Real evangelicals don’t gloat about church decline

Real evangelicals don’t gloat about church decline May 19, 2015


"Abandoned Church," Ben Salter, Flickr C.C.
“Abandoned Church,” Ben Salter, Flickr C.C.

I’m not sure who’s getting more mileage out of the Pew report on church decline: the atheists or the evangelicals? There’s been a whole lot of hand-wringing and spin-doctoring in response to the survey which shows that while Christianity has declined overall in America, evangelical Christianity has held steady at around 25% of the population. This means that evangelicalism has dramatically increased its market share within Christianity, even if the evangelical culture wars have also alienated many millennials from the church. What has been particularly distasteful to see has been the gloating by self-appointed evangelical spokespeople like Russell Moore who have used the survey as an opportunity to marshal out their talking points about the inevitable demise of “liberal” Christianity.

When I think about the evangelicals who have shaped me spiritually and continue to influence me, it would be completely out of character for them to gloat over any church’s decline. Real evangelical faith creates humble people who love the gospel, not spin-doctoring, power-hungry politicos who love their talking points. And I don’t think I’m just using “real evangelical” as a false label for people who agree with me. There is real spiritual vitality within evangelical Christianity that keeps me in its orbit, no matter how many disagreements I might have with my fellow evangelicals over social issues. Here are some qualities about the real evangelicals I know that would keep them from turning surveys about church decline into a victory dance.

1) Real evangelicals want people to know Jesus; fake evangelicals want to win arguments

There’s an evangelism video series called “Contagious Christianity” that describes the kind of innate passion that real evangelicals have about the gospel. They love Jesus and can’t stop talking about him. They want for other people to know Jesus. Every moment they are thinking about how to share Jesus’ love with the people around them. They hate any stumbling block that gets in the way of the gospel. Real evangelicals are very troubled by the devastation that the culture wars have waged upon our Christian witness. They might be marriage traditionalists, but they want the focus to be on Jesus’ love, not on polarizing issues (e.g. Louie Giglio, Andy Stanley, etc).

Fake evangelicals relish two things: winning and feeling “persecuted.” They enjoy being contentious and “politically incorrect” because it gives them the satisfaction of feeling like they’re “taking a stand for God.” They constantly engage in theological pissing contests to see who has the most hard-core, cage-fighter God. Fake evangelicals are more invested in winning arguments with other Christians than they are in sharing the gospel with non-Christians. They enjoy talking about how other churches don’t really read the Bible or talk about sin or believe in salvation. A fake evangelical gets more joy out of seeing the Episcopal church go down in flames than seeing new people come to know Jesus.

2) Real evangelicals hate their own sin; fake evangelicals love to talk about other peoples’ sin

Evangelicals emphasize sin in their gospel (perhaps too much). Real evangelicals focus most strongly on their own sin while fake evangelicals love to talk about other peoples’ sin. This difference defines how they respond differently to any kind of negative news. A real evangelical feels personally convicted by any controversy involving the church, while a fake evangelical sees it as an opportunity to judge others.

What a real evangelical wants to know about church decline in America is how has my sin alienated people from Jesus. Fake evangelicals cannot imagine that church decline would have anything to do with their personal behavior so they spin it into a narrative about the lukewarmness of “liberal” Christianity and the wickedness of secularism.

3) Real evangelicals want to be crucified and resurrected; fake evangelicals want to be right

For real evangelicals, the entire power of Christianity lies in our participation in the ongoing crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They are always looking into their own hearts for idols that need to be crucified so that they can be resurrected into greater freedom. Real evangelical churches are places where this powerful process of deliverance and transformation is taking place. They are places where humble, broken people are set free and keep asking God to humble and break them further so they can taste even deeper freedom.

Fake evangelical churches are places where everyone has already “arrived,” where people have learned to speak the right lingo with self-assurance. What’s attractive about fake evangelical churches is the opportunity to be right about everything since the pastor knows that he’s right about everything. In the midst of these stadiums of rightness, many individuals might feel insecure about their beliefs but they keep these insecurities deeply hidden and compensate for them by outperforming one another in zealous displays of doctrinal correctness.

