Please Don’t Go…We Need You

Something curious has been happening in my social media feeds. Some of the young evangelical writers I follow are frustrated. Many are tired of the constant combativeness when they try to express concerns about past positions. Others simply find it too hard to be part of a church that focuses on Duck Dynasty, Chick-fil-A, Paula Dean, Mark Driscoll, Ken Hamm, and so on. They are naturally reacting to name-calling, vitriol, and trash-talking on behalf of “bible-believing Christians”.

I’ve seen a confluence of writers put together pieces about new year’s resolutions to avoid getting sucked in to the back and forth. Even those get attacked for being wishy-washy. I fear that this weariness of combativeness and the focus on the wrong issues (like calling Pope Francis a communist), will simply encourage young-ish leaders to give up on the evangelical movement.

Last night, I saw a series of tweets on why these leaders are giving up on evangelicalism. The Duck Dynasty controversy (I still think it was contrived) brought out folks who were willing to support “biblical values” while tolerating racially insensitive (at best) speech and implausible and inelegant connections between homosexuality and bestiality. And those leaders I’m thinking about said, “if that’s what it means to be evangelical, I’m out”.

I’ve written before about the  evangelicals focus on boundary maintenance that will bridge no quarter when it comes to defending favorite positions. It’s easy to see. Rhetoric falls back to simply “Defending the Bible”. I was part of a thread today on how young people respond to evolution and was troubled that some folks weren’t even willing to engage the discussion without saying that the young people were at fault for not holding to “the foolishness of God” against “the wisdom of the world”. Such talk simply adds to the tendency for young people to leave the evangelical fold (and I fear, faith altogether). But my purpose tonight isn’t to address those evangelicals manning the barricades. I want to speak to those who are feeling pushed outside the walls.

My message is in the title: Don’t Go…We Need You.

It is your discomfort with the status quo that will promote change. It is your asking questions and making clear that you won’t put up with this past behavior that is a prophetic voice.

I’m not saying you have to attend the church with the worship band and the fog machine and listen to the sermon-series-soon-to-be-a-book (when the staff finishes it). Feel free to go to the mainline church for awhile if you want some structure without all the name-calling.

But don’t give up on the evangelical movement. You’re too important. The future of evangelicalism depends upon those who are able to testify to faith in Christ in the midst of a complex, postmodern, pluralistic world. We’ll need people who are articulate about their concerns, who can see multiple sides of an issue, who are willing to tolerate some ambiguity, and can help craft answers that are scripturally sound (in the grand arc of scripture) and contextually appropriate.

I’ve been reading Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason. I’m a little late to the game as a number of other bloggers have done a wonderful job of responding to the book. I’m only a third of the way in, but I find it right on target in terms of evangelical institutionalization. In the part that I’ve read, two things stand out in stark relief.

First, the convergence of a biblicism and Americanism have roots in the very foundations of the evangelical infrastructure as it formed 50 years ago. I had always known that Harold Lindzell had written a book on the biblical defense of the free enterprise system, but I hadn’t know how much anti-communism and economics were a part of the early story. As N.T. Wright, Walter Brueggemann, and many others, have pointed out such a focus on power is an expression of Empire when Christ set about to build a New Kingdom.

You young evangelicals who were not raised during the cold war can speak to the worldview assumptions that framed the development of evangelicalism. It’s not part of the Gospel. It’s what my former pastor called “Jesus with condiments” – take some Jesus and add whatever you like. We need voices that will say, “Wait a minute here! We’re not celebrating the Kingdom; we’re celebrating the American middle class values of the 1960s!” (which is why I’ve been returning to Bellah’s civil religion in the last month).

A second takeaway from the first third of Worthen’s book: alternative voices were always present during evangelical institutionalization. Certainly too many of them may have been too focused on their own denominational issues. But there was NEVER “one way to be an evangelical”. Wesleyans, Anabaptists, Restorationists, Pentecostals, and others have always been trying to express a less-combative style. It would have been better if they had been included in the initial organizational circles and it’s true that they may have rightly felt pushed out of the conversation. But there is not a monolithic voice of evangelicalism with a “take it or leave it” response required.

I want my evangelical colleagues who are wavering to recognize that there are many others who have been trying to reframe evangelicalism in ways that allow us to address today’s pressing issues (pretty much Kinnaman’s list of millennial concern: science, same-sex marriage, dialogue, doubt, tone, and patriarchy). We need your voices to stay engaged because it is your work that will help shape the coming generation.

Kuhn's RevolutionsI shared this image in October. It is an graphic showing Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It shows that what looked like a dominant paradigm is regularly challenged by new ways of thinking. The establishment is not nice to those making the challenge. But over time, as new evidence emerges, it becomes clear that the new paradigm is more elegant, more correct, more reflective of reality than the previous framework. It becomes the new paradigm and things start over.

