Where shall we go?

Where shall we go? February 13, 2012

Christopher Benson, in his review of John Stackhouse’s portion of the book the spectrum of evangelicalism, makes this closing, and it’s worth your careful read — and a response.

Where do you think such a person can find a home? Canterbury? Rome? Wittenburg? Geneva?

Earlier I said I embrace Stackhouse’s criteria of generic evangelicalism “as far as it goes.” I qualified my praise because, however much the definition contains an inner logic, I am still restless with “evangelical” (uppercase, in my reading) as a descriptor of my own religious identity. That restlessness owes to what I perceive as the cultural captivity and politicization of the movement during my lifetime. Add to this “the anointed” authority structure, pointless heresy hunting, institutional weakness, ad hoc liturgy, anti-intellectualism, middlebrow aesthetics, and flaccid theology (“moralistic, therapeutic deism”)—and you will begin to understand the winter of my discontent. (There are exceptions to the above generalizations, but apologists often make too much of those exceptions.) Some of my evangelical contemporaries have found vernal promise in Catholicism or Orthodoxy. I investigated both traditions and could not be at home there for theological reasons.

So, where shall a person like myself go? The answer, I believe, is toward post-evangelicalism—not to be confused with ex-evangelicalism or anti-evangelicalism. A post-evangelical can retain the ethos (lowercase) while leaving behind the movement (uppercase). C. S. Lewis famously exhorted such a move. Using a decidedly Protestant metaphor for Christianity, he compared the religion to a house: “mere Christianity,” which might as well be evangelical Christianity due to its ecumenical reach, is the hall—”a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in”—while the confessional traditions are rooms off the hall. Post-evangelicalism is a return to confessional Protestantism—or what Robert Webber calls “ancient-future faith.” For too long I have tarried in the hall, reluctant to enter a room where “there are fires and chairs and meals.” Lewis distinguished between waiting in the hall, which God uses for our own good, and camping, which is a refusal to commit because of pride, taste, or prejudice.

A species of pride may account for my reluctance to knock on the door—pride that expects perfection where none can be found this side of heaven. If the true church is “a congregation of faithful men [and women], in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance” (Article 19 of The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion), then I have not found thatchurch in a single room because, in my estimation, the Reformed room succeeds in its ministry of the Word and its correlate of theology, whereas the Anglican room succeeds in its ministry of the Sacraments and its correlate of liturgy. Lewis furnishes sound advice to hallway-campers like myself: continue to pray for the light and ask: “Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this?” At bottom, my restlessness with evangelicalism is sensible because a protest movement should never be “put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions.” Lewis goes so far as to say “the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable” to living in the hall. Generic evangelicalism is just too damn generic for deep discipleship. Whatever my ecclesial future holds, this much is certain: “evangelical” will only be the adjective to the noun of “Christian.”


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  • dopderbeck

    Oh, how I can relate! I wish I knew the answer. But I also find “post-evangelicalism” problematic precisely because it seems to eschew liturgy and a theology / metaphysic of participation in the sacraments.

  • The longing expressed in Benson’s comments is very touching and, in a strange way, encouraging. It is heartwarming to see such a longing for permanence. But, is “ancient future” the answer for such a longing? Does it go far enough back in time to provide a meaningful alternative?

    It does seem that, rather than the patristic fathers–however esteemed they may rightly be–the revelation of the Scripture should be our bedrock relative to church-life as well as other matters. The pattern is there.

  • EricW

    He left out “Constantinople,” a viable alternative to “Rome” if people are convinced that’s the direction to go.

  • This is something that many of us grapple with, I would believe. Where can we find our ‘home’ within ecclesiastical streams. The fact that evangelicalism began as a reactionary movement, though debated by some, is why there is an increasing uneasiness with it, I believe. The idea of the continuing reformation of the church has taken us into ongoing perspectivalism about what it means to be the church.

