God is, like, my pal

Let us turn now to the “come as you are – no need to dress up” line. Richard Weaver in 1948 (Ideas have Consequences) and the linguist John McWhorter in 2003 (Doing our own thing:  The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, like, Care), among others, have argued that the contemporary preference for informality and the movement away from formal language in reference to God or human authority structures is deeply tied to cultural suspicions about authority and distrust of hierarchy.  Post-modernity flattens all hierarchies: no high king, no high God.  There are deep theological moorings behind all of this informality which have not been understood by pastors in the evangelical landscape.

Somewhere in America at some church meeting a decision was reached to change the name of the place they worshipped from the word “sanctuary” to “worship center” or “celebration center.”  Furthermore, they decided to build a space which could be used as a gymnasium during the week and a place of worship on Sunday.  Having a dedicated space only for worship seemed liked a shocking waste of money.  Indeed, they had at least five good reasons for doing this. What concerns me is that they probably never stopped to reflect theologically that there just might be six reasons to not do it.  Of course, maybe there were only four and the “celebration center” in the gym would have carried the day.  The point is, that reflection never even happened.

Somewhere in America on some Sunday morning the first man or woman walked into a worship service with a baseball cap on and a cup of coffee in their hand.  It is now quite common. The pastor would surely offer three or four impressive reasons why this was the “missional” way to go, but I can assure you that when the decision was made, serious theological concerns were not invited to participate.

These examples all seem so small and insignificant.  Yet, that’s how all drift happens.  You see, liberal Protestants never woke up one morning and said to themselves, “Hey, let’s adopt an Arian Christology, shall we?”  No one said “Wouldn’t it be just wonderful if we could devote the next 50 years to undermining the apostolic faith.”  No!  I’ve read their writings.  They were deeply concerned, as we are, to make the Gospel relevant to modern people.  Evangelicals have not openly abandoned apostolic Christianity.  No one set out to cheapen the Gospel, diminish God’s holiness, or downplay the cost of discipleship.  It’s just happening.  A baseball cap here, omitting the word “wretch” from Amazing Grace there.  “The pressure to bring in new members made it best to just drop the required confirmation class for membership.  Besides, people are just too busy to attend a new members class and it might hurt our annual membership goals.”  The call to career missions slowly became short term missions which slowly became vacations with a purpose.  It all happened so seamlessly.  “We brought in a new youth director.  He doesn’t have any biblical or theological training, but, oh, how the youth love him.”  “You should see the new worship leader we have! He doesn’t know any theology, but he’s just picking the choruses each week, and he can really play the guitar!”  You see, it happens in ten thousand small skirmishes, rarely in any big, bloody battle.

(Part 3 of 6 from Dr. Timothy C. Tennent’s Convocation address at Asbury Theological Seminary on September 6, 2011)

Just joining this series? Go back here to start at the beginning of this 6 part blog series.

Our Mission to Theologically Educate

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.

Harold Ockenga, Church Renewal and the United Methodist Church by Timothy C. Tennent, PhD

One of the most interesting books I have read recently is by Garth Rosell entitled, The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism. Rosell, a church history professor and leading expert in revivals, explores the life of Harold J. Ockenga and his relationship with Billy Graham.  Ockenga is widely regarded as the founder, chief architect and leading thinker of the 20th century revival and renewal movements which are collectively known today as neo-evangelicalism.  It was Ockenga who helped Christians see that there was a third choice between narrow, defensive fundamentalism and the mainline liberalism which was sweeping the country.  The result was a major movement which was embodied publically by Billy Graham’s ecumenical, socially engaged evangelism and spawned the planting of thousands of new churches.  It also produced a number of major evangelical seminaries including Fuller Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, both co-founded by Harold Ockenga.   Ockenga also served as the President of both Fuller (1947-1954) and Gordon-Conwell (1969-1979).  He was also the founder of Christianity Today magazine.   The magazine was designed to promote thoughtful Christian reflection on contemporary culture.  It was no mistake that the first editor was none other than the great thinker Carl F. H. Henry, the author of the multi-volume work God, Revelation and Authority.  Oh, did I forget to mention, Ockenga is also the founder of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and served as its founding President (1942-1944)?  In short, the book makes a convincing case for what many of us have long argued; namely, that Harold Ockenga was arguably one of the most influential Christians of the 20th century, and certainly a leading voice for church renewal.

