Some basic concepts at Internet Monk (1) — Post-evangelical
I thought it might be a good time to review some basic concepts that have taken hold over the years here at Internet Monk. Some of these, of course, were introduced by the blog’s founder, Michael Spencer. Others come from Chaplain Mike, with thanks to friends and partners who have contributed. Since I, Chaplain Mike, am setting these forth, the language and emphases will be mine (except where directly quoted from Michael or others).
In my view, these represent the “fundamentals,” as it were, of Internet Monk. These are the themes the site and its conversations are built upon, the themes we return to again and again.
We begin today with an adjective used often around here. The subtitle for the blog for years was, “Dispatches from the Post-Evangelical Wilderness.” Though we adapted that a few years ago to “Conversations in the Great Hall,” we who write at Internet Monk by and large continue our journey away from American evangelicalism and remain critical of that culture.
• • •
“…to be post-evangelical is to reject evangelical culture in favor of a more catholic, diverse and ancient expression of the Christian faith, while adhering to evangelical doctrine without becoming part of team or faction operating under the illusion of superiority to others and a closure of the Christian conversation.”
For Michael Spencer, me, and many others here at Internet Monk, American “evangelicalism” became a problem. How did Michael define this “evangelicalism”? Here is a summary of his thoughts, taken from a 2006 post called “What Do I Mean by Post-Evangelical?”.
Evangelicalism [is] a twentieth century movement meeting the following qualifications:
- Protestant, even strongly anti-Catholic
- Baptistic, even in its non-Baptist form
- Shaped by the influence of Billy Graham and his dominance as an symbol and leader
- Shaped by the influence of Southern Baptist dominance in the conception of evangelism
- Influenced by revivalism and the ethos of the Second Great Awakening
- Open to the use of technology
- Oriented around individualistic pietism and a vision of individualistic Christianity
- Committed to church growth as the primary evidence of evangelism
- Committed to missions as a concept and a calling, but less as a methodology
- Asserting sola scriptura, but largely unaware of the influence of its own traditions
- Largely anti-intellectual and populist in its view of education
- Traditionally conservative on social, political and cultural issues
- Anti-creedal, reluctantly confessional
- Revisionist toward Christian history in order to establish its own historical legitimacy
- Attempting, and largely failing, to establish a non-fundamentalist identity
- A low view of the sacraments and sacramental theology
- A dispensational eschatology, revolving around the rapture and apocalyptic views of immanent last days
I think if Michael were writing this list today, he would include more about the pervasive influence of various forms of Pentecostal/Charismatic movements and the prosperity gospel in evangelicalism, and especially the more profound and public involvement of evangelicals in American politics and the culture wars. In his most famous post, The Coming Evangelical Collapse (2009), he made this forecast:
Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This was a mistake that will have brutal consequences. They are not only going to suffer in losing causes, they will be blamed as the primary movers of those causes. Evangelicals will become synonymous with those who oppose the direction of the culture in the next several decades. That opposition will be increasingly viewed as a threat, and there will be increasing pressure to consider evangelicals bad for America, bad for education, bad for children and bad for society.
The investment of evangelicals in the culture war will prove out to be one of the most costly mistakes in our history. The coming evangelical collapse will come about, largely, because our investment in moral, social and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. We’re going to find out that being against gay marriage and rhetorically pro-life (yes, that’s what I said) will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence and are believing in a cause more than a faith.
To be a post-evangelical is described by Michael Spencer like this: “I mean that I do not recognize the boundary lines of American evangelicalism as the boundary lines of true Christianity.” Today, with their prominence in the political/culture wars, evangelicalism has not only stepped forward to say they are the only true Christianity but that they are the only true promoters of the American project. Speaking for myself, this has only further distanced me from a religious culture I spent most of my life serving.
Michael goes on to list some contrary conclusions he came to, having observed this evangelical culture.
- Creeds have positive and defining roles.
- Practicing any form of Christian community should interact with the larger church in history and reality.
- Christian belief emerges from a matrix of the text of Holy Scripture, the history of interpretation, cultural and sub-cultural presuppositions, the use of reason, the place of experience, the wisdom of the teachers of the larger church and the work of the Holy Spirit in revealing more light. Not from a “magic book.”
- The paradigms of denominationalism, education, worship, church growth, evangelism, Christian experience and so on that have dominated evangelicalism in the twentieth century are dead.
- Words like “postmodern,” “emerging” and “missional” are in the process of being defined and filled with meaning, and are not to be ridiculed and rejected out of hand.
- I reject the idea that the primary role of a minister is to define other Christians as wrong.
- The death of evangelicalism opens the door for a return to the sources and a fresh examination of the meaning of Jesus.