    In light of that, we struggle to belong. Can we be content living ‘in the hallway’ in some way? I tend to think that we will always feel a bit out of synch with the church because, well, it is not perfect.

    ‘Post-evangelicalism’ is not very helpful as an adjective for me because it only feels like more of the same. It is as confusing as ‘post-liberalism’ and becomes identified more with a few voices or faces than something consistent and historical like Anglicanism, Catholicism, or Orthodoxy.

    To #3 EricW, I think that is what he was referencing in the first paragraph’s mention of “Catholicism or Orthodoxy.”

  • Pat Pope

    I’m stuck somewhere between the hall and camping.

  • Although I had to surf backwards to determine what the response was all about, parts of what Benson described as post-evangelicalism are attractive and compelling.

    It’s the omitted parts that I’m concerned about, but even as I considered this, there’s a relatively deeper matter at work here, and perhaps Stackhouse or the other authors addressed this concern.

    I wonder how many of us within the evangelical camp- sorry- “house” and those waiting in the “hall sense that *how we reflect* on such matters can on the one hand embrace the creeds a-contextually and on the other hand ignore our own cultural embeddedness that has gotten us into the current situation and its divisiveness. Benson reminds me of so many others that consider our situation to be largely a-cultural, and not a function of our participation within the Enlightenment project. Benson claims some “cultural captivity” at work, but that label deserves some description of how he knows this.

    In short, recognition of the cultural context of the development and formation of the creeds might assist us in grappling with our own setting. Except in our case, the Christian faith is not limited to a conversation between Constantinople, Hippo, and Rome.

    We presently underestimate the importance of world Christian input, global evangelical conversation, and prayer with which to conduct mission as western evangelicals; we continue to insulate ourselves even with the best of intentions. Don’t believe me? Look at the list of the authors and editors of the book Benson reviewed.

  • I am drawn in and sympathetic towards his description of his (our) place in the hall. It is where I have found myself since I began to purposefully learn orthodox Christian theology in my late teens.

    That said, I find it rather frustrating that these conversations always devolve into how to move the furniture around the room (to expound on CS Lewis’ metaphor). Personally, I’m still waiting for some others to enter an empty room with me, and to acknowledge that we are the most important thing in that room because of Christ within us.

  • dopderbeck

    One of the more important things Benson doesn’t touch on in this excerpt or his article is the Apostolic Succession. To me this is a key question that I have yet to resolve for myself. Reading the Fathers, there is no doubt that they uniformly thought the Apostolic Succession exceedingly important. And so for Benson to write of the Catholic and Orthodox churches seems to me hasty. But maybe the deeper issue is simply that for the past 1500 years or so the Church has been so fragmented that there really aren’t any “rooms” anymore — there are only hallways left. Maybe the condition of feeling suspended in ecclesiological limbo is just unavoidable for people living after Christendom and after Modernity. In a sense, how could it be otherwise? Whatever room you choose, other doors must close — there is no institution that today can, as far as seems humanly possible, unify the Church again.

  • EricW

    @#4 Matt:

    Ooops! That’s what I get for only reading the Boldface Type!

  • Amos Paul

    I must say that this post took an uncomfortable turn for me when it began asserting a need for the preaching of the ‘pure Word of God’. It seemed pretty apparent that this was a gesture towards Scripture, rather than Christ, which I do not find to be appropriate towards crafting a nice, big room to live in.

    Though I can understand this quest for ‘a room’. I’ve looked. And it is, indeed, very difficult to satisfy the ever-growing variety of factors one wants lined up in a nice, big community of believers.

    The thing is, I’m not certain there *ever were* any big rooms in this faith appropriate for large communities like this. If we look at the history of individuals within the church universal–we see a constant struggle of strife, disagreement, and internal fragmentation. Even so-called denominations have just barest of ‘church-wide’ assertions which all manner of clergy, leaders, and members will have different views upon. Nor do I think Catholicism and Orthodoxy are exempt from this.

