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Friday, May 05, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: Surveying Evangelicalism

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

The current state of our evangelical Christian churches is not the easiest thing to encapsulate in a few sentences. While each of today’s Protestant denominations originally sprang from a set of shared doctrinal convictions and associated practices, few could ever have been called monolithic, and evangelicals are even less so. Some groups bear the same name but believe and do things very differently indeed.

Tom: My experience with folks from the denominations is primarily online, but our own Immanuel Can has been out church-shopping of late, and may have a better view from the trenches ... er, pews. Does the average modern evangelical church building still have pews, IC?

Trending Architecture

Immanuel Can: Some do. Some have chairs, and some others have the kinds of seats that one ordinarily finds in theatres — you know, the kind that are really thick but fold up the minute you stand up. In fact, a few are even held IN theatres.

Tom: Actually, now that you mention it, I’m pretty sure one of my sons visited a church that rented a theatre on Sunday mornings a few years back. I thought it was kinda fringe though. Is that sort of thing more or less mainstream now?

IC: Yes, it is. I’ve even found church buildings designed that way … a semi-circular auditorium, a stage and screen, and theatre seating. It was odd, but not entirely bad. For one thing, it allowed the maximum number of people to sit, and it sure killed “pew hogging”. But it also made the whole thing a kind of theatrical arrangement — a stage performance for the benefit of a largely passive crowd.

Some local churches are even renting movie theatres, which generally go unused on Sunday mornings, in order to circumvent the problem of owning a building.

A Flood of Consumerism

Tom: Well, certainly for multi-site megachurches the theatre-and-screen design option is pretty important, since they’re getting their Bible teaching remotely. And as you point out, this setup more obviously points out that the people in the seats are primarily playing the role of consumers and acolytes as opposed to equal participants and members. So that’s a big change since the middle of the last century, though it’s not a new one, as Catholicism and other “high churches” have run on this model for centuries. But do you find the consumer mentality is leaking into smaller evangelical churches as well?

IC: Leaking in? It’s in like a flood.

Tom: Before we get into this too far, let’s do a disclaimer here: I’m going to ask IC to give me the impressions he’s formed about today’s evangelicals from visiting churches in the city he lives in, and I may supplement his thoughts with what I’m reading from evangelicals on the Internet. Obviously this will be mostly anecdotal, and obviously your mileage may vary if the churches near you are of a different sort. We hope they are.

So with that in mind, IC, let’s have your general impressions.

IC: Right now in my area there are basically two types of evangelical congregations: the conservative-traditional type and the larger, community church model. The former is like a museum for 19th century traditions, and the latter encompasses a spectrum of more consumerist, theatrical, clergy-dominated, doctrine-poor and program-heavy congregations. There are a few house-style churches around, and a few odd experiments that are yet to show their value in full. But pretty much, the first two models is what you get.

How’s Your Dinner, Sir?

Tom: Let’s discuss quality of teaching for a bit. When you talk about the conservative-traditional type churches, most of my adult church experience has been with that sort of church. And I find that even within those more traditional, smaller churches, some are trying to modernize and some are more entrenched in that “19th century” mode.

I’m seeing unfortunate trends on both sides of that divide. The traditionalists generally have more accurate Bible teaching but it is almost always cluttered up with off-putting baggage — the King James Version, jargon language too dense for newbies to parse without a glossary, dirge-like hymns sung badly from ancient hymnals, a tendency toward legalism, inflexible meeting formats, more formal dress codes and so on. The more modern churches have done away with a lot of these hurdles, and have incorporated things like PowerPoint for hymns and to help believers retain what is being taught, but sadly, what is being taught is often inferior: too facile, too individualistic, padded with pointless anecdotes, thin on scripture and insufficiently careful about handling the texts that are used.

Staying Uncontroversial

What’s the quality of teaching like in the community churches?

IC: Irregular. But for the most part, you’ve got it right. The community churches are emphatic about some doctrines, but completely silent on others. In particular, anything anti-cultural, or anything which might create controversy is downplayed. It’s common for them to have no teaching at all about eschatology, Israel, male-female roles, ecclesiology, typology, prophecy, stewardship, and so on. In some cases, they don’t even espouse a single view of things like baptism or worship, but just let the chips fall where they may.

Tom: Which would explain how they fit so many people under a single umbrella: it’s a very big umbrella.

IC: They’re terribly weak on the Old Testament as a whole, and generally have no single overarching hermeneutic that puts passages into right context. Basically, it’s a sort of thin gospel with some “Christian living” stuff thrown in. Clearly the attempt is to stay uncontroversial so as to make the “community” of diverse people comfortable, and to add a little value with a little doctrine.

Tom: That’s often a product of the sort of seminary experience in which the student is presented with a buffet-style approach to the various doctrinal options and ends up with no particular personal investment in any of them.

