Next Steps for the Church in America

Today in the New York Times, David Brooks published an opinion piece about the Evangelicals who are trying to save evangelicalism from itself. Evangelical is a word that I used to fully embrace for myself because I thought it was a word that described a commitment to the gospel, a commitment to the integrity and authority of the Bible, and a commitment to personal spiritual authenticity.

However, I have become convinced in the past three years or so that evangelicalism is more about a particular cultural perspective than it is about the Bible, the gospel, or even following Jesus.

In other words, I feel a deep burden to save Christianity from evangelicalism. If the term “evangelical” were worth something these days, I’d try to save evangelicalism from itself, but I no longer care about the term. I’ve learned too much about the history of the movement to value the word anymore.

Nevertheless, I’m truly burdened by my own commitment to the integrity of the Bible, the importance of the gospel, and the need for people to authentically live out lives that follow Jesus both spiritually and practically. What’s more, I’m just a single pastor in a tiny church in the middle of conservative, white-bread, Indiana, and I don’t know what it means to put my voice out there or if it’s even my voice that needs to be heard. Still, there aren’t many people in my circles of experience who are saying the things I think need to be said.

Simply put, the evangelical church in America has done a terrible job of discipling people to be Christ-followers. We have done an admirable job of turning people into Republicans, but we have done a truly awful job of helping people follow Jesus. Thinking about these issues for the past three years, I have come to the conclusion that the problem of the evangelical church can be summarized by the words idolatry and ignorance.

Regarding ignorance, the American evangelical church has cultivated an intentional ignorance of the world around us in critical ways. American evangelicalism has ignored the racial disparities in our country, the plight of the migrant, the horrific results of unfettered capitalism, and even basic science. The evangelical church has labeled these issues as “political” or “distractions from the gospel” and has chosen to ignore them. Today, we face the consequences of a church filled with leaders and followers who are equally ignorant of climate science, ignorant of how vaccines work, how racism works, or even why capitalism might not be God’s plan for his people.

Regarding idolatry, the American evangelical church has followed the path of every religious tradition before it including the despised Pharisees. American evangelicals took a few fundamental doctrines, like salvation by grace through faith, the importance of holy living, the authority of the word of God, and the need for personal conversion and has placed layer on layer of additional doctrines and practices on top of them. The end result is that American evangelicals have embraced concepts like individual responsibility, racial color-blindness, young-earth creationism and pro-life activism as core tenets of the faith when in truth, they are mere idols, poor (if not false) representations of the true will of God.

Finally, American evangelicals have leveraged the teaching and the worship of their idols into a culture war that the Republican Party has been able to leverage for aims that have never been considered Christian. Consider how many American evangelicals voted for Trump, claiming that they were electing a President, not voting for a pastor, as if character doesn’t matter in the public sphere. The hypocrisy of Christians waging a culture war against immorality by putting their faith and hope in an immoral individual who makes grandiose promises to be on their side is beyond me!

The real problem in all of this, as I see it, is that pastors and ministry leaders are just as guilty of idolatry and ignorance as the people they lead. Someone has to sound the alarm, someone needs to start helping people wake up, someone needs to identify and tear down the idols, someone needs to bring them out of their ignorance. I wish it were someone else, but I haven’t heard any voices specifically addressing these problems, and I fear God might be calling me to be that voice… or at least to put my voice out there so that maybe someone stronger, smarter, or more influential than I will take up this banner and lead the charge to save American Christianity from American evangelicalism. Perhaps, along the way, we can help some people who have given up on the church to return to it.