The Clarion Call to Watered Down Evangelicalism

President Timothy Tennent gave the following address at our September Convocation  at Asbury this month.  In my view, it hits on a lot of crucial points that need to be addressed going forward (Reprinted with permission)

Our Mission to “theologically educate”


Timothy C. Tennent, Ph.D

Fall Convocation, 2011

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 type 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?

(1) I don’t like that style of worship

The worship style choice lines reminds us how deeply we evangelicals have become commodified and “market driven.”  Market driven language pervades contemporary evangelicalism at every turn.  This democratizing spirit tacitly assumes that there are no higher points of reference for establishing the shape and practice of the church, ministry and worship than popular opinion and the will of the majority.  The premise of all marketing is that the consumer’s needs are king, and the customer is always right – and yet, as David Wells has argued in God in the Wasteland, these are very points which the gospel refuses to concede.[3] There are surely many good reasons for starting a separate contemporary worship service, but what concerns me is the lack of theological reflection about what just might be lost in the process.

Separating generations over worship just might be cutting the very relational tie between elder and younger which is so crucial for discipleship.  Providing worship style options just might be reinforcing that worship is somehow “for us,” i.e. to meet our needs.  Endless discussions over the style of music just might obscure the deeper, often neglected, conversation about the content of our words of worship which is increasingly drawn from the world of Christian entertainment and performance, not from the church.  Furthermore, the “style choice” emphasis pushesthe Psalms even further from the heart of Christian worship.

Evangelicals are, of course, masters at dodging any criticism that we ourselves could ever be co-opted by culture.  We disguise our lack of theological reflection by our constant commitment to “relevance” or saying that we are reaching people “where they are.”  Of course, who would deny that the church needs to have a profound understanding of “where people are.”   That is not the problem.  We are quite adept at measuring where people are culturally, but we are at best careless in any sustained theological reflection about where they should be culturally.  So, for example, if the wider culture has become apathetic about ritual, tradition, symbolism, poetic expressions, the value of history, or the necessity of intergenerational relationships, then, no problem, we say, it is the evangelical version of the prime directive to always adapt to culture.  But what if these very prejudices are actually part of the cultural malaise to which the church has been called to provide a stunning alternative?  How easily we seem to forget that the gospel doesn’t need our help in being made relevant.  The gospel is always relevant, and it is we who need to be made relevant to the gospel.  If we spent as much time really immersing ourselves into apostolic orthodoxy as we do trying to capture, if I can use Tom Oden’s phrase, “predictive sociological expertise” on the latest cultural wave coming,[4] our churches would be far better off.  We have accepted almost without question certain definitions of success and what a successful church looks like.  However, we must not forget that, as I told this past year’s graduates, if the cross teaches us anything, it is that God sometimes does his greatest redemptive work under a cloak of failure. Only sustained theological reflection is able to penetrate and unmask the pragmatic, market driven assumptions which largely go unchecked in today’s evangelical churches.

(2) 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 5 good reasons for doing this.  What concerns me is that they probably never stopped to reflect theologically that there just might be 6 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.

(3) Bumper sticker Christianity

Jesus is the Reason for the Season.”  It is evangelicals who have cried out the most against the commercialization of Christmas, but then became co-opted by turning the phrase “Jesus is the reason for the season” into one of the most commercialized phrases of all time, blazoned across t-shirts, coffee mugs and yes, church signs. They can be purchased at any local Christian book store, 10% off if you pick up a precious memory angel along with it.

Free coffee, everlasting life – yes, membership has its privileges!” or “Walmart is not the only saving place.”  Do you hear what lies behind all of these messages?

Evangelicals have become experts in finding a thousand new ways to ask the same question, “What is the least one has to do to become a Christian.”  That’s our defining question.  We’ve become masters at theological and soteriological minimalism.  We are the ones who have boiled the entire glorious gospel down to a single phrase, a simple emotive transaction, or some silly slogan.  It is time for a new generation of Christians, committed to apostolic faith, to declare this minimalistic, reductionistic Christianity a failed project!  It is wrong to try to get as many people as possible, to acknowledge as superficially as allowable, a gospel which is theologically unsustainable.  We need to be reminded of the words of Søren Kierkegaard, in his Attack Upon Christendom, where he declared, “Christianity is the profoundest wound that can be inflicted upon us, calculated on the most dreadful scale to collide with everything.”[5] We, on the other hand, have made entrance into the Christian faith painless and almost seamless.  In the process, we have managed to produce as many nominal Christians as Christendom ever did.  If the liberal project taught us that denying Apostolic Christianity renders the gospel inert and non-reproducible (note rapid decline of mainline churches), evangelical minimalistic Christianity has taught us that the gospel cannot be reduced to a bite sized piece for mass consumption.

