Monday, April 09, 2007

Bad Trends in Evangelicism: Ignoring the Past

Michael Spencer has been in a ranty mood this past week. That's good for readers, because he has very well-reasoned rants to offer. Recently, he composed a list of the major blunders that the American evangelical movement has fallen into. He explains each one in detail. They are:

1. Eliminating all hymns
2. Goofy youth minister style preaching
3. No church membership
4. The megachurch agenda vs. the healthy church agenda
5. Too much music

The first one is particularly interesting, and I think comes from the evangelical tendency to disregard the historic Church. That which came before them, or before 1980, is essentially bad. But if your theology (and specifically your ecclesiology) is the latest book at the LifeWay, then you're on the unstable ground of market forces, instead of deriving your theology from what the Bible AND what the historic Church has said about the Bible throughout the ages.

This tendency is also, to an extent, an overcorrection by some schools of Protestantism, which held that the Church became apostate after 95 AD and remained so until the Gospel sprung, fully formed, from the brow of John Calvin five hundred years ago. It is also the idolatry of both Modernism and PostModernism before the new, the innovative, and the cool.

I was a history major in college and tend to see a long view in such matters. That's why I find myself rather taken aback in our arguments on the Virgin Birth, Resurrection, etc. because my debating opponents are essentially saying, "Well, it turns out that the historic Church has always been wrong on this central, creedal statement on Christianity, and we've only understood the actual truth in the past few years." That's a really shocking statement to me, but apparently not to others. We should always read and interpret the Scriptures for ourselves, and may disagree with the historic Church on some matters. But if we find ourselves rejecting what the greater Church said on an issue that it said was critical, up until 100 years ago, then that should set off alarms. For example, if we can't say the Apostles' Creed (which includes issues like the Virgin Birth, Resurrection, Ascension), then we have departed from historic orthodoxy, and should be concerned.

Conservatives, too, can fall into this trap, such as the Pentecostal belief that whole Church was apostate until 1905. This is a particularly strange teaching for KJVonlyist Pentecostals, because that that means that their Bible was translated by non-Christians. Or perhaps a better example is Gwen Shamblin's cult, which started out of mainstream evangelicism, but left when Shamblin determined that the Church has always been wrong about the Trinity.

As we read and prayerfully study the Scriptures, we should regard the historic church as a critical navigational instrument. Those, both Left and Right, who toss such sextants into the sea, run great risk of running aground into heterodoxy.

31 comments:

Dan Trabue said...

ah, but which historic church? I embrace much of the historic peace churches and the anabaptist movement, but have less use (although I'm still open to), let's say, the historic Lutheran church or the historic Catholic church.

And the anabaptists origins, for their part, were setting aside much of the mainstream church at the time - rejecting it and trying to embrace the "historic church" as is described in the Bible, especially in the Gospels and Acts.

As one who identifies as an anabaptist, I'm glad they rejected the teachings of the historic church in favor of the teachings of the early church.

Dan Trabue said...

What is, by the way, "goofy youth minister style preaching"?

And what is the megachurch agenda vs the healthy church agenda?

Thanks.

Brett said...

It wasn't until a couple of years ago that I took any interest at all in Church History. I've heard people say that the church didn't start with Billy Graham, but that's how I looked at things. It wasn't until I was introduced to Reformed Theology through Tabletalk Magazine that I began to see how important church history is to proper interpretation of scripture. I see now how preposterous it is to create a theology that ignores traditional teachings of the church. While not infallible, the fact that many teachings have withstood the test of time and controversy gives them additional merit.

John said...

Michael Spencer explains what he means by the terms in his post.

Dan Trabue said...

Ahhh! Read the post! Why didn't you say so?

But that's too much like reading the directions or looking at a map...

Dan Trabue said...

Could it be in the church as Thomas Jefferson suggested should be with nations, that "Every generation needs a new revolution"?

That we must continually protest those traditions that the previous generation embraced that may either no longer make sense (or maybe it never did) or is just wrong?

I'm just asking...

Ivan Walters said...

