United Statesist Christianity

We need a new name for Christianity in the United States. The contributors to this podcast at Christianity Today are still lamenting the turnout of white evangelicals for Donald Trump and so one of them called for more attention to what it means to be evangelical. Are you kidding? We’ve had almost four decades of scholarship on evangelicalism, and at least three of chanting the integration of faith and learning, and we still don’t know what evangelical is? Please.

Then comes the objection to calling Lee Stroebel, whose new film is drawing attention to the Bill Hybels-spawned apologist, a fundamentalist.

A note or two about Strobel, the legal-affairs journalist. He did his undergraduate degree at a top j-school, the University of Missouri, and then went to Yale University to get his law degree. That gives some clues as to his approach to research and writing.

Strobel converted to Christianity in 1981 and, after a few years, went into ministry – becoming a “teaching pastor” at the world famous Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago suburbs.

Now, WIllow Creek – led by the Rev. Bill Hybels – has for decades been known as, literally, a globel hub for the “seeker friendly” school of mainstream (some would say somewhat “progressive”) evangelicalism. Hybels, of course, became a major news-media figure in the 1990s through his writings and his role as one of the “spiritual advisors” and private pastors to President Bill Clinton.

Willow Creek is not a fundamentalist church.

From there, Strobel went west and for several years served as a writer in residence and teaching pastor at Saddleback Community Church, founded and led by the Rev. Rick “The Purpose Driven Life” Warren. In addition to writing one of the bestselling books in the history of Planet Earth, Warren has also received quite a bit of news-media attention through his high-profile dialogues with President Barack Obama, both during Obama’s first White House campaign and in the years afterwards.

Saddleback is not a fundamentalist church.

Fair points. I don’t think Stroebel is a fundamentalist either. But evangelical is increasingly meaningless even among Protestants who haven’t read (hades!, heard of) Deconstructing Evangelicalism.

So why not simply identify Christianity in the United States according to the degree to which its adherents adapt their faith (or pick and choose) to national norms? (Do remember that in 1899 Leo XIII identified Americanism as a heresy.) Once upon a time, Protestants came to North American and tried to transmit the version of Protestantism (works for Roman Catholics and Jews also) they brought to a New World setting. Some confessional Protestants still do this and triangulate their ministry in the U.S. according to precedents set in Europe whether at the time of the Reformation or when specific episodes upset national churches (think Scotland, England, Netherlands, Germany). Presbyterians in NAPARC still live with a foot (or – ahem – toe nail) in Old World Protestantism even as they have repudiated (except for the Covenanters) the political structures that animated their European predecessors.

But then along came awakenings and parachurch associations and increasingly Protestantism in the U.S. was known less for the fingerprints of its European origins than for those innovators (Whitefield and Moody) or structures (American Bible Society or National Association of Evangelicals) who were as independent of Old World Protestantism as their nation was of the United Kingdom. Once freed from European constraints, American Christianity used markets, earnestness, activism, and relevance as the basis for Christian identity. Evangelicalism was the kinder gentler version of fundamentalism. But neither showed the slightest bit of deference to the churches that came out of the Reformation.

Now, even the labels fundamentalist and evangelical make little difference. The gatekeepers won’t stand at the gate and even if they did the gateway has no wall to make the gate functional. Anyone can be a Christian on their own terms, with celebrities and parachurch agencies gaining the most imitators. But those instances of fame collect no dues, make no demands, and provide no institutional support. It’s like belonging to Red Sox Nation. Wear your bumper sticker. Listen to your Tim Keller sermon (now on sale for $1,500). Got to the next Gospel Coalition conference. You have Jesus in your heart and United Statesist Christianity has lots of proprietors to make your heart burn.

The good thing about United Statesist Christianity is that it allows its adherents to revel in exceptionalism. If America is a great nation, United Statesist Christianity is no less exceptional. Instead of a Pretty Good Awakening, United Statesist Christianity puts the Great back in Great Awakening.

