The Collapse of Evangelicalism?

Perhaps you’ve already read this article about the coming collapse of evangelicalism in the Christian Science Monitor, or perhaps you’ve seen discussions around the blogosphere. My fellow blogger Eugene Cho is talking about it, and despite his posting before me, I’m not copying him.

The article combined the recent results of the American Religious Identification Survey conducted by Trinity College indicates what we have all long suspected: Americans are not as religious as they were previously and the most religious of them all, evangelicals, are losing dominance and influence in American life, so much so that it is being called a “collapse.”

There are many who are celebrating this collapse, both within and outside of evangelical circles. Some because they believe it will lead to a needed reformation, or because they are sick of the culture of evangelicalism. Others are glad because they believe that Christians are altogether wrong, that religion is unhelpful and the bane of civilization. Some share his concern about the dumbing down of Christianity in order to generate mass appeal.

The article makes several good points, but his second particularly is striking for someone who works with young adults. He asserts:

2. We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.

I can testify to the truth of this assertion. As I mentioned in an earlier post about Biblical illiteracy Christian students are woefully ignorant about their own faith. Combined with a thrust for activism, I foresee that evangelicalism will not so much collapse as cease to be orthodox. Of course orthodox (small o) Christian is thriving in America and around the world There is a subtle assumption in Spencer’s article that evangelical = white middle class American. It does not.

Though we may not care to remember it, and some now view evangelicals as out of touch, evangelicalism was (and is) the movement of the non-elites in American society. It thrived, in all its various forms, among those who were not especially well educated and certainly who viewed themselves as not being among the “in-crowd.” During the hey-day of mainline churches in America, evangelicals (then called fundamentalists) were definitely not the cool kids. They still aren’t. Despite their perceived political strength, they are, at best, the red-headed step child of the Republican party, which likes the evangelical vote, but is somewhat less enamored of actual evangelicals. The evangelical left, which has increasingly become associated with the Democratic Party treats run of the mill evangelicals like the crazy uncle that embarrasses you whenever you have friends over. You can’t really disown them, but if you could get away with you’d like to keep him lock in the attic. In fact I daresay that evangelicals probably get worse press than any other religious group in America, far out of proportion to their numbers or influence.

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Biblical Illiteracy, Cultural Critique & Socio-Politcal Engagement

As one who works daily in the cauldron of ministry with the next generation of social, political, economic spiritual leaders (college students), I am well aware of the level of engagement or disengagement that many students have with the issues of the day. I also have an opportunity to evaluate, anecdotally, the level of biblical literacy that students coming from an evangelical background bring with them into college.

It is an understatement of the highest degree to assert that the current generation of college student evince a high level of Biblical illiteracy. Though many of them have been raised within the context of the church, have participated in missions, church youth groups, Sunday School, and numerous other church related activities, most of them do not have anything remotely resembling a worldview based on their Christian commitments, beyond that demanded by a cultural Christianity. They know, or are at least vaguely aware, that the Bible has something to say about sexual ethics – chiefly that believers ought to abstain from sexual activity until married. They also know that the Christians are to be generous, kind, share their faith, avoid lying and other overt sins. In many ways though, there consciousness, their life choices, their politics, their cultural engagements and social relations (including their sexual behavior) is not much different that of their peers.

One the other hand, we are in the midst of a dynamic season in the life of the larger church, as many pastors, theologians, and lay people are having conversations about how to revitalize what has become for many a dead orthodoxy or lifeless faith. There is a great deal of critique of current church culture which seems to be in many ways disconnected from the every day of life. There is a vitality among many, especially in the “millennial” generation who are excited about engagement in missions, social justice issues, diversity and multi-ethnicity and are examining how the gospel is connected with these questions. There is tumult in the church around critical issues, which often breaks down around geographical, social, and financial lines.

