My Issues with Evangelicalism

By Chaplain Mike

NOTE: You can read an earlier statement on this subject, called, “My Post-Evangelical Wilderness,” here.

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 someone’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.

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.

130 thoughts on “My Issues with Evangelicalism

  1. “The evangelical church has become an artificial cosmos unto itself. It is of the world, but not in it.”

    God bless you, Mike. You nailed it here.
    In the large Southern Baptist church I currently attend, some of the “service” opportunities include: working in the coffee shop, working in the bookstore, serving as a youth leader or playing in the band (if you’re in the youth group), ushering (shaking people’s hands when they come in), etc. Not to give the impression that there is no real outreach. And I don’t mean to imply that all evangelical churches are always either silly and consumeristic or uptight and ultra-conservative (i.e., you must be Republican, homeschool your children, have your daughter dress according to the “Modesty Survey,” etc.). Far from it. There are many good evangelical churches. But I think on the whole they tend to fall into one of those two categories, and you’ve described the first well.

    It bothers me how churches try to “reach out” to people. Often this “reaching out” involves…having events at the church. Usually these events are pretty secular on the whole (A Baptist church near my house has a car show in the parking lot), but I have known one church to actually use different “service styles,” not as an attempt to please different groups of people in the church, but to “put another hook in the water” (I use the exact words of the pastor) to “draw people into church.” Maybe they wouldn’t come to the ordinary service…but they might come to the edgier, very contemporary service at 6:00 in the evening. This sort of marketing of “worship” is disgusting to me, even though I genuinely believe the pastor means well and does this in hope that more people might come and become Christians.

    Pax Christi,



  2. Yes, the issues are systemic, but the very structure of evangelical church culture with its emphasis on a congregational model of ministry, inevitably leads to a situation where the system that is put in place is heavily dependent on the individuals that lead.

    Whether the “individuals that lead” show up in the official organization of the church or not. I’m talking about the rich guy in the congregation who tithes the biggest chunk of the church’s income and uses that for leverage. Or the Perpetually-offended Church Lady whose gossip and whispering campaigns can make or break anyone in the congregation including the pastor.


  3. use that example to say this. If the members in our churches would use the gifts that God has given to them, we would not have the problems in the church today.

    I’m going to hazard a guess that it was very difficult to impossible for you, BAmafan, to really use your gifts the way GOD intended when that fellowship went off the rails, so I’m going to call the spiritual gift thing pretty much a swing and a miss (as important as it is) When church doesn’t operate the way it should, people’s spiritual gifts are discounted, laughed at, pooh-poohed, or minimalized/marginalized. We need structures that let foks operate within those gifts, sure, but the answer, as I see it, is NOT for folks to just try harder at applying their gifts (that’s how your post reads to me)


  4. sorry about that….that darned over-realized eschatology jumped up and bit me again 🙂

    I hear you, ANY route we choose is going to have some craziness to it; rec’d, sir

    GREG R


  5. One clarification, Greg. My journey hasn’t “turned out” yet. I’m still in a bit of a wilderness when it comes to long-term church affiliation.


  6. well then, I suppose they’ve been missed terribly, but not forgotten (ahhh, lovely Dorcas….)


  7. I appreciate your reply, and didn’t find it ‘too long’ at all. Like most everyone else, you have at least one sad church tale to tell, and I hurt with you on going thru that; been thru several myself, and am somewhat in the middle of one even today.

    I think you got such a quick response from posters, or maybe I’ll just personalize this and say why you got a quick response from me: you generalized and (in my eyes, at least) made a caricature of those who have legitimate points about what church ought to be. Yes, the pastor can be made a scapegoat for all kinds of personal, relational deficiencies, but sometimes the problems lie somewhere else. Also, please notice that it’s not a particular person, pastor , or pesonality that the post and it’s connected posts are pointed toward but a SYSTEM, a WAY, a CULTURE of doing church. Dont’ get lost in the details, friend.

    Maybe you are the kind of person who has a hard time conceding any point unless the person you are talking with is giving you chapter and verse for all of what they are saying. I hope not. The posters here generally love the LORD and love the Word, if what is being said reflects the mind and heart of the LORD, we should go with it (and it will certainly bring scripture to mind, even if it wasn’t referenced directly) I also want to know that someones ideas are scripturally supported , but I’m hoping you aren’t requiring a concordance war. I’ve played that game with too many folks already.

    Last: my point about the reformers was that they were not about to sit on the status quo , when the status quo was out of the expressed mind and will of GOD. their ‘defection’ or ‘departure’ was not some kind of character flaw on their part, though GOD knows and we do too that they werer far from perfect people. Have some charit;y on folks who are trying to carry the Reformation on into today, not necessarily starting new groups, exactly, but not just drinking the Kool-aid and singing Kum-by-yah when real change needs to happen, even if that makes some uncomfortable.

    I’m sure this comes across a lot crankier than I mean it to be, I really welcome and look forward to any and all thots in reply.

    Have a great Memorial day weekend all
    GReg R


  8. thanks for the reply; I can rejoice in how Chap. Mile’s journey turned out, and I do, but the rub is how to apply wisdom gained from what he’s written to my situation. I could just go a more liturgical , historically grounded church (and I may yet) , but for now, I’m trying to glean what can be done for the autonomous, independent ev. church from the inside. Maybe this is a system that just won’t be reformed, it will be used up and left at the curb. Just wondering.

    Greg R


  9. A little in shock I gritted my teeth through the vapid vaguely spiritualish music, that in the rare case where it mentioned Christ, evoked sentiments of rolling around on the beach with him and resting my head on his chest while I listened to his heart beat. It did not evoke feelings of awe and worship of trancendental God, but instead the friendly immanence of an invisible buddy/boyfriend.

    Which goes over with women (“Jesus is my Edward Cullen — sparkle sparkle sparkle!”) but not with straight men. Why Men Hate Going to Church had an entire chapter or two dedicated to this alone.

    Finally a song that mentioned the cross, hurray! But it wasn’t a regular worship song it was a special cover of some Bob Dylan number off ‘Slow Train Comin’. Even so, it was hard to worship, because clearly the boomer-church version of Elton John they were paying 300K/yr to be their music director considered this his glory moment, and the pinnacle of his performing career.

    “Boomer-church version of Elton John…”
    Last Elton John song I heard on a Muzak PA was “Nikita”, Elton John’s gushing ode to a gay KGB border guard.
    “Boomer-church version of Elton John…”
    The image in my mind right now is just so WRONG…
    Brain goes TILT… Brain goes TILT… Brain goes TILT…


  10. Greg,

    Yes, the issues are systemic, but the very structure of evangelical church culture with its emphasis on a congregational model of ministry, inevitably leads to a situation where the system that is put in place is heavily dependent on the individuals that lead. It is ministry by personality more than ministry flowing out of the deep heritage of apostolic tradition. What I hear in Chaplain Mike’s critique and move is a desire to re-connect with that deeper stream, represented in this case by the rich liturgical/confessional position of the Lutheran Church which has largely avoided the pitfalls of ministry by personality because of this.


  11. I agree with RonP, I no longer call what I do “home church”. What we do is that groups of Christians meet for sanctification. For some people, this becomes their “church”, for others that stay connected to a mainstream congregation.

    This setup is not ideal, but with the state of the evangelical church today, this may be an interim step until reformation occurs in the mainstream congregations.


  12. That’s why, as a homechurcher myself, I think it’s healthy for small, independent church bodies to establish connections, relationships, and frequent interactions with other church bodies, be they other home churches or even more traditional churches with buildings. And, personally, I don’t see a problem with a person or family being part of a home church fellowship, while at the same time attending or even being members of a larger, more mainstream church. I think it would be a good and healthy thing if all churches stopped being so exclusive and possessive regarding their people and became more open toward sharing their sheep, attending each other’s services, and jointly participating in good works and outreach programs in the community. And I believe that establishing more and closer relationships between churches would go a long way toward erasing a lot of the predjudice and misunderstanding that still exists between churches of different traditions, denominations, forms, and styles.


  13. OK all. I see that some of my comments are missing. I was trying to post a quote from someone who said that prayer was all about Jesus and we should not pray to God the Father. Yet Jesus Himself prayed to the Father in Matthew 6, John 17, and other places. I’m sorry that the quote did not appear because my opening comments would have made more sense.

