In our fixation upon the trickling down of culture from the beliefs in our minds we have frequently failed to appreciate the ways in which our thinking bubbles up from the world of our bodies, via our imaginations.
• Alastair Roberts
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What I’m going to talk about today is true of most every tradition. But our focus is on the world of evangelicalism in this post.
When we moved to a Chicago suburb in 1983 so I could attend seminary, we spent a couple of months looking for a church to call home. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when we walked into Waukegan Bible Church and attended a service there. It was right. We would fit there. Something in the very atmosphere of the sanctuary communicated compatibility. It smelled right! The decorative elements of the building, the way the people behaved, the way the service was conducted, the music, the teaching, the way people related — all of it reminded us of the kinds of churches we had been involved in during Bible college and the congregation we had served before moving. Before I ever read a statement of faith, before I ever learned of the church’s doctrine or practices, we were “in.” We slipped into that church like fish dropped into a fishbowl and swam in those waters for nine years until we relocated again.
In previous posts about how to define evangelicalism and post-evangelicalism, I have tried to be careful to make clear that what we are talking about is not simply a set of beliefs, but an entire culture. Many of us who were, to one degree or another, comfortable in evangelicalism, are no longer comfortable. And it’s not just a matter of changing our minds.
Serious evangelical spokespersons and teachers try to emphasize the movement’s worldview, its doctrines — in short, its truth. Bebbington’s fourfold model has often been cited: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism, as a basic skeleton upon which the various evangelical churches, missions, and schools form their bodies. And despite that skeleton, those bodies do indeed come with a variety of shapes and sizes and features. Southern Baptists are not Nazarenes, and the Church of God folks around me here in the Midwest don’t look at all like evangelical Presbyterians. Furthermore, just because you attend a non-denominational church doesn’t mean the specific cultural characteristics of your group match the culture of the other non-denom down the street.
Can I live with the style of the building and the sanctuary, the kind of music and the songs they sing or don’t sing, how they practice the various elements of worship, the kind of “personality” the church exhibits, the way people dress, the language with which they converse, the way they do the children’s programs and the youth group, the Christian celebrities, books, and media they endorse, the way people pray, how people talk about public issues and politics and culture, the style and approach the pastor uses in preaching, the colleges their students go off to attend, the camps, recreation and vacation spots church members prefer, the methods by which the church receives giving and donations, how accessible the pastors and other leaders are, the way the congregation makes decisions, and so on.
Doctrine and teachings certainly play a role in forming this culture, but I have often found that, for a large number of people, they don’t do so on a very deep level. Usually, if the right key words and phrases are used, if the right songs are sung in worship and the words and practices used in worship are comfortably within the realm of my experience, and if the pastor handles the Bible in a way that is not utterly foreign, that’s enough for most folks. It’s like the fish symbol on the business card in the cartoon strip above. Enough positive indicators, and this church matches the fingerprint of an acceptable Christian culture.
An important article by Alastair Roberts at Christ & Pop Culture called, “Evangelicalism’s Poor Form,” makes this point extremely well.
Evangelicalism is not typically experienced as a set of abstract and explicit doctrines or beliefs held by individuals, but more as a distinctive cultural environment within which such beliefs are inconsistently and idiosyncratically maintained.
Roberts stresses that what makes the difference for most people is the “evangelical folk religion” that has become the culture of the church, not the particular teachings of its leaders.
Much that swims in the weird and wonderful (and sometimes not-so-wonderful) soup of evangelicalism was added quite independent of church leadership. There is a sort of evangelical folk religion, most of which is largely unauthorized by pastors or elders, a folk religion driven and populated by TV preachers, purity culture, uninformed theological speculations in democratic Bible studies, Chick tracts, evangelistic bumper stickers and T-shirts, Thomas Kinkade paintings, VeggieTales, Kirk Cameron movies, Amish romance novels, the Left Behind series, Focus on the Family literature, Christian bloggers, CCM, Christian dating guides, Answers in Genesis books, sappy mass-produced devotional literature, study Bibles for every conceivable niche market, and much else besides. Unsurprisingly, many presume that this all passed quality control and received the imprimatur of Evangelical Central Headquarters.
For a movement that has often promised those within it the pristine order and integrity of a single comprehensive “world-and-life view,” the reality on the ground of evangelicalism can be disorienting.
Roberts cites James K. A. Smith, who says that our minds may informed by our church’s teachings, but our lives are more often formed on an “affective and non-cognitive level” as we are shaped by the culture around us.
What is particularly ironic about this is that the evangelical world often scorns other traditions that place more emphasis on habitual practices such as set liturgies, traditions, and other external “forms.” Evangelicals, on the other hand, promote a religion of the “heart,” an internal faith and growth that supposedly represents being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2) — change from the inside out. Little do they realize how much the forms of their religious culture (much of it borrowed from contemporary life rather than historic or traditional forms) are shaping them and forming their entire world and life view.
With equal irony, freedom from forms and an openness to innovation that has given evangelicalism an admirable flexibility in mission, has led to a place in which this state of continual flux has itself become an ingrained cultural characteristic of the movement. If it’s new and improved in religion, chances are it belongs to some evangelical group. Chameleons, welcome. This is your world.
Evangelical churches are often distinguished by such features as their use of contemporary musical styles, modes of dress, conspicuous use of state-of-the-art audio-visual technologies, their colloquial manner of speech, heavy online presence, and their ecclesiastical architecture that breaks with tradition to adopt the pattern of modern auditoriums. Evangelical identity is also widely expressed through the forms of a consumer society: through corporate models of Christian leadership, through the production, marketing, advertising, and selling of a Christianity that functions like a “brand” on everything from mints to key rings. Few pause to question whether these forms of expression might be shaping us in unhealthy ways, assimilating us into culturally prevailing habits, dynamics, and ways of life and perception, all beneath the cover of a thin veneer of Christianity.
For many post-evangelicals like me, it is the culture that became a primary problem. When I say I am in the wilderness, I certainly don’t mean I’ve lost my faith. I have lost my “world,” my “culture.” I don’t fit any more. Some of us may agree with one tradition more than another when it comes to beliefs; we may even feel perfectly comfortable with a simple, basic set of evangelical doctrines as the content of our “faith.” But its forms can no longer sustain us.
It is this evangelicalism that many have found wanting and abandoned, not typically through a direct rejection of evangelicalism’s beliefs in the abstract, but on account of a deep distaste with their shape and outworking in the world created by an unruly social imaginary. Until evangelicalism develops a deep mindfulness about the factors and forces that create its social imaginary, the health and strength of the Christian faith at its heart will be in jeopardy.
Coffee with Jesus is found at Radio Free Babylon.