Does the evangelical church need to repent?
Last week I wrote about three trends in evangelicalism from Paul Metzger’s book Consuming Jesus:
- Anti-intellectualism – a fear that “head knowledge” will cancel out “heart knowledge” which has led to an activistic, populist, pragmatic, and utilitarian movement
- Antipathy toward the “social gospel” which has led to antipathy toward social engagement
- A form of pre-millennial eschatology which promotes a pessimistic view of cultural engagement because it anticipates escape from a world that will be destroyed, leading to a focus on saving souls for heaven rather than mending a sinking ship
These trends are a historical backdrop to the gap in the evangelical church’s “social conscience and broader cultural awareness.” As early as 1947, Carl Henry, “the father of modern fundamentalism,” called the church back to “rigorous theological reflection and social engagement.” (My next Christian Week column is about what Henry’s manifesto, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, has to say to us today, sixty years after he wrote it.)
Paul Metzger says that the effects of Henry’s call are still being felt today. “Has the otherworldly hostility toward the social gospel been debunked,” he asks, “only to be replaced by the rise of a worldly consumer gospel?” The three trends today have now fed into “individualism and a consumer-oriented, homogeneous-unit-principled, safe-haven church where a family-friendly faith protects Christ’s followers from those who think, look, and even sound different than they do.”
In 1998, James Montgomery Boice, a Reformed pastor from Philadelphia, commented on Martin Marty’s claim that the most worldly people in America at the end of the twentieth century would be evangelicals. Boice said, “We have fulfilled his prophecy, and it is not yet the year 2000.” He expressed concern about “pop psychology” replacing sound doctrine, as well as our preoccupation with “success, wonderful marriages and nice children,” our fixation on “numerical growth and money,” and our neglect of “the great social issues of the day, above all racism and the plight of the poor.” Boice also spoke of our “failure to establish strong churches in America’s inner cities, where the breakdown of American culture is so obvious and the needs of the people are so great.” Evangelicalism has largely become a suburban and rural movement, often focused on living a safe middle-class life.
Instead of pointing the finger at the secularists and materialists, we evangelicals need to point it more at ourselves. Jesus did not die to save us from liberals. He died to save us from ourselves…Not only do we need to give ourselves on behalf of the poor, but we also need to be poor in spirit and seek God’s forgiveness. Such humility will go a long way as we seek to address the race and class problems plaguing America.
So does the evangelical church need to repent? If what Carl Henry, James Montgomery Boice, Paul Metzger, and Tim Keller say is true, then yes.
Metzger will have more to say later about what to do with all of this, but I almost want to stop here at this point of the book and work out what this repentance could look like. And then to begin working out how to repent.
Bottom line: There’s a lot being written on new forms of church and better methodologies and leadership principles. Despite all of these, evangelicalism is still in decline overall. If Metzger and company are right, then what is holding us back goes much deeper, and has little to do with secularism or lack of skill. The problem is us. The problem is that we need to repent.