You, my Facebook and Twitter friends, are the voices that have challenged the dominant paradigm. It’s hard for them to put up with your criticisms and concerns. (Unfortunately, the people who have written that they are going to try and be kinder are NOT from the dominant paradigm).

But you must continue to work out what it means to be evangelical in these complex times. If you don’t, all we’ve got is the combativeness and insensitivity that we’ve had for too long. Then the witness of the church as the Body of Christ is at risk.

If you leave because of your concerns about the dominant paradigm , you run the same risk that faced the dominant group with concerns over public schools. If public schools were secular and people of faith left, the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hang in there. We need your voices in the mix.

One final thought. All of us closer to my age have a responsibility to run interference for these younger voices. We must find ways of legitimizing their questions and calling out those trolls and leaders who make sport of demonizing them. For those around sixty who’ve been part of the evangelical movement for years, we need you too.

Together we can find the new paradigm while maintaining faith commitments in ways that are responsive to contemporary society. And celebrate the Kingdom of God in the process.


10 thoughts on “Please Don’t Go…We Need You

  1. I actually had a conversation about this the other day with a good friend who’s a Baptist pastor’s wife. She’s amazing and people like her remind me to not write off all people like her. And I told her that I would (if they weren’t reformed, ha) easily go to their church. I can handle a lot of people in the church disagreeing with me or tolerating me. But when it comes to the leadership, nope. I don’t need them to agree with me, but at least validate the option of a different opinion.

    I honestly would love to stay Episcopal forever, but I don’t see it – at least not while the kids are still growing. I think music and youth group are going to end up being our big hang-ups. We’ll see. And after a year or two of healing, maybe it will be easier to deal with the evangelical church system.

    I have found myself in a group of other people from all church denoms, mostly conservative, and I have been praying that all of *that* would somehow get redeemed and healed for me. So I haven’t totally given up hope. Just mostly. 😉 Good word here John. That public school analogy is a good one. Unfortunately, ha!

    1. Thanks, Caris. You were part of last night’s dialogue that made me think I needed to write this. I’m really pushing for a big-tent evangelicalism that would allow Episcopalians (and their children!). I really think that much of the current evangelical “leadership” reflects an older generation threatened by change. Even younger leaders like Driscoll operate with the tacit approval of the system. It’s those wiling to ask questions that will change the balance.

      I’ve had my share of pain and frustration, spending most of my career in what one person called “the radical fringe” (meant as a compliment). But I keep pushing, because to give up means that THEY pushed me out.

  2. The way I see it, Evangelicalism is the paradigm itself. I do believe we are in the “crisis” stage of Kuhn’s cycle, and we will see the dissolution of evangelicalism within a few generations as its supporters literally die off. Instead of salvaging a title which seems to describe me less and less, I’ve focused my attention on trying to bring out the best in the new paradigm to come.

    The way in which I see this process differing from Kuhn’s structure is that I think we will go back to the pre-paradigm stage in which a bunch of schools will all compete for dominance. Religious types don’t agree on epistemology, and therefore there cannot be a “normal science.” The dominance of evangelicalism (and really all other types of dominant religion) has generally been a political dominance, whereas scientific dominance is about epistemology.

    Anyhow, you have some good points, but it may be too late for evangelicalism.

    1. Thanks, Chris. I’m mostly in agreement but my take on Kuhn is slightly different, at least as I was thinking about it while writing the post. I agree that capital-E Evangelicalism is the paradigm. It represents the institutional expression based in celebrity, political power, money, and cultural conflict. Let’s call it Industry Evangelicalism. It’s what people in the media see, what respondents to polls think of when they respond, and what some bloggers you know depend upon to keep their reputation and celebrity status going.

      But I’ve been thinking that there’s another form of Evangelicalism underneath that. I think of it as small-e evangelicalism. It’s roots lie in people trying to tell their story of how Jesus transformed their lives and how the resulting quest for holiness allows them to reach out to others. Let’s call this Testimony Evangelicalism.

      While there is no epistemological coherence to Industry Evangelicalism (it thrives on conflict), Testimony Evangelicalism is phenomenologically sound. It flows out of the grace that initiatives transformation (I’m getting pretty Wesleyan here, but I’m also thinking of Peter Berger and Plausibility Structures). This form of evangelicalism is what allows people who like support Phil Robertson pages on Facebook to deeply love their guy nephew. Testimony evangelicalism is okay with ambiguity and incoherence. It’s capable of saying “I know what those scriptures say, but he needs me.”

