“Men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” 1 Chronicles 12:32 (NIV)
1. An extensive phone conversation with a close and eminently frustrated Christian brother leaves me with a sense of unrest and profound concern. "I expect the world to not understand why I want to live a holy life," this friend summarizes, "but when I speak in this manner to many people in the church, they look at me like I'm nuts. Worse than that, members of the church can live in open rebellion against God's laws with no consequences." The puzzled response which this friend often receives in conversation is not followed by some form of disagreement which rises to the surface and initiates a debate. Rather, it is often followed by an empty-headed silence that strongly communicates that the church-going recipient does not even understand what my friend is talking about.
2. Another long-time Christian brother, who stands in a place of leadership, recently echoed much of the same sentiment, summarized thus: "Many people around me in my church just don't seem to get it. They don't want to make any discerning judgments, they don't want to confront problems, and they mutter superficial, spiritual platitudes at the first sign of conflict. When I speak up and present even a mild challenge, the response is usually empty and silent. I am so frustrated with my church."
3. An intimate pastor friend gathers together a group of teenagers for a Bible study. The topic is dinosaurs and the Bible. The pastor shows them basic evidence that is consistent with the creation account in Genesis, demonstrating there is a problem with the evolutionary, long age framework that has been drummed into their heads since kindergarten. It is not an in-depth presentation by any means. The kids are almost completely unresponsive. Their reaction is characterized by a seeming inability to even grasp what the pastor is taking about. In the middle of the presentation, my friend has to scuttle his teaching agenda, subsequently dumbing it down to an almost embarrassing level of simplicity, far below that which teenagers should be able to cognitively process. "I perceive their minds are simply mush," he soberly states, "the boys' brains are saturated with video game stimuli and the girls are worried about texting their friends and talking about the next social activity. This is frightening."
4. An elder sister in the Lord, a treasured friend and a lifetime Christian, laments: "I have been a member of my church for decades. Never has the influence of liberal secularism been stronger. No one is interested in studying doctrine, nor do they want to be challenged to think differently about the world, to have their minds conformed to the teachings of Scripture. When I make challenging statements in Bible study, I am met with either sarcasm or silence. A woman recently told me of an intense three year Bible study she went through. She claimed it was great. When I asked her how it changed her life, she stated with a puzzled look: 'It didn't.' I was stunned. I sat down with the interim pastor and got 2-3 hours of wishy-washy theology, superficial clichés and evasive answers about the state of the Church. I simply don't know what to do."
I daresay there are thousands of similar stories all across the landscape of American Christendom. These recent experiences are symptomatic of a widespread and virulent crisis in the Church. Perhaps you have had similar experiences in your own congregation. Testimonials and polling data indicate that there is a systemic crisis in the American Church, leading us to inquire: How on earth did we arrive at this moment?
The Intellectual Apocalypse
Just prior to these four experiences, I attended a motivating lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary given by Dr. Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The talk was entitled, On the Other Side of Complexity: Christian Conviction in the Late Modern Age.1 It was a profoundly important and providential precursor to these recent interactions with my fellow brethren. What follows are my own thoughts, not Dr. Mohler's. But he provided me with an excellent springboard and framework from and within which to write this article.
Dr. Mohler articulately outlined the intellectual upheaval that has taken place in Western civilization during the last three centuries. Naturally, Dr. Mohler points to the provocateurs par excellence of this upheaval: Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud. These men, in the words of David Breese, "rule the world from the grave." To this cavalry, additional apocalyptic horsemen were added. Western civilization, having already been trampled under the hooves of the so-called Enlightenment, also has had to grapple with the skepticism of David Hume, the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the existentialism of Soren Kierkegaard, the higher criticism of Julius Wellhausen, et al. The list goes on and on.
During this period of upheaval, Western academia moved in 3 basic stages, from (1), believing in God's existence as a basic presupposition, to (2), believing that it was possible that God did not exist, to (3), God was no longer an intellectual possibility. Western academics stand largely at stage 3, with Western European society fundamentally joining their ranks. God is not a consideration in the basic thought of most citizens of Western Europe.
In America, the academics have been at stage 3 for quite some time as well, having committed their heart, soul and mind to the secular priesthood long ago. The American populace appears to be between stages 1 and 2 in its public affirmations, with polls showing that most American citizens claim to believe in God or claim to be Christians. Detailed analysis betrays the sobering truth, however.
While many people claim to believe in God and attend church on a regular basis, their cognitive orientation is predominantly secular. That is, though they often profess to be at stage 1, most churchgoers largely accept many of the premises of stage 3 academic unbelief. Though they profess to believe in God, they think, and often live, like those who don't. This is an enormous problem for American Christendom, and the problem can be attributed to the secularization of the culture at large by the intellectual worldview claims of academia.
