July 13, 2020

Tim Tennent: It is time we become “deep, thick and different.”

I have been waiting to make this available to you for awhile. Earlier in the fall, Ben Witherington posted an address spoken by President Timothy Tennent for the Fall Convocation at Asbury Theological Seminary. I’ve wanted Internet Monk readers to hear his words ever since I first read them. In the light of Jeff’s post yesterday, here is an example of a parallel perspective given by a leading contemporary evangelical leader.

Note well: this critique comes from the heart of the church, not from people on the outside looking in, who became hurt or disaffected and are now spending their venom on all things evangelical. This is a church leader, who feels responsible for sending out a new generation of pastors and church leaders into an evangelical culture that he believes is in serious crisis. Whereas Michael Spencer spoke of evangelicalism’s coming “collapse,” Tennant warns even more dramatically: “The whole evangelical house will soon be engulfed in flames.” 

Tim Tennent is sounding an alarm, loud and clear. And this is, indeed, one of the clearest, boldest, most damning critiques of evangelicalism that I have read.

Here are some excerpts from this prophetic message. To read the entire address, go HERE.

 

In his 1937 landmark book, The Kingdom of God in America, Richard Niebuhr memorably described the message of Protestant liberalism as “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” In the ensuing years Niebuhr’s statement has become one of the more well known summaries of the failure of Protestant liberalism to properly reflect the apostolic message.  Tragically, Niebuhr’s devastating critique is on the brink of being equally applicable to contemporary, evangelical Christianity.  Who has lost sight more of the depth of human sin, the certainty of God’s judgment and the call to repentance and transformation at the feet of a crucified savior than today’s populistic, evangelical churches?…

It may be true that the house of liberal Protestantism has nearly burned to the ground and we’ve been standing there screaming with our water hose for almost a century, but, brothers and sisters, we must recognize that our own kitchen is on fire and within one generation, the whole evangelical house will soon be engulfed in flames.  If liberalism is guilty of demythologizing the miraculous, we have surely been guilty of trivializing it. If liberalism is guilty of turning all theological statements into anthropological ones, surely we must be found guilty of making Christianity just another face of the multi-headed Hydra of American, market-driven consumerism.  If liberalism can be charged with making the church a gentler, kindler version of the Kiwanis club, we must be willing to accept the charge that we have managed to reinvent the gospel, turning it into a privatized subset of one’s individual faith journey.  I realize that there are powerful, faithful churches in every tradition who are already modeling the very future this message envisions, but we must also allow our prophetic imagination to enable us to see what threatens to engulf us.

…Evangelicalism is awash with the constant drumbeat message of informality, the assumed wisdom of consumerism, reliance on technology, love of entertainment, pursuit of comfort, materialism and personal autonomy – all held together by easy-to-swallow, pithy gospel statements….

…Evangelicals are, of course, masters at dodging any criticism that we ourselves could ever be co-opted by culture.  We disguise our lack of theological reflection by our constant commitment to “relevance” or saying that we are reaching people “where they are.”  Of course, who would deny that the church needs to have a profound understanding of “where people are.”   That is not the problem.  We are quite adept at measuring where people are culturally, but we are at best careless in any sustained theological reflection about where they should be culturally.  So, for example, if the wider culture has become apathetic about ritual, tradition, symbolism, poetic expressions, the value of history, or the necessity of intergenerational relationships, then, no problem, we say, it is the evangelical version of the prime directive to always adapt to culture.  But what if these very prejudices are actually part of the cultural malaise to which the church has been called to provide a stunning alternative?  How easily we seem to forget that the gospel doesn’t need our help in being made relevant.  The gospel is always relevant, and it is we who need to be made relevant to the gospel.

…If today’s evangelical church is really marked by shallowness, thinness and cultural sameness, then, to use the phrase of Jack Davis, perhaps it is time we become “deep, thick and different.”

  • A deep church is one which takes the encounter with a holy God seriously and is shaped by spiritual disciplines, holiness and catechesis.  A deep church is the opposite of a shallow one.  We are to exhibit a deep understanding of the holiness and weightiness of God.  In Hebrew the word for honor and glory is kbd (kabod), meaning “heavy.”  God has become far too lightweight in contemporary evangelicalism.  The great sense of God’s transcendence and holiness must, once again, overtake post-modernity’s sense of over familiarity and casualness in God’s presence.  Indeed, we are profoundly in need of recapturing the sense of God’s presence.   Nietzsche’s madman who described churches as “the tombs and sepulchers of God” does, in fact, capture something of the movement from the real presence of Christ to the real absence of Christ in the experience of many churches today.
  • A thick church contrasts with a thin one and is characterized by thick relationships and commitments and where worship is not a product we consume, but the great ontological orientation of our lives.  We are the people of the Risen Lord.  The consumeristic, therapeutic self of modernity is, through the gospel, the trinitarian, ecclesial self of the New Creation.
  • A different church is one not marked by cultural sameness, but, instead, is a manifestation of the in-breaking of the New Creation.  A visitor should feel somewhat out of place when they walk into our midst, as they encounter people with a radically distinctive orientation.  A different church is one which is profoundly distinct from the culture in its “ontology, theology, worship and moral behavior.” To be different is to be a community marked by metanoia.

