Do Evangelicals have what it takes to do the Benedict Option? That question was asked of me this week by Dr. Al Mohler at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I told him I didn’t know, and I hesitate to pass that kind of judgment on a tradition I don’t know well. He did not have trouble at all with this. He said that Evangelicalism absolutely does not have what it takes … but historical Reformation-era Protestantism does.
Your posts about Evangelicals and the BenOp have really resonated with me, especially as I am coming to grips with some of the very same issues in my own spiritual life.
My family has belonged to a Bible-believing, entirely orthodox Evangelical church for a decade now, following many years in the spiritual wilderness (though I was raised Lutheran – the old LCA, and my wife a Methodist). The people are truly wonderful – warm, welcome, deeply committed Christians as I have written to you before. They are the reason we go back.
But I always had to swallow hard over the contemporary praise music. In fairness, our church has never gone in for the super-slick performances that many churches do here, which my wife and I have attended at times and, well, they’re awful. If nothing else, they left us wondering if it would have made any difference if the congregation participated or not – it was truly a performance. These are very popular in our area, which includes a nearby university town. Nobody in the ministry is over 40.
And the lack of a liturgy is starting to bother me; though we pray as a body, there is someone leading a prayer and it isn’t truly a “common” prayer that we say together. Creeds are never recited. There is no call-and-response so to speak. And once-per-month Communion is a memorial meal affair, preceded by a “sermonette” about the importance of choosing and reflecting on Christ (a mild altar call, I guess). Never is there any mention of self-examination or thought about giving and receiving beyond just the ushers, e.g. that we are in Communion with Christ.
Maundy Thursday, the day Christ gave us the commandment to “do this”, something shared by virtually every Christian body in the world? No, that’s too traditional. How about a hymn or two that everyone knows? That’s “not the direction we’re moving in”. Communion more than once a month? What are you, Catholic?
Many of the congregants are also very well educated in the Bible, C.S. Lewis, Tozer, Calvin, Josephus, etc. and understand Christian history. But in many, perhaps most, cases there is precious little integration of all these things into a cohesive view of things. So, like much of the rest of the culture, young people will begin to accept cultural ideas that are quite clearly at odds not just with individual verses of Scripture (some of which can be explained away to an extent) but with the totality of a Christian worldview. Everyone knows about the 95 Theses, but I doubt anyone could name one, much less #1: the Christian should live in a state of repentance.
I had a discussion with a young woman who came of age in my church, a very orthodox and pure young woman. We happened to be talking about literature and I mentioned that a professor I know is moderating a discussion of trans issues in publishing. Despite attending a highly-regarded Christian college, she is entirely on board with trans everything. That’s all very well and good, but I asked her how on earth she squared that with her Christian faith; I got rather a lecture on persecuted people, focusing on “the least of these”, etc, etc. After agreeing that the protection of the law should apply to everyone, I asked her how she felt about worshiping a fallible God. It had not occurred to her that by embracing the acceptance of trans people as perfectly normal and right means rejecting some fairly basic Christian doctrine. And that doctrine is neither conservative nor progressive and can’t be discarded without the entire edifice crumbling.
And this is, based on my general observation in my region, a pretty common problem. Pastors won’t confront error much, especially not among popular figures – Jen Hatmaker comes to mind – because they (the pastors) are simply written off as haters. Or worse, the pastors are simply ignored. I hear and read lots of people who confront this kind of error online in blogs and such, but rarely do I hear it in the pulpit. I don’t expect people to be attacked by name, obviously, but it’s time for Evangelicals to stop preaching altar calls every five minutes and start the business of teaching Christians about how to live in harmony with Christ, their faith, and the community. Part of that is teaching about sexuality and sexual expression, why it is the way it is, and so on. Evangelical churches need to confront the excessively violent culture that many Christian men seem to take for granted, even revel in, while pretending to eschew pornography.
And what are the tools Evangelicals have for this? Preaching and Bible study. You might have a prayer group, but its effectiveness will depend on the willingness of people to pray out loud. Rote prayers are “too traditional”, even though our fathers in the faith found them sustaining for generations. Surely knowing Scripture is always beneficial and oftentimes critical, but we must also know HOW to live it out. And, at the risk of being excessively frank, far too many Evangelicals of my acquaintance
- think repentance is a one time thing
- are excessively legalistic about alcohol, sex, smoking
- are NEVER legalistic about gluttony, violence, or self-regard
- take a dim view of any other Christian denomination
- hold to teachings (Rapture, wives should be submissive, no women teachers, etc) that are unexamined and frequently misunderstood as if they were the very fulcrum of the faith
- and so on
But where to deal with all of this? Perhaps the Reformed Anglicans. But I don’t know who else. I really want to use your book as the basis for an adult Sunday School class, but I’m getting a little resistance. I think I’ll overcome it, but it stems from two things: (1) it’s too traditional sounding (though my pastor won’t say it) and (2) a lot of people don’t think our church needs it, since the church body appears strong and united. I’ve gently pointed out how many young people who grew up in church have gone on to divorce, pregnancies outside of marriage, and heterodox beliefs about sex and the family. The silence is very uncomfortable.
I just don’t know. It is nice to think that perhaps we can return to the roots of the Reformers because I think Luther and Calvin still have a lot to say, but it’s going to be a long tough process. A few years back a friend of mine remarked on how the senior pastor at his church was delivering ever more long, boring, and tedious sermons. I asked him what he intended to do about it, and he replied “I hear a lot of great speakers every week on podcasts. When I go to church I just take what I need and leave the rest behind.” Among the circle of people there, I was the only one a little dismayed by that. But I suppose that’s the outworking of a church where everything is about the individual’s own personal experience.
Let’s hope for the best.
What a great letter. Thank you. I have such insightful readers. About the podcast guy, that’s the outlook of someone who thinks Christianity is about gaining information that meets felt needs. It’s an abstracted MTD. That’s not Christianity, and it’s certainly not going to survive these times.