    Another point of clarification. Maybe I’m being a little sensitive here and maybe I misread and misunderstood the gist of the conversation here. Having grown up in a pastor’s home, I have very little patience for those who criticize pastors. I have read many of your experiences and I am truly sorry that some in fundamentalism and evangelicalism (a term I hate because many in this camp have moved away from the true purpose of church) have driven you away from a church where poured your life into and where you ministered. Fortunately, I have not experienced that during my life. I was fortunate enough to grow up in the home of a pastor who truly sought the face of the Lord in all matters. Many times during my younger years I would wake up to get a glass of water, etc. and would hear my father praying in his study at all hours of the night. I always found him studying God’s Word, seeking God for a message to preach (I don’t know if he preached many “stolen” sermons). He was not a perfect man but he gave his best to the Lord.

    My father has long since retired from pastoring but today I am fortunate once again to be sitting under the ministry a man who walks with God and who spends time in prayer and in the Word. That is very obvious when he stands behind the pulpit and preaches from the Bible. He does not come across a super salesman, nor does he act as a CEO.

    If you did not sit under a pastor who preaches “feel good” sermons and does not “preach the Word…in season and out of season” (II Timothy 4:2), you should leave and find you a church where the Word is preached. If you attend a church where the “worship” is a show, then go somewhere that you can worship “…in Spirit and in Truth” (John 4:24).

    I know firsthand that it is very difficult to leave a church where you have served and have given your heart. 14 years ago I felt led to leave a church that I had been attending for almost 11 years. It’s a long story as to why I left and I will not bore you with those details. I will say, however, that the majority of members in that church took their eyes off Jesus and the results were – and have been – disastrous.

    The church as a whole tends to blame the pastor or other leaders if things are not what we think they should do. There is a church in our town that just recently voted to cut the pastor’s salary by $20,000 a year (he was not making a huge salary to begin with). Their reasoning? The church was not “growing”. I have been in this town for almost 26 years. That church is the same size today – membership wise – that it was when I moved to town. From what I understand, the members who pushed the salary decrease are members who do not tithe and who have never won a soul to Christ. One “member” (and I use that term loosely), who had not been in the church in more than two years, showed up to vote on the salary decrease because he did not like the pastor. This same church is adding a clause to its bylaws that gives membership a chance to give the pastor a “vote of confidence” every year. I could not stay in a church like that.

    I use that example to say this. If the members in our churches would use the gifts that God has given to them, we would not have the problems in the church today. When a church is truly fulfilling its purpose you would not feel as if you need to make drastic changes.

    In closing I would like to comment on something Greg R said: “…would you have given the reformers (pick your favorite) the same message, circa 1500 or 1600”? I would not have had to give these comments to them because they gave Biblical reasons for their “departure”. For example, Martin Luther, posted his 95 theses because he realized that we are “…justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 3:24).

    Sorry to be so long.


  14. Chaplain Mike, this is my first post here and I hesitate. I tend to be be long-winded, opinionated, impatient, and radical, none of which is particularly God-like except possibly the latter. I have been following this blog since the graduation of Michael Spencer brought it to my attention. I commend and thank you for stepping up to the plate.

    Like you, I proceeded from an “evangelical” introduction to Jesus (Foursquare in particular) to that of the ELCA. I am astounded to realize that it has been twenty-one years since I geographically moved away from that particular Lutheran fellowship and have never found a replacement. Part of that is my ongoing process of two steps forward, one step back as I swallow the fish and spit out the bones. Surely someone else has commented on the irony, or at least humor, of your post-evangelical move landing you in the EVANGELICAL Lutheran Church in America.

    It would seem that behind all these comments in response to your position is the particular definition of “evangelical” being used. It would also seem that there is a fairly wide gulf between the understanding of Benny Hinn and Martin Luther. Maybe that Benny Hinn example is unfair. I’m willing to substitute anyone’s name of choice including Johnny Calvin.

    My point would be that in my present level of understanding, I think both Benny Hinn and Martin Luther missed the point even tho both were or are ministering to particular contemporary needs and understandings. I believe we need to move beyond both altho I am more than willing to recognize that both are serving needs of a particular segment of the widespread human palette, God bless them.

    If I were to point out my perceived faults of both “evangelicals” in general and the mainstream churches in general, I would suggest that evangelicals in general are less tolerant of human differences. I would suggest that Jesus was more tolerant of human failings in general than either, aside from his apparent intolerance of the hypocrisy and self-serving of religious leaders. Perhaps there is some kind of lesson there.

    In my continuing education I find it important to take into consideration what the best minds of the followers of Jesus from the apostles John and Paul to Tom Wright and beyond have to say, but that is mostly in the attempt to figure out where we have gone wrong. More than ever I find myself going back to see what Jesus himself had to say in order to get this figured out before the whole church enterprise collapses under its own weight.


  15. You make a good point about the suburbs changing. Even where I live there are large numbers of Latinos, we have a Burmese community, and a growing population from India. Thus far, the effect on and the response of the churches has been negligible as far as I can tell.


  16. So what is the solution? Hebrews 12:2: “Looking unto Jesus…” If you’ll go to church and focus only on Jesus, you’ll find fewer “problems”.

    That’s assuming Jesus is to be found in that particular church.


  17. Wow….this could be developed into its own thread, but you have to wonder if “successful mesures” have (unintentionally) innoculated many against a real solid presentation of the gospel, a gospel that is not so much concerned with OUR success at anything, but the resurection, and GOD”s success thru HIS SON…… and the blessings inherent to that come way later in the message. I think Rod Goldblatt’s sermon on people hurt by the church touched on similar issues…..well worth the read/hearing, BTW.


  18. I think you might also be painting suburbia with a broad brush. I live in an old (1920s), inner ring suburb located 6 blocks from the city that is racially mixed (close to evenly balanced between our 3 main groups: European derived people (mainly from Central & Eastern Europe with some Irish too), Latinos (mostly from Mexico with a few Guatemalans & Salvadorans thrown in), and African Americans. Our homes are close together with small backyards and we live in tall, narrow brick bungalows. Parking is at a premium and our culture does not deviate from the standard city of Chicago culture.

    So I think when you say suburban and describe this suburban culture, perhaps you could describe what kind of suburb this means, is it the standard 1950 post-war suburb?

    Further, the word midwestern really bothers me because a lot of people want to lump both IL and OK into the word midwestern. These areas have as little in common as do IL and CA or IL and ME.


  19. These links must be broken, especially the need for money to build buildings, programs, and staff.

    I think this is really onto something, but I DON”T think the house church movement, per se , is the answer. If we can avoid hating on all buildings (one extreme) and building a Mega-mall for Jesus (the other extreme), I think there is room for some flexibility here. One thing I’m very sure of : People , over time, know when a church puts GOD and real ministry first OR some kind of program first.

    I think the really vibrant churches of tomorrow will model an intentional simplicity, and a sense of mission borne from that.


  20. BamaFan61:

    Okay, you’ve proven you can quote Bible verses. And book a guilt trip for the rest of us.

    Now show us all that Scripture(TM) is something more than doubleplusduckspeak.


  21. Plymouth Brethren also produced John Nelson Darby.

    John Nelson Darby as in Pre-Millenial Dispensationalism and Pre-Trib Secret Rapture.

    Remember what I commented elsewhere in this thread about about small-group house churches becoming Cultic? Drifting off on weird tangents without any reality check?


  22. One of the vexing and thornier side-bars to this discussion, IMO (aplogies to all bloggers who wince @ “IMO”, BTW…..) would be: the crux of these issues are SYSTEMIC, and not at all individual. My stalwart pastor has “swam into” a certain kind of style of church that “works” and not all of that growth is merely numerical and fleshly. These trends and movements are so much bigger than an individual here, a pastor there. I’m not making an excuse for anybody, but this will be a tough kettle of fish to reform……or is the answer just a totally different kettle altogether ?? Some have gone that route. For the rest of us, we are wondering “WHAT NEXT ?”

    Particularly, we ask “WHAT’S NEXT?” if our leaders in our given local churches have great trouble in seeing these things as that big of a deal. Reform from within ?? I’m open to the idea, esp. since my marriage probably makes a move elswhere improbable (that’s its own separate issue, I understand). Some will think that a discussion that does not include bullet point outlines that map out solutions to be a waste of time, but maybe , for now, this is all we can do. I think getting the issues out on the table to be some kind of feeble step forward.

    Working on lighting a candle in my part of the darkness
    GREAT TOPIC and post(s)
    Greg R


  23. In short, what if these methods are actually working in some cases?

    What is the total fruit harvest? Are these methods doing more harm than good? If you produce five “Take-Your-God-and-Shove-It”s and ten arrested-development Jesus groupies who never get beyond the kickin’ concert for every “unchurched you lead into maturity”, is it really working?


  24. Be careful about admiring the Amish. I understand what you are saying, but my parents came out of that background…

    Went on their Rumspringa and stayed English?


  25. Sometimes I admire the Amish.

    So do all those Best-Selling Christian (TM) Romance Novel writers — that’s why they’re called “Christian Bonnet Romances”.