IC: Neither the traditionalists nor the community folks really challenge their people. Traditionalists just reinforce, and then make a salvation appeal yet again. The more liberal evangelicals just provide an occasional religious experience and supplement ordinary modern lifestyles. My perception is that neither is pushing the frontiers of knowledge and obedience.

Are We Done Yet?

Tom: Okay, how about communion, or the Lord’s Supper? Are there general trends in the community churches as to frequency, length, and the sort of things that go on during it?

IC: Oh, that’s the saddest bit. Community churches, for the most part, reserve fifteen minutes once a month for the bread and wine. Usually the pastor or his designate does everything, and it’s over in a flash … a couple of mellow songs, a couple of prayers, bread, wine, collection, done. That’s not a whole lot worse than a traditional service that’s more regular and longer yet has lost its focus … but there’s only so much you can do in fifteen minutes once a month.

Tom: So we’re back to the equivalent of the Old Testament priesthood, except in this case it isn’t at all what the Head of the Church ever intended his Church to be. It’s yet another failed attempt to make clerisy work, rather than the organic functioning of a real Body.

I can tell you that in the more conservative evangelical churches this is not yet the case. There may be some legalism around the format, and there are often rather predictable mechanics attending the Lord’s Supper, but at least it is still going on. There is the occasional push in some quarters to shorten it for the convenience of young families, but it remains a weekly event. The struggle is always to make it meaningful rather than merely routine, and to encourage participation. And the looming problem is that, given the traditionalism of many of these churches, there are fewer and fewer young people present from year to year. That suggests to me that this is one biblical practice that may not easily self-perpetuate.

IC: Yep, and that’s the concern. That, and getting people from diverse backgrounds to feel welcome. So in the community churches, they tend to downplay stuff that is not instantly accessible, and accessible at a fairly low level. In the traditional churches, they just roll with the traditions, no matter whom they offend, and whether or not they’re well-understood.

No Theology of Baptism

Tom: Okay, since we’re talking about traditions — biblical ones anyway — how about baptism? Are evangelicals still getting baptized? Is that still a “must”?

IC: Yes. But why they are is not well understood. Some churches teach that baptism is a gateway to salvation or to church membership. Many teach that it is a church ordinance. I heard one pastor declare that baptisms performed outside of a sanctuary and not by a clergyman don’t even count as real baptisms. That sort of nonsense abounds: there’s no solid theology of baptism.

Tom: Yeah, I’ve run into that as well, but usually with untaught Christian individuals, never from the platform.

Coming Together to Pray

You may have noticed I’m going through a sort of mental checklist of important elements of church life here to get a reading, and I think we haven’t yet talked about prayer. How’s the corporate prayer in community churches? Is it spread around a little more than the Bible teaching, or has it gotten clergified too?

IC: No. It’s kind of gone the other way. What’s popular is “prayer chains”, a kind of network of information in which special personal requests are passed along to large numbers of people, often by email. “Aunt Tillie’s having her gout again … Fred’s father just died … the Smiths are asking for prayer for their son who’s trying to get into college …” That kind of thing. It’s about ginning up numbers, and praying for personal problems, for the most part.

Tom: Interesting, and not so different from the smaller, more conservative churches. But I’m wondering mainly about prayer when the church is gathered together. Is that restricted to “pastors” and “worship leaders”, or can anyone lead the people of God in public prayer? I ask because I’ve come across congregations in other countries where public prayer is restricted to pastors only.

IC: I think it varies. Prayer meetings are different for different congregations. In the regular meetings of the more liberal evangelical churches, only pastors and their lay designates pray publicly. What’s interesting is that many churches are still pretty hesitant about women praying publicly, and even more about them preaching. But nobody really says why anymore. Still, they’re clearly squeamish.

Tom: With good reason, but I’m still a bit surprised.

Organic Hospitality and Sharing

Last question: Fellowship. In your church travels, I’m sure you got greeted at the door by somebody assigned to the task almost everywhere. To me, an organized, mechanical response doesn’t count. Did you encounter any expressions of actual, biblical, organic hospitality or fellowship?

IC: Yes, certainly. Individual believers, many of whom simply don’t wait for clergy to give them permission, are just wonderful. I’ve been well-treated by all kinds, both in traditional and community-style churches.

Tom: Well, I’m glad there was something positive about the experience. So where are we, IC? We’re not in the first century anymore, that’s for sure. Sum it up for us, if you can.

IC: There are essentially two directions in which evangelical churches are going today. In my view, neither is biblical or likely to be sustainable. Certainly neither model is creating healthy, happy, mature Christians. We need a new, more basic and biblical model, and one that produces real disciples for the 21st century.

I guess I’d put it that simply.

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