If you haven’t yet heard, a recent survey revealed that the majority of professing Christians do not believe that salvation is by grace through faith alone. While it might be alarming to some, it ought not to be a shock to us that the majority of professing Christians don’t know the gospel. Don’t misunderstand me to be saying this is inconsequential. It isn’t. It’s disastrous and will prove to have eternal consequences on a rather large group of people who have little to no concept of what the gospel actually teaches about the fundamental nature of mankind, the problem of sin and judgment, and yet how this problem is also resolved in the person and work of Jesus Christ. That is profoundly significant. What I am saying is though is that we ought not be shocked by this, mainly because this hasn’t been something hidden from plain sight. Everything we have been seeing in terms of the large, incredibly divisive in-house debates in Evangelicalism is a microcosm of this reality. What we are dealing with, in a nutshell, is a worldview competition, with the secular worldview emerging as the dominate one.
Part of this is a discipleship issue, no doubt. Shallow, emotionally-laden Christian thinking has dominated the vast majority of space in Western Evangelicalism. It didn’t take terribly long for me to realize this even as a new Christian. I remember going to a conference for college students—I had been a recent convert out of a long-standing atheism—and the gentleman who ran Campus Crusades invited me to come along because he felt it would be helpful to me. I politely refused due to costs, but he called my bluff by saying they’d had a spot that opened up so that I could come free of charge. Of course I could no longer politely decline, so I went.
Now, I had just become a Christian months prior, and I was devouring resources and Scripture simply because I had lived my life up to that point as someone wholly devoted to a secular worldview. Everything came crashing down for me, which, in one sense was quite easy because when I converted, I understood that coming to Christ meant a total overhaul of everything I knew, believed, and practiced. For me, it was a paradigm shift. However, I didn’t grow up in the church, so the paradigm shift wasn’t in turning from a false understanding of the Christian faith to the true one, but from an atheistic/nihilistic worldview to the Christian worldview.
When you have someone turning from falsehood to truth within the Christian worldview, I believe that process is arguably all the more difficult because it requires careful deconstruction and reconstruction so as to keep the truth of the Christian worldview intact while ditching the cultural Christian worldview. For my atheistic worldview, it was a much less delicate task that required a fair amount of pyrotechnics—but the goal was to level the building and start with a brand new foundation. Coming to embrace the Christian worldview meant that I had to challenge my preexisting worldview on every front. It didn’t quite matter if I had some salvageable wall panels and dilapidated, but usable furniture because the architect had ultimately cobbled together an assimilation of wood, hay, and stubble on quicksand. I wasn’t even in the right zip code, so to speak.
But I digress; I came to this conference with a brand-spanking new worldview, that while complete with all of the foibles of a new Christian who finally has the world all figured out—did actually help me see that there were many college-aged Christians who had little to nothing figured out. I was fielding basic questions to lifelong Christian kids who were never taught anything of substance in their churches, let alone from their parents. I was asked if Bob Marley was acceptable music to worship God to, but I was also asked if Christians who committed suicide would go to hell, if you should read your Old Testament, if homosexuality was a sin, if you should go to a gay wedding, how you reconcile a good and loving God with the problem of evil, and even what my thoughts were on Rob Bell at the time (which was prior to his hell-denying-love-wins days). These were basic questions that I could field as a new believer, and it was a joy to do so.
These are still all basic questions, by the way. They’re not bad questions, but these are basic ones. These were questions that I had to sort out as an unbeliever coming into the Christian worldview simply because my worldview didn’t square with the answers of the Bible. But for lifelong Christians asking these questions? None of these are difficult. These are the questions that have been so well-trodden through the course of the historic Christian faith that every time a new de-conversion story comes out from a famous “Christian” apostate raising these objections, I roll my eyes so hard I am liable to have an aneurysm, because these are stupid questions for the one who has been a Christian for years upon years.
If you’ve been a Christian for more than five years and you haven’t ironed out some of these things yet, there is a fundamental problem of discipleship, willful ignorance, or both. If these are still unresolved issues in your mind as a new Christian, I can help you. I sympathize with you a great deal because I know some of that is difficult to work through, especially since there are a plethora of bad answers from well-intentioned people. However, if you’ve been a Christian for a reasonable length of time and these are still lingering doubts in the back of your mind, you need someone to tell you point blank: you have a serious issue on your hands. I have no way to mince words with that. You should be able to help the new Christian out with these things and walk them through this process by now. If you can’t do that, you either need to leave the church you’re at and find a better one, or repent, take up and read, and then put into practice that which you read.