  26. I didn’t viscerally feel how sertiously bad it was until I went back. After 10 years of dodging the non-denom of my youth I packed off the kids and headed to Grandma’s house for easter. A little in shock I gritted my teeth through the vapid vaguely spiritualish music, that in the rare case where it mentioned Christ, evoked sentiments of rolling around on the beach with him and resting my head on his chest while I listened to his heart beat. It did not evoke feelings of awe and worship of trancendental God, but instead the friendly immanence of an invisible buddy/boyfriend.
    Finally a song that mentioned the cross, hurray! But it wasn’t a regular worship song it was a special cover of some Bob Dylan number off Blood on the tracks.(strike that, Slow Train Comin’.)Even so, it was hard to worship, because clearly the boomer-church version of Elton John they were paying 300K/yr to be their music director considered this his glory moment, and the pinnacle of his performing career.

    But the worship was a++ compared to the sermon. It sounded like it had been purchased off one of those sermon websites, but maybe it was just modelled after those. It was just as bad as Osteen’s easter disaster, “You’ve got comback power.” Pastor laid out three miserable steps to show utter contempt for the cross and put yourself on the straight away path to hell.

    Premise: The resurrection was full of power
    Therefore, the power of the resurrection is threefold.

    1. The power of the resurrection is the power to let go of past hurts.
    2. The power of the resurrection is the power to forgive yourself for the poor choices responsible for making your life difficult.
    3. The power of the resurrection is the power for you to change your personality into whoever you want to be.

    I felt like standing up and rebuking the pastor right in the middle of service. Seriously? That is Christianity. You could excise the word “resurrection” from that sermon, put it on Oprah and call it the power of “O”, and nothing else would need to change. It was not about how Christ died for our sins and reconciled us to an infinitely holy God. Instead it was like a composite of MTV’s Made and Dr. Phil, dressed in Christian drag.


  27. For which I’m grateful……give some HUG love to a bishop, monsignor, or deaconess (appropriately, of course) for me , will ya ??


  28. Bama fan: would you have given the reformers (pick your favorite) the same message, circa 1500 or 1600 ??? I really doubt it. The really sad part, to me, is that many (NOT ALL) church leaders are giving these same tired caricature responses to these real issues, and avoiding the very real issues. THey would meet, or more likely hear about Julia Duin (Leaving Church) and say “what a whiner…..look to Jesus……get with (our) program……”

    Chap Mikes comments and post are FAR from perfect, but you are invited to join and offer rebuttal and solutions. Shooting the messenger and demonizing the message don’t count. Glad to have ya here at the IMONK village.

    Greg R


  29. “Conservative American political positions are adopted and ranted without question. Appreciation for other cultures is limited, and racial prejudice is still an issue.”

    I have a post coming related to this. Stay tuned!


  30. Chaplain Mike,

    I just found your site and was pleased to have done so as you are raising issues that resonate deeply with my own experience. However, in my case they are issues that impinge on my lifelong association as an evangelical with a mainline church, in this case, the Reformed Church in America. What makes our church unique, perhaps, is the way it has attempted to keep a foot in both camps – ecumenical/mainline and evangelical – the golden mean, as it were.

    I should also mention that I am ABD in a PhD program in World Christianity and Global Mission at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (ELCA). I have also been involved with our denomination at a national level, serving as director of our mission program in the Middle East and South Asia, which also means that I have worked and continue to work with the National Council of Churches.

    What I have seen in our own denomination, is the growing influence of the very trends you are critiquing here, particularly in our midwestern/western churches. The pressure is great to give in to the suburban captivity of the church if for no other reason than “it works,” as those churches in our denomination that cleave to the Fuller church growth model or similar models that emulate corporate American culture tend to be the ones that are thriving.

    And there’s the rub – when numerical “success” becomes the criteria by which churches are measured (and given the fact that budget issues always loom large, its hard not to make this at least one measure of “success”), it is difficult to escape the cultural captivity model, as this is the culture within which we live and move and have our being.

    I could go on, but don’t want to take too much space. I just appreciate your raising the issue – and have the guts to make a move based on your conviictions. God bless.


  31. Bamafan61,

    I’m one of those who left the evangelical type church, after spending most of my life (over 30 years) there. I felt like I had no choice; leave or starve spiritually. I was never one to leave lightly, and was even bi-denominational for a full year. (I was foolish enough to think that it could last, but it didn’t)

    I suspect that most of us, here, are not the church hoppers, but are reluctant to leave. I know that my current church isn’t perfect and am struggling there too, with some of my parish mates. Am I planning on leaving, NO WAY.


  32. Good clarification, Mike, and I agree that I am painting with a broad brush here. I will say, however, that the churches I’ve known in our area, while having many wonderful folks in them, are notoriously weak in theological depth, solid Biblical teaching, historical perspective, appreciation for Christian tradition, and missional practice outside the church walls. So much church-hopping goes on that you wouldn’t believe it. Conservative American political positions are adopted and ranted without question. Appreciation for other cultures is limited, and racial prejudice is still an issue. IMO, the evangelical churches where I live represent American Midwestern conservative suburban culture much more than they do the Biblical Christ and the apostolic Gospel. It’s Michael Spencer’s “Mere Churchianity.” I’m sure the same kinds of problems would be seen in the Catholic and mainline churches, but I’m not as familiar with them. However, I know when I go to the Lutheran church, I’m going to participate in a liturgy that has roots much deeper than the shallow practices of the evangelicals around here.


  33. What we have in common is that the evangelical church culture has proven insufficient to sustain a robust faith.

    Mike, I think it would be more appropriate to say that their own experience with the evangelical church culture has proven insufficient to sustain a robust faith.

    I have had the good fortune to have been a part of a number of really good solid evangelical churches over the years which do not fit your characterization in your recent posts, though I do not doubt for one second the validity of what you are writing. The thing that strikes me most about my current church is the quality of people within it, and the depth of faith that they have.


  34. Sorry, but I’m going to be very direct here. Your comment is an “adventure in missing the point,” and insultingly patronizing as well.

    Please don’t dismiss a change in our life that led us to abandon everything our family had known for 30 years with regard to vocation and church involvement by saying, “You can join a different church every year and change denominations all you want but you will continue to find that churches are made up of imperfect people and pastored by imperfect men.” Duh. Is that really what you think this discussion is about?

    Nowhere have I said anything like what you are asserting in your comments, nor are we idealists searching for “the perfect church.” Our choice was to leave an entire “Christian culture” in hopes of finding a more historically-rooted, theologically-sound, Gospel-oriented church tradition that takes things like worship, pastoral ministry, and mission seriously. And in case you haven’t noticed, there are many people on the same journey.


  35. When asked by the disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray”, Jesus responded by saying, “After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name” (Matthew 6:9). So before you criticize those of us who open a prayer by saying, “Our Father” or “Father God”, remember that Jesus told us to pray in this manner.

    This is the problem with many of these posts, I did not read them all but I found very little use of Scripture to back up anything that was said. I read a lot of preferences and opinions but I read very little Scripture to back up those opinions and preferences. Without Biblical objections to the evangelical church, these comments come across as whining.

    You can join a different church every year and change denominations all you want but you will continue to find that churches are made up of imperfect people and pastored by imperfect men. I learned a long time ago that there are problems in every church. The problems just wear different faces in each church.

    If you keep leaving churches because you see something that disappoints you or frustrates you, you will end up at home and not attending church at all. If you stop attending, you will then violate the Biblical command, “Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together…” (Hebrews 10:25). You will not find perfection in worship or in any church. Perfection will only be found in heaven.

    So what is the solution? Hebrews 12:2: “Looking unto Jesus…” If you’ll go to church and focus only on Jesus, you’ll find fewer “problems”.


  36. I want to respond here to EricW’s comment (which is, I guess, placed at the final sub-level of commenting):

    Scripture is utterly, completely clear on the issue of homosexuality. Anyone who says otherwise either does not know the Bible or is so shackled by the current homosexual fad that is sweeping Western society that they cannot see the Scripture with clear eyes. And it’s not just fundamentalists who see this point. Liberals who have no vested interest in obeying Scripture (because they don’t regard it as inerrant or supremely authoritative) have no problem admitting that it condemns homosexuality (take E. P. Sanders as one example).

    So in the mainline denominations, I have seen two different, contradictory arguments made as to why homosexuality should be accepted. Some who want to affirm some measure of biblical authority (though not inerrancy, which is typically a naughty word in those circles) would say that the Bible never condemns committed, faithful, homosexual relationships. And then some of those same people will turn around and say that we are not bound by what the Scripture teaches because we live in a different time, and we must be sensitive to where the Spirit leads us now, even if it is beyond the written word. One argument says that the Bible permits a certain kind of homosexual behavior, and another argument says the Bible cannot be trusted as the final arbiter of truth on this question.