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Teflon Megachurch

Jake Meador blames the poor styles of Jen Hatmaker on the megachurch. Evangelicalism of the 1990s relied more on personal branding than on churchly boundaries. The result is Hatmaker’s inability to see what’s at stake in LBGT debates. She’s a product of her megachurch culture.

Meador is especially hard on Bill Hybels and Willow Creek:

At the heart of this evangelical movement was the megachurch, which we have already mentioned. But the suburban megachurch calls for closer attention because it is in the megachurch that we find the methodological keys to understanding both the evangelicalism of that era and the second-generation spin on this same model that is embodied by women like Hatmaker as well as her friend Shauna Niequist, herself the daughter of the founder of this movement, Bill Hybels.

The seeker-sensitive movement began with a simple idea: Charitably stated, it was that the Christian faith was increasingly nonsensical to modern Americans and it needed translators who could listen to the culture and then speak about the faith in ways that were sensible to them.

Unfortunately, the way that Hybels and others like him attempted to do this work of translation depended far too heavily on secular ideas about marketing, branding, target demographics, and so on. The faith became a product, churches became places of entertainment and commerce, and pastors became the heroic CEOs with the right vision to grow the business:

So churches like Willow Creek leaned on a method for doing evangelism and outreach that essentially amounted to selling the Gospel using marketing strategies targeted at specific demographic groups. They did market research, figured out what people wanted in a church, and began shaping church services accordingly.

The problem with this method is that it can only ever be reactive. Seeker-sensitive evangelism and churches can only react to what they learn in their market research and what they gather from observing mainstream culture. But they cannot create work that drifts from the basic grammar and vocabulary that they inherit from the culture they’re attempting to reach.

My question is why does Tim Keller and Redeemer NYC get a pass? Redeemer is a megachurch, uses strategies designed for its urban context, and it came along at the same time as Willow Creek.

Meador may object that Hybels is not Keller when it comes to communicating or defending the truth of Christianity. But Meador forgets that Lee Stroebel was a big part of Willow Creek’s brand back in the 1990s and no one could apologize better for the faith than an atheist-journalist who studied at Yale Law School turned Christian teacher.

Plus, if you consider where some of the junior pastors in Keller’s New York City outreach landed, Meador could conceivably add Redeemer to his lament about evangelicalism and millennials. Anyone remember this (two years before Jen’s hatmaking went haywire)?

This aligns with our existing core vision: the doors of this church are as wide as the arms of the Savior it proclaims. We remain passionate about having as many people hear the gospel as possible. City Church will continue to receive into membership all those with a credible profession of faith and expect the same commitments represented in their membership vows.

On the other hand, we want to be clear what this now means. We will no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation and demand lifelong celibacy as a precondition for joining. For all members, regardless of sexual orientation, we will continue to expect chastity in singleness until marriage. Please pray for our Board as we continue to discuss pastoral practices with our LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ. Pray for our denomination, the Reformed Church in America, as it does the same.

So I ask, what gives?

It’s Always Sunny In Religious Journalism

The New Calvinists have to be feeling pretty good with yet another puff piece about one of the under home boys (as in under shepherd in relation to Jonathan Edwards as the New Calvinist home boy). Tim Keller is once again the darling of a national media outlet, the Weekly Standard, and he is doing what few pastors seldom can — showing that faith is not backward or sectarian but young, urban, even urbane:

Timothy Keller lists the types of congregants filling his auditorium pews: “A cross-section of yuppie Manhattanites—doctors, bankers, lawyers, artists, actors, and designers, some of them older, most of them in their twenties or thirties.”

Huh? We raise our eyebrows. How could this be, when the city runs on secular selfishness? Or at least, secular selfishness drives the creative class and their upwardly mobile professional counterparts to pursue material success and swami-organic “self-actualization.” The traditional mainline Protestant denominations may be mostly dead, making way for the ongoing rise of a new orthodox evangelicalism. But in Manhattan?