    Which I now see as fine, as long as we can all recognize the need for dynamic unity across the church universal in our declaration, focus on, and reliance upon Christ as well as individual understanding, expression, and *need* for perspectivist particulars as we grow in and assert ourselves in Christ.

    And I don’t even know how unifying denominations can get beyond a few practical methodologies of how they ‘do church’ and advocate some particular basic creed or another. From this view, I say that at *some point*, we’ve all just got to take the humility and initiative to step into a room we’re comfortable enough in and just *do* church. We may never find a big enough group that ‘fits’ all our own particulars–even if we start a new one. We’ll inevitably have to begin including other people… and compromising what our ‘new’ room is defined by.

  • dopderbeck

    Amos (#10) — great comment. Actually, another thing I’m learning from studying the Fathers’ original writings: these guys lived through conflict and strife that make some of our present problems look tame. Yes, they eventually achieved a degree of consensus on some issues — but many of them didn’t live to see it.

  • Alan K

    Why not instead wear the word evangelical and simply make friends with the transference people will make when they hear it? Are we that fearful of the judgment of first impressions? Will the devil undermine us by the corral of the label? The word is too good to let go of.

  • Paul D.

    “Where do you think such a person can find a home?” Halle, of course.

  • Dana Ames

    In the excerpt Scot has quoted, I recognize so much of what I was thinking and going through when I was finding my way out of the wilderness. There were so many thoughtful, caring, active Christians who were post-evangelical and looking for – or creating – a place to land. It was inspiring.

    At the same time, I was making my way back through the centuries, studying N.T. Wright and reading the writings of the first few generations of Christians. As David Opderbeck noted above, it became clear to me that those early believers were really concerned with the question of the church, and apostolic succession, and other things that as a Protestant I had swept off the table.

    I saw even the best of the post-evangelicals milling about in the hallway, with some denying the viability or value of any of the rooms, especially the oldest ones; some valued worship forms like icons and candles – but as cut off from the ethos and context of those rooms. I tried it that way, and it took me a long way, but not to where I had hoped. It seemed like more of the same non-denominationalism – better in many very important ways, but not really going anywhere…

    I didn’t start out with the question Scot has been highlighting off and on recently: “What is the church?” But I surely did end up there. I came to a different conclusion than that expressed in The 39 Articles, overwhelmingly from reading the Apostolic Fathers, the first and second generation of Christians. I figured they would know what’s what, having been the recipients of what Jesus’ first disciples intentionally passed down.

    To answer Scot’s question, I think the place to land that would give the author the most latitude of belief, given his (up to now) rejection of Rome and Constantinople, but with the liturgical and sacramental dimension, (I think necessary in light of what the early generation of Christians valued, as per David O.’s other comment) would be Canterbury.


  • JTM

    I don’t know where all those who are so critical of evangelicalism can go, but I do wish they would find, or create, a place where they could go and be happy.

    I tire of the never ending whining and fault finding of evangelicals and evangelicalism, and yet an insistence of still wanting to be an “evangelical” and being almost obsessed with evangelicalism and its pantheon of faults and shortcomings. Why?

    Be emergant, be progressive, be liberal, be neo-something, whatever, but if evangelicals are so bad and so neanderthal and anti-intellectual and sexist and Republican and anti-science and Bible idolaters, etc., then please, by all means, move on and get your own place/movement/church/ism/, and be ye happy and content and put your energies into something positive and productive.

    Evangelicalism moved on and away from fundamentalism, and almost never looked (s) back. I suggest evangelical bashers and haters do likewise.

  • I have been in this wilderness my entire adult life. I really resonate with his comment:

    “So, where shall a person like myself go? The answer, I believe, is toward post-evangelicalism—not to be confused with ex-evangelicalism or anti-evangelicalism. A post-evangelical can retain the ethos (lowercase) while leaving behind the movement (uppercase).”