    Both arguments are false. But those who are more intellectually honest will admit that the Bible itself is crystal clear on the subject, and so they will generally approach the subject from the other angle: bypass Scripture altogether and let some other criterion determine how the church should evaluate the issue.

    But the bottom line is this: if the mainline denominations had not compromised on the authority of Scripture long ago (and Jack Rogers was part of that movement as well), then this question never would have come up. I am not aware of any denomination that still stands firm on inerrancy wrestling to come up with some kind of moral stance on the question of homosexuality. Homosexuality is just one more domino in the row that has fallen as the mainline denominations become less recognizably Christian. I do not make this statement about any church in particular, for I know there are still faithful churches in those denominations, and may their tribe increase. But the leadership of most mainline denominations has been entrenched in liberalism for a long time now, and I don’t see how that ship is going to turn. This is why it was a little ironic to me that Chaplain Mike felt like he found a haven from the silliness of evangelicalism by going to a tradition that has had more than its fair share of silliness and outright nonsense.


  37. Aaron: I would probably call your church post-evangelical. Michael Spencer used to make the point that there are many paths people take as post-evangelicals. What we have in common is that the evangelical church culture has proven insufficient to sustain a robust faith. Some have left the ev world to join one of the Catholic traditions (Rom Cath/Orthodox), some have moved to stronger doctrinal traditions such as the Calvinistic churches, others are trying to bring renewal to the mainline congregations, etc.


  38. That is very helpful, Mike. Thank you.

    Let me then pose another question to you, if you don’t mind (I appreciate how well you interact with commenters; I know it must take up a lot of your time to do so, but you do it very well). My question arises from my own experience. I share many of your concerns about the silliness of evangelicalism as you have defined it. “Revivalism,” as Iain Murray has demonstrated in his now classic work, has left us with a troubled legacy in the modern American church.

    But where you have felt drawn to the mainline as a result, I have felt drawn to movements within the free church tradition that have effectively critiqued the excesses of revivalism. I think of, say, the churches that are associated with Founders, 9 Marks, etc. My own Southern Baptist congregation is very atypical. We devote ourselves to the public reading of Scripture, hearing the Scripture read three times every service. We have no category for “special music” or anything performance oriented. We take communion every Sunday. We end all services with a scriptural benediction. We are led by elders, and we practice faithful church discipline.

    We are, I believe, part of a renewal movement within the free church tradition. Especially in the SBC there is a tension right now between those who adhere to the revivalist model and those who seek to return to a church practice that is more faithful to the historic Baptist faith.

    Having said all that, here is my question: would you map my church as evangelical, post-evangelical, or something else?


  39. I fully understand, and as someone who leans towards paleo-orthodoxy, I appreciate your efforts. There is much in evangelicalism that is troubling.

    I am more concerned with the content (for example, people have commented on the weak emphasis on doctrines, and the “how to be a better….” type series, etc…), rather than being concerned with this model.


  40. “When feeding the sheep through teaching and worship is abandoned for more impactful models and methods for evangelism, something is seriously imbalanced.”

    I don’t disagree. I certainly am not abandoning those aspects. In fact, I would like to see them increase. I am only saying the models in which they are incorporated may change.


  41. well, i appreciate that you make a distinction between “evangelical” and “fundamentalist.” too many people today don’t make that distinction. kudos.


  42. Evangelicalism is not just a set of doctrines, but a church culture that covers a broad spectrum of churches, denominational and nondenominational. I am basically speaking of the “free churches”–non-liturgical, rooted in the revivalistic tradition.

    In recent years, evangelicalism has come to be characterized by identification with a conservative political movement, a culture war stance, the church growth movement, and an entire book, music, and media industry.

    I remain a Protestant evangelical in doctrine–that is, my beliefs are shaped by the Gospel as explained in the Bible, the ecumenical Creeds, and the teachings of the Reformers.

    I am post-evangelical in practice–that is, I have left behind evangelical church culture.


  43. Mike, FYI. I have been a pastor in evangelical or fundamentalist churches for 30 years. Post-evangelical means I left something behind which structured my entire life for decades.


  44. Rick: Don’t mistake my loving criticism for condemnation. Mine is a “lover’s quarrel” with the evangelical church, and my journey into post-evangelicalism is my own. I hope that I will be as generous with praise and affirmation of the good aspects of evangelicalism, such as its missionary spirit.


  45. Ekstasis — In my church, the show part is led by the senior pastor every week, while he preaches 40% of the Sundays and shares the other 60% with other pastors, including one with a PhD in preaching.

    The show part is thoroughly enjoyed by the vast majority. However, late-comers walk in while the “worship” goes on. People talk to one another. People (including me) watch one another.

    If we were worshiping, would we be focused on the One to Whom we sang? I think so. And probably some of our congregants are. But for what appears to be most — again, myself included — it is a time of socializing and entertainment, with an occasional moment of actual worship.


  46. Of course, music is an important part of worship. Always has been. But music should serve the Word and the liturgy. In many evangelical churches, it does not.

    As to various pastoral gifts, yes, there are elements of truth in each of the caricatures I drew–that’s why they are caricatures. IMO, whatever gifts I have, they must be subject to my calling. And if my calling is to be a pastor in a church, then I will use my gifts in pastoral ways among the people.


  47. All I know is that I myself am post-evangelical–meaning that I have moved past evangelical church culture. As for the mainline, as I say in my earlier post, I have no illusions of a perfect church.


  48. “He will be quick to tell you that he is tired of the “show” and looking for something simpler and more connected to our historic traditions.”

    Exactly. That is what rising generations are looking for, so those will likely be the type of services we will see in the future.


  49. Well, in other places he said he was pastor of an evangelical church, so I’d guess he qualifies to critique both.


  50. WOW, a master statistician. Did you base your finding on user reported data, or the all seeing eye of your judgementalism?

    “…well 85% of all statistics are made up…”


  51. The synod I belong to – LCMS – has it share of problems, but at least they know who wrote the bible.

    “So I yelled “DIE, HERETIC!” and threw him off the bridge!”
    — Emo Phillips

    Actually, the only reason all you — Baptists, AOG, IFB, ELCA, LCMS, KJV1611, LSD, whatever — have a Bible (TM) is because the bishops of my church — RCC — kept all the Shirley Mac Laines of the time from rewriting it in their own image back when years AD were in the low- to mid-three digits.


  52. Chaplain Mike, As a fellow lifelong Baptist who is now part of a Lutheran congregation I was excited to find this article. Then I almost choked when I saw that you had united yourself with the ELCA.

    Why not choose a Lutheran synod that actually believes that the bible is the Word of God? All of the ELCA’s departures from orthodox Christianity – and they are many – stem from their acceptance of higher criticism and rationalism as valid approaches to hermeneutics.

    The synod I belong to – LCMS – has it share of problems, but at least they know who wrote the bible.


  53. perhaps someone has already suggested this, but i might suggest it’s more constructive to critique one’s own tradition before critiquing others. can someone in a mainline church really do any legitimate fingerpointing at evangelicals? i think evangelicals like myself might read this post (which is actually helpful, i’ll admit) and just say, “meh, this mainline guy doesn’t realize his own tradition is shot to sunshine.”

    i don’t know, it just seems so easy to toss stones at everyone else from our own glass house. that can’t turn out well in the end, right? it seems to me that we’d be far more constructive if we gave honest critiques of our own traditions and denominations before criticizing others. perhaps that would garner a more favorable hearing when you do move on to criticizing others. just some thoughts.


  54. Either Chesterton or Lewis said that when you try to make the Gospel into “more impactful models and methods for evangelism”, you tie it to a certain place and time. And once tied to a certain place and time, your church will age into “old-fashoned” as that place and time moves inexorably into the past.

    Remember Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In? That Sixties comedy revue that transformed TV variety/comedy shows? It was completely tied into The Sixties. Ever seen reruns or clips from it lately? All the cutting-edge Sixties topical humor and Sixties topical references? These days it has the aura of seventy-something hippies (AKA Thin Grey Ponytails) still in their tie-dyes and Love Beads reliving the anniversary of Woodstock.

    And Laugh-In never elevated itself to Cosmic Importance. (The Memory of Woodstock, on the other hand…) Imagine if it had, and the credibility of God and Christ were tied to its Relevance (TM).

    Because nothing gets stale faster than over-relevance.