I always thought the true test of orthodoxy was the Nicean Creed. If you believe all of it, then you're orthodox. It's been the definition of orthodoxy for almost 1700 years and I don't believe God is imparting a new theology to anyone today. Those who claim that they are actually recieve their message from another source.

Dan Trabue said...

So, do you think that established faith traditions such as anabaptists and (at least at one time and in some places) baptists, who reject creeds as unbiblical, that these faith traditions are receiving their message from some source other than God?

Here's what anabaptists decided what was important to them:

http://members.iquest.net/~jswartz/schleitheim/

And you will see therein that it's much more along the lines of how we live on a daily basis and living up to Jesus' teachings than it is about any creedalism. Seems reasonable to me.

tim said...

zThanks for the thought-provoking link, John. Spencer's first one really hits home for me.

I moved up to Ohio three years ago and had to look for a new Methodist church. The first one I tried (old, established congregation) had Powerpoint running throughout the sermon, with little animated things to illustrate each point. And they ran it during the hymns (yet there were hymnals in the pews). I'd never seen that before and didn't like it, so I tried another one the following week.

The next church was better. Tiny, but more down-to-earth. Used the hymnal. But you had kids running around loose (even up to the altar) throughout the service, without the slightest attempt from their parents to call them back or quieten them. And people talked (not even trying to whisper) throughout, even when the pastor was addressing the congregation. So I tried another the following week.

That one seemed much better, all around. No Powerpoint, better discipline. But they didn't use the hymnal. They *had* them, but they were never cracked open. Few hymns were even sung, and the preference was for modern "praise songs." To me, these seemed tuneless and relatively content-free. Just a repeated phrase, over and over again.

But it was a lot better than what I'd just gone through, so I stuck with them for two and a half years. It had an active, vibrant membership. But then they built a new building (I thought it was a warehouse when I first saw it) and installed a permanent video projector, so they could use Powerpoint. They eliminated the hymnals altogether (why not? All the song lyrics were printed in the bulletin! Who needs printed music, when the tunes have no tune and repeat the same little ditty over and over again?). And they projected the lyrics to the songs (complete with emotionally-dramatic video backgrounds), despite also having them all printed in the booklet-sized bulletin. I still stuck with this church. I'd been going there for a couple of years, knew the members, and liked them.

Then they broke out the mimes. In clown suits. During a service. For like...five or ten minutes. There might have been a religious message being given, buried in there somewhere, but it could have been made more directly in about one sentence. I decided that was enough for me.

So I tried another one the following week. Small, (it had a circuit-riding preacher, in fact—the first time I'd gotten to see that in action) and more traditional. No kids running wild during the service, but that was partly because almost everybody was over fifty. Still, they seemed more conventional, and they used the hymnal occasionally. Not as often as I'd like, but it was an improvement.

The pastor played guitar, and he'd include the modern "praise songs" in the service. That was about my only complaint. But then on Easter of last year, they had a football cheer for Jesus: "Gimme a J! J! Gimme an E! E! Gimme an S! S! Gimme a U! U! Gimme an S! S! What's that spell? JESUS!"

So I just gave up. I had exhausted every single Methodist church in the town, and even gone to the next town over. I was tired of looking.

So the next Sunday I went to the local Episcopal church. They play the hymns a little slow (my dad's side is Episcopalian and always jokes about that), and it is much more formal than what I've grown up with, but it's reliable, beautiful, the preaching isn't flaky, and there's no silliness going on.

I'm still a Methodist, though. And since recently getting married and moving yet again (out of state, but I still work in this town) I'm not often in this town on weekends. So I get to go back to the Methodist church I'd attended throughout grad school (which isn't bad). But when I'm in this town on weekends, I'll be going to the Episcopal church.

tim said...

I'll add that I've found the trends I described to be strongly regional. I'd never seen any of this kind of stuff in the Methodist church before, where I grew up (rural East Tennessee) or went to college (Memphis) or grad school (Pittsburgh). But it seems to the dominant style in this part of southern Ohio.

Ivan Walters said...