4) Real evangelicals love the body of Christ; fake evangelicals love being the only true Christians

The difference in attitude between real evangelicals and fake evangelicals towards the greater body of Christ is like the story of the two women who came before King Solomon arguing over a baby in 1 Kings 3:16-28. When Solomon offered to cut the baby in two, the real mother said no, give the baby to the other woman. This is like the attitude of the real evangelicals who want the body of Christ to make it, regardless of whether they get to be in charge. Fake evangelicals want any church where they are not in charge to wither and die.

A real evangelical response to the decline of mainline churches might be to join a declining mainline congregation and freely offer your love, gifts, and passion in support even if you don’t agree with everyone’s theology. People will hear you out on your theological convictions if you show that you’re on their team rather than rooting for them to fail. I know a lot of real evangelicals who are willing to partner in ministry with people who have different beliefs in our painfully, wonderfully theologically diverse United Methodist denomination; they bring many blessings to the congregations they serve.

Fake evangelicals cannot abide two things: theological diversity and the possibility of failure. Whenever fake evangelicals smell the possibility of failure or too much theological diversity in their congregations, they ditch them for a “Bible-believing” congregation where everyone is right and everyone is winning. God only knows what percentage of megachurch attendance is transfer growth of all the people who ditch their “loser” mainline congregations to be part of a winning team. I know of about eight families who ditched our Methodist church in northern Virginia to join the wildly popular “community” church around the corner.

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  • Rust Cohle

    > fake evangelicals want to win arguments

    Was St. Paul one of those fake evangelicals?

    Acts 17:18 He also had a debate with some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers.

    The problem is that every bad behavior you purport to be “fake” is found in Paul’s behaviors and writing in the New Testament.

    Galatians 1.11-2.14 provides the best biography we have of Paul, and in six hundred of “his own words.” The passage positively shouts arrogance and conceit, as Paul parades his finer points: chosen by God from his mother’s womb; a personal revelation from JC; able to not merely harass but “waste” the church; excelling in Judaism beyond his peers; obdurate in the face of criticism; closed to new knowledge; a superior, “mighty” infusion of commitment; defiance before Peter, the chief apostle. What we have here is a religious bully.

    The bogus “authentic” Pauline epistles
    A compendium of fraud!

  • Frank

    If people are leaving pseudo Christian churches that rewrite theology and create their own god, which they are, it can be nothing but a good thing.

    • Benjamin Wortham

      Reform theology is a rewrite of Catholic theology and Evangelical theology is a recent rewrite of reformed theology and fundamentalist theology is a rewrite of Evangelical theology. Religions evolve and that’s a good thing.

      • Frank

        When religions evolve more into Gods Will that’s a good thing. Still waiting for the progressives to evolve.

        • Benjamin Wortham

          Okay, not trying to piss you off, but the first sentence doesn’t actually mean anything. A tangible thing(religious institutions) can’t evolve into an intangible thing(Gods Will). I know your just trying to use the word evolve in a clever way but it’s a fail but I get the gist. Holding fast to old beliefs and practices and not changing are the opposite of evolution. By definition progressives are evolving and we fully believe it’s Gods Will that is driving that evolution.

          • Frank

            Yeah I know you believe that but these “new” views are not consistent with scripture which means they created by man, not God and serve mans will not Gods Will. This is why it’s dying.

          • Benjamin Wortham

            That’s the central rub of disagreement. I respect your position but we’re operating on different assumptions. You see scripture as the pure unchanging word of God. I see it as a human interpretation of the experience of God and therefore fallible and subject to revision in the light of God’s continuing revelation.

          • Frank

            Which is why you have created your own god.

  • Rarely have I agreed with every single word found in any single blog post from anybody, but this one is it, pastor! This sentence, of course, spoke to me personally: “A fake evangelical gets more joy out of seeing the Episcopal church go down in flames than seeing new people come to know Jesus.”

