Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Ghettoization of American Evangelicalism

Just adding collapsible post functionality and a pull quote. No new content. First line is a pull quote.
We've identified the gospel with a political and social perspective that few people can identify with who haven't been raised in it. Scot McKnight passes on a letter he's received in his most recent Letters to Emerging Christians segment. The complaint of the letter-writer essentially involves the fact that being an "evangelical" has become too identified with a particular brand of conservative American politics. A few quotes:
  • Conservative Christians [frequently] conflate Christianity with American patriotism and/or the Republican party. One commentator says Jim Wallis can’t call himself an Evangelical because he’s a “left- leaning socialist” who made a speech on the Democrats’ weekly radio address!
  • Dobson & company, attacking a member of the NAE for daring to suggest that global warming might actually be a problem.
  • I read the quote from D. James Kennedy, a pastor and seminary leader in Florida: “The publication and promulgation of the 1599 Geneva Bible will help restore America’s rich Christian heritage and reclaim the culture for Christ.” What!? A 1599 Bible which, incidentally, comes with a middle-English glossary to help you understand what the heck they were saying, is the answer that will reclaim the culture for Christ???
Now, I've long been conservative in terms of my politics, although I am beginning to wonder... But regardless of one's political stripe, it should be deeply troubling that the Christian faith is so identified with a particular political position, especially on issues regarding which the Bible either doesn't speak or quite arguably speaks in the opposite direction. It should be disturbing that the mandate of the Church seems not to be to make disciples of all nations, but rather to "restore America’s rich Christian heritage."

And then I read Dan Kimball's excellent post, "Hope, depression, hope." He cites a sociologist and student of church growth and leadership:
He shared that the reason church statistics regarding attendance may be staying around the same level is because those in the churches are living longer. There are now a ton of old churches with elderly folks living longer which keeps that statistic up. He also shared how the already Christians in churches who have babies also keeps the percentage leveled out.

What isn't happening however, is the growth of the church from people outside the church coming in. We aren't keeping up on the population growth at large. I was reading that the church has leveled out in attendance over the past 15 years but at the same time our national population has grown by around 50 million people. So we can celebrate that churches are remaining relatively the same attendance-wise, but now there are more than 50 million people who aren't part of the church.
I don't think it's a great leap of logic to see these two issues as being related. We've identified the gospel with a political and social perspective that few people can identify with who haven't been raised in it. We've essentially said, "You can't join our club unless you're willing to subscribe to all twenty-six points of our worldview." And then we wonder why our churches stagnate, growing, if at all, through transfers from other churches. We are relevant only to one another. Welcome to the Christian ghetto.

Can't we see the wisdom of the Apostle Paul, who "resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2)? Paul wasn't a "culture warrior" in the modern sense. His aim was not to "take a stand" and then have his already-convinced buddies pat him on the back for not backing down. His aim was to reach as many people as possible with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Period.

The tension between the standards of the already-converted and the imperative of reaching the larger culture is nothing new. Jesus was accused of being "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and 'sinners'" (Luke 7:34; cf. Matt. 11:19). Peter became the first to take the gospel to a Gentile audience. What was the response from the Christian community? "So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, 'You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them'" (Acts 11:2-3). Peter himself compromised his own principles and broke off fellowship with Gentile believers in order to satisfy "the circumcision group"; he had to be publicly rebuked by Paul because his "hypocrisy" had infected even Barnabas (Gal. 2:12-13). The pressure to conform to so-called "higher standards"--even at the cost of ostracizing some for whom Christ died--is intense.

Kimball continues with words that should be of particular interest to some who regularly read this blog, "It will be horribly sad if in 30 years or 40 years the church of America is a tiny thing, and we are still fighting each other about whether one is a Calvinist or Arminian or whether you preach verse by verse or preach topically etc." Obviously, I think divine election is a worthwhile thing to discuss, but it must be kept in its proper place. There's a lost and dying world out there. We have answers, but we're fading into irrelevance. We're squabbling with one another instead of trying to reach that world. We're telling people that they must oppose abortion and homosexuality, that they must support Israel and capitalism and lower taxes, that we must win the War on Terror and support our president, oppose the environmentalist wackos, and stand up for God and Country. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that these are all noble and worthy goals. I just have one question.

Where did the gospel go?

If you like this post, you may be interested in my book, What's Wrong with Outreach?

What's Wrong with Outreach?


  1. I give this post two thumbs way up. These days, evangelicals seem to be in two camps. One camp sits around debating theological minutia and branding each other as heretics, the very definition of "friendly fire". The other camp is fighting a "culture war" where they're basically bombing the POWs. Time for another Reformation?!?

  2. Hi Keith,

    As you know, I have issues with both the far right and far left in the evangelical camp. On one hand the far right says that if I don't vote republican and support GWB wholeheartedly in everything he does I'm anti-patriotic, and therefore, somehow, anti-christian.

