Things Christians Think and Do Not Say: Why Evangelicalism Needs to Change or Die

Things Christians Think and Do Not Say: Why Evangelicalism Needs to Change or Die August 10, 2020

At the beginning of Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise’s character has a breakthrough (or, depending on how you look at it, a breakdown) in a Miami Hilton. In a fit of clarity, he pens a 25-page mission statement called “The Things We Think and Do Not Say.” It lays out everything wrong with sports management, and what needs to change if it wants to return to its roots. 

What does he get for his transparency? Fired. The rest of the film finds Jerry salvaging something meaningful from the wreck this mission statement creates. 

Like Jerry, I believe I have something to say. And, like Jerry, I believe that the impact of my words could harm my personal life. You see, I’m ensconced in an evangelical bubble. I go to an evangelical church. I live in a small evangelical town. And my work takes me into evangelical spaces. 

And while I don’t judge any of my friends who consider themselves “ex-evangelicals,” I’ve never seen myself that way. There are things I appreciate from my background, and it’s still part of my identity. To paraphrase a quote that’s often wrongly attributed to Augustine, “the [evangelical] church is a whore, but she’s also my mother.” 

So the criticisms and suggestions I make here do not come from an outsider. They come from someone who loves evangelicalism but recognizes that it needs to simultaneously go backward and evolve or it will perish. And it comes from someone who fears that we are so far off course that vanishing might just be the best option for God’s kingdom to flourish.

So let’s examine a couple of areas where change needs to occur, and for brevity’s sake, I won’t be elaborating at the depth that each of these topics deserves or require. It’s my intention to come back and flesh each out in more detail in the coming months. 

1.  Take the focus off of salvation experiences

The book of Acts tells the story of a movement that turned the first-century on its head. This movement was driven by a relatively small number of passionate, self-sacrificing individuals. Today there are nearly 240 million professing Christians in the United States—and their kingdom impact is negligible. 

There are many reasons for this, but a concerning one is a focus on individual salvation. Now don’t get me wrong; salvation is an integral element of the gospel message, but not in the way we’ve popularized it. There is so much more to the gospel than nodding in assent to an emotional altar call. The way we’ve been doing Christianity, a person begins at the finish line. There’s nowhere else to go. 

Throughout the New Testament, Paul talks about salvation as something that was done (I have been saved), that is occurring (I am being saved), and that will be accomplished (I shall be saved). The present tense is so vital—and it’s largely missing from Evangelical circles. It is in the present that we are called to grow and persevere. Not to sit back, judging the world while we wait to be whisked away. 

Decade after decade of “Raise your hand if you said this prayer with me; OK, you’re in” has led us to a place where 65 percent of Americans identify as Christians, and too many of them don’t look anything like Jesus. 

2. Focus on discipleship

Jesus gave the disciples this mission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20a). Discipleship and not conversion was the Lord’s focus. 

When we focus on conversion, we end up selling people on Christianity the brand. They may attend church, pay their monthly subscription fees, and consume Christian pop culture, but that isn’t necessarily changing lives. Discipleship is something else entirely. 

Unfortunately, most evangelical churches lack a cohesive plan for discipling the people in their congregations. When churches do talk about discipleship, the discussion focuses on theological classes. And while propositional knowledge is essential, it isn’t discipleship. 

When Jesus instructed the disciples to create more disciples, they knew what he was asking. They’d experienced the phenomenon themselves. Their discipleship focused on going and doing. Jesus mentored them into understanding what it looked like to introduce the kingdom of God into every sphere of their lives. He showed them how to push against the darkness. 

It’s critical to recognize that someone with a cognitive disability can become a disciple. When we focus on theological precepts as the basis for disciple-making, the best disciples are the most intelligent. But we know that’s not true. There is no culture in the world with greater access to theological literature and teaching than the US—does this mean we have a more significant percentage of true disciples? Absolutely not. 

Jesus focused on one’s ability to demonstrate and express the kingdom in discipleship. He often encouraged people to do what he said—not simply believe it. And while discipleship can be more than doing, it can never be less than doing. 

