church to other options when we were looking for a church home. Succeeding posts will add detail.
THE WORSHIP ISSUE: The Stage Show
Worship in the evangelical church has consistently followed patterns established by the American revivalist tradition, which in turn drew from the theater. The “service” is essentially a stage show.
- Music and other elements prepare for and build up to the main event: the sermon.
- After the sermon, the preacher calls for response through an invitation.
- The “actors” are those who hold forth on the stage.
- The congregation is the “audience.”
- The preacher is the “star.”
- The sermon is like a sales pitch and the invitation gives the listeners the opportunity to buy in.
This inevitably leads to a performance mentality on the part of those on the stage and a spectator mindset for those in the audience. Even those who do their parts with best intentions can’t overcome the unspoken messages they are sending and receiving.
Let me say unequivocally — this is not worship. I’m not saying that these services don’t serve a purpose, particularly in mission settings, and it’s true that some may find a way to worship while they sit in these shows, but on the corporate level these types of services are not designed so that God’s people may offer worship to him.
This is not an issue of style, but of definition.
We chose to seek a church that prepares and practices worship, not one that puts on a stage show.
THE PASTORAL ISSUE: Hey Look! I’m an Entrepreneur!
It seems it is no longer admirable to desire the lowly vocation of “shepherd” (pastor). Evangelical ministry has become professionalized. “Leadership” is defined by cultural models and “success” is likewise cast in those terms. Ministry is about creating a thriving enterprise (entrepreneurship) and expanding its market share (growth).
The successful pastor’s study has been transformed into his office, complete with a staff to insulate him from people who might waste his time. He imposes his will (er, “vision”) upon the congregation. His main tool is not the Bible but his Blackberry. He dresses cool, refuses to stand humbly behind a pulpit when he preaches, and majors in “practical” messages filled, of course, with pop culture references.
Pastoral ministry in the evangelical world grows out of one of three secular models :
- The CEO — the visionary leader who knows how to build a business
- The General — the brilliant strategist who knows how to expand territory
- The Motivational Speaker — the charismatic preacher who knows how to draw crowds
Pre-industrial, agricultural, and personal models have been replaced by the ethos and practices of the corporation. Eugene Peterson once said he was horrified to hear himself answer an inquirer’s question about his work with the sentence, “I run a church.” But this is the evangelical model, and, in my view, it has run amok.
We chose to seek a tradition in which the pastoral role is defined and practiced differently.
THE MISSIONAL ISSUE: Living in the Temple
Large, “successful” evangelical churches have “campuses” with buildings in which a multitude of programs takes place. Those who defend them say that they are designed to attract the community so that they can hear the Gospel. However, in my experience I have found that they are much more successful in providing safe, “Christian” environments for the faithful and their families.
In my generation, we have also seen the establishment of an alternative Christian culture that is a world of its own, from homeschooling conventions to stores filled with “Jesus junk,” from Christian amusement parks to creation “museums,” from lucrative music and publishing industries to media empires. Christians need not ever leave the evangelical fold and venture into the world. And many don’t. Since, in the suburban world we relate to others according to “networks” rather than “neighborhoods,” believers can plug into the evangelical network and never have a meaningful conversation with a non-Christian if they so choose.
The evangelical church has become an artificial cosmos unto itself. It is of the world, but not in it.
We chose to seek a tradition and church practice that is more organically related to real life and Jesus’ mission in the world.
In the next three posts, we will take these issues one at a time and look at them in more detail.