The Clarion Call to Watered Down Evangelicalism

Asbury Theological Seminary President, Timothy Tennent, gave the following address at their September Convocation at Asbury this month.  This is one of the most adept and scathing critiques of modern evangelical Christianity I’ve ever read.  Every Christian leader should read, ponder, and heed these words.

Our Mission to “theologically educate”
Timothy C. Tennent, Ph.D
Fall Convocation, 2011

In his 1937 landmark book, The Kingdom of God in America, Richard Niebuhr memorably described the message of Protestant liberalism as “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”1  In the ensuing years Niebuhr’s statement has become one of the more well known summaries of the failure of Protestant liberalism to properly reflect the apostolic message.  Tragically, Niebuhr’s devastating critique is on the brink of being equally applicable to contemporary, evangelical Christianity.  Who has lost sight more of the depth of human sin, the certainty of God’s judgment and the call to repentance and transformation at the feet of a crucified savior than today’s populistic, evangelical churches?  I knew something was amiss when I read the line from the well known pastor Walt Kallestad who wrote in his book, Entertainment Evangelism that “the church needs to be friendlier than Disneyland.”2  I knew that somehow we had lost our way when prayers of repentance and confession quietly disappeared from the order of services.  I knew we were charting some new path when I heard Jason Upton’s worship chorus, “Into the Sky.” Thankfully, there is a growing realization among many of us who call ourselves evangelical that we have inadvertently participated in an obscuring of the gospel which is not unlike what we have so vociferously decried in Protestant liberalism.  It seems that Satan can work at both ends of the shop.  Asbury Theological Seminary is perhaps better poised than many to observe these dynamics since we have so many feet in so many different Christian worlds.  We have one foot in the mainline church (we provide more ordained ministers for the United Methodist church than any seminary in America), one foot in the holiness movement (we were founded by a 19th C. holiness, revivalistic preacher) and one foot in contemporary evangelicalism (we serve over 90 different denominations, many of them part of the evangelical movement).   I guess this makes us a three footed toad!

It may be true that the house of liberal Protestantism has nearly burned to the ground and we’ve been standing there screaming with our water hose for almost a century, but, brothers and sisters, we must recognize that our own kitchen is on fire and within one generation, the whole evangelical house will soon be engulfed in flames.  If liberalism is guilty of demythologizing the miraculous, we have surely been guilty of trivializing it. If liberalism is guilty of turning all theological statements into anthropological ones, surely we must be found guilty of making Christianity just another face of the multi-headed Hydra of American, market-driven consumerism.  If liberalism can be charged with making the church a gentler, kindler version of the Kiwanis club, we must be willing to accept the charge that we have managed to reinvent the gospel, turning it into a privatized subset of one’s individual faith journey.  I realize that there are powerful, faithful churches in every tradition who are already modeling the very future this message envisions, but we must also allow our prophetic imagination to enable us to see what threatens to engulf us.

I’ve been among those who have pointed out the theological weakness captured by such phrases of Protestant liberalism, “Open hearts, open minds, open doors,” or “open, progressive and inclusive.” These type phrases are filled with considerable cultural codes which say many things about many things, but precious little about the Christian gospel.  But, perhaps we would do well to exegete some of our own signs and slogans.

A common evangelical sign which could be found across America might read something like this: “Traditional service, 8:30, contemporary 10:00, blended service, 11:30.”  Next line:  “Welcome  – come as you are, no need to dress up.”  Then, on the final line there will inevitably be some pithy gospel message.  Let me share a few signs actually displayed outside evangelical churches: Free Coffee, Everlasting Life – Yes, membership has its privileges.” Another sign reads, “Try Jesus – if you don’t like him, the Devil will take you back.” Also cited is this: Walmart is not the only saving place.” A church near a busy highway put this sign up: “Keep using my name in vain – I’ll make the rush hour longer – God” Of course, if it is Christmas time, you will inevitably see the classic one, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season!”

If you think I am being unfair by citing these examples of public messaging, I suggest that the inside message is often not much different.

Evangelicalism is awash with the constant drumbeat message of informality, the assumed wisdom of consumerism, reliance on technology, love of entertainment, pursuit of comfort, materialism and personal autonomy – all held together by easy-to-swallow, pithy gospel statements.  But, let’s push the pause button and do a little exegesis of ourselves, shall we?

