Monday, December 10, 2012

The New Evangelicals

I am convinced that in order for the church to survive the culture wars, those of us of a more moderate bent must become the new evangelicals.

I do not mean to suggest that the moderate church should capitulate to those regressive elements of the church who refuse to acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit. Nor do I mean to suggest that the moderate church should give up its quest for a faith that balances acts of piety with acts of mercy, individual salvation with the social Gospel, faith and science. In fact, perhaps Scott Jones' term, the "extreme center" is a better term, for there is nothing moderate about the fight for equality in God's church; there is nothing moderate about working for a better future in God's world.

Those of us who find ourselves at this extreme center must become the new evangelicals, for if we do not leave our pews in order to bring in people who are predisposed to this way of living, the church is in trouble. The church will become more and more irrelevant, more and more run by an inward-looking fringe, and the good news that comes from Jesus Christ will turn into something it is not: something about me, and my heart, and my relationship, and my needs. We are already seeing corners of the church that have contracted a sort of spiritual nearsightedness, an inability to see beyond themselves, or out the front door of the sanctuary.

If we are to survive, and if we are to do justice to God's call on our lives, we must be honest about things. The church is at a critical point. I reject the constant refrain proclaiming the church's imminent death, and I find language of crisis unhelpful, for it often exists to crowd out other opinions.


God's church is at a tipping point, and you need only look at age demographics to see that there be dragons ahead. The church is going to change, whether I prefer it or not, and we may use this opportunity to consolidate power, deepen our control over church structures, gaze deep into the ecclesial navel and hope that a savior jumps out of it.


We may use the opportunity to be faithful, to spread the good news of the saving grace of Jesus Christ, not in terms of who gets in and who does not, but in terms of Christ's promise of rich eternal life, a life which acknowledges that praising God and serving others are not distinct categories (except , perhaps, on conference reports), but rather two sides of the same coin. We could take this opportunity to share the salvation that Christ has shared with us, reaching whole new generations who have been turned off by the church. Let me offer two reasons for the urgency of this call.

First, if we are people who believe in the power of the love of God, we have an obligation to share that love with others. The Great Commission, after all, is not simply a command we are given in the interest of Christianity's self-preservation. The Great Commission is a call to share that which we already know, for Christ's redeeming love is for everyone, and it opens us to new, deeper possibilities of what it means to be human. Too often, the more moderate among us have been scarred by the word "evangelism," so we throw it away without much of a thought, content to live and let live.

I get it. I have scars. Many of us do. But I also have hope in Christ and hope in the church, for it was Christ and the church that saved me from myself. While I was content to wallow in my own baggage and pain, the church said said, "You are not alone. There is a better way."

So here I am, having received the good news. And let us be clear that when we talk about "good news," we are not simply talking about going to Heaven. That is a pretty myopic view of eternal life. The good news is that we are loved and accepted by the God who saves us from ourselves and gives us eternal life.

This eternal life does not begin upon death. It has already begun. We are called to live differently, for we have new life. This is the good news.

Keeping this good news to ourselves does not do justice to God's love, however, and neither does it do justice to our experience. We have been given a gift, a particular way of living. I am sensitive to the offensive ways people have been abused under the banner of "evangelism," and I am certainly not advocating that sort of conversation. There is no need to badger people, or to scare them with threats of Hell (which by their nature do not do justice to Christ's love, nor the wideness of God's mercy).

We must be sensitive to other belief systems and ways of living. But if we are unwilling to share the good news, this gift of love, how do you think we look to those standing outside the church, the ones we are so scared of offending? How does it look to those outside the church doors when we attempt to hoard this love for ourselves? How seriously does it look like we take our faith?

It is these people standing outside the church to which I want to turn next, for it is the particularity of much of this population that helps me to realize the urgency of this work.

The Barna Group, a research organization specializing in church concerns, released a study last year that look at the reasons young Christians leave the church. The group found six reasons, all of which speak to the theological navel-gazing to which the church is especially prone:
  • Churches do not engage culture outside the church doors
  • Churches do not seriously engage difficult issues
  • Churches ignore science
  • Churches deal too simplistically with the issue of human sexuality
  • Churches are too exclusive
  • Churches are unfriendly to those who doubt
Are you sensing a theme? The church is too inwardly focused for many young Christians, so they leave. They do not leave to find another church. They leave.

If the point is not clear enough, let me just make one more observation. The young people who shared these observations are not those on the margins of society, those who have never been exposed to church. The people we are talking about here are Christians, people who have grown up in the church!

The data for the overall population of young people is even worse. Three percent--three percent!--of young adults ages 16-29 have a favorable view of evangelicals. When asked to describe the church, respondents used words like judgmental, old-fashioned, and hypocritical more frequently than any other. And when asked about the church's stance on sexuality, a staggering 91% of non-Christians described the church as fundamentally "anti-homosexual."

Folks, the church is not supposed to be anti-anybody. We are supposed to be pro-God and pro-people, and if we don't know such a thing at a fundamental level, we've got bigger problems than our reputation.

Much of this reputation is unwarranted, of course: the sins of the fathers whose consequences we must bear. And while the reputation is, perhaps, unfair, it is also reality, and we ignore reality at our own peril. Too frequently, we wallow in our frustration at the nearsighted church, and blame others for the predicimant in which we found ourselves.

There is a better way.

Too often, I have seen those who place a heavy emphasis on evangelism seek out only a certain kind of person. But the good news of God's love is for everyone, and if we want the church to be a more faithful picture of God's gracious love, we cannot simply reform from within. We have got to get out of the church and evangelize.

The people we are missing are the people we need, for there are many outside the church who hunger for justice, who are fueled by service, who believe that science ought to be taken seriously. There are many who, in the final analysis, are like the "extreme center" we talk about in church, but who have not been given the opportunity to see that the church--at least in some expressions--is neither old-fashioned nor judgmental.

We need these people. We need them. And let's be clear about this: if we leave them alone, they will get along just fine. They won't have received the good news of Jesus Christ--and it is indeed powerful good news--but they've gone along just fine without it. They may not know what they are missing, but they will survive.

We may not.

Perhaps you might say, "This whole scheme is just about making the church more liberal/pro-gay/compromising. He wants to bring in people who think just like he does." I am sensitive to this criticism, but it misses the forest for the trees. Because the church's reputation for hypocrisy and judgmental attitude turns off so many, people who are fundamentally predisposed against this kind of behavior have left the church in droves. But only two or three generations ago, this discussion would not be necessary, as many of these people were already in the church! We would be having conversations about how to live into the future, but the conversation could happen within the church because forward-thinking folk were already there. It is the attitude of judgment, so foreign to the Gospel, that has turned off millions. I do not simply want to bring in people predisposed to moderate, socially conscious theology; I want to bring these people back.

Without more open-minded, moderate folk, without younger folk, the church will not change. And, in the not-so-distant future, as we do survey after survey to figure out just what went wrong, more and more people will talk about how judgmental the church is, how insular. And those of us in the church will say, "Yes, but we are so faithful."

1 comment:

  1. I concur with Mike Selleck's FB post that this is well written and I resonate with the extreme center with a predisposed "socially conscious theology." However, I'm not finding the substance of the spiritual side. Cathy Lynn Grossman, in a USA TODAY article and survey in 2010, noted this demographic classified themselves (72%) as spiritual but not religious. We must respond not just by being more socially conscious but also spiritually aware of those who come. We have to be ready to respond to the soul needs of those who come back too.