In his 1937 landmark book, The Kingdom of God in America, Richard Niebuhr memorably described the message of Protestant liberalism as “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”1 In the ensuing years Niebuhr’s statement has become one of the more well known summaries of the failure of Protestant liberalism to properly reflect the apostolic message.
Tragically, Niebuhr’s devastating critique is on the brink of being equally applicable to contemporary, evangelical Christianity. Who has lost sight more of the depth of human sin, the certainty of God’s judgment and the call to repentance and transformation at the feet of a crucified savior than today’s populistic, evangelical churches? I knew something was amiss when I read the line from the well known pastor Walt Kallestad who wrote in his book, Entertainment Evangelism, that “the church needs to be friendlier than Disneyland.”2 I knew that somehow we had lost our way when prayers of repentance and confession quietly disappeared from the order of services. I knew we were charting some new path when I heard Jason Upton’s worship chorus, “Into the Sky.” Thankfully, there is a growing realization among many of us who call ourselves evangelical that we have inadvertently participated in an obscuring of the Gospel which is not unlike what we have so vociferously decried in Protestant liberalism. It seems that Satan can work at both ends of the shop.
Asbury Theological Seminary is perhaps better poised than many to observe these dynamics since we have so many feet in so many different Christian worlds. We have one foot in the mainline church (we provide more ordained ministers for the United Methodist church than any seminary in America), one foot in the holiness movement (we were founded by a 19th C. holiness, revivalistic preacher) and one foot in contemporary evangelicalism (we serve over 90 different denominations, many of them part of the evangelical movement). I guess this makes us a three footed toad!
It may be true that the house of liberal Protestantism has nearly burned to the ground and we’ve been standing there screaming with our water hose for almost a century, but, brothers and sisters, we must recognize that our own kitchen is on fire and within one generation, the whole evangelical house will soon be engulfed in flames.
If liberalism is guilty of demythologizing the miraculous, we have surely been guilty of trivializing it. If liberalism is guilty of turning all theological statements into anthropological ones, surely we must be found guilty of making Christianity just another face of the multi-headed Hydra of American, market-driven consumerism. If liberalism can be charged with making the church a gentler, kindler version of the Kiwanis club, we must be willing to accept the charge that we have managed to reinvent the gospel, turning it into a privatized subset of one’s individual faith journey. I realize that there are powerful, faithful churches in every tradition who are already modeling the very future this message envisions, but we must also allow our prophetic imagination to enable us to see what threatens to engulf us.
I’ve been among those who have pointed out the theological weakness captured by such phrases of Protestant liberalism, “Open hearts, open minds, open doors,” or “open, progressive and inclusive.” These types of phrases are filled with considerable cultural codes which say many things about many things, but precious little about the Christian Gospel. But, perhaps we would do well to exegete some of our own signs and slogans.
A common evangelical sign which could be found across America might read something like this: “Traditional service, 8:30, contemporary 10:00, blended service, 11:30.” Next line: “Welcome – come as you are, no need to dress up.” Then, on the final line there will inevitably be some pithy gospel message. Let me share a few signs actually displayed outside evangelical churches: “Free Coffee, Everlasting Life – Yes, membership has its privileges.” Another sign reads, “Try Jesus – if you don’t like him, the Devil will take you back.” Also cited is this: “Walmart is not the only saving place.” A church near a busy highway put this sign up: “Keep using my name in vain – I’ll make the rush hour longer – God.” Of course, if it is Christmas time, you will inevitably see the classic one, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season!”
If you think I am being unfair by citing these examples of public messaging, I suggest that the inside message is often not much different. Evangelicalism is awash with the constant drumbeat message of informality, the assumed wisdom of consumerism, reliance on technology, love of entertainment, pursuit of comfort, materialism and personal autonomy – all held together by easy-to-swallow, pithy gospel statements.
But, let’s push the pause button and do a little exegesis of ourselves, shall we? The next three blog entries will examine these evangelical signs more carefully.
(Part 1 of 6 from Dr. Timothy C. Tennent’s Convocation address at Asbury Theological Seminary on September 6, 2011)
1 Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (NY: Harper Row, 1959 edition), 193.
2 Walt Kallestad, Entertainment Evangelism (Nashville, Abingdon, 1996), 81.