Accommodation and Withdrawal
With this enormous intellectual flood came the relatively tepid response of the organized Church, Dr. Mohler accurately notes. The pressure to accommodate this "modernity" (and post-modernity) has been a staggering challenge, one which the organized Church has largely failed to properly deal with. Dr. Mohler succinctly pointed out that the Church, by and large, has futilely attempted to accommodate these intellectual movements, effectively trying to "save" Christianity from itself. Instead of doing the heavy lifting involved with navigating through the complexities of modern thought,2 our seminary and church leaders have most often chosen a generally naïve simplicity that either ignores modernity or accommodates it. His survey of these momentous failures is rather sobering.
The most prominent example is the emergence of 19th century Protestant liberalism, rooted in the destructive exertions of the German theologians of that era. Convinced that Christianity had to update itself in the face of modernism and its intellectual claims, men like Friedrich Schleiermacher, Adolf von Harnack, and Harry Emerson Fosdick vigorously pleaded with the Church to revise its historical stance on orthodoxy in response to modern sensibilities. Jettison the cognitive claims of orthodoxy, they taught, and you can rescue Christianity from the "facts" of modern science and regain intellectual and cultural respectability.
We now know, and could have easily predicted, that this resuscitation of Christianity by Protestant liberalism was a dismal failure. The pews have been emptied. In his book, Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen challenged the liberals in the 1920's that their religion was no longer Christianity. He was dead on. Protestant liberalism today has careened to the far left, characterized by economic Marxism, open ordination of homosexuals and even formally inviting Islam and other religions into their fold. If it was not so tragic, it would be laughable.
As a result of this liberalism, many folks who wanted to remain true to some semblance of orthodoxy, fled. Today, many of their grandchildren sit in the pews of the now pervasive non-denominational churches, what we might broadly call evangelicalism. Here, we find a core, orthodox Christianity. Typically, evangelicals will affirm the basics: Scripture, God, and the deity of Christ, faith in Christ, the resurrection, and the return of Jesus. These basic affirmations sometimes lead to genuine conversion and a general desire to be engaged in church life. However, these churches will often consider anything beyond the basics to be "non-essential," unwilling to make strong assertions beyond this small core of beliefs. Disagreement amongst pastors concerning the so-called "non-essentials" often results in a retreat into a desire for "unity" instead of wrestling through the theological discussion, admitting and correcting error, and affirming the interconnection of all doctrine. And this is where the problem begins.
First, the relative simplicity of affirming only the basics avoids grappling with the totality of interdependence in biblical doctrine. Core assertion in evangelicalism does not come close to mirroring biblical assertion. In fact, it falls far short. Christianity is not just a "personal relationship" with God given through Christ and a mandate to live a morally upright life. It is something far greater than that and it makes far greater claims. It is a total and complete worldview about every aspect of reality in which God has redeemed all creation in the death and resurrection of his Son. It asserts that judgment is coming and men must repent because God is just and holy. It asserts that Christ is the only answer to the plight of the world. It requires that the triune God of biblical revelation be glorified in every endeavor and in every sphere of reality.
The Bible makes authoritative claims of God's lordship over all things: theology, philosophy, ethics, morality, biology, anthropology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, psychology, military, sociology, law, politics, economics, and history: EVERYTHING. No separation from any sphere, no core doctrinal assertion leaving everything else open, no emendation to the plain teachings of the biblical text.
Second, the apocalyptic horsemen of militant unbelief have made sweeping, dogmatic claims about ultimate reality: claims completely antithetical to what God has declared in His infallible Word. The Bible's teachings demonstrate that Marx, Freud, Kant, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Hume, and Darwin were all wrong. Dreadfully, woefully, utterly wrong. Instead, evangelicalism has responded only with the core basics, leaving churchgoers completely ill-equipped to refute these intellectual claims. Polls clearly show that the minds of many who sit in the pews are filled with intellectual confusion. The data indicates that most folks sitting in the pews are not only confused about what it really means to be a serious disciple of Christ, but that they think like secularists and accept many of secularism's erroneous premises and assertions about the world.
Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis has characterized this problem well, paraphrased thus: "The unbelieving evolutionists make ultimate truth claims about the history of the universe, life, death, and all of reality, while our evangelical churches respond by meekly and wimpily saying: 'Believe in Jesus.'" This tepid response reveals a naïve simplicity that fails to engage in the complexities of the modern age, refute the incoherence of unbelieving worldviews, and assert the ubiquitous claims of biblical revelation.