It can’t happen in an 8-week class. It can’t happen through reading a book. It requires that current disciples mentor others into discipleship through intimate, hands-on involvement in their daily lives—there is simply no way around this.  

3. Quit centralizing church services

I know you’re going to bristle at this, but hear me out. 

The 2020 COVID pandemic revealed a lot of systemic brokenness. For instance, it demonstrated many broken areas in our healthcare and government welfare systems. It’s also put on display the evangelical church’s inability to focus on what’s important. When governors put the kibosh on gatherings of 50 or more, everything melted down. 

Some churches went to war with the government over what they saw as a denial of liberty to practice their faith. Other churches scattered to figure out how to move their services online so their congregations could have some semblance of normalcy. Many others just threw their weight into the tech solutions they’d already been perfecting. 

All of these focused on the church service as being the center of Christian practice. And it isn’t—not by a long shot. 

One thing that separates evangelicalism from other Christian expressions is the priesthood of all believers. We’re not reliant upon priests to serve us sacraments. We’re not dependent upon worship leaders to lead us in the latest Bethel music. We’re not sustained by 30-minute weekly sermons that illuminate the truth for us. All of these things are fine and good, but the Lord never prescribed any of them. 

What is necessary has been necessary from the beginning:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42–47).

Many of these can happen in a church service, but every one of them existed before church services. Most of them occur more organically and more powerfully apart from a church service. And almost none of them can happen effectively in a livestream or a YouTube video. 

The truth is that the church is at her best when believers are reliant upon one another and deeply involved in each other’s lives. Church services have become so crucial because westerners want to perform their weekly religious duties and then retreat into the confines of their private lives. But when Scripture shows us what healthy ekklesia looks like, the focus is on shared lives and not church services. Church services are great and all, but they should be a celebration of our shared kingdom reality and not a replacement for it. 

4. Stop the professionalizing of ministry 

There’s a massive difference between a calling and a profession. Now it’s entirely possible that one can become the other, but we must see them as distinctly different—especially when it comes to pastoral ministry. 

Let me explain it in a metaphor. Current discussions about defunding the police are about redistributing a lot of the money we invest in policing toward other helpful social programs. The goal is to relieve officers of all the responsibilities that fall outside of their purview. And it would also protect people from cops trying to function in roles for which they haven’t been trained, and that they fall back on force to perform. 

Similarly, the professionalization of ministry hurts the church more than it helps. The pastoral call is to care for God’s people, but the professionalization of pastoring makes it about things like:

  • Staff maintenance 
  • Church management 
  • Facility upkeep 
  • Marketing acumen 
  • Fundraising

One of the things we never talk about is the fact that professionalizing pastoral ministry has turned the clergy of many evangelical churches into minor celebrities and figureheads. Too many young people convince themselves that they’re pursuing a calling when they’re actually chasing the perception of pastors as VIPs. 

When a pandemic shuts down gatherings, pastors go into crisis. Because modern pastoral ministry is less about caring for others, and more about maintaining a bunch of performance-based systems that Jesus never asked for. 

Ideally, the church should function without full-time paid staff. We don’t like to be honest about this because even if we recognize that this is true, many pastors just aren’t equipped to do any other jobs. And I know that a lot of you are going, “Woah, woah, woah. 1 Timothy 5:18!” I made the same argument years ago. But those words were written by a man with a side job. He wasn’t necessarily arguing for professionalized ministry. 

The view of the professional pastor has created all kinds of trouble. It means that the young people who feel called to serve God have gravitated toward ministry jobs because that’s the model they’ve seen. By the time they realize that’s not what they want, they’re ill-prepared for anything else. 

Tent-making pastoral ministry means:

  • People need to get involved. They can’t assume they’re paying you to do all the kingdom’s work—while they critique you.
  • You have to prioritize your time better and let things go that don’t matter. 
  • You’re not beholden to the people paying you. 
  • You’re not trapped when you feel called elsewhere.
  • You’re not trying to meet needs you weren’t trained for. 