(1) I don’t like that style of worship

The worship style choice lines reminds us how deeply we evangelicals have become commodified and “market driven.”  Market driven language pervades contemporary evangelicalism at every turn.  This democratizing spirit tacitly assumes that there are no higher points of reference for establishing the shape and practice of the church, ministry and worship than popular opinion and the will of the majority.  The premise of all marketing is that the consumer’s needs are king, and the customer is always right – and yet, as David Wells has argued in God in the Wasteland, these are very points which the gospel refuses to concede.3 There are surely many good reasons for starting a separate contemporary worship service, but what concerns me is the lack of theological reflection about what just might be lost in the process.

Separating generations over worship just might be cutting the very relational tie between elder and younger which is so crucial for discipleship.  Providing worship style options just might be reinforcing that worship is somehow “for us,” i.e. to meet our needs.  Endless discussions over the style of music just might obscure the deeper, often neglected, conversation about the content of our words of worship which is increasingly drawn from the world of Christian entertainment and performance, not from the church.  Furthermore, the “style choice” emphasis pushes the Psalms even further from the heart of Christian worship.

Evangelicals are, of course, masters at dodging any criticism that we ourselves could ever be co-opted by culture.  We disguise our lack of theological reflection by our constant commitment to “relevance” or saying that we are reaching people “where they are.”  Of course, who would deny that the church needs to have a profound understanding of “where people are.”   That is not the problem.  We are quite adept at measuring where people are culturally, but we are at best careless in any sustained theological reflection about where they should be culturally.  So, for example, if the wider culture has become apathetic about ritual, tradition, symbolism, poetic expressions, the value of history, or the necessity of intergenerational relationships, then, no problem, we say, it is the evangelical version of the prime directive to always adapt to culture.  But what if these very prejudices are actually part of the cultural malaise to which the church has been called to provide a stunning alternative?  How easily we seem to forget that the gospel doesn’t need our help in being made relevant.  The gospel is always relevant, and it is we who need to be made relevant to the gospel.  If we spent as much time really immersing ourselves into apostolic orthodoxy as we do trying to capture, if I can use Tom Oden’s phrase, “predictive sociological expertise” on the latest cultural wave coming,4 our churches would be far better off.  We have accepted almost without question certain definitions of success and what a successful church looks like.  However, we must not forget that, as I told this past year’s graduates, if the cross teaches us anything, it is that God sometimes does his greatest redemptive work under a cloak of failure. Only sustained theological reflection is able to penetrate and unmask the pragmatic, market driven assumptions which largely go unchecked in today’s evangelical churches.

(2) God is, like, my pal

Let us turn now to the “come as you are – no need to dress up” line.   Richard Weaver in 1948 (Ideas have Consequences) and the linguist John McWhorter in 2003 (Doing our own thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, like, Care), among others, have argued that the contemporary preference for informality and the movement away from formal language in reference to God or human authority structures is deeply tied to cultural suspicions about authority and distrust of hierarchy.  Post-modernity flattens all hierarchies: No high king, no high God.  There are deep theological moorings behind all of this informality which have not been understood by pastors in the evangelical landscape.

Somewhere in America at some church meeting a decision was reached to change the name of the place they worshipped from the word “sanctuary” to “worship center” or “celebration center.”  Furthermore, they decided to build a space which could be used as a gymnasium during the week and a place of worship on Sunday.  Having a dedicated space only for worship seemed liked a shocking waste of money.  Indeed, they had at least 5 good reasons for doing this.  What concerns me is that they probably never stopped to reflect theologically that there just might be 6 reasons to not do it.  Of course, maybe there were only four and the “celebration center” in the gym would have carried the day.  The point is, that reflection never even happened.

Somewhere in America on some Sunday morning the first man or woman walked into a worship service with a baseball cap on and a cup of coffee in their hand.  It is now quite common. The pastor would surely offer three or four impressive reasons why this was the “missional” way to go, but I can assure you that when the decision was made, serious theological concerns were not invited to participate.

These examples all seem so small and insignificant.  Yet, that’s how all drift happens.  You see, liberal Protestants never woke up one morning and said to themselves, “Hey, let’s adopt an Arian Christology, shall we?”  No one said “Wouldn’t it be just wonderful if we could devote the next 50 years to undermining the apostolic faith.”  No!  I’ve read their writings.  They were deeply concerned, as we are, to make the gospel relevant to modern people.  Evangelicals have not openly abandoned apostolic Christianity.  No one set out to cheapen the gospel, diminish God’s holiness or downplay the cost of discipleship.  It’s just happening.  A baseball cap here, omitting the word “wretch” from Amazing Grace there.  The pressure to bring in new members made it best to just drop the required confirmation class for membership.  Besides, people are just too busy to attend a new members class and it might hurt our annual membership goals.  The call to career missions slowly became short term missions which slowly became vacations with a purpose.  It all happened so seamlessly.  We brought in a new youth director.  He doesn’t have any biblical or theological training, but, oh, how the youth love him.  You should see the new worship leader we have! He doesn’t know any theology, but he’s just picking the choruses each week, and he can really play the guitar!  You see, it happens in ten thousand small skirmishes, rarely in any big, bloody battle.

