Bill Hybels did market research and now his daughter does a Christian-spin on a TED tour.
• Jake Meador
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Today, some considerations about reforming the church in our own day.
In the light of the Jen Hatmaker situation that drew a lot of attention in the Christian world this past week (and which I have no interest in discussing today), Jake Meador has written a thought-provoking article at Mere Orthodoxy called “Our Impoverished Imaginations: The World of Jen Hatmaker.”
So, this is more about the world Ms. Hatmaker comes from and which she represents — the evangelical church world that grew out of the boomer-era seeker-sensitive evangelicalism in which today’s young Christians grew up. Jake Meador suggests that this world is in need of serious reform.
This is a critique that comes from a different perspective than the one that has characterized Internet Monk over the years. Michael Spencer and the rest of us here have represented baby-boomers who eventually found that the revivalist-based, consumerist-oriented, culture war transformed, programmatic world of U.S. evangelicalism failed to nourish and support us as we aged into mature adulthood.
As our personal worlds grew bigger and deeper and fuller, our churches appeared smaller and shallower, more in their own little worlds of theological biblicism, moralistic therapeutic deism, and a pragmatic growth mentality that emphasized packaging, programs and performances. By and large, they avoided pursuing spiritual depth through liturgical renewal and practices of silence and reflection, pursuing relational depth through pastoral care and welcoming the poor, and pursuing missional depth by getting out into their communities with forbearance and ecumenical grace. Evangelicalism, in essence, represented suburban U.S. culture as much or more than it did historic Christianity.
While Meador acknowledges some of evangelicalism’s contributions, he strongly confirms this critique:
The suburban Christianity of the 90s and 2000s existed within a broader cultural milieu. This milieu relied upon the same thing that sustains our culture today: Market-backed individualism that sacrifices the social capital existing amongst traditional small societies in hopes of obtaining increased personal freedom for individual members of the society. Within such a space, religious and political identity becomes more of a personal branding statement than adherence to a defined set of principles that you believe to be accurate descriptions of what is good, true, and beautiful.
Boomer-era evangelicalism was itself a creature comfortable living in this ecosystem. Indeed, the institutions that defined it were almost unimaginable apart from that broader system. We had our huge megachurches with concert-like worship spaces and pastors who often behaved more like CEOs than shepherds of souls. We had our radio stations, TV stations (and shows), musicians, and award shows. We had our own tee-shirts and gift store paraphernalia. We had youth ministries that looked like typical after school clubs but with superficial trappings of Christian faith.
In all these ways, we had a Christianity that served more as a brand identity within the broader realm filled with autonomous, self-made consumers building and refining their selves through commercial activity. We had different products, but the differences weren’t the point; the products were.
As long as we shopped and engaged in other sorts of commerce as the primary way of expressing our self-identity, the market was happy to indulge our difference. Thus religious identity for many Americans came to look more like a brand than fidelity to the Covenant Lord we meet in Scripture.
Now, Meador says, the new generation of evangelicals is continuing to subconsciously conform to today’s dominant culture, at the same time they are criticizing and even leaving the evangelical bubble in which they grew up.
Meador calls these young people, “the second generation of seeker-sensitive evangelicalism.” His charge? “Even when they try to stake out a more ostensibly counter-cultural position…they often end up mimicking more mainstream trends in rich, suburban America.” To help us visualize these trends, Meador links to an article that describes the sleek and clean “Apple ideology” that has come to characterize this world.
He compares videos that show the similar ethos between business conferences and progressive Christian conferences. He observes that TED Talks have become the standard and that evangelicals today riff off of that vibe in the same way that previous generations took cultural trends and “Christianized” them in order to appear “relevant.”
In other words, we boomers taught our children well.
By adopting the norms of the bourgeois, the attractional Christians of the 1970s were setting themselves and their children up to become good syncretists and utterly incapable of mounting any kind of serious prophetic critique of their culture.
How does Jake Meador suggest that we reform evangelicalism today?
First, he says, we must counter commercialized and individualized church. “We need to regain the idea of Christianity being an entire life system. Our faith does not simply serve as a set of therapeutic principles to help individual people feel better about themselves. It actually defines what reality is and holds us accountable to it.”
Second, he says we must go local. “What we must recover, then, is the idea of a domain in which we live that is not the global marketplace. We need to return again to the idea of smaller places that we work to build and improve through work characterized first and foremost by affection, intimate knowledge, and patience.”
These are good suggestions that need to be fleshed out. I especially like the way he ends his piece with an appeal to “the glory of the mundane.”
Talking about these very matters has always been and will continue to be a big part of our