The gospel is about the in-breaking kingdom and the New Creation claims the whole sphere.  Christians can’t simply choose to play in one small corner of the chessboard – you have to play the whole board, or you will lose.  The gospel must be embodied in a redeemed community and touch the whole of life. That is why the Wesley brothers set up class meetings, fed the poor, wrote books on physics, gave preachers a series of canonical sermons, catechized the young, preached at the brick yards, promoted prison reform, rode 250,000 miles on horseback, preached 40,000 sermons, superintended orphanages, were avid abolitionists, and wrote theologically laden hymns for the church, etc.  You see, they were capturing every sphere with the gospel.  The New Creation does not simply break into one little square on the chess-board – it crashes into the whole of life!  If Wesley teaches us anything, it is that salvation is not something which is merely announced to us, it is something which God works in us – the forceful intrusion of his holiness into our history.

Brothers and sisters, it is time for us to capture a fresh vision of the great meta-narrative of the Christian gospel for our times!   The bumper sticker ‘God is my co-pilot‘ will not get us there.  We have, in effect, been criss-crossing the world telling people to make God a player, even a major player in our drama.  But the gospel is about being swept up into His great drama. It is about our dying to self, taking up the cross, and being swept up into the great theo-drama of the universe!  Christ has come as the Second Adam to inaugurate the restoration of the whole of creation by redeeming a people who are saved in their full humanity and called together into a new redeemed community known as the church, the outpost of the New Creation in Adam’s world. Discipleship, worship of the Triune God, covenant faithfulness, suffering for the sake of the gospel, abiding loyalty to Christ’s holy church, theological depth, and a renewed mission to serve the poor and disenfranchised – these must become the great impulses of our lives.

There are serious flaws in the foundations of contemporary evangelicalism.  Our theological underpinnings are too weak, our knowledge of church history is too vague, our understanding of the text of Scripture too superficial, our being formed in the practice of ministry insufficiently reflective.  Thus, while some are declaring that the day of the seminary is over, that we are hopelessly irrelevant, out of touch with culture, and the churches can “take it from here,”  I want to declare today that there is perhaps no institution more vital for the proper recovery of biblical, apostolic Christianity than the seminary.  With every fiber of my being I believe in the mission of Asbury Theological Seminary.  Our faculty, under God’s care, will lead an entire generation of new Christian leaders back to the fountain of sustained theological work.  Oh, I know we are in the world of Google and Wikipedia and we now all dwell under the fountain of endless information.  Indeed, what theological term, or movement in church history, or Greek word cannot be illumined with a few clicks of a mouse.  But one cannot help but think of Dylan Thomas’ remembrance of his childhood Christmas presents, which included, “books that told me everything about the wasp, except why.”[6] In the midst of the twitterization of all knowledge, we need profound, thoughtful, nuanced, men and women who are, to use the language of our mission statement, “theologically educated” and who will bring that to the service of Christ’s holy church.  We need sustained theological reflection, in contrast to Thomas Friedman’s description of our digital world as “continuous partial attention.”  Without this deep reflection, the gospel will simply be one more commodity on offer in the marketplace of autonomous choices at the smorgasbord of spirituality and personal fulfillment.