So contrary to the secularization-is-winning narrative that predominates the media and academy, Keller (and the rest of the evangelical megachurch world) is what is really happening:

The truth remains: Megachurches from the Upper West Side to the Bible Belt draw mega-congregations. For Episcopalians, who can’t stomach evangelicalism, the rule is attraction rather than promotion. As empty pews and dwindling parishes testify, gospel-as-metaphor doesn’t attract troubled souls, particularly when the 21st-century’s troubled soul wants to know what’s it got to do with me?

It’s not news that yuppies, creatives, and masters of the universe have immortal souls, too. In 2016, it might take a minister like Timothy Keller to remind us what that means.

Granted, this is a short piece and so the author may not have had room to dig a little deeper in the Keller phenomenon to see if it is all numbers, success, and orthodoxy. Old Life readers likely are aware that some in the Presbyterian world (okay, me) wonder if the New York City pastor is as fully committed to the orthodoxy of his Presbyterian communion as this journalist assumes. Some of those critics (okay, me) also think that Keller’s cooperation with Baptists, Pentecostals, and other Protestants in planting churches in New York City and around the world not only raises questions about his commitment to Presbyterianism but also demonstrates the tell tale signs of the kind of interdenominational cooperation that turned the Protestant mainline from evangelical to liberal. If you can cut corners with the Shorter Catechism, your successors can cut more than corners — maybe an entire block.

Feature stories in journalism to be sure rarely go into great depth regarding the controversies or critics that surround their subject. But when the New Yorker recently ran a feature on the University of Chicago philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, they did not shelter audiences from some of the less than flattering aspects of her life. Not only did the writer cover the philosopher’s complicated relationship with her father, but also refused to ignore Nussbaum’s run-in with feminists:

In 1999, in a now canonical essay for The New Republic, she wrote that academic feminism spoke only to the élite. It had become untethered from the practical struggle to achieve equality for women. She scolded Judith Butler and postmodern feminists for “turning away from the material side of life, towards a type of verbal and symbolic politics that makes only the flimsiest connections with the real situations of real women.” These radical thinkers, she felt, were focussing more on problems of representation than on the immediate needs of women in other classes and cultures. The stance, she wrote, “looks very much like quietism,” a word she often uses when she disapproves of projects and ideas.

In letters responding to the essay, the feminist critic Gayatri Spivak denounced Nussbaum’s “civilizing mission.” Joan Scott, a historian of gender, wrote that Nussbaum had “constructed a self-serving morality tale.”

The feature story on Keller also reminded me of Christianity Today’s coverage of Bill Hybels back when Willow Creek was emerging as the more important megachurch in the U.S. The article sounded more like the Weekly Standard on Keller than the New Yorker on Nussbaum:

Because of Willow Creek’s size, the church’s leaders feel participation in small groups is essential to the spiritual support of its members. And in keeping with its megachurch status, Willow Creek is loaded with specialized ministries for virtually every need among its believers: programs for four age divisions of youth, three categories of single adults, married couples, divorced persons, single parents, and physically and mentally challenged individuals, as well as outreach services to the homeless, the poor, and prison inmates, are just a few of the selections from the church’s huge and diverse menu.

Willow Creek’s success has not gone unnoticed. Three times a year, the church sponsors a conference at which 500 church leaders gather to see how it is done. And in 1992, Hybels and his church elders formed the Willow Creek Association—which currently has a membership of over 700 churches—to provide support to other seeker-sensitive congregations.

Bill Hybels says Willow Creek is simply following the pattern of the first-century church. In the meantime, hundreds of twentieth-century churches are: eager to follow the pattern of Willow Creek.

So aside from questions about Keller or Hybels and their way of doing ministry, what’s up exactly with Christian and conservative readers of journalism? Do we always need to hear the positive and fear any mention of the negative? Faith is about inspiration, not about troubles? That may be what editors think and what marketing reveals. But for a religion that features all those animals butchered in the Temple, the execution of the son of God, not to mention Jesus’ followers clear teaching about suffering, it sure seems odd that secularists appear to handle the dark side of human existence better than believers.