Of course, I recognize the majority of Christian publishers and many ministries are driven by what sells, which is why we have niche bibles of every sort, thirty aesthetically different titles on doing motherhood in the trenches, forty devotional-level books that appeal to the emotions without engaging people theologically, and another fifty charming books on marriage, among other practical things. Most of these things only exacerbate the problem because many don’t need another book on how to do x, y, and z in the Christian life—they just need to be obedient. They also provide people with a false sense of sustenance without there being much of any actual substance. You don’t need a handful of books on why porn is destructive rot to your brain, soul, and marriage—you need to show some self-control, cut the internet cable, and ditch the smartphone. You need to walk in what you already know, which brings me to my next point, which is to say that while it is a discipleship issue, it simultaneously isn’t at the same time. Part of this issue, arguably the larger part of the issue, is owing to what I’d simply call a perennial, piecemeal spirituality that many Christians have embraced.
It is an amalgamation of clashing worldviews that people don’t realize are in direct competition of one another, namely because professing Christians don’t have a vigorously consistent worldview—and I say this for those even within my own tribe. I’m watching more and more people sign on to a worldview—or part of a worldview—that is motivated by racially manipulative talking points. Here I speak of the integration of Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality into the Christian worldview, which many shrug off as relatively harmless. I’m likewise finding others who are so consistent in their application of the necessity of masks during the Coronavirus pandemic so as to say that those who do not wear them in the church setting are guilty of violating the sixth commandment (thou shalt not murder), or not loving their brother (which is being logically bound to John’s admonition in 1 Jn. 4:20). As such, some are currently under the threat of formal church discipline for these matters.
Again, part of this is bound to a discipleship issue—yet the other part is owing to that base of Christians who have been exposed to a comprehensive Christian worldview, yet reject it. Here I speak to that group of extremely bright, well-schooled Christian thinkers who simply agree to disagree with some of the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the historic faith. They knowingly depart from a biblically comprehensive worldview because the ideological underpinnings of other movements or cultural beliefs are attractive to them. They take the time to digest resources filled with poisonous rot and inevitably come to the conclusion that it is not all that poisonous, nor is it all that rotten.
They downplay the biblical sexual ethic because it lands them in hot water with their friends, or they reject it in part because they like the porn they consume, or they like to watch the latest and greatest cinematic masterpiece that contains some questionable material. They reject something as a matter of conscience by using arguments of good and necessary consequence, and likewise through the twisting of words from generations before them to suit modern debates. Or perhaps, they ditch a proper understanding of doctrine so they can continue to hold onto their pet social or political issue. They look at men condemned as heretics within the early church for heresy, and craft lengthy arguments to say that they were simply misunderstood in their own time. It can be any number of things that cause this cobbled worldview to exist, but at the risk of oversimplifying the issue: there is a disparity in their worldview because people are lying to themselves, for one reason or another.
Rod Dreher points out a similar notion in his recent lament piece, where he aptly notes the disparity of thought in those inclined to believe the outcome of an election matters more than the trajectory of the broader culture at large. You should read the whole article to get what I’m driving towards, as I really do think he nails the issue on the head for what I’m drawing particular attention to here. To reduce it down to the major point I am explicating though, he asks the rather pointed, but important question on whether or not the constituency of conservatives in rural Iowa participate and revel in the sexual license of something like the new single from Cardi B. and Megan Thee Stallion. He asks, “I wonder: How many young people in this Iowa island of conservative Christianity are listening to Cardi B. and enjoying her degenerate work?” He further remarks, “That is going to reveal more about the future of that community and its traditions than who wins the presidency [t]his fall.”
Yet I would argue that this disdainful depiction of what is tantamount to softcore porn is only indicative of a broader and more nefarious cultural phenomenon, namely, that even much of what constitutes as Evangelical Christianity in our own circles is no more than the remnants of a type of cultural Christianity. Some forms of this cultural Christianity may be more doctrinally or confessionally robust than others, yet nonetheless hold all of the same trappings. Dreher notes the fact that conservative Christians (and their values) haven’t been culturally dominate for decades—otherwise we wouldn’t wind up with something as provocative and lewd as the new single from Cardi B. and Megan Thee Stallion. However, what he alludes to at the end is what I want to draw out explicitly here. I believe that conservative biblical values haven’t been dominate for decades even within the broader conservative Christian sub-culture. What we are seeing now is simply the fruit of that, as the church plays catch-up with the broader culture they wish to align with on various political and social fronts, or even on grounds of what they find entertaining.
