I’ve attended two talks hosted by broadly evangelical organisations recently which got me thinking about challenges for the church in NZ – on similar lines to a post I blogged a few weeks ago. The general problem with both talks, I think, was something in the realm of ‘pseudo-intellectualism’. I aim here not to offend people (too much) or to cast blame, but to challenge and to stimulate thought that leads to fruitful action and reform. We’ll see how it goes 🙂 Some people won’t like the way I’ve used words like “pietist”. I’m not a theologian, and it’s the best term that came to mind. If you want me to do better, I’m accepting offers of scholarships for theological training.
What I’m aiming to explain in this post is that the evangelical church scene that I move in on occasion faces what is sometimes called ‘a Scylla and a Charybdis’. Well, actually, it faces many more challenges than those listed in this post, but I will point to two ends of the spectrum that I think the wider Church ought avoid (though, whether they really are as different as they appear turns out to be a murky issue.) On one end is post-evangelicalism. It’s hipster, it’s trendy, it’s pretty pleased with itself about how smart it is, indeed it’s attracting a lot of the smartest Christian young adults out there… and it’s wildly over-rated. On the other side we have anti-intellectual pietism, often tied in with conservative reactionaryism. That’s not a word, but if I can manage to make it sound like it comes from the Bible, then the pietists probably won’t question it.
First, past the posts; or, to use a more coherent sentence: let’s briefly survey what I provocatively want to call ‘post-evangelicalism’. This stream of thought is, firstly, highly sceptical of traditional notions of evangelism. It is (instead) excited about social justice, about the environment, about passionate worship (trendy Christian songs) and about … Jesus (?) – maybe, sometimes. The worst sin, perhaps, is to talk about sin in an individual sense, and arguably the next-worst is to talk about salvation in such a sense. I wonder if I could even say that this movement is about ‘us’ rather than about ‘me’ – and sometimes, perhaps often, it’s about ‘us’ rather than about ‘God’. Many post-evangelicals are likely to become movers and shakers in society. My fear is that, as nice (feel good) as this stream of Christianity is, its participants won’t be moving and shaking society in such a way as to point to Christ. There is real potential here for brilliant, warm and wise societal-level ‘pre-evangelism’; but let’s not let this worthwhile project turn into an excuse to escape actually sharing the gospel.
The talk that got me thinking about post-evangelicals had very little to do with the gospel. And that’s what got me thinking, as the title of the talk seemed rather amenable to fitting in some gospel-related content somewhere. Often, this movement will use evangelical-esque language, divorced of most of its meaning. Indeed, many of the people leading the post-evangelical movement are not themselves particularly post-evangelical. In their private lives and conversations, they’re evangelicals, albeit perhaps questioning ones. But, in their teaching, and in their public emphases, they’ve moved beyond the old-timers’ focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have new insights, new knowledge; ‘gnosis’ even (?) for the fancy speakers of ancient Greek amongst us. Being compared to the Gnostics would of course upset them, but that’s another conversation. Whatever the Church may’ve once been about, to the post-evangelical it is abundantly clear that we need to be more relevant, and more flexible; less dogmatic! It’s now more about humanity and God’s story – in some abstract sense – and big-picture stuff that tends (in my view) to miss out on the cold hard details of historicity that make the Christian faith what it really is. What really got me thinking about this stuff was the way in which old-school evangelism was mocked at this talk. The speaker did so, it seemed to me, out of a place of having really wrestled with the relationship between God and mankind. The young people who laughed along I think lack the grounding in the gospel that the current leaders of post-evangelicalism have. The laughter of my generation (in the Church) at evangelists, as experienced at that talk is the same as the laughter of scepticism and South Park – they laugh because evangelism is laughable and stupid rather than because it’s a bit awkward. If I’m right at all, something is wrong here.
Now, onwards Christian soldiers – let’s assess what I probably incorrectly call ‘pietism’. This trend prioritises the changed heart of the believer over all else. A disdain for the use of the intellect is of course found in large quantities in the pentecostal/charismatic movement which dominates the youth demographic of the NZ church, but really that’s another topic for another day. (If you talked to me about this, you’d find out I actually consider myself as part of the broad stream of charismatics, so I’m not as hostile to that movement as it may occasionally seem – it’s complicated!) For now I’m interested in something that’s a bit more old-school, found in conservative churches across the board (whether they have a slight charismatic tinge or not). For pietists, the mind is an optional extra in the realm of faith – and it’s best not to rely too heavily on it! It’s really, we’re told, about the heart, and about relationship. And God moves in mysterious ways, so as long as we’re sincere, that’s all that matters.
