For Those Who Remain (a guide for troublemakers)
In the previous post entitled, "There Was No Protestant Reformation", I suggested that Christians in America who belong to the evangelical community have two options before them. Let's say you chose to stay. What I would like to share here are my thoughts on how you might openly challenge the Idols of Evangelicalism and possibly effect real cultural and institutional change (though as I mentioned before, I personally feel this is a futile effort with very rare exceptions).
SOME PRACTICAL GUIDANCE
Before I share a few suggested strategies for causing necessary trouble, it dawned on me that some of you might be asking, "How do I know if I am a part of an evangelical church or organization?" You can't stay in (or leave) American evangelicalism if you don't know if you are presently a part of it. Well, answering this question is not as easy as it used to be because many evangelical leaders are savvy enough to recognize that the word 'evangelical' and its associated ‘brand’ is, as they say in marketing, “a hard sell”. So they have dropped it from their formal name and messaging. If that's your situation, I'd like to take a few minutes to share some practical guidance on how you can get an answer to your question.
If you are in the U.S., you can start with the list of member denominations, networks and organizations in the National Association of Evangelicals. However, you might be a part of an “independent church” (i.e. no formal affiliation with a denomination). You could directly ask your church or organizational leadership, “Are we an evangelical church/organization?” You will most likely hear a long and convoluted response that doesn't really answer the question. If that happens, you can look for another trademark of evangelicalism that, if found, will answer your question.
A dead giveaway is the use of the word “Bible” in any of their communications about “Who we are.” You will hear things like, “We are a church that honors the Bible as the Word of God” or we are a "Bible-believing Church". Intellectually inclined churches will use the more technical phrase of, “We have a high view of the Scriptures” as opposed to those “liberals” who 200 years ago adopted German scholarship's low view of the Scriptures. So look at their Statement of Faith and especially note their beliefs on the Bible. Some of you might be wondering why I am making such a big deal about this because on the surface what's wrong with valuing the Bible. I have found that the Evangelical concept of 'inerrancy' and 'inspiration' really crosses over into bibliolatry and results in an environment which is hostile to open inquiry. It presupposes that the Bible is true in the way they want it to be true and, therefore, there can be no room for questioning this approach. Consequently, any other tradition of Christianity that doesn't view the Bible the way they do isn't a "Bible believing church". In other words, their doctrine of the Bible ('Bibliology') is a means to an end, and that end is to safeguard their unquestionable authority in defining orthodoxy (see the first Idol of Evangelicalism). Meanwhile they fail to see how much they read the Scriptures through the lens of a cultural, colonial Christianity. This odd mix of confidence and blindness can be seen in painful contradictions, such as with women. They will pay lip-service in honoring women as fellow image-bearers but in the end advance a vision of a subservient June Cleaver-esque, glorified housekeeper and call it “Biblical sexuality.”
a guide for troublemakers
So you have figured out you are a part of an evangelical community and you have decided to stay in. Here are some simple steps you can take to challenge the status quo that could possibly lead to some reform or at the very least leave behind a record of resistance for future generations.
One, find your fellow troublemakers. This will be critically important for not only achieving your reform objectives, but even more importantly for your own health and sanity. All of the additional actions I am suggesting need to be taken collectively and in a coordinated fashion.
Two, challenge your evangelical leaders to make public statements and commitments from the pulpit or in press releases that challenge the four idols and specific expressions of their worship. Here are a few examples...
- God doesn't care about making America great again anymore than any other country on the planet.
- Franklin Graham and others like him are deliberately advancing ignorance and bigotry in order to acquire positions of political influence and wealth.
- We reject any political attempt by Christians to enforce our distinctly religious beliefs and convictions on others who do not share our faith.
- Muslims have every right to experience every religious freedom we want for ourselves and Muslim refugees have just as much a right to come to the US as any persecuted, war-weary Christian.
- Racial and ethnic minorities have been and continue to be the victims of systemic oppression and the predominantly white church in America has been complicit in these crimes against humanity. We repent of this and are committing to move forward a "pro-quality-of-life" agenda that seeks to ensure that every neighbor enjoys the opportunities and benefits our white-privilege has bestowed upon us.
- We are going to drastically reduce our budget expenses that are focused on maintaining a comfortable religious environment, like paid "worship leaders" or our planned building expansion, and instead focus these resources on external social welfare and community development ministry.
That's just a sample of possible things you could ask your leader to say but I think you get the point. Come up with your own contextually specific statements that basically challenge the Idols of Evangelicalism, or better yet ask them for their own. If there is a lot of hemming and hawing in their response or flat out resistance, you may have to then advocate for new leadership.
