Chaos Isn’t Always Bad


This is Part 2 of my response to Alastair Roberts’ post regarding the state of progressive evangelicalism. I’m going to focus on point 3. Roberts states:

“The question that we need to ask ourselves is how the progressive evangelical movement is being formed in the absence of progressive evangelical churches. My suggestion is that, given the lack of progressive evangelical churches, the progressive evangelical movement that is forming online is primarily formed of highly disaffected people from evangelical contexts, people who are often isolated and alienated in their own communities, but who find common identity online.”

For the most part, I think he’s right about this. Last year I posted my own thoughts about how Liberal Christianity in general is dying off. While I still feel the same overall about Liberal Christianity in general, I am much more optimistic now than I was when I wrote that post.

The reason why is that the longterm trends on the evangelical Left have been towards increased order and consensus. I have been involved in sharing the Gospel for about twenty years. For most of those years, people who rejected the Gospel did so for personal reasons. Online I found a lot of the same theological reasons, but digging a little under the surface almost always personal issues: either they a bad experience with a church or parents, felt rejection based on sexual orientation, or they were content with their current belief system.

In 2005, I saw a dramatic shift. Political reasons for rejecting the Gospel took center stage. While the personal issues were still prominent, I saw more and more nonchristians who remained so explicitly because they equated Christianity with Republican politics. The catalyst was the re-election of George W. Bush and the evangelical church’s willingness to be identified with the administration’s politics.

All of the campus missionaries I know agree that they too saw a dramatic shift around 2005. Suddenly they found themselves trying to assure students that their ministry wasn’t a stealth attempt to make young people become Republicans. The personal issues were still prominent, but for an increasing number students the main issue was conservative politics. Since then, the number of people who identify Republican politics with Christianity has increased.

Around the same time my pastor and I devised a series of “man on the street” interviews, where I asked people three questions:

“What is your opinion about Jesus?”

“What is your your opinion about evangelicals?”

“Are you familiar with our church, and if so, what do you know about it?”

The results were fascinating. We expected pushback from nonchristians and friendly discussions with other Christians. Instead we found almost all of the nonchristians were happy to share their thoughts. They enjoyed having a  dialogue with us.

The Christians, on the other hand, were full of anger. The few evangelicals we met were glad to share their feelings, but since they recognized us as fellow believers, they didn’t feel the need to elaborate.  But the other Christians were accusatory:

“Why are you doing this?” (asked as if we were firing them from their jobs)

“You people are ruining this country.”

“You’re destroying Christianity for the sake of winning elections.”

“You people don’t even believe in Jesus.”

Only a handful of Christians were willing to have their answers recorded. Some not only insisted that we turn our camera off, they also insisted we empty our pockets to prove that we weren’t secretly recording them anyway. They really wanted to respond to our questions, but they suspected if we recorded them, we would edit it dishonestly. No nonchristians suspected we were up to no good.

From my perspective, what we’e seeing now from Millennials is a smooth continuation of that pushback against evangelicals. In the eight years that have passed, many Millennials have come of age or moved beyond their conservative roots. And what I see now is a more coherent list of tenets Liberal Christians are willing to define themselves by, and voices that, while not authoritative, have found themselves with an audience willing to rally around them. Given how young many of these people are, the movement is coalescing ahead of schedule.

Granted, the movement is still in a state of chaos and uncertainty, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most successful movements start in a disorganized fashion and slowly move towards structure and institutionalization. The Tea Party began with an obscure CNBC pundit named Rick Santelli ranting about the mortgage bailout. The Arab Spring began with a Tunisian  fruit seller named  Mohammed Bouazizi setting himself on fire. The Civil Rights movement broke open nationwide when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Mundane beginnings can launch dramatic results.

It’s worth noting that none of these figures wound up becoming leaders in movements they sparked, and at first each of them defined themselves by what they were against (in the case of the Tea Party, they still define themselves that way.) I would argue that Liberal evangelicals treat conservatives as foils because they still wish to remain a part of the evangelical church. In order to change the church, liberals must engage it directly.