What I am drawing out here is that not only has the gospel been lost to a rather large group within the broader visible church, but that even those within the invisible church have lost their mores, and this only exacerbates the issue. To be as painfully clear as possible: my Reformed brethren are not exempt from this issue, as much as they might like to distance themselves from it. I say this to highlight what I believe is bound up in a “mission drift” from the Evangelical distinctive, or more clearly: from aligning with and being about the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and all that entails. There are any number of side issues related to this, yet for the sake of staying on target: even many within my own tradition have lost sight of the Great Commission in favor of pursuing other social and political endeavors. The natural result of this is that the Great Commission, that is, the making of disciples of all nations by going, baptizing, and teaching them to obey all that Christ commands us, has been pushed aside as the church scrambles after various social and political causes. When that happens, is it any wonder there is a rather large consensus of people confused on the gospel, and another large group confused on the imperatives born out of that indicative reality?
To put it in the form of a statement rather than a question: the natural conclusions of theoretical and practical theology are being realized in these two people groups. People are seeing and hearing of virtually everything else except their need for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and what a life dominated by this reality looks like. People are being taught to look to external measures to solve issues in our world, rather than to embrace the imperatival commands born out of the indicative reality of Christ’s atoning work. Instead of hearing that the problem of mankind is endemic—that each individual is culpable for their own sin before a holy and just Lord, they hear that the largest issue of our day is systemic racism and all of the trappings bound up within that framework of thought. Instead of recognizing issues bound within homes due to fatherlessness, many wish to relegate issues to a lack of money, education, or healthcare. Instead of shunning every instance of sexual immorality, impurity, and sensuality, there’s a shocking double-standard employed when it comes to forms of entertainment and indulging in private exploits—all the while decrying sex trafficking.
The natural result is half a populace confused on what the gospel is along with roughly another half confused on how the gospel applies to all of life. Many of those who “get” the gospel—and I’ll add that they “get it” quite well, still compartmentalize their faith when it comes to various political and social issues currently at play. In other words: it’s a comprehensive worldview issue, one which is not reduced to “those other guys,” but even many within the Reformed world. Yet just as the broader culture has been subjecting the biblical text to tokenism for decades, those who embrace these contrary worldviews are doing likewise. The problem could be said to be born out of the fact that people come to the text ready to prove their presuppositions, rather than letting the text itself inform everything else. However, I tend to see that things are far simpler than this and it is born out of what I’ve called a “mission drift” throughout this piece. As for why I believe this mission drift has happened, it can be summarily explained through the desire to be seen as having a seat at the table in the cultural marketplace.
Nearly ten years ago Carl Trueman challenged the Reformed world with these words:
“…the beautiful young things of the reformed renaissance have a hard choice to make in the next decade. You really do kid only yourselves if you think you can be an orthodox Christian and be at the same time cool enough and hip enough to cut it in the wider world. Frankly, in a couple of years it will not matter how much urban ink you sport, how much fair trade coffee you drink, how many craft brews you can name, how much urban gibberish you spout, how many art house movies you can find that redeemer figure in, and how much money you divert from gospel preaching to social justice: maintaining biblical sexual ethics will be the equivalent in our culture of being a white supremacist.”
Peruse any Reformed group on Facebook and you’ll see that these words are equally as applicable as they were when he first gave them, which means they’ve been largely unheeded. Even many who hold strictly to their confessional documents are wildly inconsistent with a rigorous Christian worldview. Simply ask a piece of basic advice and see how many different prospective teachers offer up counsel that is not only unbiblical, but often anti-biblical. While you’re likely to find some remnants of the Christian worldview floating around the nether regions of the web, it is often mired in opposing worldviews, under the guise of confessional fidelity, no less.
Obviously this is not all Reformed Christians, nor all Evangelicals for that matter, but I have to wonder at what point people will stop scratching their heads when they see surveys that reveal most people don’t “get” the gospel. I’m also curious when people will drop the convenient talking points and blame-shifting, and take a long, hard look at whether or not there has been a mission drift, as I have called it. I can’t possibly be the only person who sees these things are related. We can call it a singular issue, if you like. We can call it an issue of discipleship within the church—but proper discipleship still demands a comprehensive biblical worldview born out of the gospel, and we go right back to targeting those who are rejecting parts of this worldview for whatever reason. Part of that also demands we actually focus on the proclamation of the gospel and our funds go to things which herald the good news as well. Yet here is the rub: people are openly saying now that the mission of the church is not primarily about preaching the gospel to the lost. In the same breath, they can’t possibly understand why over half of the visible church doesn’t understand the gospel.
I really do believe there’s a time coming soon where the entrenched lines as they stand will foment and birth an inevitable schism. To shamelessly steal the concept from Dreher; I wonder: How many young people in this Reformed island of conservative Christianity are wedded to degenerate worldviews opposed to that of the Bible and enjoying it? How many of them no longer believe that the proclamation of the gospel is the primary mission of the church? How many of them are lying to themselves about why the majority of people in the broader church cannot articulate a saving gospel? The answer to those questions is going to reveal a lot more about the future of the Reformed community and its traditions than whatever confession they subscribe to.