Brothers and sisters, may the shallowness, thinness and cultural sameness of our churches become churches, under God and your leadership, which are deep, thick and different.

Comments

  1. Sounds like a pizza advertisement.

  2. Joe Scordato says

    There is so much good stuff here, it’s difficult to know where to begin. We’ve come so far from worshipping God simply because He is God, obeying Christ simply because He is Lord of the Universe, bending the knee simply because He is both holy and worthy. What we ended up with is a far cry from the Christianity of our forefathers. “Christianity-light” is not what Jesus died for. When we stop trying to make it easy, people will take us and our Christ more seriously. Thankfully there are some who are still getting it right. We need to work hard not to become disgruntled critics, though. We need to focus our energies on embracing and encouraging the real deal.

  3. I think Evangelical pastors will find this tough to do, though, even if they wanted to. I have a friend who’s a Baptist pastor of a small church. He is “competing” with several megachurches in the area and so must work to provide an experience that can attract the increasingly fickle Evangelical worshiper. If he doesn’t compete with them (via praise music, videos, etc.), people may very well stop coming, and then his presentation of the gospel, which he believes is strong, will not reach people because his church will close.

    On the fickleness of some Evangelicals, which I think is growing because of the ecclesial consumer mentality, one Protestant woman told me last week: “We used to go to X megachurch, then switched to Y one. But I was always cold in Y, so we stopped going there and now go to Z megachurch.”

    She switched churches because one of them set the thermostat too cold for liking. I mean, how can a pastor like my friend stay “in business” when the ecclesial consumers are this shallow?

    • Devin, I think you hit the problem of evangelicalism right on the head with this comment. Now, I’m not trying to be snarky, so please don’t take my comments that way, but here’s some fodder for us all to consider…

      “Must” we as pastors work to provide an “experience” to attract worshipers? I believe that’s a pool of water that is hot when first drawn, but cools quickly. As cultural trends fade, the relevance of the all-star worship team will fade, as well.

      Should we be so concerned about the statement, “people may very well stop coming”? If he presents the Gospel, and I believe you when you say he does, God will provide him with opportunities to share it. And many people will be turned off by it. Now, as a result, he may not be able to pastor “full-time”. I’ve suggested to a few young preacher-boys recently that they study the primary occupations of men in the target area where they wish to plant churches, get jobs doing what the average person is doing, and preach because you’re passionate about it, not because it will pay your bills. Get down in the ditches with people, and build a church from a ground up, one person at a time. Forget marketing and advertising campaigns and trendy church. names (If I see one more church named “Crossroads”, “Crossfire”, “The Flame”, “Lifechurch”, “The Rock” or with the word “community”, in the name….How about a good old Saints’ name?) When I talk about these things, young pastors look at me like I’m insane! It’s almost as if the attractional model of youth ministry is so ingrained in them, they can’t imagine anything else.

      When you say, “How can a pastor like my friend stay in business…”, I’m assuming that you mean he may not be able to pastor as a full-time vocation, or perhaps his church may be (gasp) small. As a pastor who has served in a megachurch, I can tell you, ten years of experience has taught me that it wasn’t the congregants who needed to reframe how they viewed ministries, so that they would enjoy mine…It was me who needed to reframe what success in ministry really means. I bought into the American ideal that success means numbers. That’s simply not true. I’ve spent the last three years convicted of my past ideas, and repenting of them daily.

      Again, please don’t think I’m being too sharp-tongued. I just really believe that we as the church aren’t called to be culturally relevant…We’re called to be counter-cultural!

    • You are exactly right, Devin. The only hope for evangelicals, IMHO, is for there to be monastic movements akin to the Desert Fathers, who abandoned the circus atmosphere in the city and sought God in the wilderness.

      • A lot of those monastic movements led to the heresies renounced in the reformation. Monasticism is no cure.

        It’s all about the purpose of worship. Worship is where God dishes up and serves a deep, thick slice of forgiveness in Word and Sacrament. If worship is used for any other purpose, it loses the other-wordliness of God, and must cater to human’s messed up fads and desires.