Theologically educate

Brothers and sisters, as your President, I call this community to serious, sustained theological reflection.  Our mission statement calls for us to “theologically educate.”   What does this mean?  Properly speaking to “theologically educate” forms heart, mind and action.  Beloved, it is not enough to declare that “your heart is in the right place.”  Your mind must also be in the right place.  Your feet and hands must also be in the right place.   Traditionally, theology has served four functions:  catechetical, apologetical, homiletical and pastoralCatechetical is to train children and new believers in the faith, thus assuring that the apostolic message and not some “other gospel” is being transmitted.  This happens in homes, in daily life and in confirmation classes.  Catechesis comes from the verb “to echo.”  We must assure that new and current believers under our charge fully understand and “echo” the apostolic faith.  Apologetical is the role of theology in helping to apply the biblical text to whatever challenges happen to beset the church in any given generation.  For us, this might mean everything from postmodern epistemologies, to philosophical relativism, to the new atheism, to the commoditization of culture, and so forth.  The homiletical function is our commitment to train men and women to properly and effectively proclaim God’s word, evangelistically to the world as well as faithful instruction to the church by applying the Word of God faithfully to our lives.  Finally, the pastoral function calls us to shepherd God’s flock, care for those in need, comfort the bereaved, and counsel the distressed.  Today, looking across the evangelical landscape, catechesis is in disarray, apologetics is weak; our preaching has ground down to bland moralizing, and our pastoral efforts have become captive to pragmatism.

Asbury stands ready, with this esteemed faculty, to theologically educate a new generation of church leaders.  Theology matters.  It was Thomas Oden who famously remarked that “when a pastor (theologian) fails to distinguish between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, it is roughly equivalent to a physician forgetting the difference between disease and health.”[7] For if we don’t have theological stability, we cannot have ethical stability, and if we don’t have ethical stability, we won’t have stability of worship, and if we do not have stability of worship, then we are no longer related vitally and necessarily to the headship of Jesus Christ.  The Apostolic proclamation will be lost in a post-modern sea of autonomous self-definitions.

If today’s evangelical church is really marked by shallowness, thinness and cultural sameness, then, to use the phrase of Jack Davis, perhaps it is time we become “deep, thick and different.”  A deep church is one which takes the encounter with a holy God seriously and is shaped by spiritual disciplines, holiness and catechesis.  A deep church is the opposite of a shallow one.  We are to exhibit a deep understanding of the holiness and weightiness of God.  In Hebrew the word for honor and glory is kbd (kabod), meaning “heavy.”  God has become far too lightweight in contemporary evangelicalism.  The great sense of God’s transcendence and holiness must, once again, overtake post-modernity’s sense of over familiarity and casualness in God’s presence.  Indeed, we are profoundly in need of recapturing the sense of God’s presence.   Nietzsche’s madman who described churches as “the tombs and sepulchers of God” does, in fact, capture something of the movement from the real presence of Christ to the real absence of Christ in the experience of many church’s today.  A thick church contrasts with a thin one and is characterized by thick relationships and commitments and where worship is not a product we consume, but the great ontological orientation of our lives.  We are the people of the Risen Lord.  The consumeristic, therapeutic self of modernity is, through the gospel, the trinitarian, ecclesial self of the New Creation.  A different church is one not marked by cultural sameness, but, instead, is a manifestation of the in-breaking of the New Creation.  A visitor should feel somewhat out of place when they walk into our midst, as they encounter people with a radically distinctive orientation.  A different church is one which is profoundly distinct from the culture in its “ontology, theology, worship and moral behavior.”[8] To be different is to be a community marked by metanoia.   Brothers and sisters, may the shallowness, thinness and cultural sameness of our churches become churches, under God and your leadership, which are deep, thick and different.

This church-focused, theologically informed new vision I am calling for today will not eagerly embrace “top down” political strategies as effective methods for cultural transformation.  This new vision sees the local church, not the para-church, as the central locus of evangelism and discipleship.  This new vision eschews niche-marketing strategies for drawing unbelievers to church.  It will abandon simplistic formulas and presentations of the gospel opting instead for invitations to living communities of men and women who have been transformed by the gospel.

We have much work to do, and likely this kind of church which I am envisioning will not come about without prayer and fasting.  But, we at Asbury Theological Seminary are poised to face these challenges and to produce a new generation of pastors, teachers, evangelists and church planters who are theologically educated. Don’t be discouraged by the enormity of this task. Instead, rise to the challenge.  I am optimistic because I believe in the men and women of this faculty and staff who are called to educate and invest themselves in your formation. I am optimistic because Jesus Christ is the Risen Lord.  I am optimistic because as the hymn declares, “though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong; though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong; yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”  I am optimistic because Yahweh “has sworn and will not change his mind!”  I am optimistic because I recall the dying words of John Wesley when he said, “The best of all is, God is with us.”  I am optimistic because the church of Jesus Christ will weather every storm from Gnosticism, to Arianism, to Constantinianism, to Protestant liberalism, to Evangelical reductionism, to the new atheism.  Through it all, Christ renews his church, calls forth better readers of the Scriptures, and makes good on his sacred promise, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  Amen.