(3) Bumper sticker Christianity

Jesus is the Reason for the Season.”  It is evangelicals who have cried out the most against the commercialization of Christmas, but then became co-opted by turning the phrase “Jesus is the reason for the season” into one of the most commercialized phrases of all time, blazoned across t-shirts, coffee mugs and yes, church signs. They can be purchased at any local Christian book store, 10% off if you pick up a precious memory angel along with it.

Free coffee, everlasting life – yes, membership has its privileges!” or “Walmart is not the only saving place.“  Do you hear what lies behind all of these messages?

Evangelicals have become experts in finding a thousand new ways to ask the same question, “What is the least one has to do to become a Christian.”  That’s our defining question.  We’ve become masters at theological and soteriological minimalism.  We are the ones who have boiled the entire glorious gospel down to a single phrase, a simple emotive transaction, or some silly slogan.  It is time for a new generation of Christians, committed to apostolic faith, to declare this minimalistic, reductionistic Christianity a failed project!  It is wrong to try to get as many people as possible, to acknowledge as superficially as allowable, a gospel which is theologically unsustainable.  We need to be reminded of the words of Søren Kierkegaard, in his Attack Upon Christendom, where he declared, “Christianity is the profoundest wound that can be inflicted upon us, calculated on the most dreadful scale to collide with everything.”5 We, on the other hand, have made entrance into the Christian faith painless and almost seamless.  In the process, we have managed to produce as many nominal Christians as Christendom ever did.  If the liberal project taught us that denying Apostolic Christianity renders the gospel inert and non-reproducible (note rapid decline of mainline churches), evangelical minimalistic Christianity has taught us that the gospel cannot be reduced to a bite sized piece for mass consumption.

The gospel is about the in-breaking kingdom and the New Creation claims the whole sphere.  Christians can’t simply choose to play in one small corner of the chessboard – you have to play the whole board, or you will lose.  The gospel must be embodied in a redeemed community and touch the whole of life. That is why the Wesley brothers set up class meetings, fed the poor, wrote books on physics, gave preachers a series of canonical sermons, catechized the young, preached at the brick yards, promoted prison reform, rode 250,000 miles on horseback, preached 40,000 sermons, superintended orphanages, were avid abolitionists, and wrote theologically laden hymns for the church, etc.  You see, they were capturing every sphere with the gospel.  The New Creation does not simply break into one little square on the chess-board – it crashes into the whole of life!  If Wesley teaches us anything, it is that salvation is not something which is merely announced to us, it is something which God works in us – the forceful intrusion of his holiness into our history.

Brothers and sisters, it is time for us to capture a fresh vision of the great meta-narrative of the Christian gospel for our times!   The bumper sticker ‘God is my co-pilot‘ will not get us there.  We have, in effect, been criss-crossing the world telling people to make God a player, even a major player in our drama.  But the gospel is about being swept up into His great drama. It is about our dying to self, taking up the cross, and being swept up into the great theo-drama of the universe!  Christ has come as the Second Adam to inaugurate the restoration of the whole of creation by redeeming a people who are saved in their full humanity and called together into a new redeemed community known as the church, the outpost of the New Creation in Adam’s world. Discipleship, worship of the Triune God, covenant faithfulness, suffering for the sake of the gospel, abiding loyalty to Christ’s holy church, theological depth, and a renewed mission to serve the poor and disenfranchised – these must become the great impulses of our lives.

There are serious flaws in the foundations of contemporary evangelicalism.  Our theological underpinnings are too weak, our knowledge of church history is too vague, our understanding of the text of Scripture too superficial, our being formed in the practice of ministry insufficiently reflective.  Thus, while some are declaring that the day of the seminary is over, that we are hopelessly irrelevant, out of touch with culture, and the churches can “take it from here,”  I want to declare today that there is perhaps no institution more vital for the proper recovery of biblical, apostolic Christianity than the seminary.  With every fiber of my being I believe in the mission of Asbury Theological Seminary.  Our faculty, under God’s care, will lead an entire generation of new Christian leaders back to the fountain of sustained theological work.  Oh, I know we are in the world of Google and Wikipedia and we now all dwell under the fountain of endless information.  Indeed, what theological term, or movement in church history, or Greek word cannot be illumined with a few clicks of a mouse.  But one cannot help but think of Dylan Thomas’ remembrance of his childhood Christmas presents, which included, “books that told me everything about the wasp, except why.”6 In the midst of the twitterization of all knowledge, we need profound, thoughtful, nuanced, men and women who are, to use the language of our mission statement, “theologically educated” and who will bring that to the service of Christ’s holy church.  We need sustained theological reflection, in contrast to Thomas Friedman’s description of our digital world as “continuous partial attention.”  Without this deep reflection, the gospel will simply be one more commodity on offer in the marketplace of autonomous choices at the smorgasbord of spirituality and personal fulfillment.