        • I am in sympathy with your analysis, Boaz, when it comes to the long term effects of any reactionary movement. However, in the short-term, such movements have potential to shock the church to its senses, or at least call public attention to its abuses. You know, desperate times – desperate measures.

        • I really disagree! The Desert Fathers and Mothers weren’t, for the most part, Roman Catholics because there wasn’t, as yet, anything akin to Roman Catholicism! The Church had yet to split! And these Desert monastics did not promulgate teachings that led to the heresies that led to the Reformation…1000 years after they died! Have you read Abba Arsenius, Abba Poemen, Abba Macarius of Egypt, Abba Moses the Robber, and Amma Syncletica of Alexandria? how about Athanasius of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and John Cassian? John Chrysostom wrote the Liturgy I attend each Sunday. He wrote it in the 4thC…about 600 years before the Catholic Church, much less any of the Reformed Churches, began to exist as a separate entity.

          Know your history. One of the comments in this article is about the failure of Western/American Christians to know their history. Are you aware that Martin Luther contacted the Patriarch of Constantinople for aid against the Pope? He was, eventually, rebuffed. But there is a fascinating correspondence between them. At least Luther knew the difference between Orthodoxy and Catholicism…and the contributions made by the Desert Fathers and Mothers to our common history…

          So. What is the point of the monastic life? To become holy by whatever means is best for one. For some, it’s the life of the monastic. For others, it’s the life of marriage and family. For still others, it’s as a celibate single, in the world, and engaged there. We are called to differing expressions to find our path into theosis.

          The vocation of the monastic is to attempt to walk away from the engagement of the world to live fully submitted to the will of God without the distraction of commerce, family, politics, finances. et alia. Through the alms of others, the monastic lives a life apart. They give it all away. Willingly. For the original Desert-dwellers, the world followed them to learn what God was teaching them…and, soon, the engagement with the world was with them, there, in the desert; the desert was then carried out into the world as the movement spread into Gaul (John Cassian) and elsewhere. The movement is now world-wide and no less necessary for the life of the Church…and the theosis of the modern “desert”-dweller.

          For us married, who have chosen equally well, albeit differently, our engagement with the world demands a different approach. We cannot give it all away as the monastics do. But we share in their life as we also share in the same ancient disciplines: fasting, prayer, giving, submitting; living lives fully-engaged, seeking the Will of the Father over our own. Loving others over ourselves…giving our all for Him. Same with the celibate single. All these expressions of a life in Christ is a gift from Him to us.

          But I digress… 😉

          The point is that we need monastics just as we need every other sort of Christian. We need each other and each vocation given us. The only heresy is the one that teaches us to spurn our history, deny our calling, and to misconstrue each other and the life in Christ that best enables us to be a disciple…and to make disciples of those brought to us.

          • I too think there is a place for monasticism, but we are looking at this from the standpoint of seeing what such movements have done for two thousand years now (good and bad). I was speaking specifically of the various movements (such as the desert fathers) who took up their monastic lifestyle out of protest to the prevailing status quo, spoke prophetically against it, and modeled an alternative.

          • Laura,

            Are you Eastern Orthodox or Eastern Rite Catholic?

            I would just point out that claiming the Catholic Church didn’t exist until 500 or 1000 AD is begging the question of whether the Catholic Church schismed from the Eastern Orthodox or vice-versa.

        • Yeah. We all know that no heresies have resulted from the Reformation, have they?

          Prosperity Gospel, anyone? Maybe with a side of constantly dividing bride of Christ?

      • very true! we can not be caught playing the numbers game. We must follow Jesus wherever he leads us(wilderness?). There will be pain, there will be mistakes but if we hold on to the Cross, serve with the basin, & live by the Word no one can stand against us & some may be even many will follow Jesus’ Way w/ us.
        peace.

      • whoa-whoa-whoa now…

        this monastic, desert escape from the ‘evil’ culture consideration, just the thing The Church has been accused of in this very website…

        instead of being in the world & not of it, just escape it! don’t be salt+light in that corrupt social/cultural morass, just pick-up & go out to the desert to experience a ‘purer’ form of saintly solitude…

        abandon the throngs of people that need to have a positive example of the church in their midst. live out in the wilderness where the air is clean+clear, you can see the stars, the wind the only nite sounds (no sirens), & depend on the generosity of others actually making a living back there in the accursed worldly system…

        yeah. right. a true example of what Jesus did. His example of being in solitude intended to fortify Him for His real work ‘in the world’ surrounding by the very people that needed Him the most. what would have been the result if Jesus never returned from His 40-day desert testing/wandering??? the ‘original’ desert Father?

