Note from CM:
From 2006, this is an edited excerpt from Michael’s diagnosis of why evangelicals are increasingly drawn to the culture war. It’s not, he says, contrary to what the rhetoric wants us to believe: because they have a Jesus-shaped mission to the world, caring passionately about the issues Jesus cared about. No, it’s a bit less flattering. He is suggesting that spiritually empty, poorly led and poorly taught evangelicals are mistaking the Kingdom of God on earth for the victory of their political and cultural preferences. The Culture War is a poor replacement for the mission of the church as a Jesus-shaped community, pointing to the eschatological Kingdom of God.
And if you want some clear examples of how bad it has gotten since Michael wrote these words, check out the articles about evangelicals on the iMonk Bulletin Board.
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An edited excerpt from:
The Tactics of Failure: Why The Culture War Makes Sense To Spiritually Empty Evangelicals
Everywhere one looks, evangelicals are becoming the religion of the culture war. Liberals vs evangelicals almost defines America these days, and evangelicals don’t mind at all. The more intense it gets, the more we seem to know our place.
Increasingly, major evangelical ministries are becoming more interested in the culture war than any other topic. Take Baptist Press, the former press outlet for the Southern Baptist Convention. These days, fully half of the articles and columns coming from Baptist Press are culture war related, particularly dealing with abortion, homosexuality, feminism, stem cell research, support of the War in Iraq, displays of the Ten Commandments and politics in general. The SBC itself is, on some days, fortunate to get 1 or 2 articles on its own press service.
The SBC mounted a thinly veiled GOP-friendly voter registration movement in this past Presidential election., calling it “I Vote Values.” The SBC’s leading theologians are becoming secondary voices for the Republican party, with radio programs and press releases echoing the daily talking points from the RNC. SBC churches are more politicized than ever, and vigorous defenses of a political, culture war interpretation of discipleship are common. Younger culture war pastors, invigorated by the examples of SBCers like Jerry Falwell, Christian America historians like David Barton, and political preachers like D. James Kennedy, are making increasingly brash statements in the pulpit about what views on the culture war are compatible with being part of SBC churches.
The recent national story of Minneapolis pastor Greg Boyd losing over a thousand members in response to his stand against typical conservative culture war issues — such as the display of the American flag during a Christian worship service — points out how strongly many evangelicals feel about the culture war. They see the culture war mission as the critical component of living as a Christian in America. While no one denies that issues of life and sexuality are part of any Christian’s commitment to truth and compassion, the identification of these culture war issues with the myth of a Christian American is disturbing. Where is the gospel?
I believe the upcoming Presidential election cycle will bring about an unprecedented amount of Christian culture war rhetoric. The likely candidacy of Hillary Clinton will energize many American evangelicals as never before. Christians will be subjected to endless reminders that the “Salvation” depends on the defeat of Clinton. Clinton’s likely appeal to her own faith and to younger, anti-Bush, anti-war evangelicals will make the rhetoric among evangelicals even greater.
Of course, it would be hard to beat what one can hear right now from a Rod Parsley or Richard Roberts. A recent Roberts’ message that I overheard openly stated that the Bush re-election was God’s victory over Satan, and that it was the church that elected Bush. Such rhetoric is wrong and spiritually dangerous, but it also indicates a level of evangelical failure that is seldom discussed.
I wonder if evangelical leaders have contemplated what the effects on the “soul” could be with a political message and a culture war Gospel being sold by trusted leaders to a church often devoid of a Biblical mission.
Perhaps the evangelical lust for success in the culture war tells us more than we see it at first; perhaps it tells us about a more profound and troubling failure.
The Failure of Spiritual Formation
The most basic aspect of any religion is the ability to pass on its DNA to converts and the next generation. That DNA contains the essential beliefs, texts, stories, theology and articulation of the religion, but it also contains the “shape” or “form” of how that religion is lived out in the world in the lives of its believers.
For example, Islamic beliefs are easily summarized by any high schooler with Wikipedia, but what about living the Islamic life? There are already major divisions in the religion regarding religious practice, but fitting Islam into the modern, globalized and secularized world is the greatest challenge of all. Resurgent Islamicism is, in large part, a struggle to change the world to fit Islam because of the threat that Islam will be diluted and changed by the world.
Evangelical Christians face a similar challenge. The DNA of our religion can be passed on in books and other forms of written communication, but how do we live the life of a Christian? This is the question of “spiritual formation,” a much talked about subject among practical and experiential theologians and practitioners. How do we “form” our children into disciples? How do we bring them to the place of choosing Christian identities? How can we influence them toward the forms of Christian life, practice and worship that bring authentic Christianity into this generation, and prepare to move it on into the next?