Dan,
I went and read the seven articles and by reading them I can say that Anabaptists are orhodox Christians since none of them are incompatible with the Nicenean creed. What I was saying was that if we didn't have Nicene, how could we judge. For over a thousand years, the quickest way to tell if a new Christian preacher, writer or leader was to compare what they taught to the Nicene creed.
Of course that doesn't mean that the Anabaptists are without error, as any Methodist can tell you that there is no Biblical prohibition on infant baptism.
Maranatha!

Dan Trabue said...

But the anabaptists reject your Nicene creed (as did baptists, at least at one time). We have little use for it. It's superfluous.

No, we may not necessarily disagree with it, but we reject those sorts of creeds as unbiblical. So we can reject the Creed and still be orthodox?

S'okay with me, I'm not opposed to orthodoxy in and of itself. Just creeds of the Nicene sort.

JD said...

Dan asked:

Could it be in the church as Thomas Jefferson suggested should be with nations, that "Every generation needs a new revolution"?

That we must continually protest those traditions that the previous generation embraced that may either no longer make sense (or maybe it never did) or is just wrong?


I think what Jefferson talked about is similar to Luther in the sense that Luther saw the church as a corrupt body and in need of change from a biblical standpoint. The traditions of the church were no longer biblical, but based on tradition, greed, and power grabbing. The main contentions of the reformers were purgatory, particular judgment, devotion to Mary, the intercession of the saints, most of the sacraments, and the authority of the Pope. Are these things biblical? Depends on your upbringing and interpretation of scripture.

Any revolution that occurs today in the Christian church should occur when one sees a church’s teachings as heretical, i.e., non-scripturally based teachings or teachings that promote a loss of faith. The whole concept of the church no longer embracing things that make no sense, simply put, makes no sense to me. Just because society has come to accept something that has been both biblically and traditionally against church teaching DOES NOT mean that the church should stray from its path to appease the masses because the masses are "uncomfortable" with the teachings. That is a form a moral relativism and thus could be considered heretical at times. God and scripture do not change because society changes, or because we feel more "enlightened" or because we do not want to see the truth. Just as God exists no matter whether we believe in Him or not, so does truth.

So getting back to your comment about protesting traditions, as long as the protest is against traditions that directly violate biblical teachings, the protest is reasonable and encouraged. When one protests a church teaching because it is not compatible with today's or tomorrow's societal mores and folkways, it hurts the church as a whole and distracts from its mission.

Who was it that said, "If we do not study and understand history, we are destined to repeat it?"

PAX
JD

John said...

No, I don't think that every generation needs a new revolution. Rather, societies that need revolutions need revolutions.

What is important, Dan, is that modern anabaptists be fully aware of the Schleitheim Confessional movement and anabaptism since, rather than think all good theology can only be recent theology. Of course, I have no reason to suspect that this is problem in anabaptist circles. Nor would I be a true Protestant if I didn't understand your point about detaching oneself from bad church history.

John said...

Tim, thanks for sharing your story.

I see a lot of desperation in the United Methodist Church. The numbers look bad. We've been in steady decline since 1968. The continual slide has led to people embracing all sorts of gimmicks to get more bodies in the pews.

John said...

Ivan-

Do you mean the Nicene Creed with the filioque or without?

John said...

No, we may not necessarily disagree with it, but we reject those sorts of creeds as unbiblical. So we can reject the Creed and still be orthodox?

S'okay with me, I'm not opposed to orthodoxy in and of itself. Just creeds of the Nicene sort.


A creed is simply a summarization of a long and confusing text (the Bible) into a short statement. All Christians do this. The Schleitheim Confession, for example, is a creedal statement -- an explanation of what the whole of Biblical teaching is, particularly in contrast to misunderstandings and misinterpretations by non-Anabaptists.

John said...

Dan also wrote:

And you will see therein that it's much more along the lines of how we live on a daily basis and living up to Jesus' teachings than it is about any creedalism.

But there's more to the Bible than the words in red.

John said...

JD wrote:

So getting back to your comment about protesting traditions, as long as the protest is against traditions that directly violate biblical teachings, the protest is reasonable and encouraged. When one protests a church teaching because it is not compatible with today's or tomorrow's societal mores and folkways, it hurts the church as a whole and distracts from its mission.