        the message that the desert Fathers/Mothers proclaimed was not required or even necessary. culture & society, including the ‘religious’ institutions they eschewed, the same world Jesus entered deliberately to declare the kingdom come & the good news for all men everywhere.

        but really, it is getting so bad ‘out there’ the trend should be toward monasticism & desert migration to keep oneself unsullied by the very elements of humanity Jesus came to save???

        i don’t quite get the ‘attraction’ of that element of Christianity. and i was raised in the RCC tradition where this very element of piety was championed.

        however, as a lapsed Catholic, i can appreciate the piety of those that do live a life without earthly attachment while ministering to the least of these in the very bowels of human habitation. no escape. no withdrawing behind cloistered walls. but braving the brutal world outside & making Jesus known in the midst of its noise, confusion, mess, depravity…

        anyway…just a thought here. an alternate viewpoint while trying to be understanding…

        • I hear you, but what I am saying is that there needs to be a large-scale exodus from evangelicalism by those who are serious about what Tennent says here. The desert fathers were not just abandoning the world; a large part of their protest was about what the church had become. I am using them as an illustration of the very thing Michael wrote about in Mere Churchianity.

          • i suspected as much, but the pendulum swing seemed a bit too grand for this former Catholic & more wandering pilgrim than denominational saint…

            the Evangelical crisis or personality disorder (dysfunction?) a large part of Spencer’s focus & is the main reason i camped out here…

            maybe a small revolution like St. Francis of Assisi demonstrated? i was quite the ‘fan’ of Francis when i was still attending Mass after my own personal epiphany. i even considered becoming a Franciscan brother before God convinced me otherwise…

            yeah. i understand the illustrative mention of the desert saints, but still, i would rather get my John-the-Baptist pronouncements here on the internet rather than the stark/harsh landscape of the desert… 🙂

          • As a resident of the post-evangelical desert for several years now, I have to say that it’s a strange mix of lack and bounty, loneliness and close relationships, purpose and frustration.
            I’ve enjoyed gathering, sharing, serving, and worshipping with very small groups of fellow desert dwellers. And I think I’ve grown in and discovered a good deal about my own faith outside the insulated environment of institutional Christianity.
            Still, I have this feeling that the desert isn’t a place I need to camp out forever. But, honestly, I have no idea what the Promised Land on the other side of this desert journey is supposed to look like.
            I know that I’m not comfortable in an overly formal, highly liturgical setting. But, on the other hand, I can’t stomach the current evangelical church environment. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of options.
            Maybe we desert dwellers are going to have to plant our own gardens in the waste places.
            I know we definitely need some kind of vision for the future.

  4. I love how Dr. Tennent describes the current evangelical world. I am tired of the conservative/liberal battle, that was for the last generation. The problem is ourselves, not some distant liberal.

  5. David Cornwell says

    It’s very good to hear a prophectic voice coming from this young leader. He is refreshing as he rings again the bell of alarm that we so urgently need to hear. May his voice remain faithful to Him.

    It also makes me a little proud that Asbury Seminary is my alma mater, and that right across the road from this photograph, on the campus of Asbury College, is a park bench (or one like it) where I met Marge.

  6. When you are a law- driven church community, then it will all naturally revolve around the worshipper. And they want what they want. So, it is given to them…and then the culture drives the train.

    So many churches let those who don’t care about the church, define the church.

    Two major mega-churches in my neighborhood are not having Christmas Day services, so people can spend the entire day with their familes. No worship service on SUNDAY?

    There are probably a lot more churches doing this in my area than I know about.

    • Beyond craziness! We know that the stores should close, but the churches????

      And if spending time with the Father and our brothers and sister in Christ isn’t being with “Family”, then what does that say about the church community?

      Oh, that’s right, it isn’t a family…it is a production with 1500 other audience members for the show!

      Sad, sad, sad……

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      In our church bulletin, my parish is having the normal Six-Mass Sunday Schedule on Christmas.

      They’ll just be Christmas Masses, that’s all. And the Rectory/Office will be closed for two days.

  7. No one pretends that Evangelicalism is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that Evangelicalism is the worst form of Christianity except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. 🙂

  8. “…the message of Protestant liberalism as “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

    I get it. These words are as damning of contemporary evangelicalism as they were of liberal protestantism in the days of Niebuhr.

