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How much joy am I allowed at the decline of evangelicalism?

How much joy am I allowed at the decline of evangelicalism? June 12, 2021

I’m starting here with a confession. I would like to confess before God and my neighbors that I have a certain level of Schadenfreude watching recent events in the Southern Baptist and Evangelical camps, Russell Moore’s departure and the fall of the Falwell’s in particular.

I also have some guilt feeling such joy at the suffering of others, but on the other hand, given how much harm these communities (and individuals) have done to so many people I love, and the seemingly irreparable harm they have done to the good name of “evangelism,” I also am at peace with the satisfaction I have in witnessing this moment.

So what do I think is happening in this 2021 turn of events? Well, first of all, I confess that I’m unsure. I don’t know whether the shift we are experiencing is simply the next stage of grief we are all collectively going through after this long haul living through a global pandemic. Or if it is a more substantive and permanent shift in Christianity in the United States.

What I know for sure is this: the people whose spiritual center sees Jesus as a moral exemplar who led a movement for social and eco-justice, with a preferential option and care for the poor, are on a wander.

Some of them are finding faith communities like ours. And when they find us, they are definitely not looking for the manifestations of “churchiness” that marked the latter part of the 20th century. I doubt they hope we’ll build more rec rooms onto the church for volleyball. Instead, they tend to want us to build showers and prepare to be sanctuary.

Many that find us are reeling from their departure (or expulsion) from evangelical and conservative Christian communities. Or at the very least they are incredibly suspect of church, and assume another shoe will drop, or there will be a bait and switch.

This puts a lot of pressure on pastors like myself, and churches like ours, because honestly we can never truly live up to the high expectatations. We’ll fail. We do fail. I fail. And yet those who come to us are not wrong that we’re at least trying to be faithful to the way of Jesus.

This faith deconstruction and renewal is scary for those going through it. It requires a set of tools genuinely unfamiliar to most of us, including me. And while it’s happening, those of us who still maintain the church sometimes happen upon the perfect things into which to invite those who need our patience and support, and other times we misfire, because even though we’re transitioning to a new kind of church, we still operate with the structures given to us (and therefore the ones that fund our imaginations even during the reconstruction).

We don’t always even know what we don’t know. And those in the church who have been in it longer have their own emotions they are working through, because the thing that had been stable for them for most of their life has now changed very dramatically, and quickly.

Finally, in the meantime the absolute and horrific hypocrisy of the Southern Baptist and Evangelical camp continues to astound people and is turning people off from Christianity in massive numbers. With very few exceptions, the leadership in those churches have completely bought into the hateful nationalistic interpretation of Christianity that sees the faith as a vacuous “get people to accept Jesus because that’s what Matthew 28 says” while completely evacuating the actual radical nature of the message of Christ.

They’re so focused on getting saved they’ve lost track of the way evangelism is actually about offering a radical salve. You get a massive dose of “you have to” with your Jesus cookie.

So then also this: there is a way in which our movement of progressive Christianity is 100% about evangelism. I’m not interested in allowing the evangelicals to steal that word from us. We need to steal it back.

We’re actually convinced there’s a message worth sharing. We just don’t wed that sharing of faith to paternalism and power. My success is not dependent on your accepting my faith. And you have as much to teach me as I have to share with you, probably more.

This is why progressives are so committed to interfaith relationships. There’s a mutuality that can come from such encounters. It’s also why we have such a hard time relating to evangelicals. By and large they lack any interest in such mutuality. It’s literally their way or the highway.

So what is progressive evangelism? Well, I think a lot of it is embedded in gentle words simply sharing why we show up where we do. I’m here at this march because Jesus would be. We put up this Little Free Pantry because when Jesus performed that miracle feeding the 5000 he got the fish from that kid.
And what is the good news at the center of such evangelism? What is the “evangel”? Well, it’s pretty simple. G-d loved this world so much that in Christ it can be heaven now in the present, through Christ’s Spirit.

The good news is we don’t have to delay the kin-dom. It’s on the way now.

The only reason that is sometimes resisted has nothing to do with the church being worldly, and everything to do with the way some want to maintain their own little kingdoms that don’t align with the kin-dom of God.

But now we need a new way to do this evangelism thing, and with the collective energy and spirit that has made evengelicalism so vigorous.

I suspect it’s very much related to Bonhoeffer’s concept of religionless Christianity. Which is not about non community based faith, but something else.

What is Bonhoeffer’s definition of religion? For Bonhoeffer, religion is the human quest for God. It’s distinct from grace, which is God’s gift to human beings. The directionality of religion matters not so much for doctrinal reasons, but more because of the operational difference it makes in the life of the believer.

Religion has us busy doing things (perhaps especially in the institutional church) for God. Religionlessness reflects the freedom of God in being for others, and Jesus as the “human being for others.” The pursuit of God, then, is not transcendence as typically understood, “not the infinite, unattainable tasks, but the neighbor within reach in any given situation.”

I still happen to think the church is one of the most effective spaces to engage the transcendent neighbor. But such a way of being church will be so much more free and more embedded than much of what passed for institutional Christianity in recent generations.

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