Exactly!

Brett said...

I have heard the phrase "No Creed but Christ" a few times. I have a Southern Baptist background, but I don't know if that's where I heard it, or if it was somewhere else. I do know that Southern Baptists do not recite any creeds during the worship service, and in all my years of church attendance, I don't think I ever heard the Nicean Creed mentioned from the pulpit. The creeds are pretty much ignored.

John said...

But there's an order of salvation in the front of the SBC hymnal. That may not be called a creed, but it's a creed.

Dan Trabue said...

"But there's more to the Bible than the words in red."

But for we anabaptist types, there are no more important words than those in red.

That is, we do as Southern Baptists used to do, and maybe others still do - interpret the whole of the Bible (which we love) through the lens of Jesus.

The 1963 So Baptist Faith and Message says the Bible is "the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ."

Which I like and am sorry that the Southern Baptists rejected that line in 2000.

MethoDeist said...

I think that each generation will do as Jefferson wanted and look at what the previous generations have done and then determine if they are relevent or not. The revolution does not mean overthrow but simply means that the new generation will keep what they like and modify/throw out what they don't like.

People don't like this because they want it to be their way which is the way that they grew up. Despite arguments to the contrary, one of the primary reasons that the church is having trouble with keeping the youth of today (Gen X and Y) is because the youth wants to revolt. However, it has chosen to stay away because they feel that the church does not represent them nor does it want to listen to them.

In truth, the church (some anyway) is open to discussion but all too often a dialogue cannot be reached because both sides on this issue are not ready to sit down, remain open and actually have a mature conversation about what is going on.

It is not just the UMC that is losing members, it is happening at almost every church right now including those huge mega-churches that everyone turns to and says they must be doing something right.

I am not involved enough nor am I capable of stating what the next generation will bring to the table but I have talked to quite a few and they feel that how the church is conducting itself right now is not appealing and they don't want to be involved.

So, they stay away and the church suffers. I don't see these generations throwing out the baby with the bath water which is to say that they will get rid of the Christian belief that Jesus died for man's sins and that he was the messiah. However, there will probably be some changes that will not be liked by many and that is how the revolution will come about.

The kicker is that the revolution will only happen when they get involved in the church and right now they have no desire to do so. Instead, the church stays its course and they stay away. Time will tell what will happen but I hope that it does not take too long as the church will suffer greatly and its mission may cease.

MethoDeist

JD said...

Methodiest said:

The revolution does not mean overthrow but simply means that the new generation will keep what they like and modify/throw out what they don't like.

There in lies the problem. Faith, God, religion is not made for us. We are made to worship God and it is a take it or leave it thing. It is one thing to debate certain traditions within the church that are neither good or bad, they just are, i.e. infant baptism, but when it comes to the basic construct of the Christian faith, i.e., resurrection of Christ, Virgin Birth, Jesus being BOTH God and man, there is no, "Well, I don't like that and how it makes me feel." You either believe it or you don't, and if you don't...

Man that was one long sentence.

PAX
JD

Dan Trabue said...

HOW is, for instance, the Virgin Birth in any way central to the teachings of the Bible except inasmuch as some group got together centuries ago and decided it was central?

How is that a "basic construct" of the faith? It is mentioned only in passing in the Bible and is not central to faith in Jesus. Nor is HAVING to believe in God as Trinity.

Why Father, Son, Holy Ghost? WHy not the Holy Quartet: Father, Son, Holy Ghost and Creator? OR why not the quintet and add Mother Hen in their. These are all descriptions of God found within the bible.

These are exactly the sort of extrabiblical constructs that my forbears reject as mere credalism.

Talk to me about Jesus' teachings, not the relatively random decisions of a group of church leaders 1800 years ago (or whenever).

The fact that I might not have a big deal with believing in Mary as a virgin or in thinking of God in the form of a Trinity does not mean that they are central to our faith.

At least not MY faith, which is in Jesus and Jesus' teachings.

MethoDeist said...

