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Deconstructing evangelicalism

January 2006 | by Jonathan Stephen

Massive cultural shifts within Western society have resulted in what might be called the deconstruction of ‘evangelicalism’. This much-loved, time-honoured and once comprehensible term for New Testament Christianity has been forced to bear new and often contradictory meanings.

Efforts to categorise the current state of professing evangelical church life tend to go out of date very quickly. No doubt my own attempt will suffer a similar fate, but I think it can be helpful at the moment.

The ’emergent’ (or emerging) church movement tends to contrast itself with ‘traditional’ and ‘pragmatic’ forms of evangelicalism. To these three categories I am going to add a fourth – ‘Bible-centred’ evangelicalism. In which category would you place your church?

This month I shall cover ‘traditional evangelicalism’ and ‘pragmatic evangelicalism’. Next month I will complete the picture by contrasting ’emergent’ evangelicalism and ‘Bible-centred’ evangelicalism.

Traditional evangelicalism

‘Traditional’ evangelical churches would be easily recognised by believers of 50 or even 100 years ago. I don’t need to describe in any detail what traditional evangelicalism in the UK looks like because it has been around a long time.

By definition, one of the principal aims of the traditional evangelical church (whether acknowledged openly or not) is to resist change. This is done from the best of motives. But the fact is that whereas some things must never change (revealed truth), others must.

Hopefully, we ourselves ‘are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 3:18). Our churches also must constantly be renewed and reformed.

Crucially, the traditional evangelical church fails to understand that its cultural trappings can become a hindrance to the gospel. Ironically and tragically, the preservation of the gospel may be at the expense of its proclamation – as a church drifts culturally further and further away from the people it is supposed to be reaching.

Not pleasing ourselves

I am not speaking here about sinful compromise but about the unnecessary obstacles we put in the way of those unfamiliar with our ways. Many believers are so comfortable slipping between traditional church and contemporary real-life settings that they are genuinely oblivious to the problem.

They are like the child brought up in a bilingual family who speaks both languages without thinking and makes no allowance for the puzzled visitor.

Let’s make sure the only offence we give is the offence of the gospel. Tired, uncomfortable buildings, arcane religious rituals, dull music and ‘the language of Zion’ – these are just some of the ways traditional evangelicalism manages to repel those outsiders brave enough to cross the threshold on a Sunday morning.

‘I’m afraid we don’t get many visitors, but at least we’re being faithful’. I wonder. We know what happened to the man who hid his talent in the ground. Keeping it safe and sound and in pristine condition was less risky, but it was no excuse for not trading with it (Matthew 25:14-30).

Church life in many places in the UK did not need to alter much for many generations because the host culture did not change sufficiently rapidly or radically to demand it. But this is no longer the case.

Of course, the traditional model is the preferred choice of those who perpetuate it, but church is not about pleasing ourselves. Of course it has its own inbuilt integrity – if it didn’t ‘work’ it wouldn’t have lasted so long. But, increasingly, it is only ‘working’ in isolation from the surrounding culture.

Little prospect of survival

What is the future of traditional evangelicalism? In the United States it is still quite possible for churches large and small to flourish under this model. The strong residue of a church culture in many regions, combined with the well-articulated separatist stance of fundamentalism, means that traditional evangelicalism can continue for some time yet in its many and varied guises.

In the UK, where neither of these mitigating factors apply, the alarm bells have been ringing for years. There are many churches trapped in this model, with declining and ageing congregations. Humanly speaking, they have little prospect of survival.

There are ways in which dying, traditional evangelical churches can be re-commissioned, but so much depends on the attitude of the remnant. When history and tradition are unwittingly revered – to the extent that the Lord is only welcome to work as he has done in the past – then he is likely to gather his people together elsewhere.

I fear we are going to see the closure of hundreds of small, traditional evangelical causes in the UK over the next few years.

Pragmatic evangelicalism

Let us now consider what I call ‘pragmatic evangelicalism’. After WW2, a new kind of evangelicalism was forged. It arose in the USA to redress the cultural and intellectual isolationism of fundamentalism.

Its leaders were Carl Henry and Billy Graham. Together, in 1956, they launched a new magazine called Christianity Today, and this new (or ‘neo’) evangelicalism became official.

The movement sought to re-engage with the life of the real world at every level – academic, social, cultural and political. This desire for re-engagement was commendable. No one could deny that, as a result of this deliberate strategy, many millions have been reached with the gospel and many brought into the kingdom of God. The result has been an amazing upsurge in the profile of evangelicalism throughout much of the world.

But there has been a cost. In many areas, the pendulum has swung too far. Along the way, this brave new evangelicalism has learned a trick or two from rubbing shoulders with the world.

The world has taught it how to be ‘successful’. It might be the crude offering of pseudo-miracles, which goes down so tragically well in some countries and communities. Or it could be the glitzy smarm of the televangelist.

Again, it might be the relentlessly seeker-driven church, set on giving the people what they want rather than what God says they need. Let the market decide! Or it could be some variation of the management model which many larger churches have embraced, where the Senior Pastor would be better off with an MBA than a degree in theology.

Limited shelf-life

Pragmatic evangelicalism thrives on programmes, fads, experiences and techniques. Like the world of marketing from which it is so eager to learn, its ploys only have a limited shelf-life.

But that doesn’t matter – there’s always something new around the corner. Pragmatic evangelicalism is built on Baby Boomer values. Its assessment of the culture is essentially cynical. Whatever style or methodology will best reach the target group is what matters. Biblical considerations are often, in practice, so minimised that the end always seems to justify the means.

So much of contemporary, professing evangelicalism could be included under the heading ‘pragmatic’. But the Lord Jesus knew he was never going to attract true disciples to himself by such worldly methods.

His way was radically different – it was the way of the cross: ‘But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself’ (John 12:32). And that must surely be our way too.

We do not need signs and wonders to be faithful, effective, witnessing churches. Nor do we need slick presentations to impress, entertain or flatter an unbelieving world. (The world is much better at these things than we are, anyway. Attempts to compete generally look pretty pathetic from any viewpoint.)

What we need are godly, joyful, sacrificial and loving Christians, sold out to the service of their glorious Saviour.

The future of pragmatism

What is the future of pragmatic evangelicalism? Here in the UK at least, I detect a certain weariness among the churches as they wait for the latest ‘solution’ to come along.

Haven’t we been let down too many times? Aren’t enough Christians sufficiently embarrassed about their failed predictions to start looking elsewhere? The answer to these questions may well be ‘yes’ – which brings us to our third category: emergent evangelicalism.

The ’emergent church’ is a movement (those within it prefer to call it a ‘conversation’) which aims to be a Christian response to the increasingly postmodern culture of the world in which we live.

It claims to be evangelical but rejects both the traditional and pragmatic forms already considered. Emergence demands a fresh start, a return, as its advocates see it, to the simplicity and authenticity of pre-Constantinean Christianity – when the ‘purity’ of the early church is supposed to have become corrupted by the patronage of the Roman Empire.

We shall look in depth at the ’emergent church’ next month.

This article and its sequel are based on a seminar held at the Evangelical Movement of Wales Aberystwyth Conference on 10 August 2005.