    On the other hand the far left says that if I'm not supporting environmental causes and feeding the homeless I'm not practicing real, relevant Christianity.

    On the gripping hand, Paul says in Galatians that if ANYONE comes preaching another gospel, let him be accursed. I would submit that both the far left and the far right are preaching "another gospel." The bible does indeed call on us to be salt and light, but what we have now could be likened to a blind man randomly shining a bright spotlight in people's eyes and an angry invalid with a slingshot and a pile of rocksalt.

    Sadly, most people speaking publicly as Christians on the issues of the day seem to be both biblically illiterate and lacking a solid foundation in history and science.

    For instance, the only studies being done on global warming are done to confirm the presupposed result. Scientists cannot get grants to do studies on contrarian theories. The earth has warmed slightly over the 100 years or so that we've been keeping accurate records. However, there is ample anecdotal and historical evidence that it was once quite a bit warmer than it is now, and then there's also the problem that the other planets seem to be warming right now also. Incidentally, the heat output of the sun has risen measurably in the last 50 years too. If someone can explain to me how driving SUVs and burning fossil fuels here on Earth is causing Mars and Pluto to get warmer, I'm all ears. The evidence is certainly NOT in that global warming, such as it is, is caused by human activity, and yet, the only studies that get funded have that as their presupposed finding. One commentator on Jerry Pournelle's website said that the only thing more arrogantly presumptious than the belief that we caused global warming is the belief that we can do something about it.

    I'm not going to let the far right off the hook either. Supporting greater governmental powers to intrude into the private lives of citizens, and believing that we can export democracy at bayonet point are NOT biblical virtues. Nor is unbound capitalism, wherein worship of the bottom line and making a dividend for the shareholders means that it's OK to dump employees here and move production facilities overseas where labor is cheaper. "But our profit will be higher if we muzzle the ox while he's threshing the grain."

    I've asked Christ into my life, read and studied the Bible, and prayed for guidance from the Holy Spirit. Therefore, though I welcome their fellowship, I don't need Tony Campolo to explain compassion to me, nor do I need D. James Kennedy to explain patriotism, and I certainly don't need the interpretations of the gospel that they bring through their blue or red tinted glasses.

    America does have a Christian Heritage, but it includes executing women accused of witchcraft on flimsy hearsay evidence, and in the South, support for slavery. Yes, I know that the first abolitionists were christians, but were they more devout than Robert E. Lee? Read some of his writings if you wonder why I ask.

    Christians do have a responsibility to care for the Earth that God gave us, but we have an equal responsibility not to elevate it to Gaia-earth mother idolatry. We also have a biblical mandate to do what we can to alleviate poverty, but does that include enabling self-destructive and sinful behavior?

    If the "Emerging Church" is looking for a new, relevant way to communicate Christ to the culture, I'd suggest that the way isn't new at all. Be like the Bereans in Acts. Search the scriptures; verify what people say before you believe it or act on it. If the message you receive is truly the gospel, neither the messenger nor the author will be offended while you take the time to check it out.

    G.K. Chesterton years ago said, "it's not that the Christian ideal has been tried and found wanting, but rather that it's been found difficult and left untried."

    Grace and Peace, Dave Porter

  3. Hi, Dave,

    Good stuff there. What I can't understand, for the life of me, is why we (the evangelical church, broadly speaking) can't agree on some basics from both left and right paradigms, things that are clearly addressed in Scripture. Why is it that left-leaning believers want to minimize the issue of abortion, while right-leaning believers want to minimize the issue of poverty? And perhaps the largest issue of all: why do those on either side have such suspicion that those on the other are even Christians at all?

    You write, If the "Emerging Church" is looking for a new, relevant way to communicate Christ to the culture, I'd suggest that the way isn't new at all. Be like the Bereans in Acts. Search the scriptures; verify what people say before you believe it or act on it. Well, that's a good way to receive truth; it doesn't tell us much about how to communicate truth.

    What I'm suggesting is that the politicization of the gospel has had far-reaching negative effects: we treat those who believe differently as enemies, not objects of Jesus' love; we ignore biblical issues that don't fit our political agenda; we ostracize fellow believers who view politics differently. All of this affects how we are perceived and how we can communicate. If someone perceives my faith community as simply a special interest group hostile to her, why would she ever listen to anything I have to say about Jesus?

  4. Dear Keith,

    You constantly amaze me with your ability to both challenge us and inspire us. You have inspire Dave to write an eloquent and impassioned response, left Bob practically speechless, and I want to share this with everyone I know and say come on people lets focus, souls hang in the balance. I feel like, if they would just read this they would recognize the truth and adjust their thinking and behavior, and lives would be changed. You have however converted me to a realist so I know that there are those who will always nit pick and stir up trouble in the body of Christ and push people away, but some who seek truth will find it. I love the fact that I get it and you're brilliant. I am blessed because I know you and you are mine.

    With deepest Love and Admiration