A quick note on the nature of this meeting where you confront and challenge your leadership. It may sound harsh but what I am talking about is more in the spirit of an intervention. Most local pastors are good people who once felt a genuine calling to lead but for years now have been beat down by the pressure to perform and maintain the status quo. This is mingled with very real fears associated with any attempt to challenge people who also at the end of the day hold the power of the paycheck. Their very ability to provide for their immediate family is at stake in a society that warns you to not "bite the hand that feeds you". Even more damaging is the fear of losing community by being socially ostracized. These fears are well founded, as tampering with idols has always been a very risky endeavor (Acts 19:23-41). What develops in the end is an addiction to a co-dependent relationship where they feel emotionally coerced and economically compelled to minimize the severity of the issues facing the evangelical church. I know this because I am personally recovering from it. All this to say that I am assuming that a foundation of genuine grace and love for your leader has been laid before you stage this intervention.
Three, press for a name change. If the word "evangelical" is still in the name of the church or organization or in its description of "Who We Are", this is a no-brainer. Set aside for the moment any talk of church history and the helpfulness of the term in that discussion or any conversation of the biblical origins of the word. Let's look at this from a pure marketing perspective. There is one thing Enron and Evangelicalism have in common: their brands are DEAD! For those of you who need a refresher course, Enron was once the darling of up-and-coming American energy companies that came suddenly crashing down in 2001 after knowledge leaked of extensive, high-level fraud. The end result was the sudden layoff of thousands of stunned employees and eventual bankruptcy. Now imagine if an enthusiastic entrepreneur came to you requesting an investment in his idea to re-launch Enron. How willing would you be to make that bet? In a similar manner, I have to say that it is just embarrassing to see the lengths some are going in order to reclaim or revitalize the word "evangelical" as a positive and attractive handle for their Christian faith tradition. This includes, by the way, some very fine people who are in some senses fellow troublemakers! To these, my friends, I beg of you...STOP! Let it die. Move on.
Anyways, that was a little bit of a rabbit trail, but you get the point. So if you are, for example, a staff member at the previously mentioned National Association of Evangelicals or one of its subsidiaries, or a member of an Evangelical Free Church of America, or a biblical scholar in the Evangelical Theological Society, join with other troublemakers in being a loud and annoying voice that says it is high time to 'deep six' the word 'evangelical' as part of any present day moniker for an organization claiming to follow Jesus.
Lastly, troublemakers can use the power of the Buck and Butt. As I previously discussed under the fourth idol of Comfort, consumerism is epidemic among American evangelicalism. But I should probably clarify that it is the worst kind of consumerism, one that is knee-jerk, unprincipled and short-sighted. But there is a good consumerism which conversely is informed, principled and intentional. The latter has proven to be very effective in achieving reform, something I introduced in another article I wrote on 'economic withdrawal'. Budgets are, as you often hear, "moral documents". I like to say that budgets are true mission, vision and value statements. And we, as principled consumers, have the right and responsibility to collectively leverage our financial choices in order to challenge budgets when they are unethical or they advance the wrong mission, vision and values for the institution. So if your staying in an evangelical institution that is refusing to confront its idols and resisting necessary reform, take a page out of the playbook of the Religious Right (minus the bad theology) and financially boycott your church or organization like the Southern Baptists did to Disney for eight years. Withhold all or a portion of your tithes or charitable giving until your grievances are given serious consideration.
If this doesn't work you can ultimately use the power of your butt. Leave. That doesn't mean you are deciding to join me in leaving evangelicalism, but you are choosing to leave a specific evangelical organization (e.g. church, NGO, denomination, school, network, etc.). You might recall that I believe that American Evangelicalism, culturally and in its institutions, is, with a few rare exceptions, beyond reform. You might need to find those rare exceptions and join with them. Find that rogue evangelical pastor who is calling out white nationalism or discrimination towards the LGBT community, that non-profit that is boldly challenging the recent principles-for-power deal American evangelicals agreed to in November of 2016, or that "sanctuary church" that is standing with our undocumented brothers and sisters. Swell the ranks and fill the coffers of these rebellious organizations that are still within the evangelical framework.
Will all of this result in real, broad-scale reform of the evangelical church in America? I personally think it won't. But for those who are called to take these steps, at the very least their resistance will in time, I believe, be remembered for being on 'the right side of history' and serve as an inspiration to future generations to always pursue the essentially rebellious nature of faith.