I was listening to a podcast recently where the Presbyterian speaker proclaimed ‘Evangelicalism is in serious trouble.’ This was news to me yet the statement has stuck in my mind and I’ve been turning it over ever since. Is this man true? Is this man false? I don’t really want it to be true and to some measure I think we’re all in trouble all the time if we consider enough different angles. Yet is there anything specific to evangelicalism that makes it in trouble in a clearly visible way?
The appeal of evangelicalism to society at large has always been something prominent to me. James KA Smith in his book on Charles Taylor’s ‘A Secular Age’ suggests that the appeal of ‘scientism’ to some is the story it offers to others. One that is a stance of ‘maturity, of courage, of manliness, over and against childish fears and sentimentality’ (p.77). He suggests that our response to argue over the nature of evidence for one thing or another doesn’t really address the underlying issues at work. A better approach is to offer these people a more compelling story that offers a more robust vision of faith. A faith that in the words of James KA Smith channeling Taylor ‘isn’t some vague theism but the invitation to historical, sacramental Christianity’.
Atheism, as mentioned previously is one of the few belief systems that skews heavily towards men at a nearly 70/30 gender split. This would feed into Charles Taylor’s assertion that the narrative of scientism is one of ‘manliness’ at least in image and appeal. That the words of St Paul ‘When I was a child I thought like a child but when I became a man I put away childish things’ is applied more by those who leave the faith or reject it today than those of us who adhere is indicative of something wrong. Is our faith perceived or in fact increasingly childish or outlandish and alien to the public? Does it offer no challenge? No courage? No maturity? Is it overly sentimental?
One of the claims laid at the feet of evangelicalism is its panacea-like vision of God at work in the life of the believer. Drawing close to God and being open to his work in your life would sort you out. The movement in general is replete with stories of lives turned around or struggles left behind. We come together to celebrate and rarely to lament. We seldom engage with lasting challenges because we believed God would inevitably overcome all of them on our behalf. From some perspectives this can seem childish, as a child my parents solved my problems, as a man I have to solve not just my problems but am expected to help those I come into contact with. Its not that we don’t want lives turned around and struggles left behind, its that we don’t know what to do with people when their lives don’t turn around and their struggles stay with them. Their is no challenge other than that of continuing in the growth of our love for God.
As an evangelical I personally felt somewhat directionless. I was expected to draw closer to God but what did that look like? Was I supposed to become more like my Pastor? Like Jesus? Did my Pastor reflect Jesus? Evangelicalism is complex precisely because its so open ended. In our effort to draw closer to God we can be lead down all sorts of bizarre (at times heretical) cul-de-sacs of which our only gauge can be our emotions, which is to say no real gauge at all. It also places the self at centre of this process, we lead a private self-defined faith thats ultimately is between us and God alone. This is why we see trends of many who consider themselves Evangelicals feeling led to dispense with Church altogether at times as it doesn’t square with their relationship to God. This is why we see increased theological divergence even amongst those who sometimes attend the same church. Its partly a lack of discipleship but its partly evangelical nature. Just recently I was swimming and caught myself wondering ‘I want a faith that is simple like swimming, one arm in front of another, towards some goal.’ Then I realised thats precisely part of the nature of liturgy. There might be different types of swimming but we don’t all swim in our own way, we use the same strokes and movements which gives us something in common, and even children can do it well. Evangelical dispensation of classical liturgy can be disorientating, its like being thrown into the lake with no knowledge of how to swim and being forced to invent our own style. That might lead to some creative and original techniques, but many people will likely drown without support. For much of Church history some form of liturgy has been present, Christ himself gave us the sacraments of baptism and communion.
The problem then, if it exists, with Evangelicalism is that many people on the outside increasingly don’t relate to it. It came into being as a renewal movement within the church but we live in an age where the vast majority of people are outside of it. The public doesn’t seem to relate the evangelical experience to their own experience of life (generally). The inside of evangelicalism is also becoming increasingly fragmented as time goes on as the relationship with God for the private individual is prioritised over the publics shared relationship and experience of God. The current worship/lecture system both focus on the interior self driving a wedge between the interior (mind) and the exterior (body). This is unfortunately wherein our society is currently orientated more around the exterior than the interior. However it might explain the appeal of the charismatic movement in bringing an exterior dimension to the Evangelical church, albeit one that is still privatised and in some ways the antithesis of liturgy.
This entry is no doubt me projecting my own thoughts onto the statement outlined by the Presbyterian in question at the start of this entry. One might also ruminate on the current state of the Presbyterian church, perhaps it is no better than Evangelicalism in some ways. Yet the statement stayed with me and chimed particularly with what I’m reading currently and my current thinking on evangelicalism. I think it has a lot of good things going for it, but it also has some major problems. I still consider myself evangelical but I think we should be Christians first and anything else second, when we get it round the wrong way thats when we suffer.