Regrettably, a gelding is becoming an all too apt metaphor for pan-evangelicalism in our postmodern world. Now I know that there are many born-again believers who themselves would never see themselves as “culturally fixed.” Many believers are living authentic Christian lives. There are many local pastors who are doing their utmost to stave off the cultural infections that are entering the churches. But still too many local pastors have been swept along by the rapid cultural changes entering the church nationally. Local believers themselves, being immersed in the culture, happily give to their shepherds (local pastors) the role of discernment and choosing the menu for living the Christian life. Most local believers are totally preoccupied with living in a post-modern culture. There remain many pastors who guard their flocks with both a staff and a rod with which to beat back the wolves in sheep’s clothing. But local pastors have no trans-local voice in the larger church. They are not the ones who, broadly speaking set the agenda. Conversely too many local pastors have themselves bought into various postmodern versions of Christianity. These pastors then in turn look to their leaders above them in the food chain. These regional and national leaders look to the image making celebrity and media-driven class.
These published authors, and media driven leaders, and successful mega-church personalities then become the ones who promote their success stories. Unfortunately, many of the evangelical celebrity class eventually set the agenda and mindset for the church at large. The evangelical sheep in the pews look to their pastors and media icons and have no idea that many of these image makers have long since been culturally fixed. These media celebrities keep churning out materials and TV programs. Regrettably money also becomes a factor, for if you become a bestselling author, the publishers are pushing for more books. Their own financial success becomes like a successful verification and standard of truth. If a lowly Christian correctly questions these media leaders he will often be seen as dividing the body of Christ. Too many in the pastor class, rather than protecting the flock, end up drinking the cool aid themselves, hoping to become smaller versions of the current celebrity media icons. That being the case, what can a sincere evangelical in the pew do?
I just recently received the “preferred customer catalog” from Christian Book Distributors out of Peabody, MA. CBD has for decades provided a discount market of Christian books. On the first pages they post the bestsellers and favorite authors. It is their business to know what is currently selling to evangelical customers. In the recent catalog, on the first pages you will find Sarah Young’s “Jesus is Calling.” It is offered in a deluxe edition, women’s edition, the kids edition and teen edition.
Sarah Young inspired by the anonymous authors of “God Calling” of a period past, wondered if she could receive verbatim audible revelations from God as did the writers of “God Calling.” One day a warm mist enveloped her and she decided to listen to God pen in hand as did the authors of “God Calling.” She decided that Jesus was not just speaking to her but she must past these new revelations on to others. She found that the bible was not sufficient. Young does not suggest that her revelations are scripture. But if her revelations are the actual spoken word of Jesus and she provides these revelations to the general public, there can be no difference between her transcribed supposed words of Jesus and the words of Jesus in the bible. It seems to be like channeling in that she found the words were coming faster and faster as she wrote the book. If these are the actual words of Jesus they are by definition authoritative even as Jesus words in scripture.
Near by in the CBD catalog is Gary Thomas’ book “Sacred Pathways”
Gary Thomas book is very popular. Focus on the Family endorses it. In the book he recommends eastern mystical tantric sex. But even more alarming is his description and recommendation of Catholic Monastic Contemplative Prayer. Thomas writes: “centering prayer works like this: Choose a word (Jesus or Father) for example as a focus for Contemplative Prayer. Repeat the word silently in your mind for a set amount of time (say 20 minutes) until your heart seems to be repeating the word itself, just as naturally and involuntary as breathing.” (Thomas, Sacred Pathways, p. 185) It is interesting that this is essentially the method of altered states of consciousness in TM and other eastern prayer techniques.
Mark Batterson’s popular book “The Circle Maker” is also prominently featured in the CBD catalog with a journal, DVD curriculum and a 40 day “draw the circle” edition. This bestseller presents a new spin on prosperity teaching. Batterson discovered this new method of praying while reading from the Jewish Talmudic Book of Legends. He discovered one Honi, a miracle worker in the first century B.C. During a drought, Hone drew a circle around himself in the sand and commanded rain from heaven. Batterson is now promoting this Honi’ prayer legend. Batterson states:
“Your job is not to crunch numbers, your job is to draw circles in the sand and if you draw the circle God will multiply the miracles in your life.” (quoted at The Beginning and the End, September, 2012).
Now apparently, the power is not in your tongue ala Word/Faith teaching but in the chalk in your hand. Sounds magical to me. Honi was a magical legendary person. He reportedly questioned a young lady asking why she was planting a carob tree in that it takes 70 years to bear fruit. Well! A strange sleep came upon Honi and the 70 years later he awakens to see the carob tree bearing fruit. Was Honi a Christian? No, he was a Hebrew mythical legend. No more, no less.