The reliance on online community may be temporary. For decades I used to point out that Atheism wouldn’t be able to compete with organized religion because religion offers community and fellowship. Lo and behold,  Atheist churches have begun to pop up, and people are going to them.

That said,  I do agree that the danger is that Liberal evangelicalism could disintegrate into a vague pantheistic spirituality. I’ve noticed a number of liberal evangelical bloggers have begun to shift in this direction. However, I don’t think this trend is irreversible. In spite of its reputation, evangelical Christianity as a whole is extremely flexible. It’s shocking to observe how susceptible it is to fads and charismatic figures, and many churches have reversed themselves on core doctrines in a very short amount of time. If the church can shift rightward in a short period of time, it is quite possible that it could shift leftward, especially if we reach a point where the number of Liberal evangelicals exceed the number of conservatives.

More thoughts on the Rachel Held Evans/ Millennial Debate


After sleeping on it, I realized that the title of my last post was a bit too melodramatic.

Since a new crop of blog posts have chimed in during the past 24 hours, I  thought I’d address a few points. In response Rachel’s statement that the church should “sit down and talk” with Millennials, Brett McCracken at the Washington Post writes:

“How about the opposite? Millennials: why don’t we take our pastors, parents, and older Christian brothers and sisters out to coffee and listen to them? “

Here’s the deal, Brett. It’s simple relationship dynamics. When a member of your family has a list of complaints, you sit down and listen to them. No matter how absurd you may think their complaints may be. A classic example is the toilet seat question; if you have women in your family and you keep the toilet seat up, you’ll hear about it. If you’re like a lot of guys, you might wonder why it’s a big deal.  But you’re never going to solve the problem by sitting the female members of your family down to tell them why they shouldn’t be upset about the toilet seat.

Earlier in the column Brett states that the answer is “decidedly not to sit the Millennial down and have him or her dictate exactly what they think the church should be.”

Notice the contrast between Rachel statement and Brett’s. Rachel asks for a conversation, and Brett equates a conversation with dictation. Later on McCracken says that:

“Part of the problem is the hubris of every generation, which thinks it has discovered, once and for all, the right way of doing things. “

Except hubris isn’t always a bad thing. The Boomers had the hubris to believe that African Americans and women deserved equal rights. Gen X’ers had the hubris to believe that rock music deserved a place in worship. I could go on, but the point is that there’s no harm listening to young people. If you feel that listening to people means submitting to their whims, then you’ve got issues.

I think it’s time to get past the coy dance that’s taken place the last few days. None of the writers I’ve critiqued are willing to say it, but their point-by-point answer to Rachel’s post can be summarized as follows:

– Millennials are lying or misguided when they say they prefer the high church style of worship.

–  The substance in evangelical churches is just fine, and tinkering with it would produce disastrous results.

– It’s more important to stand against things than emphasize what you’re for. And the Culture Wars should rage on. And there’s no way we’d contemplate a truce with those evil scientists!

–  Every question we can think of has a predetermined answer. And if you believe otherwise, don’t ask it.

–  Gays welcome in the church? Are you serious???

–  Millennials are lying when they say that they want to be challenged.  They might be telling the truth about wanting to be peacemakers, but that’s because they don’t realize that the best way to handle our enemies is to bomb, torture, or kill them.

–  Jesus has always been in the church. If Millennials don’t see that, then it’s their fault.

–  Sure, Millennials long for Jesus. But they have to fall in line if they want to find Him.

– Ultimately, the church doesn’t care whether Millennials stay or go. If they stay, they should drop their grievances. The way to resolve these issues is to just not have them in the first place.

Like alcoholics, in order for the church to solve its problems, it needs to admit that it has a problem. Unfortunately it still has 12 steps to go.