- Large churches are not the good thing we thought they were, and the renewal of the church, ministry and worship is a movement of many, small churches.
- Those leading worship and teaching the Christian life in American Christianity should repent of their previous allegiance to the assumptions of evangelicalism and seek to hear the voice of the Spirit again.
Again, if this list were written today, much more would be said about the mixture of politics and faith as well as the infiltration of dubious theological influences such as the prosperity gospel, third-wave pentecostalism (neo-charismatic movement), and the New Apostolic Reformation.
I have written my own list of the characteristics of American evangelical culture that I found troubling, which ultimately became deal-breakers for me.
- A lack of understanding of and respect for history and tradition,
- A “solo Scriptura,” “biblicist,” literalistic, precisionist view of the Bible that does not adequately grasp the human genesis of the biblical material and its historical development into becoming “scripture,” not allowing room for literary genre and ancient ways of communication, neglecting the history of biblical interpretation, failing to recognize the authority of the church in relation to scripture, and the influence of many other factors in reading and interpreting the Bible,
- Paradigms of church growth that stress building institutions rather than loving and helping people,
- Models of church structure, leadership, and organization that turn the church into a corporate marketing and business enterprise rather than the fellowship of God’s people,
- Models of ministry that depend on strategies, plans, and programs more than upon the Word and Spirit,
- A continual confusion of means and ends, and the inability to see that changing methods can and does alter the message,
- Pastors who are CEOs or inspirational speakers rather than pastors and spiritual directors,
- Preaching that sets forth principles to help us live as good, moral people, rather than proclaiming what Jesus did and does for lost and sinful people,
- Separatism: a “temple-oriented” approach to the Christian life wherein everything revolves around the church and its programs (“churchianity”), so that churches are turned into family-friendly, religious activity centers rather than places of true discipleship designed to send people back into daily life where the real Christian life is lived,
- “Worship” that is more about the worshiper and his/her preferences and emotional experiences than about giving honor to the true and living God and reenacting the story of Christ,
- Captivity to a conservative (usually Republican) political agenda,
- An inability to see the dangers of power and greed as clearly as the dangers of immorality, and a failure to see all three in its own people and institutions while simultaneously living in judgment of the “world’s” sins,
- A culture-war approach to public issues, wherein believers and churches take up rhetorical “arms” and wage war against those who disagree with them,
- An entire culture of religious consumers strung along by a “Christian-industrial complex” of corporations who get rich by marketing and selling stuff to them.
To describe ourselves as post-evangelical is to tell people where we’ve been, it doesn’t say anything about where we’re going. Michael spent the rest of his life in the “post-evangelical wilderness,” never finding an ecclesiastical home. If you read from the beginning of the blog’s archives, you can trace his travels down various paths as he explored and conversed with other pilgrims along the way. His passion became to seek a “Jesus-shaped spirituality,” rather than one formed by a church he felt had abandoned that pursuit (“mere churchianity”).
As for me, I eventually found a liturgical/theological oasis in the mainline church, the ELCA Lutheran church to be exact. Nevertheless, to this day I still experience a high level of ecclesiastical discomfort and skepticism. I don’t really view myself as a “churchman” any longer. Though I accept my pastoral vocation, I mostly practice it in a community-wide ministry of chaplaincy rather than as a parish pastor. I do remain involved with a local congregation as an adjunct to my hospice and community work, and I find great joy in presiding at the Word and Table with a church family for a portion of each year. But I no longer have much interest in the workings of the institution, it structures, or its programs. So there remains a “wilderness” dimension to my life. I’m not only post-evangelical, but post-ecclesiastical. I still feel somewhat in exile, having known a “home” for many years only to find myself unexpectedly alienated from it and now, in many ways, opposed to what it represents.
At Internet Monk, we are post-evangelicals.
For further reading here at iMonk, I suggest these articles:
- My So-Called Evangelical Life (1)
- My So-Called Evangelical Life (2)
- It’s the Culture
- Evangelical Ecumenism and a Jesus-Shaped Guest List
- iMonk Class Review: Defining Evangelicalism and Post-Evangelicalism
- Three Questions about Post-Evangelicalism
- Wilderness journey
- Mere churchianity
- Jesus-shaped spirituality
- The coming evangelical collapse
- The gospel
- Dangerous grace
- Why we must not be “good” Christians
- The “ordinary” life (contra “radical” Christianity)
- Drawn to the religionless
- Comforting the brokenhearted
- What is the Bible? What is it for?
- God’s good creation (Genesis, et al)
- Tikkun olam and the human vocation
- Shalom and the hope of new creation