Theologically educate

Brothers and sisters, as your President, I call this community to serious, sustained theological reflection.  Our mission statement calls for us to “theologically educate.”   What does this mean?  Properly speaking to “theologically educate” forms heart, mind and action.  Beloved, it is not enough to declare that “your heart is in the right place.”  Your mind must also be in the right place.  Your feet and hands must also be in the right place.   Traditionally, theology has served four functions:  catechetical, apologetical, homiletical and pastoralCatechetical is to train children and new believers in the faith, thus assuring that the apostolic message and not some “other gospel” is being transmitted.  This happens in homes, in daily life and in confirmation classes.  Catechesis comes from the verb “to echo.”  We must assure that new and current believers under our charge fully understand and “echo” the apostolic faith.  Apologetical is the role of theology in helping to apply the biblical text to whatever challenges happen to beset the church in any given generation.  For us, this might mean everything from postmodern epistemologies, to philosophical relativism, to the new atheism, to the commoditization of culture, and so forth.  The homiletical function is our commitment to train men and women to properly and effectively proclaim God’s word, evangelistically to the world as well as faithful instruction to the church by applying the Word of God faithfully to our lives.  Finally, the pastoral function calls us to shepherd God’s flock, care for those in need, comfort the bereaved, and counsel the distressed.  Today, looking across the evangelical landscape, catechesis is in disarray, apologetics is weak; our preaching has ground down to bland moralizing, and our pastoral efforts have become captive to pragmatism.

Asbury stands ready, with this esteemed faculty, to theologically educate a new generation of church leaders.  Theology matters.  It was Thomas Oden who famously remarked that “when a pastor (theologian) fails to distinguish between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, it is roughly equivalent to a physician forgetting the difference between disease and health.”7 For if we don’t have theological stability, we cannot have ethical stability, and if we don’t have ethical stability, we won’t have stability of worship, and if we do not have stability of worship, then we are no longer related vitally and necessarily to the headship of Jesus Christ.  The Apostolic proclamation will be lost in a post-modern sea of autonomous self-definitions.

If today’s evangelical church is really marked by shallowness, thinness and cultural sameness, then, to use the phrase of Jack Davis, perhaps it is time we become “deep, thick and different.”  A deep church is one which takes the encounter with a holy God seriously and is shaped by spiritual disciplines, holiness and catechesis.  A deep church is the opposite of a shallow one.  We are to exhibit a deep understanding of the holiness and weightiness of God.  In Hebrew the word for honor and glory is kbd (kabod), meaning “heavy.”  God has become far too lightweight in contemporary evangelicalism.  The great sense of God’s transcendence and holiness must, once again, overtake post-modernity’s sense of over familiarity and casualness in God’s presence.  Indeed, we are profoundly in need of recapturing the sense of God’s presence.   Nietzsche’s madman who described churches as “the tombs and sepulchers of God” does, in fact, capture something of the movement from the real presence of Christ to the real absence of Christ in the experience of many church’s today.  A thick church contrasts with a thin one and is characterized by thick relationships and commitments and where worship is not a product we consume, but the great ontological orientation of our lives.  We are the people of the Risen Lord.  The consumeristic, therapeutic self of modernity is, through the gospel, the trinitarian, ecclesial self of the New Creation.  A different church is one not marked by cultural sameness, but, instead, is a manifestation of the in-breaking of the New Creation.  A visitor should feel somewhat out of place when they walk into our midst, as they encounter people with a radically distinctive orientation.  A different church is one which is profoundly distinct from the culture in its “ontology, theology, worship and moral behavior.”8 To be different is to be a community marked by metanoia.   Brothers and sisters, may the shallowness, thinness and cultural sameness of our churches become churches, under God and your leadership, which are deep, thick and different.