    As dopderbeck says above, “post-evangelical” may not be the best term, but this idea of being contra-evangelical is what MUST be jettisoned. I left my Nazarene roots as a young adult in the 1980s, the straw breaking the proverbial camel’s back was being made to sit through Jerry Falwell and Moral Majority chapel services at my Nazarene college in 1980 (even though I know some here perceive me as right-winger.) I eventually landed PCUSA a few years later, appreciating the thoughtfulness of the local community I found, but only to discover a progressive narrow-mindedness in the larger PCUSA community. I had high hopes for the Emerging Church movement when I first became exposed to it fifteen years ago, but within a few years it became clear the dominant conversation was about becoming contra-evangelical. And I find among many younger PCUSA pastors (at least high profile ones) an explicit strategy to position the PCUSA as the flip-side answer to Republican conservative Evangelical option (from which many of them emerged.) It is true contra-Evangelicalism, which is to say it is being defined by Evangelicalism.

    We can’t entirely escape our past as a lens for asking questions but we have to become self-aware enough not to be driven by oppositional thinking. And if there is anything I have learned over my adult life it is how rare it is to find conversations and communities that transcend this dynamic.

  • Post-evangelical Lutheran here.

  • JohnM

    dopderbeck #8 – “Reading the Fathers, there is no doubt that they uniformly thought the Apostolic Succession exceedingly important”. I know. And I wonder. If I were ever fully convinced Apostolic Succession was supposed to happen, did happen, and that any extant ecclesiastical body represented that succession – it would change everything for me. All other issues would fade to a distant second in importance.

  • DRT

    Well, I need a new job so how about if you all hire me to found a new religion for you. Call it the Halls of Christianity.

  • Chris Criminger

    HI Everyone,
    Europe where Christianity has died a thousand deaths and where a post-evangelical movement has already happened may simply show where we are heading in North America for the future? I will say post-evangelical in Europe typically meant leaving conservative Christian theology behind and even being anti-conservative. By listening to some of the posts so far, I doubt if that is the direction or place people are really aiming for but I am simply looking at it from a historical perspective of what has already happened somewhere else.

  • T

    My two cents: find a room or two or three whose theology and practices are tolerable and then ask God to highlight a particular form of service (not church service, but service to others) that one of them is doing that you could join. Do the research and pray with a focus on the outward service rather than the inward service.

    I think part of the problem with these struggles is that we think primarily in terms of inward church services instead of outward church service. If we prayerfully look for a place to put our heart and energies toward the latter, thinking of the former as gravy, not the meal, we have a better shot to see things clearly and even cheerfully. Would this be ‘missonal’ church shopping? 😀

  • Rick B

    It’s been anglicanism for me.

  • Kenny Johnson

    I only relate to this post to a degree. I find myself not liking to self-identify as an Evangelical — especially to those outside Evangelicalism, simply for all its baggage. A secular Jewish friend/co-worker of mine told me recently that he mentioned me to his mom and she warned him that he should expect a Jesus tract at his desk any day now. The news speaks of Evangelicals and some homogeneous group — whose identity seems to be more wrapped up in their political leanings and what they’re against (gay marriage and abortion) than their theology or what/who they are for (Jesus).

    But as for a church. I’ve found a comfortable place to be in an Evangelical Cov church (same denom as Scot). There are certainly people at my church who differ from me in politics, science/faith, women in leadership, hermeneutics, etc, but I’ve never felt judged or separated for those differences. And there are certainly many at my church who share some of my beliefs — and may even be more “progressive” than me.

    But, it seems to me — as someone who came to Christianity in the emerging church movement in 2000 and goes to a church that at least still somewhat identifies itself with that movement (though the terms is rarely used anymore) that we’ve already been through all this. 🙂

    I’ll say that there are definitely many Evangelical churches out there that breathe a “mere Christianity” instead of a socio-political movement or “Fundamentalism lite.” But, being from a more liberal area (Los Angeles), they may be easier to find in my neck of the woods than some others.

  • tom pratt

    Re fining a home…

    Raised in Eastern Orthodoxy here in the states but couldn’t understand the liturgy because it was in Greek.