I am excited about how engaged and creative many are in wrestling with these issues, but I am also concerned that much of this activity and concerned, driven by the Spirit though it is, is being laid atop a very low level of Biblical knowledge, which leads to a social and political engagement rooted not in the gospel, but in sociology or political science. The thing is, we’ve been here before.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a new religious Spirit driven movement was being birthed (Pentecostalism). The American church at large was orthodox in their theology and yet the issues of the Progressive movement (women’s rights, social justice, labor reform) were pressing concerns for the church of the day. Many American churches actively moved to engage these issues, or even took the lead in them. In time, many of those churches abandoned orthodoxy and are now, in terms of relevance, numbers and scriptural fidelity, are mere shadows of their former selves. Other churches retreated from any involvement in social issues, became proudly known as fundamentalists, then not a derogatory term, but one that denoted fidelity to the fundamental claims of the gospel. These believers retreated from engagement in the public sphere, from the university and in many ways from socity and were the forebears and progenitors of today’s evangelicals.

I do not think that we are repeating history. In fact I believe that we are in many ways on more solid ground than our predecessors. Evangelicals have in the years since the mainline/fundamentalist split, developed seminaries, worked to engage social issues more actively, and thought long and hard about how the gospel has social implication. However, we are at a disadvantage in that our predecessors, both mainline and fundamentalist, were much more thoroughly versed in scripture than we are. Likewise American society shared a common language of Christian ethics which provided the social apologetic for many of the reform movements. It was very possible to hold to an orthodox view of scripture, of miracles, of Jesus, and yet remain socially engaged. Many in the millennial generation however, are illiterate concerning the Bible. They do not know how to think Christianly about their own lives (which was the concern of fundamentalists) much less about society. What will be the impact of a generation of Biblically illiterate believers charging into the fray to engage society and transform the church?

Are you a coward? Am I?

The Attorney General of the United States apparently thinks so.

After having elected a bi-racial president of the United States, had two supreme court justices who are Black, two Black Secretary’s of State, we apparently are not doing enough, or are simply cowards. Because we are largely segregated in our social life and church life, we are therefore cowards.

The issue of race seems to never go away and even as I think through the intersection of faith and life, I am also very aware of how race is often used as a bludgeon to end rather than begin conversation.

Depression

Generally speaking, I am not an especially “sad” person. On most days, I wake up and go through my days relatively happy or at least busy. Those who do not know me well would be surprised to know that I have, for as long as I can remember, struggled with intense bouts of periodic melancholy. I hesitate to use the word “depression” because it carries the connotation of a medically or psychologically diagnosed condition. I’ve never been clinically diagnosed that way, but I would be unsurprised if such diagnosis were ever applied to me.

When I was a teenager it was not unusual for me to have episodes of intense emotional distress (i.e. weeping and/or being perpetually on the edge of tears) for hours on end, though my outer demeanor betrayed none of that and my parents were absolutely unaware that crying myself to sleep was not at all uncommon. I was rather ashamed to tell them that. Experiencing such depth of emotion seemed to me to be “weak” and I didn’t want to 1) embarrass my parents for having such a punk for a son, 2) make them feel badly for raising a son who couldn’t keep it together, or 3) admit that how terrified I was of the intensity of my own emotions.

To cope with all of this, I became outwardly a very emotionally distant person who was charming and yet in possession of a biting sarcastic wit. The painful shyness of my youth was covered up well under a veneer of impassibility and a stubborn inward decision to never be dependent on anyone. I never asked for help for anything; a habit that still persists to this day. In the leadership I rose to in college, I was extremely competent and utterly independent, but also very distant and uncompassionate to those around me. I could with no emotion whatever humiliate and crush someone who opposed me without any sense of real guilt.

Over the years, I’ve mostly matured past many of these sinful behaviors, constructed as they were to prevent me from dealing with the inward depression I periodically experienced. They will always be strong temptations to me. God has been gracious to me, and I pray he has repaired the damage I undoubtedly caused to many people through the years. Even so, I still struggle with depression, though thankfully not as in previous years. When it comes, it no longer washes over me like a tidal wave, but rather seeps in and creeps up, like a slowly rising flood slowly stripping me of desire or passion or motivation. Once it has fully come, simply getting through the day feels like a major accomplishment, though there is a grace that seems to come when I must minister to others. When that grace lifts, I rely on the discipline of obedience and steadfast trust in God to carry me through. Sometimes this barely feels like enough.

I do not write this in pity, nor in regret. I do wonder for those who have this struggle and minister to others especially how you cope with it.