A Seething Cauldron Of Rage

LeavingThat’s how I’m feeling right now. I’ve read a number of responses to Rachel Held Evan’s CNN essay describing the reasons Millennials are leaving the church. Like Rachel, i’m firmly in the Gen X demographic (and closer in age to the Boomers than the Millennials), but my frustrations and experiences echo theirs.

I’ll admit that a whole spectrum of blogs have written about her concerns, and many of them have supported Rachel’s message. But in the circles I travel the bulk of the links I’ve seen have been among the most toxic, and reading them made me as angry as the day a woman was dragged out of a Texas  Senate hearing for daring to voice her disapproval of the state’s latest salvo in the war against women.

I expected conservatives to launch a passionate defense of the status quo, and to be honest, none of their talking points surprised me. But I did expect at least a sliver of concession that the church was accountable for its declining relevance, even if I disagreed with their solutions. Instead the tactic has been to attack Rachel herself and  insist that Millennials are the problem.

Since Trevin Wax at  The Gospel Coalition gave a concise representation of the evangelical establishment’s defense, I’ll focus on his post. For those who might want a concise summary,  my response is that:

A) Instead of assuming that Millenials are shallow, self-centered narcissists, they should consider the possibility that Millennials are sincere about their concerns.

B) Ultimately it seems as though the evangelical response is to say “good riddance” to anyone who might have concerns about the state of the church that can’t be addressed with a sermon series or  an updated selection of worship songs.

Now here are my specific counterpoints to Trevin Wax’s arguments. I’ve put his statements in bold, and any quotes from Rachel in italics. First, let’s looks at his response to Rachel’s argument that the church has become “… too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people:

“She’s right to decry a vision of Christianity that reduces repentance to a list of do’s and don’ts.”

Note that this has nothing to do with Rachel’s statement. It’s a complete dodge. A church can get caught up in do’s and don’ts without engaging in political activism. Do’s and don’ts are a trap that any church can fall victim to.

What Rachel is talking about is the conscious prioritizing of political victories over spiritual victories. A classic example is AL Mohler’s statement that Obama’s victory in the 2012 election was an evangelical disaster.  For his ilk, the voting booth is the true gauge of the church’s mission. And he represents the mentality of a large percentage of the modern church.

“I couldn’t agree more when she says “we want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.”

Okay, great. He agrees that God should be our priority. But he’s not willing to look at the evidence that God is not the evangelical establishment’s priority. (A simple test is to ask an evangelical whether they would rather a constitutional ban on gay marriage or one more soul coming to Christ. At best they will try to say “both.” But if you try to pin them down on a choice, they’ll squirm.)

Consciously or not, every evangelical church I have attended equates God’s Kingdom with American political interests. It’s funny how they’ll bemoan the state of the nation until you suggest that perhaps other nations should be granted the same level of respect. A church that truly rejects equating the Kingdom with an allegiance to a single nation wouldn’t spend the 4th Of July singing patriotic anthems instead of worship songs.

Here’s where Rachel and I part ways – on what communities following Jesus look like in our culture.

I invite you to read Wax’s response here because it’s not conducive to quotations, but again we have a dodge. The community Wax insists Christians should seek is no different than what Rachel is asking for. All of Wax’s characteristics of a positive Christian community  are desirable, but the underlying implication of them is that he believes that Millennials aren’t  interested in life-altering repentance and faith, and they aren’t interested in a Jesus who explodes our understanding of sin, repentance, forgiveness, etc.

In other words, he’s saying that the church is right where it should be. It’s got everything down pat and its priorities in order. But Millennials, with their supposed  hunger for superficial faith and a Jesus who doesn’t change their lives one iota, need to get their priorities straight and get in line with the church.

“I visit lots of churches, and I find that sexuality is not a frequently discussed subject from most church platforms or Bible studies. In fact, one could make the case that Christians haven’t talked enough about Jesus’ radical zealousness when it comes to sexuality.”