    Emotionally loved most everything about that community but never heard the meaning. Eastern Orthodoxy does mystery well. Too much mystery for a So Cal teen in the 70’s, though.

    Got caught up in the Jesus Movement at about that time and got my evangelical American Protestant thing on. Converted in high school but was repelled immediately by the culture. Not my people. Not my feel.

    But I thought it was the real deal spiritually and religiously. I was looking for meaning I could understand. I was willing to swallow the weird and annoying culture for the sake of something more meaningful.

    Ended up at Stanford as one of the main evangelical leaders on campus. Had an opportunity to be part of an unusually disciplined and impressive evangelical religious movement that gave me opportunities to lead and be responsible in a way that most teens or young adults don’t get.

    Followed through on that in the 80’s as a fully committed evangelical community and church planter on secular college campuses with InterVarsity, which had a short run for about a couple of decades as an incubator of real faith rather than just another religious institution that wastes a lot of money.

    Felt deeply uncomfortable with the cultural and political context of American evangelicalism in the 80’s, but again, thought I was doing the right thing by advancing it while trying to change it.

    My justification and rationalization was that I was encouraging people into some concern for the poor, some openness to reason and science, and some liberation from what had become knee jerk right wing politics.

    Surprisingly, many of them got the clue and started living differently. Lots relocated into inner cities and started serving the poor. Lots of others entered the corporate world but lived differently in their own way too.

    Had a crisis of faith in my early 30’s I was beginning to question the whole American evangelical thing.

    Thought acting out my developing beliefs was better than bailing at that point, though.

    So started an international evangelical ministry to the poorest of the urban poor around the world It’s still serving poor people today.

    That experience changed me in a big way. Traveled around the world (about 40 countries) and saw how so many people—including huge numbers of Christians—really live. My travels weren’t to theological conferences or meetings of mission teams or tourist stuff.

    It’s hard to describe. If you’ve seen what I’ve seen you can’t easily believe the Christian God is a loving or just power. Or that any God is just or worthy of being followed, particularly when religious followers seem, on the whole, to support knee jerk tradition and the most powerful.

    That last comment isn’t about current American evangelicalism. Traditional religion is the bedrock of the powerful in virtually every culture and country and century. There are important exceptions to that, but I’ve come to believe those exceptions aren’t frequent enough to make religious belief make sense.

    I no longer feel hostile to Christian religious tradition, which I did for a few years. I am who I am because of that history. For bad and good.

    I’m trying to make sense of a new context and reference points. But I would still describe myself as a Christian because I’ve been so shaped by that experience and so far don’t have an experience as powerful to take its place and create a new language.

    I think lots of people around the world are in my place or want to be in my place but don’t have the words to describe it or the courage to face down the religious communities that threaten them or the loss of meaning.

    I don’t have a happy ending that I know you and your fundamentalist readers want. Just a very particular witness.

  • DB

    I wonder if Peter Rollin’s “Insurrection” does not touch on this longing to find a religious context or community where one feels at home?

  • Rick

    Dopderbeck and others discussing evangelicalism and Apostolic Succession, Michael Patton just happened to put up an interesting post on that issue. To sum up his thoughts, we wrote:

    “…we do need to be able to trace our faith, teaching, and doctrine back to the Apostles, finding harmony in faith with those who have gone before us. I believe this is an avocation of apostolic succession in its truest form. It recognizes a succession of teaching, not simply a succession of person and creates an accountability structure that cannot be ignored.
    When we ordain ministers, we are not simply advocating their kindness, usefulness, and general likability. Neither are we ordaining them because they are good preachers, counselors, or encourager. We are first ordaining them because they are representatives of the historic Christian faith. They are successors to the Apostles in that their beliefs and teachings find historical continuity and biblical integrity—the two of which should never be separated.
    If we had this type of assumed accountability, to be Evangelical would mean something again.”