The evangelical movement has failed to realize that the essentials do not constitute a Christian worldview. The culture is making worldview claims everywhere we turn while our churches are retreating behind the castle walls of core doctrine. This is woefully insufficient. Evangelical churches can no longer afford to stand on only the basics. Core doctrinal assertion may have worked in generations past, when the West was relatively Christianized, but it will not suffice in today's post-modern climate. Evangelicalism's claims must be expanded, akin to the great confessions of ages past. Our churches must begin teaching and preaching the whole counsel of God, and assertively standing on the totality of the doctrines therein. Evangelicals must know what their Bibles proclaim before they can effectively engage the complexities of the unbelieving world. And that means the leaders of the Church must inculcate their flock with a full orbed Christian worldview. To be effective in this modern morass of moral nihilism and intellectual chaos, the stance must broaden.
Even though evangelical churches formally hold to core doctrines, those doctrines do not find their way into public preaching often enough. As a result, many false converts sit far too comfortably in the pews. In my view, the overall situation is rather grim. In many churches, music is completely overemphasized. I have seen actual footage of worship services where the musicians play secular music on Sunday morning. Doctrinal teaching and serious discipleship are often not emphasized at all. Apologetics is a mysterious term. Communion is an occasional aberration. Sin and wrath are nary heard. Elders and formal church discipline are considered passé. Excommunication for living in open rebellion is often considered abhorrent. God is often portrayed as a "friend" to unbelievers. Untrained individuals often fill prominent leadership roles, sometimes even becoming pastors. Expository preaching has become a thing of the past. Topical sermons often stretch the contextual meaning of the texts beyond limits, sometimes distorting the meaning completely. Entertainment is often the order of the day.
Our young people are suffering dreadfully. In effect, their worldview is not Christian, rather it is a "moralistic therapeutic deism" (MTD), a phrase coined by Christian Smith and Melinda Denton.3 Their in-depth research indicates the worldview of teenagers generally consists of the following precepts: (1), A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth. (2), God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. (3), The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. (4), God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. He is effectively a divine butler and cosmic therapist. (5), Good people go to heaven when they die.
Where did our young people get this worldview? Obviously, from the cultural messages of the age. I would also suggest that teenagers who attend our churches have come to believe in MTD because of the confusing and wishy-washy messages that emanate from the pulpits and programs pervasively found in evangelicalism.
Christian television and YouTube4 quintessentially exemplify the worst features of evangelicalism. In effect, they are dismal embarrassments, having become a suspect parachurch movement that generally lacks doctrinal accountability and often wanders off into theological silliness. Theological eccentricities such as prosperity preaching, faith healers, "anointed" English, incessant ear-tickling sermons, and "treasure map" eschatology make it very difficult to take seriously. Suffice it to say, in dealing with the modern mind, it is almost completely useless. Most of it is, frankly, a foolish waste of time and resources.5 While God is able to work and convert souls through all sorts of human error and frailty in our churches and on Christian television, this type of Christianity hardly provides the answers to the complexities of the post-modern age and is scarcely what we should be striving for.
Evangelicalism's intellectual retreat into bare core beliefs and superficial engagement is only slightly better than complete separation from the modern world. Dr. Mohler points out that the fundamentalists of the 1920's shook their fists at modernity and continued to preach from the Scriptures. They refused to engage with the grievous errors of Protestant liberalism and the doctrines of modern thought. Perhaps if we just ignore the Documentary Hypothesis and Darwinism, they thought, these bad ideas will just eventually go away. They did not. Their courage and loyalty to sound doctrine can be admired, but their approach was impotent. Their separatist tendencies did very little to transform the thinking of the modern world. We can learn from the fundamentalists that we must not resort to simplistic separatism or superficial engagement. Rather, we must engage with the universal claims of the sovereign and eternal Christ of redemption and judgment.
Today, Protestant liberalism has been reincarnated in the Emerging Church movement. Rob Bell, Brian McLaren and others feel the need to once again rescue the Faith in the face of post-modern sensibilities. Betraying a breathtaking arrogance couched in false humility, they assert that the Church historic, for twenty centuries, has gotten it all wrong. They peddle a nebulous narrative, clearly believing that cognitive claims are offensive, apparently unaware that their opaque dialogue is itself a cognitive claim. This post-modern agnosticism is self-contradictory and antithetical to teachings of Scripture.6
For the heretical Rob Bell, the doctrine of hell is particularly offensive to the modern mind, and so it must be amended to make God more amenable to present sensibilities. The "love" of God is reduced to shallow human sentimentality, divorced from His justice and holiness. As usual, Jesus is divorced from Paul whenever it is convenient.7 The Emerging Church narrative is slick, hip and cool - ancient Greek sophistry dressed in a new tuxedo. Their ear-tickling doctrines are the same old recycled heresy. Like the seeker-sensitivity movement, it empties the Gospel of its power and conveys the message to sinners that God does not have a problem with their behavior.