Annnnnnd… the dominoes start to fall – CT recognizes same sex marriage

Just reported a little while ago, the Supreme Court of the state of Connecticut reversed a lower court ruling against the recognition of same sex marriage. Connecticut is the third such state to move in this direction, though NY state’s supreme court has already ruled that they must recognize same sex marriages that have been performed in other states.

Gay rights, especially same sex marriage rights, are THE civil rights issue of our time, or at least that is how the issue is largely presented in the media. In the course of my adult life, homosexuality has moved quite rapidly into the conscience of mainstream America as an acceptable, though not necessarily welcomed, reality. Most people are still uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality and even more are opposed to gay marriage, though notably they often lack a sustainable moral philosophy to underlie their opposition. Mostly it comes down to a kind of “ick”‘ factor and some sense that it just isn’t quite right. Inundated as we have been as a society in the last twenty years with the normalcy and acceptability of homosexuality, most people really aren’t quite sure why they’re opposed to gay rights, and at minimum self censor lest they be thought to be homophobic. Certainly most people haven’t really thought through the issue in any way other than the bare minimum required to get on with their lives. This is most especially obvious among our youth for whom homosexuality is regarded as one reality of a diverse society among many, without any particular morality attached to it.

Due to the nature of the controversy, the same sex marriage issue is unlikely to be quickly resolved at the state level before it is kicked upstairs to the federal courts. Both candidates Obama and McCain are ostensibly opposed to gay marriage or want to leave it to the states, but it is very unlikely that either will have the luxury of maintaining their default position if elected to the presidency. This issue is not going away. The Defense of Marriage Act is unlikely to remained unchallenged, though the Supreme Court has heretofore turned down opportunities to take it up. It remains a controversial piece of legislation.

Christians have a different set of concerns as the church (and I speak broadly here) is currently convulsed with controversy over the issue. Few churches openly embrace homosexual practice as valid from a scriptural or historic point of view, and even those churches which are most “liberal” have not gone so far as to accept homosexuality entirely. Unlike politicians, pastors do not have the luxury of remaining uncommitted on this issue as it directly affects the pastoral, priestly, and prophetic roles of the church. Contrary to the beliefs of some, most evangelicals are not unconcerned about the impact of their theology on the lives of those within and without the congregation who are gay, nor are they especially homophobic — which is a word that is thrown around far too easily these days. They, and all Christians who hold to historic Christian orthodoxy on issues of sexual ethics, tread uneasy ground and the convulsions of a social earthquake shift the landscape around them.

Many Christians, having “failed” to act quickly during the Civil Rights era, do not know want to be seen as being on the “wrong side of history” and yet also want to remain faithful to scripture. Others believe that their embrace of gay rights is being faithful to scripture. Caught in the very center of this vortex are those Christians and their families who are themselves gay and seek to live with integrity and in obedience to Jesus.

All of this brings to mind the scripture from Psalms 11.3: If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? The foundations of societal consensus on the meaning of life, what marriage is, the ethics that ought to govern social relations, and the role and function of the family have all been consistently undermined over the past 80 years with remarkably predictable results.

From the sexual revolution (the real one in the twenties, not the fake one of the sixties) onward, churches have been consistent in first actively fighting, then passively resisting, then grudgingly accepting and finally actively endorsing social change. The path from the acceptance of artificial birth control as a right to the normalization of divorce, straight through to women’s liberation (which has happened in ALL the churches complementarian and otherwise) is clear and will likely lead, inexorably to an embrace of homosexuality as a valid practice. The link between all of these seemingly disparate matters is clear as Mary Eberstadt says in First Things:

Before 1930, no Christian Church permitted the use of contraception, but that year’s Lambeth Conference, with its approval of contraceptive intercourse, was the beginning of the end. “If a church cannot tell its flock ‘what to do with my body,’ as the saying goes, with regard to contraception,” writes Eberstadt, “then other uses of that body will quickly prove to be similarly off-limits to ecclesiastical authority.” In short, homosexuality and sexual promiscuity will—and did—quickly follow.

And so it is. Are the foundations destroyed? If so, what can the righteous do?