  55. Maybe! But one of the foundations of 12-step groups is learning to not blame everyone else for your own shortcomings and/or situation and taking responsibility for your own health and progress in life. The serenity prayer and the 12 steps tip that hand a bit. Given how much fun that process is to not blame anyone else, you do have to be kind of desperate to join!

    One of my favorite AA sayings is “It’s always easier to take someone else’s inventory.” So, as long as the group could find a more constructive focus than merely picking apart evangelicalism or anyone’s shortcomings other than their own (and as long as the group wasn’t trying to build “the true church” or some nonsense) support groups can be really helpful.


  56. ‘The thinking was that they had run their courses, and that the resources used could better impact people through new models and methods.’


    When feeding the sheep through teaching and worship is abandoned for more impactful models and methods for evangelism, something is seriously imbalanced. This is exactly the point Chaplain Mike is making.

    The church is about more than just evangelism and to subvert the whole thing in the service of reaching unbelievers to the detriment of the Word, worship and shepherding those that are already Christian is wrong.


  57. We used to do the hokie videos and the jump up and down music that is supposed to entertain the kids non-stop, keep their attention, and teach them all sorts of great biblical truth. It was all stage and show and passive audience.

    When you said “hokie” videos, I couldn’t help but think of the infamous Holy Ghost Hokey Pokey.

    Maybe that’s what happens when all the Christian Kidlets with the Hokey Videos grow up and want to Worship (TM) in the only way they know how.


  58. I have thought long and hard about how we got here and my conclusion, in the most simplistic of terms, is that we have allowed the CCM industry to co-opt our worship gatherings…

    We talkin’ this?


  59. I appreciate everyone’s comments. I agree it’s tough to talk about terms that are so slippery — especially when the word is a common noun, a proper noun, and also an adjective. While Peterson, Keller and Wright would certainly call themselves evangelical, they would mean it in the older sense, broader sense rather than the narrow, American, right-wing sense. I think Mrs. Palin represents something very nasty and dangerous in both the church and the society — I’ll leave it there. And for the fundamentalist churches that get so much so wrong — from the difference between law and grace, to eschatology, to hermeneutics, I don’t think that being “technically right” on the issue of gay ordination is a flag that is much worth waving.


  60. House Churches have their own problems, which Christian Monist has mentioned off-and-on in his blog; he was involved with house churches at one point in his post-Evangelical Wilderness.

    The problem with House Churches is that they can easily become Cults (in both senses of the word). Small and independent, prone to “Just Us Four, No More, Amen”, with no reality check possible from the heathens Outside. Just like Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory types; with no reality check they can drift (both doctrinally and behaviorally) into their own pocket universe, alone in their reflective Righteousness.


  61. I’m coming to the conclusion that there’s an optimum size for a church, possibly tied to the troop-size limit you find in human tribal behavior.

    The tiny church in the tiny town (of which I’ve seen several in my writing partner’s bailiwick) is dying because it is well below the optimal size.

    The Big Megachurch is out of balance in the other direction, so HUGE that its members become only a statistical unit of the four- and five-figure membership, way too large for any “span of command” of its elders. You get a Celebrity Pastor with a mob of groupies or audience there for the floor show — no real involvement due to sheer size.


  62. Internet Monk called this “The Rush Limbaughization of American Evangelicals.”

    I go back a little further. I call it “The Communistization of American Evangelicals.” Just like Classic Communists, the Culture Warriors have made everything Political — Political Causes, Political Ideology, Political, Political, Political, Political, Political. And the same attitude towards Heretics and Thought-Criminals within their own ranks, limited only by amount of (Political) power over their enemies real and imagined.

    I used to joke that “the difference between Christians and Communists is they quote different Party Lines.” You really want to see that joke become reality?


  63. DAn, you’ve made some good points, but….Hagee, Paula Smith, and Palin are the representative Evangelicals ???

    Ask anybody outside the four walls of your church about “Evangelicals” and you’ll get “Fred Phelps” or “Jack Chick”. Or “Pat Robertson” depending on whether he shot his mouth off again. Years ago it was “Jerry Falwell.” Before that it was “Hal Lindsay.” Or whatever Big Name appears in the latest televangelist scandal.

    Fred Phelps.
    Jack Chick.
    Jerry Falwell.
    Pat Robertson.
    Televangelist du jour.
    THOSE are THE “representative Evangelicals” to the mainstream. Sarah Palin’s no prize, but I think she’s an improvement over those.


  64. I think the jury is still out on whether this has “worked” for our youth. Recent studies indicate that this group is leaving the church in droves at around college age, or moving to a denomination / church that is more “ancient/future” in it’s liturgy. My 21 year old son is a prime example. He will be quick to tell you that he is tired of the “show” and looking for something simpler and more connected to our historic traditions.


  65. Kyle-

    I certainly am not here to defend all such churches. In fact I am trying to make distinctions between various churches that use this model.

    That being said, it sounds like they made a cold choice there, and that is unfortunate. However, there also may be another side to that coin, and that is the need to change and adjust.

    Axis at Willow Creek (for young adults), and 722 at Northpoint (for singles) both stopped their services in the past few years. The thinking was that they had run their courses, and that the resources used could better impact people through new models and methods. And that is one factor about these services and models (that Chap Mike discusses): they (at least some) are open to change. The mission is to reach people, and they are seeking to do that the most effective way possible with the resources available.

    Many of these churches realize that the models they use today is not what is needed in the state next door, or the community a few miles away, or their own community in the near future, or the next generation. The mission stays the same, but the methods adjust to the existing context.


  66. I don’t know about that. Before CCM what did you have? I know gospel music is much older than CCM and it used to be quite popular among the Missionary Baptists (my exposure to Evangelicals is pretty much limited to this group and the UCC).


  67. Chaplain Mike, you are so good that I think you’ve scratched my itch with your latest post about Worship. Great stuff there, too, and provides insight into church shortcomings and how things maybe could (and should) look different.


  68. This is a GREAT idea! I’ve forwarded it to my church’s children’s pastor as a possible inclusion into Kids Worship. (And as props to our children’s pastor, he provides a more worshipful service for the kids than the regular service provides for the adult congregation!)


  69. On solutions, I have been interested in Martin Luther’s sermons. A common theme of his belief in the underlying problem of the time is that the leaders of the world (Kings) had become inexorably intertwined with the leaders of the church (Pope and priests) leading down a path of corruption which led away from the gospel according to the scriptures.

    The solution today is similar. In our capitalistic society, the leaders of the church have become intertwined with the ruler of capitalism (Money and pride) and the rulers of the society fed by money (politicians and corporations). These links must be broken, especially the need for money to build buildings, programs, and staff.

    I suggest reading on the Plymouth Brethren movement of the 1800s. Many still exist, but a few of their interpretations prevent them from reaching a broader audience. They have a model based on small groups in homes, based on scripture study, without a staff pastor.


  70. Jimmy, why are you doing this study in your “home group” an not in your church? Is this group study part of the church? My point is that it is the responsibility of the pastor to oversee the teaching of his flock. If it is done by his leading a group or home group lead by another, then that’s great. Part of the Great Commission is the teaching of the faith.


  71. Rick,

    No one doubts that these churches can attract a crowd of people who may not otherwise have attended a church. The problem becomes what happens after the people are Christians.

    A typical example is what happened to my father-in-law in a world famous mega church in Southern California.

    He was evangelized into the faith and then ‘plugged in’ to a ‘ministry’ in the church’s video and TV ministry. Over a period of years he found a niche for himself in their Wednesday night bible study. There was a time of worship and prayer followed by an in depth bible study. This was church for him because he worked in the services every weekend and after a year or so found the preaching and teaching was geared towards non Christians and new believers.

    The Wednesday night service grew to 1100 to 1500 regular attenders, what the church termed it’s ‘core.’ The service ended up being canceled after 10 or so years. My father in law was despondent.

    I called the church to find out more about the situation for an article I was writing. A pastor on staff told me that it was canceled because less than 10% of the congregation attended and it literally wasn’t worth ‘firing up the building’ (by this he meant turning on lights, air conditioning, video equipment and staffing) for such a small percentage of the congregation. They went on to experiment with home cell groups.

    This church is one of the prime movers and shakers in the movement towards attractional and purpose driven church models.


  72. One little idea is what we are now doing in our children’s church for upper elementary. We used to do the hokie videos and the jump up and down music that is supposed to entertain the kids non-stop, keep their attention, and teach them all sorts of great biblical truth. It was all stage and show and passive audience. No matter how exciting or thrilling the entertainment, they were bored stiff and checked out. In fact, I could see them joining the masses of young people who drop out of church as soon as they possibly can, without losing the car keys and allowances.