Other heroes include the theistic evolutionists, and more specifically, the BioLogos Foundation. N.T. Wright, Peter Enns8 and others repeatedly lecture us that traditional notions of inerrancy are passé. "Science" has proven that the traditional interpretations of early Genesis and its teachings on the origins of the cosmos and man are no longer viable. They argue that God allowed erroneous concepts of cosmology and inaccurate world history into the Bible. We need to accept that there are errors in the text in order for the Church to keep its intellectual respectability. The creation, fall, and flood narratives clearly need revision and reinterpretation, and so does Paul's historical characterization of Adam in Romans 5. So let's amend them and get on with things so the world will accept Jesus. The theistic evolutionists go to great lengths to impugn and distort the Bible, but strangely never seem to impugn the erroneous science, the philosophical naturalism that tyrannizes all modern scientific interpretation, or the Kantian epistemology. In effect, it is the same message of Protestant liberalism: get with the times or the faith will fail. Men must rescue the Church from itself.
This litany of rescue attempts could go on, ad nauseum. I am hopeful that the reader has understood the point. Emendation, partial retreat and separation have characterized the Christian response to modernity, and have been dismal failures.
I believe, with Dr. Mohler, that confessional Protestantism can be an enormously helpful guide in articulating a comprehensive Christian worldview. The Westminster and Baptist Confessions, while having some minor differences, make sweeping doctrinal and intellectual claims about the nature of reality. Their purpose is to attempt to reflect, with as much accuracy as possible, what the Scriptures teach about every area of life and reality. Evangelical churches can use these great documents as a guide through the Scriptures, helping them to develop their own confessional statement that encompasses much more than the basics. One does not have to be a Presbyterian or a Baptist to find great agreement and usefulness in these confessions. In addition, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy can provide an excellent framework as well. These documents can serve as a useful guide for any church leader with orthodox convictions.
While some of the particulars, the true "non-essentials" (such as particular eschatological schema), can be left open for debate, the large measure of a church's confession needs to include vast biblically-based claims about all spheres of reality. No more wishy-washiness on the creation account, or the flood, or the history of Adam and Eve, or inerrancy or the total depravity of man or even the doctrine of hell. Confess and make these cognitive worldview claims, then stand on them. Put them in the fires of doctrinal accountability and then correct any doctrinal errors when God exposes them through the Word and other theologians. Teach them, train people in them and defend the Faith based on them.
Once the Church develops a broad, worldview-encompassing confessional statement, stick with it. Stop following the latest fads within evangelicalism, like the dismally appalling seeker-sensitive model or most of the nonsense on Christian TV and YouTube. All teaching and preaching should be made consistent with that confessional declaration. The doctrines must be preached, taught and proclaimed in all the activities of the Church. Many evangelical churches have a statement of faith, but it is buried somewhere on their website and is rarely heard from the pulpit and in teaching activities. A teaching curriculum must be developed in that context, which includes apologetics, doctrinal teaching, and understanding non-Christian worldviews.
Engage in the controversies of the day. Stop avoiding abortion, war, politics, homosexuality and the like. If certain people in your congregation support abortion policy, offend them biblically. They need to be offended so they might repent of supporting such evil. Give a biblical and theological exposition about the earthquakes in Japan and Haiti instead of just sending money and people there. Teach your flock how to talk about the problem of evil and God's sovereign goodness. Explain to your congregation why catastrophes like these happen instead of dancing around the subject. Knock off the moralistic therapeutic deism. Discipline open rebellion and divisions. Teach the incoherence of unbelief. Preach expositionally. Stop trying to entertain people. "Earnestly contend for the faith" (Jude 3). Don't just send missionaries overseas - train missionaries for America. America is dying.
The Church is in a major state of crisis. Its people are being swept away in a morass of intellectual and moral confusion. Those of us who have been called into leadership must lead. We can no longer stand back and watch our brethren live and think and perish like the world. We must dramatically change what we are doing in the American Church at large.
Brian McLaren of the Emerging Church movement wrote a book a number of years ago called Everything Must Change. The contents of the book are filled with false doctrine and deceptive narrative. But the title is correct. Everything must change, but not the way Brian McLaren thinks. We must call our churches back to the whole counsel of God: the infallible, inerrant and absolutely authoritative Word of God. The solution to our momentous crisis can only be found in God's revelation, and then obeying its teachings as disciples of Christ in thought, word and deed.
Martin Luther famously said: "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen." Let us do the same together.
Henry B. Smith Jr. is the Director of Development for the ABR, serving in that capacity since October 2004. Born and raised in northwestern New Jersey, he graduated with a BA in Economics from Rutgers University in 1992. With a 13 year sales and management background, he earned an MA in Theology with an emphasis on Apologetics from Trinity Seminary in Indiana, graduating with high honors in 2005. Since 2006, Henry has been enrolled in the MAR program at Westminster Theological Seminary, emphasizing apologetics and biblical languages.
Added 5/14/2012: An interview with Dr. Albert Mohler on Creation.com
Added 4/1/11: I just came across this video and it might be helpful in explaining some of the problems in broader evangelicalism.