I am sharing this because there is an interesting, little known, Methodist connection with Harold Ockenga.  He was born in a devout Methodist home.  His parents raised him in the Methodist church and he came to Christ in a Methodist camp meeting.  Ockenga even experienced a second work of grace which he subsequently described in a way which was precisely in line with Wesleyan thought.  Ockenga graduated from Taylor University (a Methodist related school) and eventually answered the call into the ministry and became ordained as a deacon in the Methodist Church.  He decided to go to Princeton because he longed for a classical education and Princeton was on the approved list of Seminaries by the Methodist Church which to this day certifies which seminaries United Methodist students may attend in order to be ordained.  Near the end of Ockenga’s time at Princeton (and as he was preparing for full ordination as an Elder in the UMC) the Seminary decided to embrace modernism and separate themselves from their long-standing commitment to the authority of scripture.  Princeton turned its back on its long standing commitment to historic orthodoxy.  Its heritage goes back to 1727 when William Tennent founded what became known as the Log College.  This is a history I know well because William Tennent is also my great (times six) grandfather.  Princeton eventually became known for great stalwarts of the faith such as Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield.   J. Gresham Machen led a separation from Princeton which resulted in the founding of Westminster Seminary near Philadelphia.  Although Ockenga was about to enter his final year at Seminary, he felt compelled to switch to Westminster because of his abiding faith in the Word of God.  When Ockenga switched to Westminister, the Methodist church informed him that he could not be ordained unless he remained at Princeton.   Even though he had completed two years at Princeton and had already pastored two Methodist churches in New Jersey, his graduation from Westminster would make him ineligible for full ordination in the Methodist church.  Ockenga was in deep distress.  His entire orientation was Wesleyan.  He knew no other tradition.  After a long struggle he decided sadly to leave the Methodist church and join the Presbyterians.  It is from this platform that his amazing ministry unfolded over the next five decades.  By denying Ockenga ordination in the Methodist Church, we lost his voice and missed much of his influence.  To this day most Methodists have never even heard of Harold Ockenga.  What a missed opportunity!

However, Ockenga never lost his love for “the people called Methodists.”  In the early 1980’s I met Ockenga while I was a young student at Gordon-Conwell.  He was the most respected Christian statesman I had ever met in my life.  He had recently retired as the President of Gordon-Conwell and had been named as President emeritus.  As a young, budding theologian and future pastor, I was awed by the presence of God which I sensed when I was with him.  He was a man who had walked with God his entire life.  He never lost his love for Christ, his confidence in the Scriptures and his devotion to the church (he also pastored the historic Park Street Church in Boston for several decades).  I told him I was a United Methodist and asked him if I should stay in the denomination even though many of its leaders and churches had lost touch with orthodoxy, or should I go join another denomination.  I was truly prepared at that moment to do whatever Dr. Ockenga told me.  He told me, “son, stay in the Methodist church, and be faithful there until they ask you to leave.”  Because of that conversation I stayed in the Methodist church.  I am still ordained in the UMC, with a membership in the North Georgia Conference.  Today, I am the President of Asbury Theological Seminary.

Ockenga died on February 8, 1985, about nine months after I graduated from Gordon-Conwell.  I was the pastor of a United Methodist church in Georgia at that time.  Someone close to Ockenga, who had been with him in his final days, told me something which later Garth Rosell confirmed for me. Above the bed where he died hung a portrait of John Wesley.  It was the same portrait that had hung in his office all the years of his remarkable ministry.  Ockenga never lost his love for Wesley.  One can only wonder how history might have been different if the Methodist church had received 50 years of leadership under a man like John Harold Ockenga.