Spiritual formation has, traditionally, been the work of the Christian family and of the church, particularly its teaching and pastoral ministries. Most evangelicals are aware of aspects of spiritual formation, even if they have never heard the word. Quiet Time. Personal Worship. Accountability. Discipleship groups. Mission trips. Choosing a Church. Knowing God’s Will. Prayer Life. Scripture memory. Personal retreats. Revival. Evangelism training. Re-dedication. These are some of the ways that evangelicals have talked about and attempted to carry out the important work of spiritual formation.
American evangelicals can point to hundreds of publications and programs aimed at some kind of spiritual formation result. The fact is that any honest, but generous judgement would say that after a century of moderate success, the twentieth century and beyond have witnessed an unparalleled failure of evangelicals in the area of spiritual formation. In other words, evangelicals are increasingly spiritually empty, and they are susceptible to a message that the world needs to be changed rather than themselves.
Both families and churches struggle in turning out disciples. American churches specialize in an consumerized, gnostic, experiential Gospel that is increasingly inseparable form the culture in which that church exists. American evangelicals have become as much like the dominant culture as it is possible to be and still exist at all. In fact, evangelicals continue to exist, in large measure, because they have mainstreamed the culture into their religion so that one’s Christianity hardly appears on the radar screen of life as any in any way different from the lives of other people. We are now about values, more than about Christ and the Gospel.
Evangelicals should come to terms with this: they are in every way virtually identical to suburban, white, upper middle class American culture. They are not as bad as the worst of that culture, but they are increasingly like the mainstream of that culture and are blown about by every wind of that consumerized and materially-addicted culture. In fact, go to many evangelical churches and the culture is so present, so affirmed, preached and taught that one would assume that there is nothing whatsoever counter-cultural about the affirmation that Jesus is Lord.
Spiritual formation is no longer interesting to most evangelical churches. Pentecostals want experience and megachurches want activity and support. The point at the end of it all is the expansion of the churches themselves and the ability of individual Christians to live in support of the church as the proper end of the earthly Christian life. The missional goal of most evangelical churches in America is the further growth of the church.
Eugene Peterson has written for years on the loss of the pastor as one who directs the spiritual formation of Christians through the Word, prayer, community and the sacraments. He has lamented the ascendancy of a “pastoral” model that is, in reality, a church growth technician, not a spiritual leader. Peterson has been a true prophet, and we can only hope that younger evangelicals are going to reread and finally hear his warnings now that they have all come true.
I am suggesting, therefore, that the increasing interest in the culture war among evangelicals is not an example of a reinvigorated evangelicalism remaking its culture. Instead, I believe the intense focus by evangelicals on political and cultural issues is evidence of a spiritually empty and unformed evangelicalism being led by short-sighted leaders toward a mistaken version of the Kingdom of God on earth.
The Culture War makes sense to Christians who have little or no idea how to be Christians in this culture except to oppose liberals and fight for a conservative political and social agenda — an agenda often less than completely examined in the light of scripture, reason, tradition and experience. Those evangelicals — like Greg Boyd — who have challenged or broken the identification with the political right can testify to how they are immediately viewed. Dissenting evangelicals are labeled as pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage and pro-Democrat instantly. The rhetoric of the culture warriors is relentless in associating dissenting evangelicals of every kind with the issues of abortion and homosexuality. No one could be blamed for believing that evangelicalism was a modestly spiritual movement with the goal of banning abortion and gay marriage. (I predict the comment thread of this essay will demonstrate exactly what I am saying.)
In this scenario, there are a number of bizarre takes. The SBC’s most well known theologian doesn’t write books of theology. He hosts a daily talk radio program on cultural war issues. Rod Parsley may preach about miracles, but he uses his influence to elect candidates and promote political causes. Politicians elected by evangelicals get re-elected by appealing to the hot button culture war issues, but their positions on issues like gambling or Aid to Africa are unpredictable and often unknown. The Left Behind movies become video games where the godless are shot by Christians defending themselves. Ann Coulter appears on TBN, promoting her take on why evangelicals ought to care about the influence of real “godless” liberals.
Where is the gospel? Where is the missional calling of the Christian? Where is the church’s ministry of spiritual formation? Where are ministries of Word and Sacrament? All of these are increasingly buried under doublespeak and culture war rhetoric. Evangelicalism is being betrayed by many of its leaders who are building their “ministries” by the appeal to anything but the Gospel and compassion of Jesus.
The culture war agenda increasingly makes sense to evangelicals who are spiritually unformed, distracted and misled.