    I realize how my words will appear to many, but I offer them in the hope that many will receive them in the firm-yet-gentle spirit in which I intend them: now that the contentious conservatives have left The Episcopal Church, we are beginning to experience quite a spiritual renewal. I blogged about it here, and here, and I thank you for allowing me these two plugs.

  • R Vogel

    What the hell would Russel Moore be crowing about, isn’t he a Baptist? Baptists saw declines of 3.8 pp in the survey, losing congregants at a rate of almost 2 to 1 to those they gained.

  • Cynthia Astle

    Written as only a true evangelical could critique the home folks, Morgan. Well done. Picking up for UM Insight.

  • Rev. Andrew R Gentry

    For many of us we do not want anything to do with either the far right levitical religion of control and exclusion nor the the far left politically correct therapeutic deism.. When we see “evangelicals” demanding millions for a plane or living in a multimillion dollar mansion or supporting the Tea Party or UMC Boards refusing to condemn Hamas and religious CEOs like Episcopal Katie Schori making it clear that 44 million dollars in law suits is more important than the Gospel we just as soon ignore denominational “Christianity” all together! Or to put it another way when there is no difference between the KKK along with the worship of the Golden Calf passing for evangelism on the right or Oprah and conscious raising passing for “emergent progressive Christianity on the left we just as soon as not waste out time let alone resources. When you have heard enough of preachers on the right like Hagee and his ilk saying that “gawd’s word” says this or that and enough of people like Mark Sandlin or Jack Spong explaining away every butchers festival by Islamic followers in the Iraq as just a matter of hermeneutics the Pew findings are just a drop in the bucket!

  • Benjamin Wortham

    I love my theologically diverse UMC church. Believe or not we have everything from ultra traditional to ultra progressive and everything in between. This has not been a recipe for disaster. We are one of the fastest growing congregations in our area. Roughly half of our 800+ membership are originally from other denominations. Mostly Babtist AND Presbyterian. We disagree on many things and admit to many doubts. One thing we do agree on is that the culture wars have been an unhelpful barrier to being the true body of Christ.

    • BoomerGal

      The UMC is LOSING, you moron. How’s that “diversity” stuff working out for ya?

      Btw, the word is “Baptist,” not “Babtist.” You are a total dumb_ss.

      • Benjamin Wortham

        Wow that set’s a new standard for repulsive trolls. Applause!

  • that was a nice essay, but obviously i can’t agree with it all (i came here from Friendly Atheist). what it reminds me of is a running joke we have over there, the “One True Christian” fallacy.

    like it or not, if you’re going to call yourself a Christian (and go for it! that’s your right in a free society!) you must accept that other people are also Christians, and they believe in things that are completely different than the ones you do. and they are just as “Christian” as you are.

    just like all atheists have no common quality except for a lack of belief in any god based on the lack of evidence of one/some, all Christians only share a belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ. after that, they can believe all sorts of things, and it doesn’t take away from their “Christian-ness.”

    i don’t expect liberal and tolerant Christians to ‘police’ all of Christendom. but i do expect them to understand: to non-Christians, it’s very hard for us to understand why nice Christians would want to share an umbrella with the mean ones. and there are so many of those.

    • I can appreciate why that would be hard to understand.

  • David Bruggink

    There’s a lot that I love about this post. I think it’s a valuable effort to challenge traditionally-held notions of what it means to be “evangelical.” It’s easy to miss entirely those aspects of evangelicalism that are praise-worthy. I think your frustrations towards those on the more legalistic side of the spectrum are certainly accurate. However, I just want to throw out there – knowing full well that this is something I’m very guilty of – that I detect more anger in this post towards the “spear-throwers” than a desire for reconciliation. As someone on your team, so to speak, your frustrations totally resound with me – but I wonder how someone on the other side would perceive them. I’m constantly getting riled up by what I interpret to be reckless statements by people like Russell Moore, but at the same time I think there’s an ever-present risk of my seeing them not as real people who are deserving of love, but as my legalistic enemies.