[1] Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (NY: Harper Row, 1959 edition), 193.

[2] Walt Kallestad, Entertainment Evangelism (Nashville, Abingdon, 1996), 81.

[3] David Wells, God in the Wasteland (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, ) 82.

[4] Thomas C. Oden, Agenda for Theology:  After Modernity, What? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 191.

[5] Walter Lowrie, trans., Kierkeegard’s Attack Upon Christendom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944), 258.

[6] Dylan Thomas,  A Child’s Christmas in Wales (NY: New Directions, 1995),  29.

[7] Thomas C. Oden, 59.

[8] John Jefferson Davis, Worship and the Reality of God (Grand Rapids:  IVP Academic, 2010), 32.

  • Mafutha


  • Greendoc34

    Riveting! I am speechless- which I think is what our brother is calling for as we realize that the God of Fire whom Isaiah encountered in Isa 6, is the same God we have been playing religious games with on Sunday. Speechless! Yes. Brother Randall

  • Andrew Wilson

    Outstanding. Thanks so much, Ben.

  • RickC

    This comment isn’t directed toward the article displayed above but rather toward this article you posted nearly a year ago:

    The Historical Jesus—- Sean Freyne’s View
    posted by Ben Witherington | 12:10pm Thursday November 4, 2010

    Your blog article is a very good reading.

    I also purchased the N.T.Wright book you referenced in the blog article and am quite anxious to read it. The title of course is: “The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God)”

    All this came about because I was on your friend, Larry Hurtado’s site this morning and he has a blog he just put up regarding a ‘newish’ Journal “Early Christianity” in which Sean is mentioned. This some good reading as well. I mean, who isn’t interested in the state of being of early Galilee? Certainly the state of scholarship on this subject is almost a 180 from bible classes I took back in my college days and later. The view that I grew up with is that Galilee was a very peasant class existence. Apparently this is not an accurate view of what Galilee was actually like. Very interesting.

  • Jennifer

    Thank you for this powerful and hopeful message!

    Dr. Tennent is so on target with his concern for our youth pastors. Years ago a Methodist youth pastor (Perkins trained!) actually told me that Jesus had returned to earth in several manifestations, including Abraham Lincoln and Dr. King. Another went head-to-head with me when he insisted that God did not care how the kids dressed in or out of church and that the Gospel message was already known by the teens, so there was no need to repeat it weekly. (this was in response to my concern about the teens’ overly casual approach to God…even calling Him our “buddy.”)

    God is good and God is love, but He is also holy, holy, holy.

  • Don Litchfield

    I am reminded that the only salvation that works is the one so clearly delineated in Scripture and not the one we have devised to fulfill our esoteric desire to feel good. God’s will and purposes for His church will be complete because each commandment of God carries with it the promise of fulfillment through His divine wisdom and power!
    Thank you for the message and challenge!

  • Bart Breen

    Interesting. Hardly new however. A growing movement of “evangelicals” have been leaving in what started as a trickle and is now a torrant of over 1,000,000 people per year. George Barna’s revolution sounded many of these notes back well before that trickle became the torrent it is now.

    I wish Asbury and Evangelicalism well and hope even more than them refinding the core of their evangelical tradition that this article resonates with, that they’ll go back even further than that and rediscover the personal Christ who has been so obscured that people in “good, evangelical churches” are having to leave, to find Him.

  • Ronald Suk

    Wow! Amen!

  • Anonymous

    Mr. TruthoverFaith: If you want to post here, which is fine, then you need to take a less emotive tone, and actually offer arguments, not rhetoric for your position, which thus far you have failed to do. We believe in dialogue here, not caricaturing other peoples beliefs, which is what you are doing. It makes you look like the very sort of person you say you abhor. And while you are pondering that— you should ponder this ‘greater love has no man than he lay down his life for his friends’. God did this for you, and all of us. Ben W.

  • Anonymous

    Is dressing up the way people in our culture manifest respect?

