Twenty-five years ago, evangelicals were outside the religious establishment. That establishment was made up principally of the mainline denominations. But today evangelicals have become the religious establishments, however informally. But despite this, I believe that today we are in some peril. We have a fight on our hands and what we’re fighting for is our evangelical soul, for it is possible for us to gain the whole religious world while losing our own souls. I do not say this because I am one of those who thinks that the best is always what is in the past, that we are always in a state of decline, and that if we want to think of a golden age we have to think of something that is behind us. I do not think that way at all. In some ways we, today, are better off than we were twenty-five years ago. Perhaps a lot better off. And yet in spite of that, I believe there are matters within the evangelical world today which are seriously amiss.
In 1993 a very interesting study was done which revisited George Gallup’s figure of 32% of adult Americans who claim to be reborn. What this study did was to add just a few modest tokens of commitment as additional tests. In addition to asking, “Are you born again?,” they also asked, “Do you go to church with some regularity, do you pray with some regularity, and do you have some minimal structure of formal Christian belief? When those tests were added, the figure of 32% dropped to 8%. And if we were to probe just a little bit more, and if we were to ask: first, “Are your regenerate?”; second, “Do you have a sufficiently cogent world view to make a difference in society?” and third, “Do you have a sufficiently formed Christian character to want to do so?”, based on some ongoing research I have seen, my guess is that the figure may be no more than 1% or 2%. What this means, is that we may have been living in a fool’s paradise. When Gallup produced his figures in the 1970’s and has repeated them every year ever since, it seemed like evangelicals were on a roll with such wide popular support and with churches that were growing. It looked as though we were on the verge of sweeping all of our religious and cultural opponents before us. That was why these figures stirred such alarm in the secular media, why they created some heartburn in the mainline Protestant denominations, and why they produced just a little power-mongering amongst evangelicals. But it has turned out to be an optical illusion. The reality that we have to face today is that we have produced a plague of nominal evangelicalism which is as trite and superficial as anything we have seen in Catholic Europe.
Now, why is this? Well, I would like to suggest that it begins with the crumbling of our theological character. I have spoken of this in my book , No Place for Truth, in terms of the “disappearance of theology.” It is not that theological beliefs are denied, but that they have little cash value. They don’t matter. I likened the situation to that of a child who is in a home but who is ignored. It is not that the child has been abducted; the child is there. The child is in the home, but has no legitimate place in the family. And, again, research which I have had conducted strongly points to the fact that where this kind of theological character is crumbling, there the centrality of God is disappearing. God now come to rest lightly and inconsequentially upon the Church. This, however, is just our own private evangelical version of what we see more generally in the culture. In the broader culture we learn that 91% of people say that God is very important to them but 66% go on to say that they do not believe in moral absolute truth. So God rest inconsequentially upon their lives.
An evangelical faith that is not passionate about truth and righteousness is a faith which is a lost cause. All that it will then be living for is simply its own organizational preservation. Last century William James saw this same sort of mind set at work. The entire modern deification of survival, he said, “with the denial of any semblance of excellence in what survived, except the capacity for more survival still, is surely the strangest intellectual stopping place ever.” Stanley Fish, the radical deconstructionist, in his latest book says that since there is no such thing as truth, all that we have left is power, politics, and persuasion. Given his premise, he is right and I can tell you that if we do not recover our theological character and our sense of truth, in the same way, all that we are going to have left is power, politics, and persuasion. Those will be the only means we will be left for survival. If this is an accurate analysis, where are we going to start in finding some new directions?
In a recent book, The Churching of America: Winners and Losers in the Religious Economy, Fink and Stark developed an interesting thesis. Just as there is commercial economy, they say, so there is a religious economy. That is to say, there are cultural circumstances which encourage the success of some religious movements and discourage the success of others. I think that they are right. However, there is one small section of that book that seems to have been overlooked. What they say here is that regardless of how much success the culture bestows upon a religious movement, it will never survive long term unless it has what they call, “a vivid other worldliness.” Without looking at evangelicals directly, they have in actual fact put their finger on our Achilles heel, for amidst all of the abundance in our world, all of the accoutrements that go with a successful movement, a vivid other worldliness is often conspicuous by its absence. If we cannot reverse ourselves at this point, we are headed towards the oblivion of irrelevance before God. So how are we going to recover a vivid other worldliness? Perhaps it consists in many things, but I single out just two which I think are central.
The Lost Word
We must recover the lost Word of God. The problem is not, of course, that the Bible itself has disappeared. There are, in fact enough Bibles in America to put one in every home. No, the problem is that we are not hearing the Word of God. It does not rest consequentially upon us. It does not cut. And it is surely one of the great ironies of our time that in the 1970’s and 80’s so much of our effort was put into defining inspiration and looking at what were the best words to express and protect it. And while all of that work was going on, unnoticed by us, the Church was quietly, unhitching itself from the truth of Scripture in practice. Biblical inspiration was affirmed but its consequences were not worked out for our preaching, our techniques for growing the Church, our techniques for healing our own fractured selves. These all happened largely without the use of Scripture. It is as if we think that while the Bible is inspired, it is nevertheless inadequate to the tasks of sustaining and nourishing the twentieth-century! The result of this divine myopia is that he has left us with something that is inadequate to the great challenges that we face today.
If we do no recover the sufficiency of the Word of God in our time, if we do not relearn what it means to be sustained by it, nourished by it, disciplined by it, and unless our preachers find the courage again to preach its truth, to allow their sermons to be defined by its truth, we will lose our right to call ourselves Protestants, we will lose our capacity to be the people of God, and we will set ourselves on a path that leads right into the old discredited liberal Protestantism. We have to recover a vivid other worldliness by making ourselves once again captives to the truth of God regardless of the cultural consequences.