There is no urgent concern for converting people in the New Testament. Did you get that down? There is also no urgent concern for the numerical growth of churches by the efforts of members to convert others. There are no burgeoning church programs. There are no plans to train everyone to door knock and sell Jesus. There is an urgent concern for doctrinal and personal Christ-likeness. There is a concern for leadership, integrity, honesty and obedience to Christ in our personal lives. The idea that we are here to “win souls” and not to know and show God is bogus. – Michael Spencer, “Wretched Urgency“
One of the hallmarks of Evangelicalism is what Michael Spencer called “Wretched Urgency”. If you haven’t had a chance to read this brilliant piece by Michael, then please, stop reading this, click on the link, and see why so many of us have found a home at Internet Monk. It will also help provide context to what am going to write here.
Before I continue, let me return to why I am writing this series. This site was created for those who are in the “Post-Evangelical Wilderness”. Many of the visitors and commentators are those who have been somehow burned by Evangelical churches, and so have found themselves wandering, without a church to call home. Some have eventually found homes in other traditions, some have returned to their evangelical routes, but with a better sense of what to stay clear of, still others have a foot in multiple traditions, gleaning the best that they can from others, many are still wandering. I am in process of trying to exit this wilderness, and put down some more permanent roots. This series is my attempt to convey some of my thoughts about my journey.
“Wretched Urgency” had been a big part of my evangelical life. I won’t bore you with the details of how I had been complicit in it, or how I had been turned off of it. Let’s just say that Michael’s post written many years ago really resonated with me, and I could identify with much of what he had written.
A sermon at church a couple of weeks ago, really caught my attention. It was based on one of the biblical passages that are quoted so often in Evangelical circles. According to the book of Acts, these are the last words that Jesus spoke on earth.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. – Acts 1:8
What the Pastor then said was so different from anything I had heard before. It also gives a glimpse of one of the reasons why my current church is so different from others that I have been involved in before. I am paraphrasing here, but it is close to the sense of what he actually said:
Notice that we are called to be witnesses. What is a witness? Let me first tell you what a witness isn’t. A witness is not the prosecuting attorney. He or she does not have to build the case for the prosecution. A witness is not the defence attorney. He does not have to build the case for the defence. (As a Canadian he would have spelled defence with a “c”.) A witness is not the judge or jury. He does not have to decide the case. The job of a witness is simply to tell what he has seen. If you are asked, “Well what about this?” It is perfectly fine to say “I don’t know about that, I am just here to tell you about what I do know.”
There are those in Christianity who have special training. They have studied and learned how to construct cases for the defence.
They have been trained in apologetics. Some of you may be interested in that area, and want to learn more about that. There is nothing wrong with that and I encourage it. But for the rest of us, we are called to witnesses. To speak what we know of Jesus when called upon. And if we don’t have all the answers… There is nothing wrong with that.
To hear that on a Sunday morning felt so… freeing. There was no “wretched urgency”. Just be who you are.
There was also an emphasis on listening to people. That is, if we are more concerned about hearing what the other person has to say, and learning from them, there will be less of an inclination on our part to make them “agenda items.”
In 2014, as I found myself slipping into the wilderness, I wrote the post “Items on the List” In it I quoted Lynn, a commentator at the time on Internet Monk:
Human beings are not business deals. How we live our lives in this world and how we love will speak volumes more than the feeble, faulty words that fall from our tongues.
Finding a church that does not emphasize “wretched urgency”, is one of the reasons that I may be finally exiting the wilderness.
As usual your thoughts and comments are welcome.
23 thoughts on “Escaping the Wilderness: Part 6 – No More “Wretched Urgency””
Well, Mike, the older I get, the more I see this strange occurrence of me agreeing with you on stuff. Weird!
Great article, and I couldn’t agree more about the liberation that comes from escaping “wretched urgency.”
Except that we can never really escape it. It’s in the religious air we breathe. But at least we can see it for what it is and be thus free from it’s power to terrorize our conscience.
I have also found it liberating to resort to “I don’t know” rather than trying to come up with a bad answer. I would just add to that: Stay curious! Just because we don’t understand it now, doesn’t mean it cannot be known. It may be unknowable on this side, but things will always surprise us when we continue to dig.
That, and…. a third option to a bad answer or an “i don’t know” is always to answer a question with another question. By all means, eat humble pie when it’s called for, but just ’cause you don’t have an answer doesn’t mean you still can’t make them think! It’s less of a non-sequitur, and I think it helps keep disagreements more focused on seeking truth together instead of winning a rhetorical point tally.