    Is increasing the cultural distance between worship and the lives people we are attempting to reach the best way to manifest the holiness and majesty of God?

    Can an illiterate, poor, uneducated person be a follower of Jesus?

    Does hierarchy describe the way God intend us to relate to one another or is hierarchy made irrelevant by the transcendent glory of the Holy one before whom we cast our crowns?

    I do not think I am “anti academy” but I also think that attachment to forms of worship, dress and other cultural forms can make it difficult for people to hear.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Ginny: I think these are fair questions and they deserve a fair answer. Worship can happen at a salvation army meeting just as much as it can happen in a cathedral. The issue however more than anything else is our approach to God, and our attitude about worship. Worship is not about cozying up to God our buddy. We do not have a parity relationship with God. In fact worship is an act in which we affirm that we are not God’s equal in any way. And there is nothing casual about this encounter with God so we should not encourage people to take a casual attitude toward it. Whatever is one’s own sub-culture’s best way of giving God excellence, giving God one’s best even in appearance etc. is what we should do.

    Blessings Ben W,

  • Matthew Anderson

    Thanks for this post. It is a thoughtful and inspiring message to wrestle theologically with our church practice. I appreciate that call and am challenged. But, I also have some concerns. In the Old and New Testament, worship practice became an obstacle to God. Going through the motions (the form and function) became more important than the heart. I hear leanings in this direction in the above. Jesus’ most biting words were reserved for the religious crowd who created ‘hoops’ for those who were honestly seeking God. I know it is not the intent of the above speech, but it seems to be a call to outward conformity to a specific time in history.

  • Anonymous

    Brilliant, challenging and frightening to be totally honest. I am grateful to be a part of a “deep” church for the most part that clearly works to be both culturally relevant and inviting as well as theologically sound.

  • Martin Smith

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I so completely agree. Consider me one young person who wants to work with God to rescue evangelicalism from this sickeningly trite perversion of the gospel we so often see.

  • Ad hominem Detected

    Richard Dawkins is that you? Surely you know better than to take things out of context or merely regurgitate information you’ve not looked into very deeply.

  • Laurel

    Really, really excellent.

  • Twolfgcd

    Wow. Spot on!!! Thanks for sharing this with us all!!!! Much food for thought and reflection…and then action!!!!

  • si

    Please turn this into a book

  • Clay Knick

    I read this as it came out section by section on Dr. Tennant’s blog. Thanks for the whole presentation in one piece. Excellent.

  • gary

    I found many of Dr. Tennent’s statements disturbing and some of his omissions scary. I am grateful that he points out that generational differences should not be magnified but marginalized. The living generation is the catalyst for the Kingdom of God on earth. The elder should be training the younger, and the relevant should avoid cutting off ties with those who have come before lest we be rendered orphans. However, what Dr. Tennent (Dr. T) seems to advocate looks very much like a return to a ritualistic legalism.

    I tend to avoid the label ‘evangelical.’ Time and time again evangelicals want to live in traditions that are at best devoid of biblical support. Dr. T mentions outer garments as an example of a drift that cheapens the gospel. But the opposite argument is as strong: God does not look on the outer appearance but the heart of a people. My traditions allow casual dress not because we desire to cheapen the gospel but that we desire our community to be open to anyone whether they can afford formal clothing or not. In our present consumeristic culture, clothing and outer appearance carry more baggage than Dr. T allows. Just out of curiosity, who stands at the door insuring proper attire?

    I am a layman, but I have significant experience working as a pastor. I grew into leadership by being faithful. I am faithful to my King Jesus, to those outside the kingdom, to my family, to my church. I did not know of seminaries and such in my early years except that they were caricatured as white tombs full of dead men’s bones. Now I know better and long to enter into the conversation. However, the cost of such an education is prohibitive. Those who get to participate are in a class unto themselves. The implication seems that faithfulness to a community in love with Christ is secondary to participation in the academy. Is there an implied doctrine of providence that understands that if one can get to the academy, one is called? How will my children join the aristocracy? Dr. T may not imply any of these sticky points, but as one outside longing to join in, I have to battle these types of thought.

