After wading through Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, I thought about posting an evaluation of the book here. But I could evaluate the book in a few brief sentences. It’s another academic entry by a pseudo-intellectual “historian,” with no real background or experience in Evangelical Christianity, and the normal, religious liberal bias against it, attempting to put it down and demonstrate why it is wrong, and why anyone with the ability to think must reject its whole argument. It’s not a book that will be taken seriously by anyone who is not already equipped with a bias against a conservative, Evangelical Christian perspective. Biblical authority, which includes a pretty well described belief in the Bible’s infallibility, is not threatened in Evangelical churches in America, and while that view didn’t originate with Francis Schaeffer, and other conservative Evangelical intellectuals, it was solidified by them. It’s not a real crisis.
There is a crisis among Evangelicals, however, one that many of them won’t acknowledge, or fail to see. It’s a crisis that most of Christianity faces at some point or another in its history, and that most Christians face in their faith. It is a theological crisis of sorts, since it does involve the church, and the way Christians are gathered together. It’s a crisis of selfishness.
Evangelicals are gathering into larger and larger congregations. Church growth is a good thing, right? I mean, reaching people for Christ and involving them in his church is the point, right? If only that were what was happening, we’d be in good shape.
What is happening is the complete invasion of a consumerist attitude that creates church growth around resources which are spent on attracting people to specific churches. It’s a business plan that appeals to people who are already believers, and convinces them that they will be better off, and “get more out of” the church which has the most programs that will minister to them and their family.
I can’t find that plan of church growth anywhere in the Bible.
The scripture describes the church as the body of Christ, made up of many parts, uniquely fitted together with spiritual gifts placed in the lives of its members by the Holy Spirit. It’s one of those spiritual mysteries as to how people come together to create a church, and then function as a body of believers. I’ve seen that happen on occasion, and when it does, things happen. There is spiritual growth in the lives of the members. There is fellowship. Ministry takes place as people use their gifts to help meet spiritual and physical needs both inside and outside of the church group. And evangelism, people coming to a saving knowledge of Jesus as their savior, occurs wherever the members come in contact with people who need to hear the gospel message. People who become Christians are drawn to the church, but in most cases, after they’ve been born again.
Those kinds of churches are rare, even among American Evangelicals, who are identified by name as those Christians who place an emphasis on witnessing and winning people to faith in Christ. Most Evangelicals use baptism as the public testimony of new life in Jesus, and only baptize people after they’ve professed faith in him. But the number of people who are being baptized is very small, compared to both the size of the Evangelical branch of Christianity, and to the membership shift in the churches, at least, in America it is, and a sizable number of those being baptized are the children of people who are already believers. Collectively, fewer than half a million Americans are baptized in the course of a year, and about 80% of those are either re-baptisms, or children of church members.
But churches, a small percentage of them anyway, are spending fortunes of borrowed money on facilities that will seat thousands, not only for worship, but for theatrical performances, concerts, and a lot of other “Christian entertainment” options. The church gym has been replaced by the “Family Life Center” which is basically an all purpose entertainment center and health and fitness club. I’ve met people who have joined a church in order to gain access to the FLC, or because they feel that attending a concert or entertainment event is the equivalent of “gathering with the body of Christ,” and it’s more fun than their own church.
This isn’t the biblical model. And that’s what is creating the crisis. Evangelicals are not evangelizing, they are simply gathering into larger groups, abandoning small, local congregations to their fate, and in the process, abandoning the field where evangelism has always taken place. The churches described in the New Testament met in homes, and when the group got too large for a home, they started a new group in a different home. The members were out in the community, in relationships with their neighbors and fellow citizens, where they could be salt and light. Now, they’re gathered together within the walls of their mega church, pursuing their own interests separately from their neighbors and the rest of the community. They are choosing a church based on their personal preferences, not on whether their spiritual gifts can be used by a particular body of believers. To use Paul’s analogy, we have an increasing number of church body parts that are being warehoused in large congregations, sitting, listening, having to be pampered and entertained into returning the next time, but really not doing any kind of kingdom work. As a result, the church, even the once active conservative, Evangelical branch of American Christianity, is aging, and declining in number, and is on the verge of completely being absent among the youngest generation of adults.
The church growth are reluctant to admit that the number of individuals between 18 and 35 who are now identified with a Christian church has fallen into the single digits among the American population. And the conventional wisdom is not the way things are. They’re not coming back when they have kids. They are looking at other ways of fulfilling themselves spiritually, or they are simply ignoring that part of their life. And that’s a real crisis.
The problem with this issue is that there doesn’t seem to be a way to resolve it. We are losing hundreds of smaller congregations. The median age of most Evangelical Christian church members is well past 55. The larger churches are spending the lion’s share of their budget to pay off indebtedness on facilities, or on operational costs. One local church near me spends over a quarter of a million dollars a year on salaries for its praise band members. Another area church just constructed a 1,500 seat worship center, and renovated its “old” worship hall into a “youth center.” They raised about $2.5 million, and borrowed over $30 million. So most of their giving will go to paying off debt on a building that is used for a couple of hours on Sunday morning, an hour on Wednesday, and maybe for the occasional “conference” or concert. That tells me something is wrong with their church theology, and their priorities.
Perhaps the next book out on the market should be titled, The Selfish Church: How to Resolve the Evangelical Church Crisis by Returning to Biblical Roots.