      So I guess I agree with part of your application of Kuhn and differ a little. The dominant paradigm is unsustainable for reasons related to political stance, millennial changes, and simple demography. But when it crashes, we’ll be surprised to find the Testimony Evangelicalism sitting there in its place. That’s what gives me hope.

      Your comment helped me a lot. These two approaches have been banging around in my head for awhile but I haven’t been able to articulate my thinking as well as I think I just did.

      A thought: if you were willing to repost your comment on my Facebook page (on either the main page or the Despised Ones page), I’ll make my response and we’ll see what others think.

      I really appreciate you taking the time to think through this with me.


  3. Jeff and I live in the space between Industry and Testimony with our church, our jobs, and our families. It’s a hard place to live, especially when our personal perspectives about what it means to be part of the church are so different from each other. This is also complexificated by the fact that Jeff pastors in a church that teeters between the two, but mostly leans toward “Industry”. There’s richness in the dialogue, though; and we have had many, many, many talks about what it means to stay in the evangelical church of which we’re a part. One of Jeff’s main arguments is that the denomination has done so much to shape our lives, has given us so much (we met at one of its universities; his dad pastored in it his entire career). I, on the other hand, (being less of a “joiner”, I suppose), am overwhelmed at times and frustrated quite often with the small vision of our denomination and of evangelicalism in general (Phil Robertson being the latest focus – I agree it was contrived). I see the brilliant things my students are thinking and doing, and I take joy in knowing that the next phase will bring goodness and light to the world, even if the methods are fleeting.

    My attitude at this point is that all denominations have their problems, their closets, their skeletons, etc. If we’re going to stay in evangelicalism, better the devil you know… 😉 I’m far from the conservative I once was. And I’m not as certain as I once was about what it means to be an evangelical. I participate in our church and I hope that I’m doing some good, but I also struggle because my private beliefs and stances are not always aligned with the church’s. My current tactic is to try my best to really be present with people, to meet them wherever they are and see their lives as they see them – even if they’re in the “Industry”. It’s maddening and it’s beautiful, and I’m not sure that I can do anything else; so I pray every day that God will “set the world right” and “do what’s best” (as Eugene Petersen translated the Lord’s Prayer in the Message). Beyond that, it’s beyond me.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Lori. I appreciate the issues with coming up with a comfortably fitting definition of evangelical. But at its core, it’s still about how lives were transformed in unique and individual ways. The problem comes when denominational/Industry demands cause us to pretend we aren’t unique in order to be accepted. I’m really thinking that this state of displacement is far too common among church folks today.

  4. I would love to talk to you personally or email, skype etc… about your blog. This will be pretty random as it is late…lol. To be honest since I am in my 50’s and have been following Christ for 34 years, I have found the challenges from my younger friends are good for me yet disturbs me in that I almost feel that they are creating a new faith belief system that takes away from truth found in the Word of God, even though they often are coming up with new translations or understandings of what the scriptures are really saying. I have come out of many styles (flavors) of faiths in the past 34 years and have found my faith system greatly challenged while counseling with my clients and with personal challenges concerning my own self. I understand the conflict. Gees…I am living in it. I fear that some are changing the Bible to fit their thinking instead of the Bible changing their thinking. And then… I sit and ponder my own personal challenges and my faith does not seem to offer anything to comfort or secure me. I too then start thinking that the newer culture of Christianity sure do make it easier for me to feel “ok with myself” and not face judgments and so forth from others. It is comforting in some ways and scary in others. I cannot get out of my head the warnings found in scripture of culture changes, thought process changes as the times near Christ’s coming, and I wonder…. just wonder. And still, I am left with myself trying to figure out my God and His desires for me. Another random thought is that when I engage my younger friends in discussion I am often left feeling as if I have to defend the Word of God and also feel that its not necessarily what they are saying but how they say it that shakes me sometimes. Nearly every heavy discussion has left me with the feeling that I was just shot to shreds while expressing my faith to them and that I was entirely wrong…not to mention that something was wrong with me because I am evangelical. This I do not like.

    1. Lisa,

      Feel free to write me. My e-mail is Don’t know if your question is about this particular post or the blog as a whole. You might find it valuable to get more context for what I’ve been thinking.

      I appreciate your concerns about conversations you’ve had with young people. I have been fortunate to be in Christian colleges for my whole career, so the students who are asking my questions are doing so within a context of faith — even if they struggle over simplistic views of scripture they’ve been given in the past.

      I should also say that I have really deepened my understanding of the Holy Spirit in leading us all to new understandings. Sometimes it’s fear that has driven the negative comments that my students react against.

      I remain optimistic about the future of evangelicalism. It won’t be an easy road, but I really think it will be God-honoring in the long run.


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