This church-focused, theologically informed new vision I am calling for today will not eagerly embrace “top down” political strategies as effective methods for cultural transformation.  This new vision sees the local church, not the para-church, as the central locus of evangelism and discipleship.  This new vision eschews niche-marketing strategies for drawing unbelievers to church.  It will abandon simplistic formulas and presentations of the gospel opting instead for invitations to living communities of men and women who have been transformed by the gospel.

We have much work to do, and likely this kind of church which I am envisioning will not come about without prayer and fasting.  But, we at Asbury Theological Seminary are poised to face these challenges and to produce a new generation of pastors, teachers, evangelists and church planters who are theologically educated. Don’t be discouraged by the enormity of this task. Instead, rise to the challenge.  I am optimistic because I believe in the men and women of this faculty and staff who are called to educate and invest themselves in your formation. I am optimistic because Jesus Christ is the Risen Lord.  I am optimistic because as the hymn declares, “though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong; though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong; yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.“  I am optimistic because Yahweh “has sworn and will not change his mind!”  I am optimistic because I recall the dying words of John Wesley when he said, “The best of all is, God is with us.”  I am optimistic because the church of Jesus Christ will weather every storm from Gnosticism, to Arianism, to Constantinianism, to Protestant liberalism, to Evangelical reductionism, to the new atheism.  Through it all, Christ renews his church, calls forth better readers of the Scriptures, and makes good on his sacred promise, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  Amen.

[1] Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (NY: Harper Row, 1959 edition), 193.
[2] Walt Kallestad, Entertainment Evangelism (Nashville, Abingdon, 1996), 81.
[3] David Wells, God in the Wasteland (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, ) 82.
[4] Thomas C. Oden, Agenda for Theology:  After Modernity, What? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 191.
[5] Walter Lowrie, trans., Kierkeegard’s Attack Upon Christendom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944), 258.
[6] Dylan Thomas,  A Child’s Christmas in Wales (NY: New Directions, 1995),  29.
[7] Thomas C. Oden, 59.
[8] John Jefferson Davis, Worship and the Reality of God (Grand Rapids:  IVP Academic, 2010), 32.

Note:  This post originated at Ben Witherington’s Blog.

5 thoughts on “The Clarion Call to Watered Down Evangelicalism

  1. This post is so true of our generation it brought tears to my eyes. We are living in the days of "Laodacia" of Revelation I believe. Lukewarm, but called to repent. We can do that one by one and only by getting back to God's Holy Word.

  2. We have lived long enough to experience first hand most of the "changes" he speaks of in the article. It hit home to read the observations from someone in a different theological environment (Asbury seminary)observing the very same things we have seen. This is a pretty accurate picture of the slippery slope of the past 50 years, and even more so in your lifetime.

  3. Without Biblical truth as the ultimate strategy, evangelistic tactics may get carried away and dilute the very message they intend to convey.

    However, there is a risk of using tradition as the primary criterion of value. The concept of an "Old Time Religion" has a certain tried-and-true appeal, but where will we draw the line in the sands of time to say thus far and no further? Jerusalem? Antioch? Rome? Geneva? And who is authorized to provide the imprimatur of good/bad in cultural expression? Did some of today's tried-and-true begin with eyebrow-raising creativity?

    William Carey was considered an enthusiast for wanting to take the gospel to the heathen. Hudson Taylor scandalized his generation of missionaries by 'going native' and living among the Chinese.

    Not everyone liked Handel's Messiah. Billy Graham was rejected by many for straying outside the preferred chalklines of stricter brethren.

    And so it goes. Each generation must strategically reaffirm the Scriptures as the only and absolute truth, then be ruthless in exploiting the windows and doors of contemporary culture to become all things to all men that by all means we might win some.

  4. Good point. It's the age-old question of what it means to live in the world and yet not be of the world.

    With each generation, we need to creatively become all things to all people, incarnating the gospel afresh, but along with this cultural adaptation comes new dangers. It seems that our current danger is to move towards a theologically-shallow, minimalistic version of Christianity that emphasizes "decisions" for Christ to the neglect of discipleship, speedy methodologies to the neglect of organic community, God's love and immanence to the neglect of His wrath and transcendence, and ultimately becomes a means of feeding the narcissistic consumerism it should be destroying.

    One thing I appreciated about this article is that he encourages theological reflection about the ways we adapt to culture. We don't want to stop all cultural adaptation–just to make sure that the ways we are adapting are theologically appropriate. He's right that we tend to drift away from biblical moorings rather than openly abandon orthodoxy. This "drift" can be counteracted by some thoughtful theological reflection in which we "take every thought captive to obey Christ."

    Thanks for the balancing comment! 🙂

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