Every church has its tradition. Most of the time, that tradition is shared with a larger group of churches. Some are ancient, robust, and obvious as with Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Some are more modern and flexible. But every church has tradition. This is not a bad thing – tradition is simply the how expressing faith’s what. Faith is about what we believe; tradition is what we do about it.
Of course, not all traditions are created equal; some have more problems than others. One tradition that I’m particularly concerned about is the popular face of evangelicalism in America today. I call it pop-evangelicalism for short. What is this pop-evangelicalism and why do I dislike it? I’ve compiled a list of some of its hallmark features to explain.
1. Pop-Evangelical leadership favors great speakers, not great teachers. Whether it’s a famous mega-church or a small congregation in the middle of nowhere, pop-evangelicalism loves a pastor who gets people “engaged.” They love a preacher who is “convicted” of his message, and “is convicting” to his hearers. Unfortunately this often is sought at the expense of theological training and depth. Similarly…
2. Pop-Evangelicalism isn’t usually anti-intellectual, but it it is intellectually lazy. The problem of scorning academic study and theological education is usually more an issue among Pentecostal and Fundamentalist traditions. Pop-evangelicals, rather, still respect seminary degrees, though they downplay its importance. When new people come to faith, they will typically go through a “new members class” for a few weeks, which is hardly enough time to give people proper discipleship and catechesis. Sorry, most pop-evangelicals don’t even know what catechesis is anymore. All those boring old-fashioned impersonal doctrines just don’t catch peoples’ interest; why bog down a perfectly hearty faith with all those brainy details? The ordinary church-goer in this tradition is only vaguely aware of the doctrine of the Trinity, uncertain why it’s absolutely essential that Jesus was fully human, and clueless as to why those wacky Catholics actually baptize babies. And speaking of sacraments…
3. A “Worship Leader” is the leader of the band. To be fair, most pop-evangelicals know deep down inside that worship is more than just music. They know that the whole worship service is worship, even the sermon and the prayers, and the Scripture readings if there are any. But at the end of the day, the association of “worship=music” remains the primary paradigm. When they say “worship was great at church yesterday,” they mean the band was really rockin’. In a manner matching the theological shallowness described in the previous points, pop-evangelicalism also has a shallow understanding of worship. The priesthood of Christ, the role of the sacraments, the very concept of liturgy, are almost entirely lost to the pop-evangelical mind.
4. Pop-Evangelicalism has confused its theological priorities. Despite the above critiques, pop-evangelicalism does still care about theology to some degree. But its priorities are mixed up. The most important topic in this tradition is soteriology: the doctrine of salvation. We are justified by grace alone through faith alone, they insist, faithfully maintaining that classic Protestant Evangelical stance. They have a strong hold on the Gospel of God. But, as others have pointed out, they often have a weak grasp of the God of the Gospel. As a result, pop-evangelicalism is rampant with heresies condemned by the early Christians about the Trinity and the dual natures of Christ.
5. Pop-Evangelicals have a love-hate relationship with labels. They love taking on individual labels such as “I have the gift of generosity,” “he is a pastor,” “her spiritual disposition is care-giver,” and so on. And they often love personality quizzes and spiritual gift inventories. But on the other hand they are deathly afraid of corporate labels such as “Protestant” or “Baptist.” Individual labels are great because they can be used to proclaim our individual uniqueness. Corporate labels, however, puts personal faith into a box, as if that somehow ruins it. “I’m just a follower of Christ; I don’t believe in any of those -isms.”
6. Small groups that read a book together are called “Bible Studies.” I think this is a pet peeve of mine, regardless of who does it. I think small groups are great, whether they are studying part of the Bible, a topic in the Bible, or working through a book by a Christian author. All are useful. As great as folks Francis Chan, Beth Moore, Sarah Young, and Randy Alcorn can be, reading their books is not “bible study.” It seems that pop-evangelicals spend more time soaking in the writings of currently-popular authors than they spend soaking in the writings of Sacred Scripture.
7. Pop-Evangelicalism runs on an “addict” model of spirituality. Nobody disagrees that it’s a good to love Jesus. The challenge is what “love” really means. Pop-Evangelicals take a little too much from the world’s definition of love: a head-over-heels emotional falling for the beloved. They preach a passionate love for Jesus, which is good, but the devotional books and the “worship songs” of this tradition portray that love almost exclusively as an emotional high. Although emotions are part of love, there is much more to love than just that! But when love is primarily an emotion, you have to keep doing more and more churchy things to keep that spiritual high alive. I’ve written more extensively on this problem before.
Now don’t get me wrong; I love evangelicalism. I still consider myself an evangelical, if relegated to an uncool corner of that camp. But no form of Christianity should ever be enslaved to the pursuit of popularity, no matter what culture surrounds it. Pop-Evangelicalism has made that mistake, trying to be attractive to young people and “seekers” and anyone else disillusioned by “traditional church.” But in the end, the lack of depth of pop-evangelicalism will be its undoing. People either need to take ownership of their classical protestant heritage, or they’ll move on to richer pastures in the Anglican, Roman, or Orthodox churches. Or, sadly, they won’t look for richer pastures at all, and simply walk away from Christ and his Church into a life of agnosticism.
So please, fellow evangelicals, take note! Do not make Christianity superficial, lest you starve future disciples to death.