I think I’ve shared this before but:
My husband has a cousin who is Buddhist, and he, over the years, rarely came to cousins events cuz no one really talked to him, or knew what to say to him. Because of this, I’ve never known him well or rarely spoke to him.
But both his parents died, and he has a twin brother who is with the family regularly.
So one time at a wake for another one of their cousin’s (she died young), I found myself outside on the patio with him, just the two of us.
I simply said, hey Mark, I don’t know you well, I sorta remember your first wife,( he’s remarried) but tell me what’s going on.
Flood gates opened. He started talking about the divorce, remarrying, his parents difficult deaths, and that he’s a Buddhist.
Oh really…tell me about that up I don’t know much. Again, floodgates!
We had a great conversation, in fact when my husband came looking for me, another cousin said…leaver her alone she’s got this.
I JUST LISTENED.
Now he comes regularly and buttonholes me. Cracks me up. He was raised catholic, I was not, but I married one.
We have great connection and conversations. He’s always asking questions…he’s thinking.
Mike, you are soooooo right.
We need to listen.
My dad taught me that all growing up-and practice that still today.
Keep reminding us!
Gotta remember that.
Because Wretched Urgency eventually Backfires. BAD.
–> ” The question is WHAT KIND of witness.”
Hopefully not the Pharisitical kind.
–> “It reminded me of John 9 where the blind man that was healed refuses to be drawn into debate about Jesus, stating simply ‘all I know is I was blind and now I see’.”
Excellent scriptural example!
the word ‘martyr’ in the archaic Greek/Latin languages means ‘witness’
it came to mean that someone suffered and died because they refused to ‘give up’ witnessing for what they believed in;
and the ground where these witnesses were killed became ‘holy ground’ and Churches were built over the sites of the martyrdom of these Christian witnesses
fast-forward to our time, and sadly, if you are a fundamentalist-evangelical Christian witness, the first thing people might think of who you answer to is ‘Trump’ and the ‘Republican Party’ . . . . . times have changed
A pastor I had in college said that, as Christians, we ARE a witness already. The question is WHAT KIND of witness.
Douglas Campbell says that ‘after the fact’ we are given the script – you realized you were a sinner, you realized you could not save yourself, you realized Jesus died for your sins, you repented and believed
Is that how it works? OMG I’m not saved.
“At the risk of flogging a dead horse here, it is trivially easy to find a church that doesn’t emphasize wretched urgency. You just need to expand your search.”
I agree. “Wretched Urgency” was one of the things that sent me into the wilderness. There are many things that cause various types of churches and me to not mesh. I have touched on that in the past. And will do more so in an upcoming post.
Good discussion; all helpful insights so far.
I’ve probably said this before, but a few years ago the ‘biblical pattern’ of evangelism dawned on me. God sets apart certain individuals with special gifts – they are called (in the NT) ‘evangelists’. They are really what we call ‘church planters’ today. They go into a community and establish a core group of converts. Then they stick around to get it founded, and move on. That core group has social connections to others (‘network theory’) and their friends begin to be included, and hang out with this group. At some point the friends experience the grace and presence of God (through that community) and then realize they too believe.
There is a good deal of sociological research to support that this is how it happens today too (see work by Rodney Stark), even among evangelicals (so-called ‘crisis evangelism’ [methods like Evangelism Explosion or large crusades] is really not effective, and not how most evangelicals are converted either). Douglas Campbell says that ‘after the fact’ we are given the script – you realized you were a sinner, you realized you could not save yourself, you realized Jesus died for your sins, you repented and believed . . . . But that really isn’t how it happens to most people.
The point is that people come to believe as they experience God’s grace through the ‘church’ being ‘the church’, not through heavy-handed emotional manipulation or sales techniques. Unfortunately those ‘wretched urgency’ churches are about the last place to experience God’s grace. It seems somewhat self-defeating.
Agree about “being a witness”, as opposed to a prosecuting attorney who is compelled to build a case and win arguments. It reminded me of John 9 where the blind man that was healed refuses to be drawn into debate about Jesus, stating simply “all I know is I was blind and now I see”.
Love that take on “being a witness.”
Thanks for this article, Mike B!
> still internalize Evangelical teaching about other traditions
Some of this the carry over of Evangelical Theological Tedium.
