The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart

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Yesterday (10/24/21) The Atlantic published an article by Peter Wehner who wanted, “to understand the splintering of churches, communities, and relationships” that has occurred in the “Evangelical” community over the past few years. The article makes a lot of good points and I want to respond to a few of them here.

Link to the article:
PDF (in case the link goes down): The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart

First, I think it is good to discuss what the term “Evangelical” refers to. It originally simply referred to someone who believed in the traditional doctrines of the Christian faith and who was interested in evangelizing to others. Hence the designation “Evangelical.” It referred to a movement within Christianity that crossed denominational lines. However, over time more and more started to be associated with the term. Eventually it also acquired some political association and now it is primarily thought of as a voting bloc, instead of a movement within Christianity as it was originally. For some Evangelicals this political association made the term problematic for them to identify with since it was never a political thing for them. So, all that to say that whenever you come across someone who identifies as an “Evangelical” make sure you take the time to figure out why they are identifying with the term. It might be for political reasons, but it also might not be.

Second, Christianity and politics have always been intermingled in America and they probably always will be. When you have a democracy, like we do in America, that democracy depends on people showing up to vote on issues and elect political leaders. Some of those people voting will be Christians. When the political system is set up like this there is no way to escape an intermingling of politics and faith.

Fortunately, the church and the state are separated in America. Some of you might think this is a bad thing, but I assure you that it is good. Every time in history that some government has used Christianity as a way for it to hold power or influence it has cheapened the Christian faith and done significant long term damage to it. This does not mean, of course, that the government will be free from Christian influence because Christians, being citizens of the United States, do have the right to voice their concerns and vote on issues like everyone else does. It just means that the government will not use a religion to accomplish its goals, and a religion will not use the government to accomplish its goals; they are separate.

Unfortunately, not everyone who calls themselves a Christian thinks this separation is good. They want to establish a nation that is ruled by Christianity. This has come to be referred to as Christian nationalism, which is basically the idea that America is God’s chosen nation and it is up to us to defend it. There are 1,000+ years of medieval European history that you can study and learn why this is a bad idea.

Christianity is not a political system. Jesus did not come to establish a theocratic society. Remember Jesus’ own words in John 18.36: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” The kingdom that Christians are looking for is spiritual, not physical.

Now, getting into some points made in the article…

The anti-institutional foundations of the Evangelical movement may have left it vulnerable to politicization. Essentially this anti-institutionalism left the movement vulnerable to insider abuse by leaders who had no outside accountability and made them skeptical of “outsiders,” i.e. those who weren’t Evangelicals. What this essentially creates then is a cult of personality where people are following a mere human rather than Jesus.

When you’re the leader of such a cult you have very little incentive to actually instruct or catechize people in the faith you are proclaiming to follow. Doing such a thing might lead your parishioners to see your flaws or hold you accountable to a higher standard. You don’t want that. You want them loyal to you, not threatening your power.

When you don’t instruct your people in the fundamentals and basics of the faith I will guarantee you the broader culture will do it for you. Television, radio, Twitter, Facebook, etc enable people to connect with others who see things the same way that they do and reinforce their views. In fact, even if you do take the time to teach and educate your congregation you will probably still lose out to the catechesis they get from the various forms of media they consume day after day.

My personal experience growing up in the “Evangelical” church also featured a distinct lack of catechesis or instruction in the Christian faith. I am not sure if it was not done because there was no interest or if there was no interest because it was not done. In either case it didn’t really happen. Eventually, once I got older, I began to see Evangelicalism as shallow and lacking substance and began to look elsewhere.

I think one practical thing churches (and people) can do is to do a media fast during the traditional fasting times of the Christian year (Advent and Lent). It is traditional to fast from certain types of food during these periods as a way of reining in some your (sinful) desires and teaching you self-control. To me it seems that today media is far and away the bigger contributor to peoples (sinful) desires than food.

In closing I will quote Wehner’s closing words to his article:

Countless acts of kindness, generosity, and self-giving love are performed every day by people precisely because they are Christians. Their lives have been changed, and in some cases transformed, by their faith. My own life has been immeasurably blessed by people of faith who have walked the journey with me, who have shown me grace and encouraged me in difficult moments. But I can recognize that while also recognizing the wreckage around us.

Something has gone amiss; pastors know it as well as anyone and better than most. The Jesus of the Gospels—the Jesus who won their hearts, and who long ago won mine—needs to be reclaimed.

Photo by Michal Matlon on Unsplash

Tom Ferguson ThM 2018, Dallas Theological Seminary