Ecclesiastical Upgrade

Kathy Schiffer summarizes the most recent batch of reflections by evangelical converts to Rome. Here are the main reasons:

The contributors to Evangelical Exodus were influenced by diverse factors, notably the biblical canon, Christian orthodoxy, and the two concerns most frequently cited by Protestants: sola scriptura (all truth can be found in the Scriptures) and sola fide (man is saved by faith alone). Doug also named Beauty as one of the factors which led him and his fellow seminarians to a new appreciation for the Catholic Church. “In Protestantism,” Doug said, “there’s a tendency to dismiss any reason other than the intellectual. But as human beings, we’re both physical and spiritual creatures. In the Catholic Church, he found, intellect and reason are respected; but the Catholic Church is also more beautiful and more historical. There is an attractive package which draws the spirit, combining art and music and beauty, a long history, and tradition, with solid intellectual arguments.”

When Martin Luther broke with the church, he feared for his soul. He worried about his sins. He needed an alien righteousness to cover his transgressions which haunted him everywhere he went.

Why do Protestants who go to Rome never seem to sense the spiritual angst that motivated Luther? They’ve gone to a church that teaches if you die in mortal sin you risk going to hell. They now are in a communion where mortal and venial sins are numerous and the prospects of purgatory are real. But these “converted” folks seem to operate with the assumption that they were already “saved” as a Protestant but now have found a better version of Christianity, like going from Windows 8 to Windows 10, from Bill Hybels to John Paul II.

Give Protestants credit. We worry about salvation. We learned that worry from the church in Rome. Where did that worry go on the other side of the Tiber? It seemed to get lost in the efforts to preserve Christendom, the papal states, the West, and to win the culture wars.

Seeker Sensitivity Comes Home

Wasn’t this the rationale for megachurches and Praise & Worship worship?

“The church’s teaching is quite clear,” said Wuerl. “But the church’s pastoral life is the application of the teaching to where people are. And that’s always been the pastoral challenge of the church.”

“You have to speak with clarity, but then knowing what the fullness of the teaching is, you go out and meet people where they are,” he continued. “And the Holy Father keeps saying to us, ‘Accompany them.'”

“You don’t go out to meet people where they are to scold them,” he said. “You go out to bring them the truth but sometimes to be heard you have to let the person know you know their struggle if you’re going to accompany them at all.”

Giving as example his own ministry as a bishop for nearly 30 years, the cardinal said a church leader must first listen to know what people need in their lives.

“You have to listen in order to know how to say what you want to say so that you’ll be heard,” said Wuerl.

“I think that’s what the tension is between those who put the greatest emphasis on simply saying it — and saying it over and over again — and those who are saying if it’s not being heard, we have to go out and begin to listen so that we know how to say this in a way it will be heard,” he said. “That’s the difference. In neither case are we changing the teaching.”

Exactly. Bill Hybels and Rick Warren changed no doctrine.

The Book for which New Calvinists Have Been Waiting

Recovering Mother Kirk was at one time selling for upwards of $200 at some used book outlets, much more a function of economics than of talent (Baker pulled the plug sooner than markets became saturated). Now it is back in print, thanks to the folks at Wipf & Stock. Here is a sample that may attract the young restless sovereigntists:

To hear some proponents of contemporary worship one would think that the church of Jesus Christ had never been able to worship well and properly until the advent of praise songs, Contemporary Christian music, and greater expressiveness in church services. Bill Hybels, for instance, the pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, the flagship congregation for so many of the innovations in late-twentieth-century Christian worship, admitted in a recent interview that he did not understand worship until the mid-1980s while attending a conference at Jack Hayford’s (the author of the now classic praise song, “Majesty”) Church on the Way. There Hybels witnessed a worship leader who was prepared and was able “to take us from where we were, into the presence of God.” After forty-five minutes to an hour of singing when the leader assisted in “adoring,” “confessing before,” and “expressing our absolute trust and devotion” to God, Hybels went back to his hotel room and said “This changes everything!” “Every Christian should regularly experience what I did tonight.”