On Singleness #1

The first in a possible series

A more difficult topic for a post I cannot imagine than that of singleness and the Christian life. It is intrinsically difficult to treat, but rather emotively so for someone who has obtained to nearly half of the promised three score and ten without the benefit and boundedness of the marital covenant. Most of what I have read and most of what has been written concerning singleness is presented from perspectives much unlike my own; the perspective of those who are still under the age of thirty and that of women who have passed that age and find themselves increasingly concerned about the ticking of the “biological clock” that seems ever louder with each coming year. Virtually nothing I’ve read deals well or at all with the condition of singleness for those in ministry, aside from rote recitations of St. Paul’s comments pertaining to the benefit of singleness for a those devoted a life of ministry. None of these treatments have been especially useful to me as I reflect upon my own blessed state (and it is blessed, despite intimations to the contrary contained in this post).

That singleness is such a poorly addressed issue (and I speak of course in context of contemporary American Christianity) is something for which the church ought to have no excuse. Our Lord was, of course, a single man as was St. Paul. The single celibate life has been celebrated throughout the history of the Church and in Roman Catholicism priests are required to express the chastity through remaining single rather than within the bonds of marriage. In the current climate of the Church however, singleness, though increasingly common, is viewed somewhat suspiciously and the older one gets without marrying the greater the level of attendant suspicion and concomitant pity, though such pity is generally veiled. Occasionally there is an expression of contrived envy which is barely credible and certainly not encouraging, though I know the hearts of the people who express such sentiment are usually pure. To hear, “But oh you get to devote time to the Lord and you are free to really do whatever without worrying about a family,” is about as convincing as the descriptions given by short term missionaries of the poor they met on mission; every loves to talk about how much freedom and joy in the Lord they have, but no one would ever trade places with them.

I contend that singleness is the default state of mankind; we are born single and we die single. Marriage on average takes somewhere between 1/3 and 2/3 of a person’s life and much of that time is consumed in the bearing and rearing of children, a noble and God ordained ministry if ever there was any. However even though the average age of marriage has continued to rise (concurrently with decreased community and other support for young marriage) the discipleship and theological instruction concerning singleness tends to presume marriage will take place before the age of thirty, which for most people it will. When a person, especially a man, reaches the age of thirty, the Church really has nothing left to say to him. For those in the world to attain the age of thirty and to be unmarried is not surprising, and the culture provides models (albeit horrid and inaccurate ones) for what a thirty-something unmarried man is supposed to be and/or do. For the Christian, well, there’s always the singles group at church filled with women you either don’t want to date because they have issues you just don’t want to put up with or who don’t want to date you because they’re still waiting on a Prince Charming Knight in Shining Armor who is merely the Christianized version of popular stereotypes. (I don’t mean to hate on the ladies, but I’m writing from a guy’s perspective)

Speaking of stereotypes, there are some myths to singleness that ought to be put readily to rest or at least set aside as not applying to anyone I know. Again here I am speaking about Christians (and mostly about guys) so…

Myth: Single guys are not mature or ready to commit.
Truth: Single guys are as mature/immature commitment ready/commitment phobic as the Christian women they interact with. We need to kill the lie that women are more mature than men. They are not.

Myth: Singles have lots of freedom and time on their hands
Truth: The freedom of making every decision by oneself and tackling every household chore alone and not having help with simple life management takes up more time than you might imagine

Myth: Singles can devote themselves more fully to the Lord in ministry
Truth: Well this is true; it’s in the Bible. But, it is true with a caveat that single people in ministry are not really taken very seriously at all and are never really perceived as being adults.

Myth: Single guys have the advantage because at least they can take the initiative in relationship
Truth: This is also true with a caveat; it is freaking emotionally draining to ask someone out only to be told no, and then to know that you can’t ask anyone in that woman’s circle of friends out ever because then you get either the creepy weird Christian guy label or the arrogant just wants to get married Christian playboy label attached to you.

Myth: Singles have money because they don’t have a family to support
Truth: Singles, especially guys, are usually broke. Do you have any idea how much stuff people give you for free when you’re married? And not just at the wedding, but over and again. And don’t forget that useful two income thing that most folks have going.

Myth: Marriage kills your social life; singles have a better social life
Truth: Not really.

All in all singleness is not all it’s cracked up to be, so I’ve been lately advising students to marry sooner rather than later. They all think I’m strange and screw their faces into grimaces when I advise this. They are too young, too immature they say. But I know that they won’t outgrow their selfishness by spending the next 7 years focusing on their career and their self development. Besides, that old biological clock is still ticking.