    Finally, no where in the 20 plus paragraphs do I find any mention that ‘truth’ is associated with the indwelling Spirit. This is a glaring omission. Evangelicals tend to lean toward the cognitive at the expense of the Spirit. The New Testament does not recognize such a dichotomy (unless cognition is associated with the flesh). Truth lies with the Holy Spirit. The people of God are the living stones that individually and corporately provide the dwelling place for Spirit. This is the power that raised Christ from the dead. It is the power that quickens those of us who were dead and are now new creation in Christ. The Kingdom of God is in fact righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. To advocate an advance without so much a mention of the only power that can catalyze such a renewal can only be considered a move towards traditions (rituals) of men.

    I appreciate Dr. T’s desire to encourage us to magnify our transcendent Lord. I pray that it not be done at the expense of the leading and presence of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps we can out-flank post-modernism by becoming those who consider other’s needs more important than our own. Thanks for the post Dr BW3. Blessings gary

  • Joe Sprinkle

    Nice job, Tim Tennent!

  • Tim Kirkes

    This is just what Christ’s church needs to hear. On the phrase, “God is my co-pilot,” I remember the story of a missionary pilot who, after narrowly escaping a hurricane like storm, crossed out the “co-” of the sign hanging in his cockpit so it read, “God is my pilot.”

  • Tim Philips

    Thank you for your helpful and insightful comments for the most part concerning the danger of the church both in America and world wide becoming consumer driven rather than gospel driven. My only concern is that you address some minor issues such as type of dress to church services and the use of multi function premises for church services. Surely these are issues which permit flexibility, where the particular choice made does not conflict with a churches faithfulness to our Lord and his gospel. Getting uptight over dress and buildings brings to mind OT commands concerning worship that do not bear direct application for the church of Christ today, and hint at the type of legalism that our Lord warned us to avoid. Thank you for your otherwise helpful warning, may God bless you and your students as you continue to share his truth in love.

  • Anonymous

    I was disappointed that the author (or I guess, speaker, since this was delivered as a speech) didn’t provide some theological reasoning for “dressing up.” “God is not my buddy,” while true, doesn’t offer a *real* reason. “Men look at the outward appearance, God looks on the heart,” the saints being given eschatological white robes (rather than the saints finding their best outfit), and other passages seem, at the very least, to suggest that wearing a baseball cap or a suit and tie really make no difference whatsoever. One could argue that the attitude behind either does but…anyway, he lost me at point 2.

  • KBW

    I fall on my face in repentence for my personal contribution in diminishing the perception of His power and expectations for the individual Christian and His Church. Thank you for this thought provoking and convicting jarring wake up call.

  • Adam Gonnerman

    The bit about wearing a baseball cap and taking coffee into the service sort of ruined it for me. No real solid theological reasoning behind that objection that I could see. Irksome. (And I haven’t yet worn a cap or taken coffee into a church service.)

  • Anonymous

    Hi Adam: Lots of interesting reactions here. As for baseball hats and coffee in church…. bad form for both if this is not a purely seeker service. Why? In our culture you take your hats off when you pray as you know perfectly well, out of respect to God. And since prayer is a crucial part of worship there’s a good reason to do so. There is another reason as well. A baseball hat is an advertisement, and in worship the only allegiance that is supposed to be manifested is allegiance to God, not one’s favorite sports team. Finally, as for coffee in worship, coffee gets spilled, and suggests an ‘I don’t care if I mess up someone else’s carpet or facility’ attitude. You should treat God’s house as a special place. If you wouldn’t think of taking coffee into the operating room and its banned from public spaces that are special, then you shouldn’t expect to be able to drink coffee in church. You’re supposed to be singing and praising God you know!. Besides that you need your hands in worship. A worship service is not supposed to be like going to a concert and being entertained. Worship is supposed to focus on God, not on your own cultural preferences or beverage preferences.

    Ben W.

  • Godlovesyou2

    Well He didn’t loose me but he made me think,that no matter what church you go to there will always be something out of order so why not just go back to my roots? Why did i ever change what was the purpose? WE should stay home and mind our business and just read the bible and forget the assembling of believer’s

  • Bart Breen

    I see a lot of culture, tradition and ecclesiastical hierarchy here. Evangelicalism formed as a cultural response to embedded tradition that in the mind of many in the early movement was necessary to respond to the imbalance in the mainstream church melieu of it’s time.

    Evangelicalism, if Christ tarries in his return, will likely end as it started, only on the other side, attempting to maintain it’s tradition at any cost.