But one of the most significant reasons we need to consider cutting down on professional ministry is that it will help us . . .

5. Divest our assets

In the 90s, we saw a sudden burst of malls and big-box stores. It’s no surprise that there was a simultaneous growth of churches with food courts and coffee shops—churches that looked more like airports than places of worship. 

These expenses weren’t based on need but focused on improving the congregational experience. On top of that, it was seen as outreach, “Wait until those heathens get a gander at this. They’ll definitely wanna show up here every week.” There was a time when churches built these amazing buildings to appeal to God with spires that reached to the heavens. The architecture itself caused people to think about God and reflect on Scripture. And while that’s not necessarily a better use of funds, at least it wasn’t as base as making our buildings another form of attraction-based commerce. 

As churches grew, they continued sinking money into facilities and staff. And even if different groups used these churches throughout the month, a lot of that space sat vacant throughout the week. And when we encouraged sacrificial giving from people in our charge, it was less about serving Jesus by taking care of others and more about meeting our overhead and our growing debt. 

While we all bad-mouthed prosperity teachers, we saw these growing facilities as a sign that God was growing the church. But I promise that younger generations do not see these expenditures as a sign of our faithfulness. They see it as an inability to live up to our calling, and a refusal to prioritize kingdom values. But they’d be drawn to a church that placed the community above their own care and comfort. 

Face it. People are tired of watching windfall donations go to facility upgrades, new tech, and unnecessary staff. They’re weary of being browbeaten about their giving when they can’t see the tangible good that it’s doing in their communities. 

If we were serious about pleasing Jesus, many of us would hand our buildings off to community groups who need them in exchange for using the space. 

6. Abandon politics, nationalism, and broken systems

If we’ve learned anything in the last 1,700 years, it should be this: the church is at its absolute worst when it’s entwined with empire politics. No matter what they tell us, governments aren’t interested in our priorities. They only want to exploit the faithful in order to maintain power. 

But there’s still a genuine temptation for the church to use the state’s power to facilitate its own goals. And even though it always starts with the best intentions, the net effect is more oppressive than it is liberating. Where Jesus seeks to issue invitations and opportunities for change, legislated Christianity operates as a hammer, encouraging change by blunt force. 

This doesn’t mean that politics in themselves are evil. But I think we need to look at people like Daniel and Joseph. When they found themselves in positions of power, they didn’t use their pull and influence to force morality on others—they used their positions to save lives. Unlike early believers in Rome, we have a voice in our politics. But what should separate Christians from every other group is that we focus on helping those who need our voice, not securing more power and influence to protect our own rights. 

We don’t have (overt) emperor worship in the United States, so it can be a challenge to create boundaries that make sense when compared to Christianity’s first couple of centuries. So it’s crucial we recognize that at some point, flying flags or wearing clothing festooned with political slogans puts us dangerously close to a modern equivalent of emperor worship. Our hope is not in politics or leaders, and at the point when our identity is centered on our politics, we’re being played. 

Donald Trump didn’t break evangelical Christianity, but he revealed so many ways that it’s broken. Now we’re in a terrible place that getting rid of him won’t fix. The evangelical church has staked its entire reputation on the most divisive leader in modern times—and even when that leader is gone, we’ll have to live with the legacy. 

It’s time to repent of our reliance and comfortability with empire politics. 

Lastly, this goes the same for all the systems we so eagerly embrace. Too many Christians are all in on capitalism like Jesus was another legislator running on a free-market platform. We stand in the marketplace and decry socialism, marxism, communism, et al., as if American systems are God’s systems. 

I don’t understand how someone can embrace Christian theology and not recognize that humans eventually spoil every system they touch. No matter how good it looks on paper, the same exact thing will happen with every economic system. The rich will exploit loopholes to funnel finances away from the poor. Jesus didn’t ask us to embrace a system, but repeatedly charged us with caring for those falling through the cracks in the system. We’re not here to prop up institutions. We’re here to care for people. 

