In several recent posts I have already tried my hand at expressing my unease with certain tendencies I have seen recently in my seminary and Bible college education. The papers I posted on this blog from my History of Modern Evangelicalism and Theology of Christian Worship classes at the time were reactions against some of what had been taught.
Other voices with much more experience and wisdom have been analyzing Evangelical Christianity’s current state with much greater perceptiveness and persuasiveness than I have.
Roger Oakland’s Faith Undone: The emerging church.. a new reformation or an end-time deception attempts to follow the rise and teaching of several influential leaders of what is being called the “Emerging Church” or the “Emergent Church.” He documents the beginnings of the movement through the Leadership Network established by Bob Buford, a successful businessman who worked with Peter Drucker, an even more successful business leader and mentor with very definite mystical leanings.
This list of people who formed the nucleus of this network reads like a who’s who of the Emergent Church: Mark Driscoll, Brian McLaren (who would become its team leader), Doug Pagitt, Chris Seay, Tony Jones, Dan Kimball, and Andrew Jones (p. 23).
From the mystical experience and teaching of Buford and Drucker comes the New Evangelicals’ (another term for leaders of the Emergent Church) desire to bring “mystery” and “immanence” into the worship of the church. Although they do it in different ways, most try to incorporate imagery and sensory experience to increase the perceived “authenticity” of worship.
Oakland goes on from there to describe how this emphasis on “feeling” God’s “presence” over thinking and doctrine seems to be part of a greater ecumenical movement to bring churches together through a common mystical bond instead of a common doctrine or mode of worship. Going further, he notes (as I did in my “Evangelical Mysticism” post) that the mystical experience is one that is also common in non-Christian mysticism, such as Hindu and Buddhist religious experience.
For this reason, the “New Reformation” that the Emergent Church wishes to spearhead will not be a reformation at all, but rather a paganization of the church. This will leave the few remaining biblical literalist “apocalyptic millennialists” will be considered a danger to society for spreading their unaccommodating beliefs and will need to be converted or eliminated.
He is suggesting, of course, that this is one way that certain biblical prophecies about what many call “antichrist” or “the beast” may actually come to pass. The scenario as he presents it is certainly plausible. For example, it did not seem to take much to turn both Catholic and Lutheran churches in Germany into tools of the Nazi regime. In any time in history only a few have ever been able to stand against the might of the state and its religions without capitulating.
Whether or not Roger Oakland’s ecumenical scenario comes to pass, he has certainly done me a great favor. He has explained how the teachings of the “Christian” mystics have come to feature so prominently in my college and seminary classes about spirituality and worship. He even names one of my own seminary professors as a prominent proponent of this new brand of Evangelicalism – and he certainly was.
As a non-denominational fellowship we do not follow any rules for worship that are imposed from outside. We do, however, have a tradition we inherited from the denomination that we came from. I also have my entire Bachelor’s and Master’s degree training at two distinct evangelical institutions to reflect on for theology and practice. We may wish to be somewhat different from other Christian groups, but we don’t want to become de-Christianized in the process. That is why I wrote my paper about restoring worship on biblical festival dates as a reminder that Jesus was both Jewish and the God who gave them the “Old Covenant” through Moses. Teaching the full force of the entire Bible strikes me as the best way to avoid de-Christianizing the church.
A book that offers a wider scope concerning problems within the evangelical Christian community is Michael Horton’s “Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church. The overall tenor of the book is that the church in North America (and particularly the U.S.A.) has adopted what Horton calls a “moralistic, therapeutic deism” as its basic gospel.
To varying degrees, the American evangelical church presents God as an empowerer rather than a deliverer. He is the God who helps us overcome us rather than the God who frees our minds and hearts so that we may live in grateful devotion.
We are offered spiritual techniques for overcoming fear or guilt or selfishness, and then we are called upon by our pastors to ever-greater effort to make gains for Jesus’ kingdom. When we inevitably burn out, we are told we need to go back to those techniques to rebuild our faith so that we can get back to work building the kingdom.
Or we are told that we can only be “free” from evil spiritual influences if we purify our minds and our homes with these “steps to…” It turns out that Satan and his minions are out to get you from behind every corner, so you constantly have to be on guard.
Or we are told that God wants us to be health and wealthy, so all we have to do is follow the simple laws of success that “our ministry has found in the Bible.” Yet some people religiously follow them and the health or material success does not… materialize. The response: they must not have enough faith. (This is one that I have personally both seen and lived.)
And so people leave the church, dispirited and exhausted.
Michael Horton seems to have hit the nail on the head. I have seen it and experienced much of it firsthand at churches across Canada. It is not that they have become heretical and deny that Jesus is God (as some few New Evangelicals have done according to Oakland). It is just that sound doctrine becomes less and less important in terms of teaching time and effort in the interest of providing “life application” in a sermon. Thus we have come very close to a type of works-righteousness that would have Martin Luther spinning in his grave.
There is much more to Horton’s book than I can summarize in a post. It is definitely worth reading.
The two writers above come to conclusions about causes that are different, yet not incompatible. For me, Horton’s history of evangelicalism shows how the stage has been set for the narrower Emergent phenomenon that is the tip of the iceberg of the difficulties in North American evangelical Christianity, while also getting to part of the cause of the current ineffectiveness of much of North America’s evangelical church. (Not all are ineffective, by any means.)
Interestingly enough, both Oakland and Horton conclude that the way back from the brink (whether from the “new evangelicalism” or the “moralistic, therapeutic deism”) is to recover the basic biblical doctrine of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.
In other words, the church needs to get back to the basics of what it means to be the church. Jesus’ last words to his disciples express the mission of the church: preach the gospel and make disciples for Jesus.
That makes perfect sense to me.