    One of the new/old things we have tried is to get them talking to one another about the issues — how biblical concepts affect them personally. As adult volunteers we then take the microphone around the room, and they get to take turns presenting their ideas. It is all about how they personally impact, and are impacted by, the ways of God. Their attention and engagement levels have gone way up, I am happy to report!


  73. I’m currently leading my “Home Group” (aka Bible study and prayer group) through a study on the Kingdom of God. We’re starting with the Old Testament and working through God’s plan for salvation. So far I’ve covered God’s promise of deliverance in Genesis 3, God considering Abraham righteous because of faith, and soon I will talk about how the passover event prefigures Christ.

    Maybe my Bible study is exceptional, but in general Bible studies are the norm in my Evangelical church.

    Of course, you might be right on a larger scale. I don’t say this to refute you, only to point out that there are still rays of hope in the evnagelical world.


  74. Wow. I can’t help but think Chaplain Mike has hit a homerun with this post. And I also understand and like (though maybe don’t agree with) the many different sides and angles being discussed in the comments. Wonderful discussion, folks!

    I guess I have a follow-on question, though, for Chaplain Mike (and any others who wish to attempt an answer.) Whenever I hear someone complain about a situation, I like to ask, “How would you change things?” If a person can’t offer up solutions, then I tend to view the compaints as whining.

    So…I think I understand and sort of agree with the complaints against “Evangelicalism.” But what are the solutions? What shoulld Christ’s church look like? How do we change the trend?

    (By the way, I sure hope God can work His will, despite His believer’s best efforts to help…)


  75. T, I agree with your ideas about the “sacramentality”, particularly wrt confession. As an Orthodox Christian, I’m not only supposed to confess my sin, but also confess what was underneath the act (or omission) as far as I can figure that out with the Spirit’s help. Therefore, every time I go to confession -always face to face with the priest and the Icon of Jesus, near the place where the Crucifixion is depicted, in one of the front corners of the church where everyone can see you- it’s a fourth and fifth step: a searching and fearless moral inventory, and admission to God, to myself and another human being the exact nature of my wrongs.

    I also think that groups which have a specific Ritual, like the Masonic Lodge, Odd Fellows, Grange, etc. were engendered in a time when The Symbolic was chased out of church, either because Christians saw themselves as so Enlightened as to not need Symbol, or because of fear re RCism, “vain repetitions” and “works righteousness”. But humans will express themselves symbolically, and thus these organizations arose, which have no connection to the Church but became the repository of The Symbolic among many Protestants for the last few hundred years.



  76. Chuck and James-

    I do not disagree with you in regards to the dangers. I have left a church that displayed many of the problems you mention.

    However, I also know of churches that adopt many of these practices (in Chaplain Mike’s post) that avoid many of the pitfalls. They get the unchurched in, using these methods, and then encouraging them to grow in Christ through personal study, small group involvement, serving, justice ministries, etc…

    I think the key is: what is being emphasized, and is the Sunday gathering the goal/endpoint? It seems that the churches which clearly spell out that Sunday is just a starting point do a better overall job.


  77. Be careful about admiring the Amish. I understand what you are saying, but my parents came out of that background and I am very familiar (still have relatives) with them. Although their simple lifestyle and apparent high value of community can be attractive, many Amish communities struggle with abuse and incest at worst, and very hurtful legalism at best. They do not have a biblical ecclesiology in many ways.

    I will also be following the next posts from Chaplain Mike with much interest.



  78. That’s probably true, Chuck. At the same time, I’m old enough to remember the days before the CCM industry, when new music circulated by means of bad live recordings on cassette tape. The expression of worship was something that underwent a real “populist” shift- away from “the professionals” using hymns requiring you had to read music in order to be able to sing, with words and phrases even educated people had difficulty understanding, sung from the intellect alone, and necessarily accompanied by an organ needing a highly skilled musician. At the outset, the music component of the evangelical worship service was a plea for the same kind of single-minded, heart-originating simplicity of truth that I hear from commenters above who want a basic bible study with community. It was like the difference between the post WW II “high culture” and The Beats. And God was really to be found in that simplicity. “Contemporary evangelical worship” has undergone a radical change even within the last 40 years, and the way it is now isn’t the way it always was.

    I’m in a different place now (Orthodox) and have found it interesting that I don’t miss the best things about Evangelical worship as much as I thought I would- but neither do I abjure anything that God used in my past to help me know the Lord and follow him. And good “contemporary worship” was one of those things.



  79. Thanks for bringing this up, T Freeman. I have been involved in a 12-Step group, and one day I was sitting there during the reading of the 12 Traditions and I thought, “These meetings do ‘church’ better than Christians do.”

    Oh what the heck, I’ll just post them. This is for alcholics, obviously, but think if we switched ‘AA’ to ‘Christian Church’, ‘alcoholics’ to ‘unbelievers’, and ‘stop drinking’ to ‘follow God’.

    BTW, I’m not posting this to discuss AA’s view of God. That’s not what this is about.


    1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.
    2. For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority – a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
    3. The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.
    4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.
    5. Each group has but one primary purpose-to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
    6. An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
    7. Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
    8. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
    9. A.A., as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
    10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
    11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.
    12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

    My favorite is #11–“a public relations policy based on attraction rather than promotion”. Imagine if the Christian Church switched to that model?


  80. The last time I darkened the doorstep of my local “independent evangelical” church, the largest and most “successful” in the area, by the way, the “worship and praise” (a.k.a. music, or rock concert) portion of the “show” generated, at most, 25% interest. Not participation, mind you – just interest. The remaining 75% ranged from mild disinterest to total boredom.

    The actual level of participation was maybe 10%.


  81. Evangelicalism has become “a political system” for about 20 yrs now, probably more. They have been worshipping the power of voting clout – they only started to look inward after they lost that clout.


  82. But by the same token, why should we hold up as examples those churches that are succeeding in spite of these methods?

    I’ve seen other things that I objected to (Rick Warren’s little program comes to mind) that, if prayerfully and thoughtfully implemented in an otherwise healthy church, can bring benefits. But when mindlessly implemented as just another program, as was all too often the case with 40 days of purpose, the results could be disastrous.

    I suspect I’m hearing the same thing here – there are churches out there that can make any tool work because of the mentality of prayer and a focus on God within the church itself. That doesn’t make the tools in question good tools for building a spiritually mature church.


  83. Rick,
    I would agree that such methods can, and are in fact being used by God to bring others to faith. God will always have to use our imperfect methods and motives because that’s just who we are. I think the concern however is whether these methods are consistent with the historical purpose of worship gatherings; the celebration in Word (teaching) and Sacrament (remembrance) the gospel and the God who brought us the gospel.

    In my own church the vast majority of our 75 minute service is made up of two parts; kickin’ music (30-40 minutes) and topical sermon (30 minutes). Communion has been pushed to a quick, monthly event, and baptisms are occasional. The ministry of the spoken / preached Word (not proof-texting for successful living) and “remembering” Jesus (Communion) do not have the prominence that they should in place of other less profitable practices. IMO the overall health of the church suffers under this model. That is why it is such a concern to me.


  84. If it was working for the youth, and those same people eventually became the adults in the church, why would they not adapt services to impact that maturing demographic?

    What will church services look like in the future? Look to what is working with today’s youth ministries.


  85. I have thought long and hard about how we got here and my conclusion, in the most simplistic of terms, is that we have allowed the CCM industry to co-opt our worship gatherings, bringing the concert hall/stage into the sanctuary, hoping to replicate the same “energy”.

    From “THE FRAME NEVER OUTDID THE PICTURE” – about the history of 2nd Chapter of Acts (the Christian group):

    …Another factor that contributed to “Acts” early inhibitions was audience response. During Barry’s set, the audience sang along, clapped and cheered. When “2nd Chapter” began singing-“Going Home” was their opener-the audience grew strangely silent. “We thought everybody had gone home!” Annie jokes. “That would really have shaken our confidence-if we’d had any.”

    Several concerts into the tour, somebody approached Annie and said, “We’re really sorry we didn’t applaud-but we’ve never heard music like that before!” Many others expressed that they had never before experienced worship so keenly.

    As Nelly reflects: “One of the reasons people didn’t applaud was because we weren’t singing songs about Jesus, we were singing to Him. When people recognized that, they sensed His Spirit. They could see Jesus, and they fell in love with Him.”…

    A similar statement from elsewhere on the Website:

    Toward the end of their touring schedule with McGuire, the 2nd Chapter of Acts started to open up a little on stage. But a strange phenomenon greeted them after every song-those faceless people beyond the footlights didn’t clap. Instead, the auditorium would grow strangely quiet. The awkward silence unnerved them at first, until they realized what was really happening.

