Can Evangelicalism be Saved?

Over the month of December, the American political environment opened an opportunity for many to discuss – perhaps debate or argue is more apropos – the merits of the moniker “evangelical.” There are valid reasons for such conversations as we’ve seen an expression of evangelicalism in America that seemingly gives more attention to the social morals and politics of our day than to making disciples of all people groups (Matt 28:18-20). So, it begs the question: can evangelicalism be saved? Might there be a sort of rebirth in 2020? Perhaps. However, if evangelicalism can be saved, it must recover its sense of mission: the declaration of the euaggelion.

The path to this salvation necessitates two critical elements: hermeneutics and identity. Without these two elements, I’m afraid that the evangelical church in America will never be born-again and will perhaps follow the path of the church of Europe. Similarly, in the absence of these two elements, I fear the evangelical church in the majority world will also follow the same path as the churches in America and Europe.

Alan Hirsch recently shared with the Ephesiology podcast that a church’s budget is a theological document. Where a church spends its money demonstrates its priority.

Hermeneutics and Identity

It seems the American hermeneutic – the way in which Americans interpret Scripture – is focused on ourselves, perhaps it’s even an egocentric or a therapeutic hermeneutic. Sunday after Sunday we listen to the moral and social, even the occasional political, platitudes from pulpits that are ostensibly out of touch with those in the pews. At other times, we hear messages about the “best me” or finding “my calling.” A typical Sunday in the American church feels like a place where I learn about myself – what I am to do, or how I am to act. And then comes Monday and I can hardly remember what was preached from the pulpit the day before.

As the sociologist Josh Packard recently noted, those who are “done” with church and the Sunday experience, “Wanted community . . . and got judgment. They wanted to affect the life of the church . . . and got bureaucracy. They wanted conversation . . . and got doctrine. They wanted meaningful engagement with the world . . . and got moral prescription.”

The picture of the US church painted by other leading researchers is not a pretty one:

  • Pew Research discovered that 49 percent of all Christians (38 percent of evangelicals) are only somewhat satisfied or not at all satisfied with Sunday sermons.
  • Thom Rainer estimates that 6-10 thousand churches in the US closed their doors in 2018.
  • Lifeway Research estimates that more than half of church goers feel comfortable in sharing their faith but more than three-quarters haven’t in the past 6 months.
  • Barna Research reported that 47 percent of millennials believe it is wrong to evangelize people of other faiths.
  • A Gallup poll found that only 48 percent of Christians trust the clergy, while only 25 percent of non-Christians trust the clergy.

Despite the lack of trust of clergy and dissatisfaction with their sermons, it seems the pulpit ministry takes precedence in many American evangelical churches. Pastors are trained in seminaries to believe that their weekly 45-minute soliloquy will inspire their audiences and attract people to attend church. When those inclined to attend do, we see a huge gap between Sunday and Monday that a sermon cannot fill.

To capture the attention of those who sacrifice their Sunday mornings to clothe their children and get out the door to drive to church – I’ve actually heard a pastor almost equate this “sacrifice” with those living in persecuted countries – sermons tend to focus on an exposition of a book of the Bible that can take as long as three years to complete. And I should know as I once preached a series from Romans 1 that took six months! Can you imagine how long it would have taken to finish the whole epistle! Seriously though, what more did I think could be added to the inspired Word of God?

Nevertheless, the 30-40 hours per week of sermon preparation is often based on an anthropocentric hermeneutic – one that talks about “me” rather than God – that at times seems more about the pulpit than the pew in an attempt to discover new insights for the “disciple” to apply in their lives. 

According to Gallup, non-Christians trust the local car salesperson more than the local pastor.

It’s a hermeneutic in search of a contemporary personal interpretation and often reduces the disciple of Christ to a learner in search of more knowledge, a servant of an institution or a victim of spiritualized rhetoric. Packard writes, “It leads to the perception that Sunday mornings are far and away the most important thing the church does.” Claiming to be missional or to have a discipleship focus is betrayed by the amount of financial resources it takes to put on an hour and a half weekly event to ensure people continue to return next Sunday to give money to warrant the need for a church facility. Alan Hirsch recently shared with the Ephesiology podcast that a church’s budget is a theological document. Where the church spends its money demonstrates its priority.

Granted, we have some of the most remarkable teachers in our pulpits today. Dynamic, powerful expositors who tickle the ears of Christians and occasionally produce a “disciple” fully committed to God’s mission. However, if the sermons preached do not result in people becoming Christ-followers who are worshipping God and joining Him on His mission to multiply more Christ-followers then the messages are contributing to an anthropocentric theology that is institutionalizing the church. 

A Path Forward

The corrective to an anthropocentric hermeneutic focused on creating congregants who will continue to attend Sunday mornings is a missiological hermeneutic and identity focused on God’s mission to glorify Himself by more people following Him Monday through Saturday. The focus of the Bible then is about Him, not the sermon or the Sunday event. It is about the completion of His mission, not mine or the church’s or the pastor’s. My identity, as a result, is now tied up in who I am in relationship to His mission, not in relationship to “some guy telling me what to do.” I no longer have a choice but to BE on God’s mission and do the things He does (Eph 5:1, 1 Cor 11:1, Luke 4:18-19).

There are valid reasons for such conversations as we’ve seen an evangelicalism in America that seemingly gives more attention to the social morals and politics of our day than making disciples of all people groups (Matt 28:18-19).

What does this look like in the daily life of a Christ-follower? It is approaching the text of Scripture through the lens of God acting as missionary. It is taking the focus off of self and off of Sunday and putting it on God who wants us to engage the people around us all seven days of the week. It is taking on an identity as a myopically focused Christ-follower intent on joining with God on his missionary activity – visiting the sick, caring for the marginalized, clothing the naked, welcoming the immigrant, proclaiming good news to the poor and the year of the favor of the Lord – in short, it is the declaration of the euaggelion (Matt 25:35-40; Luke 4:18-19) and it happens more often Monday through Saturday than on Sunday.

These actions result in a dynamic movement that naturally impacts politics, education, and economics not due to any “evangelical” agenda, but rather due to the transformed lives of those who follow Christ. This is what we call a missiological theocentric passion for the pursuit of God’s mission of uniting all things in Christ (Eph 1:10). It is a theocentrically focused identity and hermeneutic that is perhaps a path forward to evangelicalism’s salvation.

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