Evangelicals as a religious/political subculture in America have been touted by the wider-culture non-Christian pundit class as a rising political power. But having failed to elect a Mormon cultist to the presidency suddenly some within the evangelical community itself began to see pan-evangelicalism as having already crested and the flood waters of influence falling rapidly. After basking in the political sunshine and credited with electing George Bush president, suddenly the past election revealed that all the “Save America” political evangelism efforts were apparently over-reach and hype.
Suddenly neoevangelicals seem to have come down with degenerate heart failure. The Christian Science Monitor on March 10, 2009 published an article by Michael Spencer, an online commentator with the moniker “The iMonk,” which called for “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.” In this article he direly predicts a collapse that will in a few decades lead to an “evangelical dark age.” Phil Johnson of the Pyromaniac website reflected:
Everyone including Matt Drudge is talking about iMonk’s op-ed piece in the Christian Science Monitor…. I say Amen to his article…. I agree the collapse he predicts is well underway… and I agree that the thing is so far sunk already that it’s not going to be possible to salvage the ship… man the lifeboats. Just put me in one with real oars. (“Evangelical Down the Drain” Phil Johnson, Pyromaniacs, March 10, 2009).
Some are making the call that evangelicalism is dead. Others want to it plugged into life support hoping the patient will revive. Neo-evangelicalism was birthed 50 or 60 years ago with Charles H. Henry, Harold Ockenga and Fuller Seminary leading the way by putting distance between them and separative fundamentalists. The mid-life of this movement was Billy Graham and his ecumenical evangelistic rallies. The movement then transitioned into church growth and market-based strategies popular in the culture. Marketing schemes and experts became the harbinger of apparent cultural success. In 1976, Time magazine declared the year of the evangelical.
After half a century of unprecedented growth in both evangelicalism’s adherents and its cultural visibility, and after the development of a vast network of evangelical seminaries and colleges, publishing houses and periodicals, para-church organizations an increasing vocal cluster of evangelical leaders is questioning whether American evangelicalism can survive its success… [All] perceive a theological declension in which the movements’ theo-centric theology has been replaced by an anthropo-centric and experience-driven faith without a theological grounding. (“Evangelicalism’s Insecure Calvinists,” Gregory Johnson, St. Louis University, Fall 1999)
Linking with popular culture so directly, however, carried with it dangers not noticed at the time. Instead of capturing the culture, and the political power of the culture, and political activism began to capture them. Like Israel in the past they relied on Egypt. They forgot that the Egypts of the world need to be served and paid tribute to annually.
As in the cultural/marketing world, to increase relevance requires alliances and new investments. But these alliances come with a price. They change things. In the negotiations certain features must be diminished or given a secondary status. It’s like a Christian concert, where an artist is given a lesser stage on which to perform. The big name gets the big stage.
To shore up evangelical unspoken weaknesses ad hoc alliances were and are still being made with Catholics, Mormons (a la Glenn Beck) and unbelieving Jewish institutions (John Hagee), and political operatives (David Lane and James Robison). But these alliances require dialing down and truncating aspects of the Gospel message.
To play the culture card you have to “mix and match.” Having put the focus on the culture as “evangelism” bait you find you then need the new and brighter and bigger bait. But then the unintended consequence – the bait itself becomes the message. This is a sign of the death of a movement. It is tacit acceptance that the Gospel is insufficient in itself without cultural additives and adaptations. We are informed we need the new and improved version of our Gospel line in order to make the sale to a culture of addicted consumers. We could go on and on about the mixing and matching….
Can the evangelical Humpty Dumpty be put together again? I think not. What was started in the 1940′s both in America and in Europe has had a wonderful run, has created a multitude of churches and para-church organizations, an immense and impressive array of scholarship, seminaries, colleges, social relief, missionary work and a massive enterprise in believing. However, today it is sagging and disintegrating. (David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant, Eerdmans, 2008, p. 8)
Indeed! The gelding has been castrated. Now the gelding can grow fat and live out his day consuming whatever the culture provides. Our youth pastors can pick up the latest cultural toys, hoping to impress Christian young people with the newest and latest the culture provides (current example, “The Harlem Shake.”)
But geldings cannot reproduce. They are sterile by definition. We need more than a C. S. Lewis “Mere” Christianity. A minimalist gospel, outwardly decked out with cultural paraphernalia, is too easily ignored by both unbelievers and believers. Our Gospel of salvation by Jesus Christ cannot be reduced to the role of a back-up singer to the main attraction just off stage, partially hidden so as to survive in the culture. Sell or die has replaced preach or die.