    “I think the Spirit was moving in a fresh way,” says Matthew. “That’s why their mouths were open. And by saying that, it may sound as if we were so incredible that people were just blown away. But that wasn’t it at all. We didn’t feel that; we’ve never felt that. It was simply that people sensed the Spirit of God. When you come in contact with that, and you’re not used to it on that level in music, your first reaction is almost one of shock.”

    In her soft-spoken way, Nelly adds, “I believe one of the reasons people didn’t clap is because we weren’t singing songs about Jesus, we were singing to Him, and therefore they could see Him. It made them fall in love.”

    Indeed, a 2nd Chapter concert is not just entertainment, but a spiritual experience. The music of Annie, Nelly and Matthew cuts to the core of the listener; it breaks down barriers and it heals. Few can leave the concert hall with dry eyes-and many find themselves at the altar.


  86. “The “service” is essentially a stage show.”

    I was just speaking (uhum, complaining) to my wife about this last night. I have thought long and hard about how we got here and my conclusion, in the most simplistic of terms, is that we have allowed the CCM industry to co-opt our worship gatherings, bringing the concert hall/stage into the sanctuary, hoping to replicate the same “energy”. The CCM concert event began as a separate thing done in halls, auditoriums, and during youth retreats, known primarily for it’s entertainment value. This seemed to be an OK thing. But at some point we decided that what was good for the concert hall was even better for worship gatherings. I have serious concerns that this marriage has not been a healthy phenomenon for the church.


  87. “dedicated to “How to be a better xxx in 5 easy steps”

    Please don’t get me started on that troubling aspect. Too often Christ is left out of those steps.


  88. But what if some of these churches are reaching people that would have not otherwised been reached?
    What if some of these churches are being used by God to transform lives and communities?
    What if some of these churches use these methods, not to make the mature believer comfortable, but to impact the unchurched and lead them into maturity?

    In short, what if these methods are actually working in some cases?


  89. At the risk of getting flamed, I would say that, agree with their conclusions or readings of Scripture or not, some of the mainline denominations that have chosen to ordain homosexuals have in fact debated the issue at length, commissioned extended studies, and do uphold the authority of Scripture as they read/understand it, etc., and they do not think a proper reading of Scripture is as “crystal clear” as some/many in the church claim it to be.

    E.g., you can read/hear how/why Jack Rogers changed his mind re: the issue:


  90. As EricW and I have discussed elsewhere, some of this is a function of the fact that evangelicals have basically eclipsed all other sacraments with the sacrament of the Word/sermon. And this isn’t an argument that we all need to do the Lord’s supper more often. We need to broaden our view, based on the scriptures themselves, of the many activities in which God is uniquely active. For example, AA believes that God is uniquely/powerfully active when we are rigorously honest with God, with others and thereby ourselves. As the Church has all but let go of real confession, the support groups mine gold from its depths every minute of every day. There are many other examples, but the bottom line is that evangelicals put way too many of their sacramental hopes on the sermon and the preacher. God’s activity is more diverse, more holistic, more participatory than that. He’s the opposite of a one-trick pony.


  91. Are there proximity-based churches anymore? Is this the norm anywhere? Not rhetorical questions, by the way. I live in a large city, so I don’t really know what the norm would be in small-town or rural areas.


  92. Denominational churches have a financial advantage over independent ones, in that they can support small or mission churches to some degree by sharing funds from larger ones.


  93. I think that’s a common observation that will become more and more common as the paradigms governing evangelicalism play themselves out to their logical extremes. We evangelicals don’t realize how deeply we believe we must have a head charismatic personality who can serve as the magnet and the glue of Christ’s church. Even though Jesus seemed explicit in warning the apostles not to allow anyone to put even them in those star roles, today we just don’t see how we could do church without a exactly that role. Evangelicals, by their practice (and often the express words used in pastoral search committees) live and die by the charismatic personality at the center.

    AA is organized explicitly on exactly the opposite belief and practice, and does discipleship based transformation remarkably well. It’s much more difficult than I initially thought it would be to appreciate the real differences of method and approach b/n 12-step groups and evangelical church. Just on the “training in spectating” alone, the difference is remarkable. But in my experience it takes a long time for evangelicals to be able to begin to think of something as “church” that doesn’t involve a central, charismatic figure.


  94. Dan, I also meant to bring up a couple of more points:

    (1) While the ordination of homosexuals may be somewhat rare, a permissive stance toward homosexuality is quickly becoming the norm in most mainline denominations. How many mainline denominations have at least debated or commissioned extended studies of the question? Evangelical churches don’t have to wrestle with this issue because, for all their faults, they continue to uphold the authority of Scripture and maintain moral clarity on an issue about which the Scripture is crystal clear.

    (2) Tim Keller would almost certainly identify himself as an “evangelical,” I would think. Though I’m not quite as sure about Eugene Peterson, I wouldn’t be surprised if he did as well. N. T. Wright is British, and the lines fall in different places across the pond, though there is even some possibility that he would willingly embrace that term in some sense (again, this highlights the difficulty of the terminology itself).


  95. Dan,

    You are placing evangelicalism’s worst against the mainline’s best. That is mixing apples and oranges.

    Also, one of the problems with having a discussion like this one is the slippery meaning of the term “evangelicalism”. Perhaps Chaplain Mike should weigh in here with a workable definition to let us all know exactly what he is aiming at.

    If “evangelicalism” is defined historically and theologically, then there is an abundance of wealth in the term that should not be jettisoned lightly. On the other hand, if one defines anything that smacks of accommodation to late twentieth century pragmatism as “evangelicalism,” then of course it is something worth rejecting.

    The standard workable definition of evangelicalism has been the one supplied by historian David Bebbington, who says that, as a movement, evangelicalism (which arose in the 1730’s) has been defined by these four characteristics:

    (1) Conversionism
    (2) Biblicism
    (3) Activism
    (4) Crucicentrism

    Of course, this raises a host of new questions about what each of these terms means (though Bebbington seeks to provide definitions for each one; however, I am not always happy with his definitions, especially with regard to the term “biblicism.”)

    Some (including D. A. Carson) have argued that Bebbington’s categories are inadequate to define evangelicalism and that we must seek a more robust theological definition. I tend to agree with Carson.

    I am by no means ready to settle the debate about what exactly evangelicalism is, but I hope I have raised some important questions about how crucial it is that we make sure we know what we mean when we use the term.

    So, Chaplain Mike, do you have a working definition for the term “evangelicalism” that will help get us on the same page with you and might perhaps help us understand what “post-evangelical” actually means?


  96. I agree with the post completely.

    I live in a small town in Latin America that is dominated by Pentecostal churches with all the characteristics you describe. The US model was exported to LA some decades ago, and people have never had anything else to compare it with (the Catholic Church does offer not any direct competition). Each church lives in a bubble, or a “holy huddle.”

    I am desperately searching for a few families to meet with at home. But for real Bible study and community, not just a social club or a way to avoid the discipline of church.


  97. I think you struck the meat of the issue Eric. Christianity is splintered and competitive in the U.S. When what you do becomes a product, it is no wonder that the best marketing tactics and the best business model win.


  98. Interesting comment. One of my thoughts upon attending an AA meeting where a friend was celebrating their 1-year sobriety was: “This is how a church meeting should be.” Real, personal, recitation of creed, confession of sins, discussion of struggles, group show of support, sermon/teaching, edification, fellowship, participation by all, no one-upsmanship, welcome of sinners. Everything most church gatherings should be but are not.


  99. As a new (but not particularly young!) ELCA pastor, this is a very interesting post. Many of these issues have crossed my mind over the last year – how to serve God’s mission in a small and aging congregation; how to keep the vision focused outside our walls; how to encourage love over judgment (re: immigration, race, the poor, and yes, the one issue that seems to get the most attention – G/L issues); and most importantly, how to help folks see that God’s blessings abound, and our freedom in Christ now makes us free to serve all God’s people.
    Thanks for all the many deeply thoughtful comments.


  100. Mike,

    I’m curious if you’ve had any experience in support/12-step groups. A few of my friends who met Jesus there first, then went looking for a church, have very similar reactions to churches as you do, perhaps even more strongly than you do, because they’ve been part of such a different kind of community where no one is the star, leadership is personal progress and service (never power), ministry/service is part of each person’s healing (isn’t allowed to be professionalized), the meeting places are everywhere and simple, and the “ideal customer” are among the most messed up people in the world.

    I’m not saying that we can all just stop going to church and join AA, but your list of beefs with the evangelical church is everything AA isn’t, by design. I think there are reasons for that. In many ways, AA became the people of God that the people of God were unwilling or uninterested in being.