    The article rings hollow to me in many ways, though I don’t doubt the author’s sincerity or the resonance it garners among many in the audience coming from ecclesiastical hierarchical leadership.

    Legalism and focusing upon the externals of religious worship and tradition has been with us since the time of Christ and the Pharisees. The form changes, but the attitude remains.

    Count me more willing to examine the heart of worship and not too much impressed with the forms that over time come to demand more allegience than what we are to offer to Christ Himself.

  • Anonymous

    Bart, legalism has nothing to do with proper worshipping of God. Is it legalism to praise God using the Psalms— certainly not? Is it legalism to worship God by celebrating the Lord’s Supper frequently— certainly not. And I could go on. The real unBiblical notion in your comment is the idea that there is no hierarchy of leadership in the NT. Clearly there is, starting with the apostles and working down from there. The Pastoral Epistles are clear about elders and deacons as well. Evangelicalism didn’t start in America as a reaction to mainline anything. It is the heart of the 18th century awakenings both in America and England. You need to learn your church history a bit better.


  • Bart Breen

    I appreciate the response Ben. I simply don’t agree with you. You may wish to attribute it to a lack of knowlege of Church History. I have no need to pull credentials or experience in that realm and I’m well aware of your expertise in your tradition. Evangelicalism indeed was largely a response to liberalism within what was seen as mainline. There are some ties to fundamentalism. I’m well aware of the holiness movements, both Wesleyan and Keswick etc.

    Awakenings take place in the context of what previously was seen as asleep.

    Sadly I think Evangelicalism is sleeping now and missing a great deal of what is going on in the moving of the Spirit.

    I think the original article is saying similar things but from a differing perspective.

    I’m content to disagree with you. If you wish to attribute it to ignorance or lack of education or familiarity with Church History, you’re welcome to assert whatever you wish to support your position.

    I’m content to offer my perspective with little surprise that it will rub against your tradition and position. I spent many years in that same context and my response would have been similar to yours not so many years ago.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent blog, Ben. To which I have only one comment: “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant,” John Henry Newman.

  • Benw333

    Bart the Protestant movement did not begin as a protest against mainline denominations— that’s simply not true. And Evangelicalism is nothing more than the continuation or resurgence of what Luther, Calvin, Wesley etc. did. There can be little doubt about that. Barna and Viola’s reading of church history has a thousand errors in it. Worse still it ignores the specific teaching in the NT about appointed leadership.

    As for Mr. JHawk, I would say to be deep in the Bible means you can’t possibly be a Catholic or Orthodox, because much of their theology not only isn’t found in the Bible, it goes against what the Bible actually says, for example about Mary.

    Ben W.

  • David

    Didn’t earliest Christian fellowship (Acts 2:42-7) include not only drinking, but eating? And certainly wine stains far worse than coffee…

    Do you see in Scripture a clear delineation between a “church service” type of atmosphere (where you take your hat off as a sign of respect, don’t drink coffee because of spills) and what is described in Acts 2, where I would assume both hats and coffee would be acceptable?

  • Bart Breen

    Everyone likes to exclusively tie their movement as the logical extension of things further back and then by definition extend to people in the past, inclusion in their movement despite the fact that the term “evangelicalism” would have no meaning to, for example the 16th century reformers you mention. Nor is it a given that they would accept the premises of evangelicalism as a movement.

    I hadn’t mentioned Viola, but since you raise him (and of course I have read him and many others) and I’ve read your extensive response to Pagan Christianity as well.

    I think John Zens gave a very strong response to your comments at that time, which are found here:

    In any event, it’s not my intention to mount a long term conversation or to be seen as seeking a confrontation with you on your own board.

    I simply responded to the article you shared through the lens of my hermeneutics and tradition, which obviously differ with yours.

    Your responses in places assume far more than what I stated and in those instances I’ve just left them be.

    This is your board and the last word is yours, sir. Thank you for your kindness in engaging in conversation. I have moved away from much of the traditions and cultural trappings of evangelicalism, and consider myself more a post-evangelical now, with some strong anabaptist leanings. I ove Christ and follow Him with all of my heart, and I’m sorry if the expression of that in a manner that calls into question the traditions and values of your institutions is disconcerting or disappointing to you. Each of us will answer to Christ and no doubt both of us find that we were wrong about many things.