This was Wax’s response to Rachel’s contention that the modern church is too obsessed with sex. I’ve seen variations of this defense many times, and it’s a Wizard Of Oz mentality. Somehow evangelicals have convinced themselves that people can’t see behind the curtain and track the words and priorities they exhibit outside of  Sunday mornings.  The Gospel Coalition itself publishes an essay on sexual mores at least once a week, and it felt the need to publish not just one but dozens of screeds against homosexuality and gay marriage during the past year, each stating the same case with the same arguments. If they aren’t obsessed, why the need to make the case against homosexuality so many times?

I’ll concede that some churches don’t discuss sexuality from the pulpit. But they do hammer the purity and complementation line during Bible Studies and outside the sanctuary. If you don’t hear about it on Sunday mornings, it’s because the vast majority of church members are married couples, therefore they’ve moved beyond the need to hear purity sermons. But gender role sermons almost always make an appearance, as do sermons about porn addiction.

“When it comes to sexual obsession, we ought to take a look at pop culture.”

Ah, but here’s where we get to the do’s and don’t mentality that Wax said he discourages. Pop culture conversations are almost always reduced to advice on which programs to avoid and whether a given musician is Christian enough. And since these conversations are led by people who haven’t actually read or seen the media they’re criticizing, the discussion is almost always rooted in ignorance.

“Rachel says millennials want to be “challenged to holiness,” but the challenge she appears to be advocating is one on our own terms and according to our own preferences….Truth be told, I don’t want a church that serves my preferences. I want a church that gives me Jesus and makes me want to serve His.”

Sorry, but everyone seeks out a church according to their own preferences. Years ago I read that the two biggest factors that determined which church a Christian attended were the quality and style of the music and the time of day the worship service was scheduled, Child services were the third biggest factor. Even for evangelicals, doctrine and preaching were less important.Most Christians don’t have the luxury of growing up in a church they love and never leave, so as they move around the country, they shop for churches. I can guarantee you that Wax did the same, and I bet he insisted on a finding a church  that fit his standards of a Godly community. The fact that he found what he’s looking for doesn’t mean that the Millennial’s search is any less genuine.

“Christianity without a cost is Christianity without the cross. And Christianity without the cross isn’t Christianity at all.”

I agree. But again we see Wax unwilling to admit the church has hemorrhaged members for a good reason. As many people have pointed out, The Gospel Coalition itself is guilty of  one of the most revolting defenses of the leaders implicated in the Sovereign Grace child molestation scandal, going so far as to blame the victims and accuse them of ulterior motives. Somehow churches believe that they can compartmentalize these issues without people noticing, They think that they can preach the gospel without people noticing that on the side they’re spouting racist sentiments and engaging in blatant misogyny. They think it’s enough to pay lip service to those who’ve been wounded and abused by the church, and they don’t think that people will notice them defending the individuals and practices that have caused abuse in the first place.

But the bottom line is that Wax feels that the church has the luxury of dictating the terms of debate. And notice that people who write these anti-Millennial retorts are always people who have never experienced being an outsider in their own church. They’re always white, usually male, with beliefs that fall perfectly in line with the evangelical status quo. Their politics are sufficiently right wing, so they’re on board with the church’s political agenda. They support all of the candidates and causes their fellow congregation members support. If they have any issues with their church’s teachings, it’s always a question of whether their church is conservative enough.

So the bottom line is that at no point has Wax admitted any fault on the church’s part. No shortcomings, no misplaced priorities, no hypocrisy, no false teachings. If Millennials aren’t happy, then it’s their fault. So we’re left with a choice: get in line or get the hell out, because you’re only welcome to the degree that you’re willing to suck it in and keep quiet about your concerns. An attitude like that is a Christianity without a cross, and I think that churches who share Wax’s sentiments should be honest and replace their crosses with middle fingers. Because that’s the message they’re giving to Millennials.