JD stated:

"There in lies the problem. Faith, God, religion is not made for us. We are made to worship God and it is a take it or leave it thing."

I understand where you are coming from JD but I disagree with your views on a few points.

Faith is a subjective belief system. Religion is a man-made construct that allows us to organize our faith and put it into action. The concept of God falls under the realm of faith as well. We cannot prove that God exists or for that matter a specific interpretation of God is the correct one.

Thus, is the problem of faith. It allows us to investigate the mystery of life and develop our beliefs accordingly which is a form of spiritual relativism to be sure but we have no other choice to accept this as fact since God and all that accompanies with are subjective.

So, arguing on the basis of these assertions will get us nowhere.

A much better path is to determine what the religion of Chrsitianity is and what it represents. This is where one must look at historical viewpoints while being open to modern interpretations. While one cannot prove the existence of a Christian God (or any God for that matter), a God-inspired holy book, miracles, prophecies and so forth. One can look to history and prove that certain beliefs were the foundation of Christianity and go from there.

You then stated this following quote which is where the discussion should enter into:

"It is one thing to debate certain traditions within the church that are neither good or bad, they just are, i.e. infant baptism, but when it comes to the basic construct of the Christian faith, i.e., resurrection of Christ, Virgin Birth, Jesus being BOTH God and man, there is no, "Well, I don't like that and how it makes me feel."

However, some of these aspects will be debated by the new revolution that may come about because that is how revolutions occur. The best approach is to be open minded and listen and ask that they do the same. You may not like all that they have to say and that is where an open dialogue will be required.

I know that you have a strong belief system and that is wonderful. However, you will not get the youth of today into church by telling them that they must believe what you believe. Instead, show love, kindness and be open to what they have to say and you may be surprised on how much they do agree with you and how far you can travel together.

There must be some type of basic beliefs that all share such as what you mentioned above but I am not one that has any business discussing that subject (and probably this whole subject in general but I felt the need to respond).

Ultimately, Christianity should be based on some basic beliefs but the primary focus should be on practice, relationship with God and our relationship with each other.

MethoDeist

JD said...

Dan and Methodeist(MD),

I really had to absorb what you guys said to respond...here it goes.

Dan,
I think our disagreement stems from the fact that I have been discussing this issue in theological terms as opposed to spiritual terms. Ultimately, the first thing that must happen in our walk with Christ is an acceptance of Him. With that acceptance and close personal relationship, we then need to understand what Christ is all about and why He and He alone can save us from our deprived, sinful nature.

For thousands of years, theologians and historians have pointed out that the basis of Christianity is the belief that God sent His only son to die for our sins in the final sacrifice so that we may live in eternity with Him. To achieve this, Christ had to be both God and man, thus the virgin birth. His deity was not bestowed upon Him but derived from His being.

Next, He had to die and rise from the dead to conquer sin and death. He could not do this if He was only man. Also, our belief of eternal life through Christ is meaningless if Christ never really rose from the dead. These are the basic tenants that make a Christian a Christian. Belief in Christ as our savior built upon the understanding that He was born of a virgin, equally God and man, and rose from the dead. To not hold these items as theological truths makes the promise of everlasting life through Christ non-existent. There are many people in this world that live out "Christian" type lives, i.e., Oprah, but is she a Christian? I cannot answer that question without knowing her heart, but her comments lead me to think otherwise.

MD, you said:

"Ultimately, Christianity should be based on some basic beliefs but the primary focus should be on practice, relationship with God and our relationship with each other."

I agree 100% if there is also the understanding that the reason for the focus and relationship is because Christ is our savior, was equally God and man, and rose from the dead to set us free. If we live lives just being good to each other, for the sake of being good, then we are no better than Buddists or Hindus.

"It allows us to investigate the mystery of life and develop our beliefs accordingly which is a form of spiritual relativism to be sure but we have no other choice to accept this as fact since God and all that accompanies with are subjective."