The belief that correct Orthodoxy yields correct Orthopraxy [nope, so very nope].
I had to work through this.
What if I cannot find a clear reference indicating that we agree on points 7 through 2,136,231?
Then it dawns on one that, oh, I didn’t really agree on 7 through 2,136,231 where I was.
Then it dawns on one that I’m not so sure I really care all that much about 12 through 2,136,231.
Maybe one even comes to realize I’m not entirely clear on what points 3, 8, & 11 mean.
Post process, the count of potential homes increase. But processes take time.
“””Going from Evangelical church to Evangelical church in search of its absence….”””
This! That is like a swimmer searching for a lake that is not wet.
“””when they come to realize they need something else, still internalize Evangelical teaching about other traditions.”””
Again, This. A refusal to grasp the totality of the failure. Often times for what appears to be little more than the attachment to a tribal label: “Evangelical”.
“Finding a church that does not emphasize “wretched urgency”, is one of the reasons that I may be finally exiting the wilderness.”
At the risk of flogging a dead horse here, it is trivially easy to find a church that doesn’t emphasize wretched urgency. You just need to expand your search. Wretched urgency is a peculiar, and arguably defining, trait of Evangelicalism, Going from Evangelical church to Evangelical church in search of its absence is a sub-optimal strategy. Evangelicalism has spent the better part of half a century dismissing mainline churches as “spiritually dead” if not outright apostate. Unfortunately, a lot of individual Evangelicals, when they come to realize they need something else, still internalize Evangelical teaching about other traditions.
I remember, at the height of my witnessing prowess, talking to a stranger on the street. He told me his name. After about seven or eight minutes of passionate oration on my part he interrupted me mid-sentence and said, “What’s my name?” He sensed already that I didn’t have the foggiest idea. He did a 180 and walked away without a word.
My whole life was this. And the guilt was overwhelming. I’ll never forget Evangelism Explosion, which my dad still says is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Really, Dad? What I remember was how uncomfortable I was trying to get someone I didn’t even know to understand a Jesus I did know in the course of an hour.
Jesus is much more successful working through me with people that I know well and who are looking for God’s love. Even then, I manage to screw it up and God has to work things out his own way. It’s a good thing God is God and I am not.
My hubbie and I have had a soft landing after leaving Evangelicalism into a PCUSA church. We’ve only been twice, but we’ve heard the Gospel preached both times and have felt no guilt or wretched urgency, only love.
> where the only thing that matters (apart from giving them money, of course)
> is bring more people in
And being active in youth ministry one will come to realize that the goal is to “bring in”, at least predominately, the right sort. There is a quota system at the open door; if those you bring in are non-compliant with the expectation you will be called before management.
Ah yes, the Ponzi / pyramid selling school of Christianity, where the only thing that matters (apart from giving them money, of course) is bring more people in: the only product they are selling is the opportunity to sell more product. I recall being invited to an evangelical church when looking for a new church when I went to college. It was my first time there and literally the whole service was devoted solely to teaching how, to, encouraging and exhorting people to invite more people to the church, and nothing else. I didn’t go back.
I entered the big-E in very early adulthood [fortunately not during childhood], and “The Great Commission” / “Wretched Urgency” argument always seemed very weak. Weak as in: read the New Testament, don’t see it. Another item on the list of topics I simply avoided talking about, nod-and-smile, and I could always fall back on the “Oh, Evangelism is not one of my gifts” [ugh]. Toward the end, as I became more grumpy, there was a conversation where I questioned WU and heard “You don’t think anything is required of you?”. Yeah, because there is nothing else in the New Testament [or nothing they *want* to see]. That issue helped me see that Evangelicalism had no use for me.
Simone Weil wrote a book “The Need for Roots” in 1943, immediately before her death later that year. “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul”.
And that is probably both of a spiritual and corporeal nature. The nationalism that is feared errs on the side of corporeal- that is the blood-and-soil crowd. The spiritual universalists err by discounting the need for physical attachment to people( and land).
Chesterton’s position that Christianity developed a new identity to virtue is the key to me. He said paganism believed virtue was a balance. Christianity maintained it is a paradox of two positions held simultaneously( and hard to do). And being in the wilderness like clockwork, at least once a week, the wounds of dislocation, and that feeling of belonging nowhere, creep back into perception. And yet personally I do have good family and neighbors. I don’t testify to have an answer either, but do speak here to the fact that holding the rooted meme is hard.