The talk that got me thinking about pietists, and about contrasting them with post-evangelicals, was by a young-earth creationist. The reasons why I am not a young-earth creationist shall perhaps constitute another blog-post. I do think one can be YEC without drowning in pietism. Unfortunately, this talk failed in that regard. It was set up (at least in promotion) as an examination of the evidence concerning evolution & creation. It ended up as what I can only describe as a farce (well, stronger language comes to mind), with some fairly-(but not entirely)-well-informed sceptics destroying the speaker’s main arguments – at least in my humble opinion. This resulted in said speaker falling back on to a pietistic appeal to personal experience, in addition to a muddle of arguments about too many topics for one coherent talk. The fall-back tactic is all too common but simply inadequate, and is anti-intellectual, even if initially dressed in the garbs of a weak evidentialism; when the garbs are torn off by those in the know, there’s nothing left but embarrassment all around. Except for the pietist himself/herself – such a person is often supremely convinced of the moral righteousness of pietism and will (I suspect) be left content that they promoted Jesus in a hostile context and stayed true to their beliefs. In two words, “spiritualising failure”. I find this attitude supremely frustrating. There are good arguments and evidence at hand, and Christians should be able to engage seriously in all spheres of society, if we just put our mind to it and sought to do so out of a biblical framework of thought, in conjunction with prayer. We need to trust God, yes – and also to think about it! Instead, conservatives in NZ are too often happy to cede intellectual ground to their opponents, out of a kind of false optimism which asserts that it’s not really about the arguments anyway. Yes, we want to win people, not (just) arguments, but if we let ourselves get into the position where we’re losing all of the arguments (this is where we’ve been for a few decades, it seems to me), we cannot hope to win many people, particularly in the medium to long term. Losing an argument whilst winning a person is only a short-term success (if the ‘win’ was achieved by emotional manipulation, then it’s hardly a success – this is my problem with much in the way of evangelistic practice coming out of the charismatic movement).
It may seem from this post that I have only negative things to say about everyone in evangelical churches other than myself. This is slightly misleading in at least one respect, for (as those who know me well will be able to attest) I have plenty of negative things to say about myself as well. But, be that as it may, I also have some positive things to say about the state of the evangelical church – perhaps they will have to wait for another blogpost for a full exposition. For now, I will say that there is quite a bit about post-evangelicalism that I find attractive. It is right, I think, to desire to communicate the gospel in a way that makes sense to our culture; I’m just concerned that in that translation process, the gospel message has got diluted and lost for many in that movement, and it’s become more about effective communication of … something, rather than centrally about the gospel. We have much to learn from postmodernism. Not least, the increasing recognition of moral and religious diversity, and the challenge it raises for the Church, is something hugely important to grapple with. Rejecting western hyper-individualism in exchange for seeking solid community is a good thing too. In general, post-modernists and their post-evangelical kin ask some great questions – just don’t go to them (as a general rule) for the answers!
I think the methods associated with the post-evangelicals have real potential in the realm of ‘pre-evangelism’, and that the content espoused by the pietists amongst us includes the gospel message that people need to hear (though perhaps with some unnecessary baggage attached in many instances). I hope to see a broad and effective evangelical partnership forming organically; a movement that could use the strengths of different portions of the Church, without diluting the message or communicating it in such a way as to leave it generally unheard and ignored. The post-evangelicals focus on a kind of discipleship or spirituality, and the pietists on a kind of evangelism, but we need both, and the neglect of either will negatively impact on the form which the remaining emphasis takes. We need to regain an evangelistic urgency (lost nearly wholesale by the posts), but for this to be buttressed with understanding of the culture (widely discarded or de-emphasised by the piestists) and the grounded realities of the gospel, held together by love of God and people. Easy. :S
There is plenty more to say, but not by me and not now. As you may’ve seen, I’m an idealist – I can only hope that in my critiques and in my hopes both, I follow Christ in soul, strength, heart, and mind.