  101. It was/is all a lot simpler when there is one church in the community defined by baptism, communion and creed/confession and attended based on one’s proximity to it. That model will work anywhere, whether small-town or inner-city or suburbia. One is either in the church or not. No competing denominations or alternatives.

    Dream on….


  102. DAn, you’ve made some good points, but….Hagee, Paula Smith, and Palin are the representative Evangelicals ??? C’mon, man, OK, they’re well known, but NOBODY in my part of the ev. wilderness would say that any of these three spoke in any way for them. And in Palin’s case, did evagelicalism produce her, or the political system, of which PART of evangelcalism is a subset. ??


  103. You hit the financial side! I was involved in the financial side for years. Part of the problem is the shift from rural to suburbia has created a need for large sums of money to support a building and staff for the building. This creates an endless cycle leading to a church either becoming a mega church based on a theatrical/CEO model, or dwindling down to the point it can no longer afford the building. We need a new financial model for suburbia, home church works financially, but in my experience it is hard to maintain a group for extended periods of time.


  104. Maybe the problem is that when Christianity and the church members are no longer counter-cultural, regardless of the culture, culture will always overwhelm it and choke its life from it. It doesn’t matter if the culture is small town provincialism or big city movin’-and-shakin’. Skye mentions how Van Gogh was persecuted for taking Christ’s commands about loving the poor too seriously. He writes about Francis of Assissi handing his father his last stitch of clothing and telling him that from then on he had only one Father. We want to have our cakes and eat them, too. We want our churches the way we want them or want them and their members to change the way we want them to change AND our lives, jobs, etc., the way we want them. We want our Bible studies and spiritual disciplines AND our high-speed Internet and Starbucks. We want our forums for discussing the problems with Evangelicalism AND our independence to make our own decisions about church. O wretched men (and women) that we are!


  105. Good point. And it is probably a reason why megachurches may actually be practical, if not quite effective.


  106. The key problem with the tiny church in the tiny town is one of demographics. The small towns are growing smaller as older people die and younger people leave. Not that those remaining don’t deserve to have their religious needs met, they do, it’s just not a way to grow religion.

    And tiny church in inner ring suburbia (where I live) or city doesn’t work well. Buildings are expensive to acquire and maintain so a tiny church is always going to be living hand to mouth. Home church sounds appealing but in inner ring suburbia or the city you’re going to have considerable friction with neighbors over parking if your home church is of any size.


  107. This post will generate a lot of discussion, I think. I’m staying tuned.

    Regarding the “campus” model: we moved from a 27 or 28,0000 sq.ft place to a 60K plus “fixer upper”, which offers a much larger sanctuary (which looks , to me, EXACTLY like a theatre…hmmm) but also comes with a HUGE maintenance bill. We knew that going in, but $$$ spent (out of necessity) on our building are dollars NOT spent somewhere else. Our expressed desire is to “impact the community” , but we’ll see how that goal plays out.

    This will be a hard post to nail down “solutions”, I’m guessing.


  108. Some thoughts on your thoughts, Aaron.

    1) Ordaining homosexuals is so rare that it is usually a national news story. I strongly disagree with your charge that “For every bit of nonsense you can find in evangelicalism, you can find four or five in the mainline denominations.” Rather, it seems to me that for every bit of nonsense you find in the mainlines, you can find hundreds in the evangelicals.

    2) Evangelicalism may be alive, but it most certainly is not well, and it hasn’t been since the 1970s. In the USA, evangelicals are widely — and rightly — seen as a group that hates immigrants (rather than welcoming and evangelizing them, which would be the Biblical position), is resentful about paying taxes (again, counter to Christ’s directive), and prefers to put women in jail (as an answer to abortion) rather than support living wages, unions, and the kind of economic substructure that would actually reduce the number of abortions. Evangelicalism’s most well-known public figures are John Hagee, Paula White, and Sarah Palin. On the other hand, the mainlines have produced figures like N.T. Wright, Tim Keller, and Eugene Peterson.


  109. I understand and agree with your points. After almost 40 years of devoting my life to Southern Baptist/evangelical/non-denominational world, I felt a longing for basic bible study and basic community. After 3 years of seeking, it was extremely difficult for me to accept that not one of the churches in my area even did basic bible study anymore. It was all about the theatrical show. The show is either dedicated to “How to be a better xxx in 5 easy steps” or a fundamentalist retreat and fortification in the culture wars. The change in pastor from sheppard to CEO of the corporation was troubling to me as I experienced grief in my personal life and realized the 40 years I devoted to church was worthless as there was no longer any sense of community, and the pastor/staff no longer are involved in shepherding. I have horror stories of times I spoke with the CEOs of the corporations about the need for bible study and community, and the responses I received from them! How I long for the most basic of bible studies and a sense of community!


  110. I would also add that many in American “evangelical” churches are anti-doctrinal. What I mean by that is many Christian Churches either take a minimalist position or a rejection of teaching the doctrine of the faith to their congregations. For example, bible studies have moved from studying the bible to a topical book study what uses the bible as a secondary source. Another example is how many churches teach the doctrine that their church is based on to their members. There is general “dumping down” of many Christians.

    When is the last time your church engaged in a serious study of key doctrines of the faith such as justification or study a book such as Romans?


  111. Mike, excellent points. I would also like to humbly ask a question or two.

    While most of the critiques seem on point, I was unsure of the one criticizing the “show” — ” Let me say unequivocally—this is not worship. ” While I agree that the performance and stage aspect is way off track, what about music and praise in the corporate setting? We need to remember that every time and culture in history offer the picture of a group of people with music and dancing or swaying and chanting or singing, all in worship. So it is the hyped showtime environment that you have a problem with, as opposed to the idea of coming together in group worship with music and praise?

    Secondly, is part of your issue with the corporate “model” related to the choice of roles and persons? What I mean is, clearly God gives each person specific gifts, and no one person has all the gifts, or can do it all. Many of our senior pastors do the “preaching” and “teaching”, and they are also in many cases given the role to lead and manage and organize their churches, which turn into fairly complex business organizations, as you point out. In other words, they are the corporate CEO, publicity and PR, and education and training captains all rolled into one. Now, think Wall Street for a moment. Hopefully CEOs are chosen because they know how to lead and manage an organization, not because they can make the best impassioned speech to their employees every week. Although this resulting twisted way of defining roles might be a secondary point, what are your thoughts on it?


  112. I will be following your upcoming posts closely.

    You write, “Pre-industrial, agricultural, and personal models have been replaced by the ethos and practices of the corporation.” This provokes me. Something can be said of the “old world charm” of the small Protestant churches that dotted the landscape during the early years of America’s founding. There were no large screens, revival worship had not really hit the streets and services were simple out of necessity. It was earth and wood and faith in God’s provision for their daily bread. And they thrived. And reading the religious thoughts of these preachers, everything could be summed up in 1 Timothy 2:5. What was past can be the future.

    On a related note, much of popular culture has mocked the idea of a “tiny church in a tiny town” and while the criticism is understandable, replacing that model with the megachurch in a metropolis has not helped the situation any.

    Currently, I am in dialogue with a young Christian whose small, quaint Baptist church is succumbed to the praise and worship model and they are considering leaving. Very conservative and Southern Baptist, they prefer hymns and sermons on grace towards sinners over praise music and five-steps to a better life messages.

    Sometimes I admire the Amish.


  113. These are fair and well-deserved critiques, Mike. But I have a couple of questions to ask in response:

    (1) You say you were driven to a mainline church because of all the things wrong with evangelicalism. I don’t know anything about your particular congregation, and I hope that it is a strong, healthy, and biblically faithful one. But if it is, that would be in spite of, not because of, its identification as a mainline denomination. For every bit of nonsense you can find in evangelicalism, you can find four or five in the mainline denominations. Ordaining homosexuals is just one that comes to mind (again, I’m not saying your church has advocated this, but the mainline denominations on the whole have a wretched track record when it comes to this issue).

    (2) Why use the terminology of “post-evangelical”? I know Michael Spencer used it, but is it really an accurate way to describe anything in this present era when evangelicalism is still alive and well? Doug Wilson made this same comment about Brian McLaren’s overuse of the “post” language. Really, it is not fitting to say you are “post” anything until long, long after the fact. If we live in a post-colonial age now, it is because we can look back and see how things have changed in retrospect. But no one living during colonial times would have stood up and proclaimed himself a “post-colonial” just because he disagreed with certain aspects of colonialism. The McLaren/emergent movement seems to be the origin of this overly fond use of “post” language, but I think it reflects an overestimation of one’s historical importance (or, at the very least, a premature estimation of one’s historical importance).

    Just some thoughts here. I join in you in your concerns about evangelicalism, but I would probably differ in some ways I would flesh out the problems and propose changes.


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