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.  



About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

6 responses

  1. Aaron Weaver says:

    You write:

    ” 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.”

    Albert Mohler writes:

    “The larger intellectual community often takes evangelicalism very unseriously, and it is to the credit of Worthen that she does not. She has been observing evangelicals for some time now, and she thinks she understands us. Given the stature of her new book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press), her analysis of the evangelical movement demands close attention.

    Worthen is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and she is no stranger to the evangelical movement. She has written widely discussed articles and essays in Christianity Today, The New York Times, and a good many other established periodicals. This book emerged from her doctoral dissertation at Yale University, written under the supervision of Harry S. Stout, Jon Butler, and Beverly Gage. This is a book to be reckoned with. In terms of its comprehensive grasp of the evangelical movement, its detailed research, and its serious approach to understanding the evangelical mind, Apostles of Reason stands nearly alone in the larger world of academic publishing. Any serious-minded evangelical should read it.”

    This is what a fair and balanced conservative evangelical perspective looks like.

  2. Lee says:

    I’m amazed at how fast Al Mohler goes from being the most evil conservative of all times, representative of all that is and has been wrong with the SBC and conservative evangelicalism, but becomes the most cited source of Baptists on the left when he says something reasonable that agrees with one of their darlings. No bias there, Aaron, huh?


    We’ll see how much credibility her work gets among Evangelical conservatives. I’m guessing, from the reaction so far, that Mohler may be the only positive comment she draws.

    Mohler is much more fair and balanced than he gets credit for. Perhaps you should cite him more often, especially on his political and social views, if he’s done such a good job nailing it on Molly Worthen. Pity that moderate to liberal Baptists only cite him when they think he’ll gain them some traction.

    • BDW says:

      I’ve always thought Mohler is wrong on many many issues. But it’s never been his general analysis that I have taken issue with, it’s his solutions.

      Warthen profiled Mohler in CT, a profile that was extremely critical. That he has such positive words for this book is telling, speaks to her abilities as a scholar and his ability to be fair and balanced.

      I actually like Mohler, personally. Never ever said he was evil. You can’t broad brush everyone…

  3. Lee says:

    I’m not completely in agreement with Mohler’s analysis of the book. I’m guessing that part of his kind treatment is related to her analysis of the conservative resurgence in the SBC, in that her research more or less agrees with Mohler’s assessment of why and how that occurred, and puts to rest any remaining opinion about it being a “takeover.” She points out that the overwhelming majority of the SBC was already philosophically and spiritually in the conservative Evangelical camp on the issue of Biblical authority.

    Not having actually been a part of the Evangelical community makes it difficult for an intellectual assessment to be made strictly by research and observation. Worthen doesn’t resist taking jabs at Francis Schaeffer, muted, perhaps, but still giving away a bias toward her view of Evangelical intellectuals, though perhaps she does try to be fair. I don’t see it, but I’ll admit to a bit of a bias when it comes to attempts to analyze Evangelical Christian faith by someone who may be a close observer, but never has been an insider.

    I’ll take your word for it when it comes to your analysis of Mohler. In the discussion forums in which I participate, moderates and liberals loathe him, though they are quite ready to cite him when he says something that they either agree with, or that goes against the grain of standard conservative, right wing thought. It demonstrates a bias when that’s the only time he’s considered authoritative and correct.

    • K Gray says:

      You make some of the same points as did Mohler: that Worthen treats Schaeffer unfairly, that she doesn’t recognize her own worldview (bias), that in the end she fails to understand the evangelical mind and heart. Mohler says: “She is largely right in describing the predicament, but she is wrong in suggesting that this is either new or limited to evangelical Christians.” In other words, its not her general analysis he takes issue with, its her conclusions. Mohler says Christians never have nor will fully reconcile divine revelation, faith, and secular intellectual reasoning (something Roger Olson is recognizing recently on his blog).

      Mohler’s treatment of Worthen’s book is his usual written method: to fairly acknowledge achievement, effort, credentials, and/or good points while also setting forth problems and disagreement. It is a civil approach.

  4. Lee says:

    I agree with some of Mohler’s points. I would agree that some of Worthen’s general analysis got the research right, particularly with regard to the recognition that what occurred in the SBC was not a takeover, but a re-adjustment of leadership based on what the vast majority of the people in the pews believed. But I really don’t see her work having much appeal or resonance among conservative evangelicals. Unless you’re been part of that culture, there are things about the practice of faith within that you just can’t understand by mere research, and especially if you think they’re a little kooky and mystical.