Can I be myself?

On Sunday mornings during the offering collection at my church, we often have instrumental music or perhaps a soloist will give a special selection. Two Sundays ago was no exception. While offering was being collected, the pianist played and the soloist, obviously nervous, sang a simple Korean worship melody. It took all of two minutes to finish the collection and the solo, but it was the first time in the two years since I’ve been attending this Korean church that I’d ever heard the soloist sound at all unsure of his voice. More strikingly, it was the first time I’d ever heard any song done in Korean.

I was the soloist.

Two weeks later and I am still somewhat puzzled by this event. It was a strange moment for me and becomes even stranger upon further reflection. It is strange that I would be nervous singing in front of the congregation, when I regularly preach and have lead worship many times. Stranger still that this is the first time I’ve heard any song sung in Korean though it is a Korean church (albeit the EM). Strangest of all that it would be I, a Black American, who would be the one to sing it.

Yes, I was nervous, but not for reasons you might imagine. I knew the song through and through; I’ve sang and led it many times in front of hundreds of people. I wasn’t concerned about my pronunciation, my inflection or my accent. I know the song better in Korean than in English. When I was later approached by a visitor who expressed her thanks (and surprise) at my solo, I was taken aback. I honestly hadn’t given much thought to the fact that it was a Black man who had just sang a solo in Korean at a Korean church and that that might be surprising to some people. It isn’t that I ever forget I’m Black and at a Korean church. I’m just sometimes surprised when other people notice what has become normative for me.

What made me nervous was the question headlining this blog post: can I be myself? I don’t mean to suggest that I am somehow Korean or Korean American, or that I can ever really grasp that experience; far from it. I mean rather that my nervousness and hesitation was due to the uncertainty of whether it was okay to bring this tiny element of Korean culture into worship. This perhaps should not have been my preoccupation. Perhaps I should be worried that I’ve transgressed by taking too much liberty with a culture not my own. But in that moment of choosing to sing, my decision was not one of political or cultural calculation. It was a decision of worship. It was a moment when I momentarily let slip the studied ways I’ve avoided disturbing the cultural milieu of the English congregation and choose rather to be myself. The striking irony is that it was through the medium of a Korean worship melody.

In traditional Black preaching, the sermon is a dialogue between the minister and the congregation. It isn’t unusual for a preacher to ask as he builds into the heart of his message, “Can I be myself?” only to hear back the affirmation of the crowd. In my own preaching, it is a phrase I often use. At the heart of the question is the philosophical and even psychological posture of the Black church as a whole. The church was and remains the place where Black people could, “be themselves” without the necessary and tiring mental gymnastics, emotional resolve, and cultural contortion needed to live with peace and dignity in a world dominated by White society. At church, in worship, and in the community of God, you could simply be yourself; you could be Black.

The question that continues to haunt me from my moment of singing nervousness two weeks ago is whether church is or can be a place for Asian Americans to be themselves. It is troubling to me that singing a Korean song in Korean at a Korean church during the mostly Korean American 2nd generation worship service would be something exceptional. That it was done by the only non-Korean in attendance is merely icing on the moldy cake. The song is of course, only a symbol of the larger concern. To put it in terms of my own ethno-cultural background, if I cannot preach, pray, sing, and worship like a Black man (whatever that means) at a Black church, where else can I go? If I cannot be “Black” here, where then can I? I believe Asian Americans need to be asking and answering the same question.

Not to put too fine a point on it, or too paint too broadly with inadequate strokes, but my experiences in ministry point me to a sad observation. Often Black students (and others, but I’ll stick with Black folks for now) who have had the most difficult experiences growing up of “not being Black enough” or “trying to be White” are usually the ones most resistant to being involved in ethnic specific ministry for obvious reasons. They are the ones to most often push for multiethnicity and diversity, or who will want to join all White groups where the focus is “not on race.” They are also the ones who ultimately benefit most from being in a Black group where they are challenged to embrace both the beauty and pain of their ethnic identity and see it redeemed in light of the gospel. I suspect the same might be true for many Asian Americans for whom the grail of multiethnicity is just an easy way out.