    But we seem to vascilate between this message and the one of the cultural warriors, of a god without grace standing in judgement without mercy over men forced to bear their own sins on their own crosses. In either case, who wants to live in heaven forever with either god: the therapeutic god or the wrathful god? Is there no alternative? Is their truly no graceful god, which Luther claimed to have found – or whom found him? If Christianity is a choice between Osteen and Piper, then maybe it’s all over.

  9. It’s a very valid criticism of many evangelical churches, and there is a lot to absorb in the message. At the same time, I think there is within some strains of the evangelical culture an equally dangerous flip side to the flippancy and shallowness we see in much of evangelicalism, and that is churches that are so serious and driven that deep comes to mean narrowly doctrinaire; thick comes to mean clique-ish and sometimes almost cultish in defining anyone who disagrees on even minor issues as ungodly; and different comes to mean not just differing from the larger culture but but also other believers, and not infrequently being disdainful of either or both. In short, when being part of another kingdom morphs into a militant us-vs-them attitude.

    • I think you are right that there are two troubling, opposite tendencies within evangelicalism. There’s the shallow, happy, God-can-fix-us-and-make-us-successful side that leaves no room for real life pain and turns God into a self-help guru. Then there’s the everyone-outside-this-circle-is-evil strain. One trivializes God, the other prevents the very boundary-crossing love that is the point of the Christian life.

      The latter problem could, I think, be mitigated if more evangelical churches acquire the “think” quality the speech describes. I wish that I could bottle up the zeal of many evangelicals and combine it with the unassuming community-orientedness of many mainliners. One quality without the other puts everything off-kilter.

      • “the very boundary-crossing love that is the point of the Christian life.” I like that phrase, Danielle!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        “The Devil sends us temptations in matched opposing pairs. So that in fleeing one, we embrace the other.”
        — C.S.Lewis(? from memory)

  10. A hearty “amen” to just about anything Tim Tennent says or writes. Of the eight courses I’ve taken through Gordon-Conwell Seminary’s distance-learning program (SemLink) his course World Mission of the Church was for me the most interesting and worthwhile. Available to enrolled students, as well as to non-students for personal enrichment, at gordonconwell.edu.

    (As disclaimer, I earn no royalties from this endorsement…)

    By the way Mike, the title to this article, “deep, thick and different” is Jack (John Jefferson) Davis’s quote. Dr. Davis is a professor at Gordon-Conwell, where Dr. Tennent used to teach. Anything by Dr. Davis is also outstanding.

  11. How do we enact the great commission?
    obviously we make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all he has taught us, baptising them etc, but…
    Do we hold seeker friendly services, do we street preach, do we hold youth events, how do we get people in the slightest bit interested in being a disciple?

    Im sure this has already been discussed at length, i should read more of the posts here

  12. I thought this was stupendous when I read it some weeks ago. It made me want to preach & teach the Word! Asbury is such an excellent school.

  13. This all sounds like snobbery to me. So what if many evangelical churches are “dumbed down” for the 90%. They are merely affected by the changes that have happened in many mainline churches. Is this not just another version of “we have found the enemy and they are us”? – no need to correct the quote.

    In every church there is 10% (or 1%) asking for something deeper. But church communities still have to feed the 90% the food that they are willing to eat – with an occasional new vegetable from where-ever. Another way to look at these churches is as “entry-level” communities. Yes, there is value to a hierarchy prescribing and proscribing worship and values – a connection to Tradition, but not everyone can handle this in a free society.

    • Feeding pablum to adults is NOT the answer…..

      • had to Google ‘pablum’ :-).

        It is difficult to find the balance between talking down to others (assuming a lack of intellectual inability) and talking over others’ heads. Also, academics ought to be challenged more often to be able to articulate ideas/concepts in a way your average Joe can comprehend. I tend to think that most humans are smarter than they give themselves credit, but in our society the bar is set so freaking low and too many are taught in adolescence that it is not cool to think.

  14. ‘A different church is one which is profoundly distinct from the culture in its “ontology, theology, worship and moral behavior.” To be different is to be a community marked by metanoia.’

    A big step forward would be for evangelicals to follow C.S. Lewis’ rule for reading: “..after reading a new book, never allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one…keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds…”

  15. While there are obviously problems with American Evagelicalism, most of the crying about becoming “apathetic about ritual, tradition, symbolism, poetic expressions,” sounds like some cranky old man whining about how if kids would just stop dying there hair purple and girls would wear dresses more often there would be less teenage pregnancy.

    Too much of it just sounds like people who love the liturgy of the mainlines wanting everyone else to adopt it. I’ve been part of Ancient-future congregations that had all the same flaws as coffee shop in the lobby evangelical churches and we all have seen enough dead as a doornail mainline churches.