This is a form of humanism and moral relativism, believing that I have created God out of some social construct because I need a way to explain my existence. This is the exact reason why the youth of America are not going to church and getting involved. I can preach love and Christ's redeeming grace until the cow's come home, but American society fills the youth of today with so much bologna about how we need to work through what "feeeeeels" good and it does not hold them accountable for their actions. With that, when someone like myself says that there are some things that you have to come to understand, core beliefs about Christ, or an absolute right and wrong, and if these things do not work for you, then the rest of it is just hogwash and fellowship with an empty promise.

Each time I read your thoughts, Dan and MD, I am challenged. Dan challenges me to be more Christ centered. To understand the Holy Spirit working in me and on me every day of my life.

MD challenges my intellect. His debates stem around philosophy and history, at times negating the spirituality involved in the worship of Christ. He keeps me realizing that there are different ways and techniques to evangelization and logic is one of them.

Oswald Chambers makes a few references to this balance in his daily reflections. We, as Christians, need not only focus on our feelings, but logically understand our faith as well. We cannot have one without the other.

When it all comes down to it, I will quote myself, something John actually seemed to like:

"...as long as the protest is against traditions that directly violate biblical teachings, the protest is reasonable and encouraged. When one protests a church teaching because it is not compatible with today's or tomorrow's societal mores and folkways, it hurts the church as a whole and distracts from its mission."

Sometimes we argue these points that have been decided thousands of years ago without ever going and sharing them with others that have heard none of this. That is a shame...

PAX
JD

John said...

Dan wrote:

Talk to me about Jesus' teachings, not the relatively random decisions of a group of church leaders 1800 years ago (or whenever).

The fact that I might not have a big deal with believing in Mary as a virgin or in thinking of God in the form of a Trinity does not mean that they are central to our faith.


If we can't trust the early church to get the basic facts of Jesus' life correct (like, did he rise from the dead, that's a biggie), then we have no reason to believe that they accurately retold his teachings.

You can't have it both ways, with the early church telling fantastic lies about Jesus' life but that they are completely trustworthy about his teachings. Either the Gospel writers told the truth, or they lied.

Dan Trabue said...

Suppose I told a story to my child about crossing streets. I tell them "When I was a kid, I had a little friend who ran out in the street and got hit by a car and died. Be careful when you're out crossing streets."

My "message" in that story is that we ought to be careful crossing streets.

Peripheral facts attached to that message include that a boy got hit when he ran out in the street. Now, if that boy had actually been carefully crossing the street at an intersection and I had that fact slightly wrong, would not impact the Truth of my message: Be careful.

Right?

I'm saying that for many of us dedicated Christians - many who even believe in the resurrection, the virgin birth, the Triune nature of God - that for many of us, those are all peripheral facts that have little or no impact upon Jesus' message.

I'm less comfortable saying that about the Resurrection, but those other details are just not part of the message, it seems to me.

Jesus nowhere preached, "Believe my Mom's a virgin and thou shalt be saved," and I just don't see the relevance to Kingdom living there.

John said...

If Jesus rose from the dead, then that's not a peripheral fact. That's what you call an unordinary event in one's daily life. It matters if the Gospel writers made the whole thing up.

But if the wisdom of Jesus' teachings are the only thing that matters, and his atoning death and the miracles don't, then what makes the Bible a book of greater importance than Aesop's fables, or a really good episode of Star Trek that makes social commentary? Is the Bible more inspired than these?

Ivan Walters said...

I've been busy, so haven't checked here for a few days. Dan I can understand your point about the creed being superflous. It is scripture that is the ultimate test. However, the creed does serve a useful purpose in giving a clear condensed statement of belief. Sort of a "cliffnotes" for Christian theology. If someone disputes a statement in Nicene, its pretty clear they're not orthodox.
I support Nicene without the fiioque, not because I am convinced that that is the correct theological statement (actually, I haven't ever sat down read through scripture, prayed and thought about which is correct)but because all churches agreed not to modify Nicene except in the context of an Ecumenical Council of the whole church. In fact I intend to propose a motion for General Conference to delete filioque from the creed as used in the UMC. It was Western churches in the sixth century unilaterally that added this. If we think its correct, we need to start pushing for a ecuenical council to have it added. It was wrong to just added without churchwide agreement.