    Blessings to you,


  • Jane White-stevens

    In these times we need to be the people with God’s annointing, his authority and a commitment to live radically holy in a terribly secular culture.

  • Anonymous

    You write, “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.”

    Ben, this is the kind of petty, ridiculous, hair-splitting nonsense that’s driving millions away from Christ. The ONLY thing that matters is the love and grace of Christ. Preach Christ crucified, nothing else, and all the rest falls into place. All of it.

    I’ve left the church, for good. Tired of music wars, dress code wars, coffee wars, PowerPoint, and those who attend to get a weekly stamp of middle-class respectability. People gotta get back to Christ and Christ alone, then get outside the walls of these American corporate business model churches. There’s a world out there with billions of people, starving today and dying without Christ tomorrow, and you’re concerned about coffee and baseball caps. GIMME A BREAK, MAN!

  • Anonymous

    God DOESN’T care how the kids dress, and believe me, they’ve heard the “Gospel Message” 10,000 times. Trust me.

  • J. Dear

    You should certainly think twice about attributing words to Christ that He definitely did NOT say….especially vulgar ones. You will be called to account for such things someday, and it won’t be pleasant if your words and actions don’t honor Him. It’s far more important to please Christ than to attempt to be “cute” for the sake of readers….and your post wasn’t even that. I hope – for your sake – that you’ll demonstrate better wisdom in the future.

  • Janet Butler

    Actually, the more you know about Scripture, the more you love the Catholic Church. The idea that what Catholics do is “unscriptural” somehow is not only ignorant (who GAVE you Scripture in the first place?) but insulting (has anyone READ the early Church fathers before making shallow, uninformed statements like this?). Read Scott Hahn. Read Paul Thigpen. Read the works of men who know both sides of the fence–from mainline Protestants to evangelical “Bible thumpers”–who came to the fulness of faith when they realized where it lived…and where He lives. And read the early Church fathers. There’s so much in evangelicalism that claims to be “the way the early Church did things” that is just plain inaccurate, wrongheaded, and–in some cases–deliberately misleading. Don’t be misled. Perpetuating the myth that the Catholic Church somehow “got away from the Bible” does no one any service, and is simply repeating lies.

  • J. Thomas Johnson

    What a penetrating and challenging exhortation to the Church!

    I fear, however, that the pragmatics of pastoring and administrating a local congregation often serves to reduce the high aspirations of our finest students to a decision between bringing people in and chasing them away. I recently preached a sermon that was pretty academically rigorous, and when a new couple came to visit, I found myself instinctively frustrated that they had to visit on ‘that particular day’.

    In an age in which we are told that anything that is worth saying can be said in 140 characters or less, where is the space for theological reflection?

    This article has encouraged me to preach the word. However, I’m not sure I’ll ever be rid of the fear of doing so. Much thanks to you and blessings for the challenge.

  • Russ V

    Superb! On target!

    As a pastor, in my denomination, I am constantly pushed by leaders over me and fellow pastors to practice this watered-down evangelicalism, especially in worship services. I refuse. So I am called “old-fashioned”, “irrelevant,” “unloving toward the lost,” and “Ned Flanders.” The constant dumbing-down of church life in my denomination is pushing me ever more into liturgical worship, traditional catechesis, and the reading of books written before I was born. Is there any hope?

  • Mark Gazin

    Great article – I wonder if liberal Protestant evangelism could use a Magisterium?

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    They’d probably reject it as “too Romish”.

  • karin

    “Separating generations over worship just might be cutting the very relational tie between elder and younger which is so crucial for discipleship. Providing worship style options just might be reinforcing that worship is somehow “for us,” i.e. to meet our needs. Endless discussions over the style of music just might obscure the deeper, often neglected, conversation about the content of our words of worship which is increasingly drawn from the world of Christian entertainment and performance, not from the church.” So true! Great post!

  • Michael Snow

    Disciplined pastors following C.S. Lewis’ rule for reading would be a huge ingredient in the remedy: ‘”…after reading a new book, never allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one…keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds…”

    …that and breaking the world’s mold that now holds captive the very basics like Love, Prayer, and Forgiveness.

  • Chris Moellering


  • Smithra

    Amen! Preach it!