Key to Hybels’ new conception of worship was the biblical teaching that Christians are to worship their God “in spirit and in truth.” This meant not only that sounding teaching was important for worship, as in a good sermon, but also that believers need to be “emotionally alive and engaged” in the experience of worship. Indeed, what has been crucial to the success and appeal of the newer forms of worship has been a rediscovery of the work and presence of the third person of the Trinity in the gathering of believers to bring praise and honor to God. One Reformed pastor, whose congregation began to incorporate some of the recent worship innovations in his services, says that when his church “discovered a new way to sing praise” the power of the Spirit “washed over us that day.” Previously this congregation had only given “lip service to the Spirit” but now they were uniquely aware of the “gentle presence of the third person of the Trinity.” Likewise, Jack Hayford, writing for Leadership magazine, links the newer forms of worship directly with the Spirit. “Expressive worship cultivates a willingness to be taught by and to submit to the Holy Spirit.” This connection between sponteneity, informality and emotional intensity in contemporary worship explains the popularity of such phrases as “spirit filled,” or “spirit led” in discussions about worship. The presence of the Holy Spirit, along with the signs of his presence, means that worship is not only of God but authentic, sincere and right.

These appeals to the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, however much they spring from sincere devotion, reflect a profound misunderstanding of the third person of the Trinity. Advocates of spirit-filled worship act as if the work of the Holy Spirit has been inextricably bound up with the use of praise songs, electric guitars and overhead projectors. Few of these writers seem to remember exactly when and where Jesus said that his disciples were to worship in “spirit and truth.” As it happened, our Lord said those words almost two-thousand years ago in Samaria and his intention in uttering that phrase was not prophetic, as if he saw a day, two millennia in the future, when his people would finally apprehend the reality of spirit-filled worship. In fact, coming to terms with Christ’s meaning in this widely appealed to phrase, “in spirit and truth,” clarifies what Christian worship is because it explains the work of the Holy Spirit both in the salvation of God’s people and in the period of redemptive history after the ascension of Christ. (from “Spirit Filled Worship,” pp. 91-92)

From Sunday School to Reality TV

I have not been following the story, but Matt Pitt, a youth pastor in Alabama, who started a church called Basement, is in jail for resisting arrest (and before that, impersonating a police officer — anyone willing to jail him for impersonating a minister?) and he has generated a large following from Alabama’s young faithful. You can read about this here.

But what I found striking was this commentary:

When Willow Creek introduced the seeker-sensitive model in the 1970s, the Basement could not have been what it had in mind. The Basement is the ultimate example of seeker-driven services targeted at a very particular audience with an emphasis on the commercialization and commodification of religious practices. As a youth ministry run by a younger preacher, the Basement may signal the next step in the megachurch, seeker-sensitive movement. Combined with new reality TV programs and internet ministries . . ., popular religion is adopting more secular tools to reach larger audiences—and it’s working. Perhaps a better signifier would be plastic religion (rather than seeker-sensitive) for what’s going on at the Basement. In Chidester’s Authentic Fakes, he describes plastic religion as a commodified and flexible, a way to think about popular culture that is “biodegradable” and “shape shifting.” The Basement is unabashedly plastic while also claiming authenticity, which is a cunning way to reconcile the conflict inherent in its MTV/tent revival meetings. Drawing on the televangelist trends described by Bowler in Blessed, with emotional pleas that “ebb and flow” throughout the meeting, Pitt’s ministry takes the appeal one step further and amps up the revival atmosphere with smoke, lights, loud music, hip videos, and a liturgical call and answer that sounds more like a club chant.

If Bill Hybels, who started out as a youth pastor himself and forged a megachurch that would cater to those youth once they became suburbanites, could not have envisioned the Basement, it was only because he was limited to the programming of the three networks and various UHF channels available to U.S. television viewers in the 1960s. But youth culture has always forged a separate religious Christian identity, going all the way back to Jonathan Edwards and Gilbert Tennent, whose revivals drew followers precisely from the adolescent demographic. Sunday School was just another endeavor that isolated a group of Christians (or not) defined by age and tried to cultivate a Christian identity distinct from existing congregations and communions.

This is one case where I am no splitter. Lumping Tennent, Sunday school, Bill Hybels, and Matt Pitt makes perfect sense.