  • Cal

    What makes a room a room? The Evangelical is a sloppy, at time wrong headed, big tent movement. It is clamoring for a room. Why?

    I’ve found myself more and more drawn across history to the Anabaptists and Mennonites who had to live in small communities and were hunted by protestant and catholic, to the Waldenses, who were hunted by the Roman hegemony. To the Early Church who met in rooms and were despised by the wider public. To Jesus Himself, the Son of Man, who had no place to lay His head. Maybe the search for a room is the fatal flaw.

    I agree with Rick, Apostolic succession is in the chain of ideas, not a special office of being some sort of Vicar. Christ Himself promised to be among us in His Spirit.


  • TSG

    To know Jesus spoke Arabic and not Greek, that he had a rural and biblical imagination and not urbane, that he spoke in parables and not propositions, that he expressed his ways as blessings instead of ethics leads toward a search that isn’t the language of the day, highly visable,pointedly moral,and unrepentant. Proboably in the most unsuspecting places.

  • Amos Paul

    That Apostolic succession of teaching thing is *good*… and I think certainly right in how it reflects the “apostolic deposit” of the Gospel as discussed in TKJG.

    However, I must also assert a clear apostolic succession of the *Spirit* drawing all Christians together into a spiritual unity, calling the techers, empowering the teaching, etc. etc.

    I think that if we look through churhc history–we can see the strife I mentioned before. But I *also* think we can see the hand of the Spirit in general. And that we should struggle to recognize the same Spirit at work today (as well as and within teaching) if we are to legitimize the authority of the teaching.

  • Cal

    Amos Paul:

    Ain’t that the beauty of the Kingdom being unshakable (vis. Hebrews-Haggai)? A remnant remains, no matter how dark the days.

  • Paul Johnston

    Perhaps real ecumenism will begin when we give fair hearing to an accurate account of each others orthodoxies.

    In spite of a rather brilliantly nuanced accounting of the
    e(E)vangelical dilemna, it is discouraging to me that the author blithly dismisses about 80% of the worlds Christians with the statement, “I investigated both traditions and could not be at home there for theological reasons.”

    It seems to me the legitimacy of the arguement presented here is undermined until a more thorough examination and presentation of the above quote is rendered.

  • I remember Gerald May writing about this a few years back in his excellent book Will & Spirit. He creates two categories for faith…i cant remember the first one precisely…it is the “once born” faith. These folks are not troubled much by incosistencies in the church and are fairly happy to just go with the flow. But the second category is called the “twice born”, here he borrows from william james. These folks “struggle with great ambivalence about religion and religious institutions.” He goes on to describe how these folks long to belong and connect but feel that the terms of the arrangement between church institution and church goer costs too much: the sacrifice of intellectual honesty, the loss of truth telling etc.
    But i agree with Benson, though alienated at time, we all need to stand somewhere. I was at event recently where a gentleman wore a nametag that said something like “individual spiritual seeker” where we were to print our denominational affiliation. I am sure he thought he was nouveau but i think he was just spinning his wheels in the hallway.

  • Kim

    As my education, reading and appreciation for 2000 years of church history grows, the evangelical waters appear shallow and the thinking simplistic. The emphasis on experience over theology, disregard for the church fathers’ writings, the lack of mystery and awe for God, the “bible says it, I believe it” tendency, and the anti-intellectualism attitudes leave me wanting and hungry.
    Yet I love the missionary zeal, the desire to share the Gospel, to see lives transformed and changed by the touch of Jesus that drives much of ministry and worship in evangelical churches and is less apparent in more liturgical settings.
    A movement that was visionary rather than reactionary (thinking of evangelicalism as a reaction to fundamentalism) and not “post-” or “counter-” anything would be refreshing. One with a Christology that celebrates Christ’s divinity , encourages theological dialogue, recognizes God’s knowledge is found in all disciplines, and has a high regard of Scripture that recognizes it for the special revelation it is without elevating it to a fourth member of the trinity.