7. Become the inclusive kingdom of Jesus 

Every religion struggles with “othering.” Left to our own devices, we become religious idolaters that separate the “good” people from the “bad” people. Spoiler alert: the “good guys” always look exactly like we do. 

I want to preface this section with a warning. I have no intention (or interest) in crafting a scriptural explanation for what I want to communicate in this section. By and large, bickering about Scripture is the sleight of hand that evangelicals use to push this issue into the periphery. So when you see the inevitable comment on this post that I didn’t biblically justify my position, please know that it was intentional. That said . . .

It’s well past time we stop making someone’s stance on LGBTQ rights a litmus test. If we’re remotely interested in being culturally relevant, we need to open the kingdom’s gates to everyone and quit pretending we’re doing God (or anyone else) a favor with our mean-spirited exclusivity. And I recognize how that suggestion puts me in the outsider/heretic camp for many of you. But come on. How is that not the exact same reaction Pharisees would have had to being expected to accept Samaritans and Gentiles (groups they would have had biblical reasons to exclude). 

I used the term “culturally relevant” here, and I know that triggered some of you. After all, we evangelicals pride themselves on choosing “truth” over relevance. I get that. But getting caught up in that mindset makes it impossible to admit we might have been wrong. It becomes impossible to evolve (there I go with the triggering language again). The last thing the gospel should be is culturally irrelevant. 

Look, there are many more passages that make a stronger case for slavery than there are for denying the value of LGBTQ folks. But we have enough sense to recognize that there are cultural and contextual distinctions at play in Scripture’s discussion of slavery. For some reason, we’re completely unable to make the same leap when it comes to our LGBTQ siblings.

There are explicitly prescriptive passages that don’t allow women to speak in Christian gatherings or wear jewelry, but most of us have gotten past the first-century cultural context. 

NOTE: I recognize that there are many complementarian evangelical churches who still deny women basic ministerial duties. But let’s be honest; if they haven’t moved forward in patriarchal issues, they’re not even reading this.  

We need to recognize that even though evangelicals have convinced themselves that their exclusion is biblical, there are cultural and political reasons. We’ve had a millennia of emotional conditioning to develop the negative reactions that many of us hold. But your emotional reaction doesn’t justify your stance.  

I’m so weary of hearing evangelicals talk about “loving” or even “affirming” LGBTQ people while still treating them like especially broken, sinful people unworthy of the kingdom. We use that language to make us feel better about being exclusive, and everyone knows it but us. 

This is such a tough topic because I know that I’m talking to people who have been raised on the idea that this is the hill to die on. And I know that there’s nothing I can say to get you to the place that I’m coming from. Ultimately, it comes down to this. We are going to stand before Jesus someday and discover that we’ve been wrong about a lot of stuff. When I look at his example, I have a hard time believing that this is the error we want to continue making. 

I would much rather apologize for loving too liberally than too conservatively. 

It’s time for a change 

Jerry Maguire finishes his mission statement with these words:

“Let us start a revolution. Let us start a revolution that is not just about basketball shoes, or official licensed merchandise. I am prepared to die for something. I am prepared to live for our cause. The cause is caring about each other. The secret to this job is personal relationships.”

In a similar way, it’s time for the evangelical church to do some serious soul searching. Jesus’ movement is revolutionary and organic. We’ve made it synthetic and conventional. At a time when people need hope more than ever, evangelicalism has dropped the ball. It has come to represent so much that’s just wrong. 

  • Encouraging conspiracy theories
  • Fighting health professionals
  • Refusing to listen to climate science (or any science)
  • Engaging in culture wars
  • Promoting hatred

The passage from Acts I quoted earlier tells us that the early church “enjoyed the favor of all people.” The early church was beloved by everyday people, and hated by those in positions of religious and political power. Today it is the exact opposite, and it’s beyond time to ask why. Why do people in power love evangelicals and everyday people despise us?

Things just won’t get better until we take a good, hard look at this question. 

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