September 20, 2020

Another Look: Evangelicalism as a Way Station

IMG_0193Note from CM: We will continue with Michael Spencer’s “Coming Evangelical Collapse” series and get back to an overview of the “Age of Evangelicalism” in the U.S. — roughly 1970-2008 — in a day or two. But for today, here’s another look at a suggestion of something that evangelicalism does well. This reflection was first posted in April, 2013.

• • •

I want to say something in praise of evangelicalism today. Evangelicalism has played an important role in my spiritual formation, and I know from experience that it has done the same in the lives of many others.

The graph of my spiritual history is simple: from mainline Christianity to adolescent rebellion to spiritual awakening through evangelicalism to gradual dissatisfaction with the world of evangelicalism and back home to mainline Christianity.

I have met others who have followed a similar path. Just the other day my pastor told me about a young man who had grown up in the Lutheran church, left the church as a teenager, was “converted” in an evangelical church, then became “burned out” in that church environment, and one day stumbled back into a Lutheran congregation, where he is now settling in as an adult.

Evangelicalism is at its best when it gets the attention of prodigals, gets them moving, and points them toward home. Evangelicalism provides a way station where people weary of the world can stop in, find rest and refreshment, get some guidance, and then find their way home. Evangelicalism has a missional mentality and focus. It is good at attracting people, waking them up, and getting them back in touch with God. It is spiritual CPR. It’s a voice in the wilderness that gets people into the waters of Jordan to repent and believe.

But what happens then? In my opinion, evangelicalism, for reasons often discussed on this blog, works best as a mission but not as a church tradition. In general, it does not have the theological depth, historical heritage, ecclesiological and liturgical traditions, or institutional ballast to provide a stable home where people may be formed into communities with the ability to pass the faith on for generations and centuries.

To be sure, mainline traditions have not always grasped the importance of being that home, nor have they always been keen to support missional efforts to “seek and save the lost,” preferring rather to maintain their traditions and institutions rather than do what was necessary to reach people. Nor have the historic traditions been immune to chasing silly fads or getting distracted by political agendas — though they were certainly different ones than the revivalists, church growth practitioners, and Christian Right of evangelicalism have been running after.

IMG_0194Nevertheless, where liturgy has been faithfully practiced, tradition honored, and historical memory maintained, there is hope of a good foundation and solid structure in which one may leave the pilgrim life for a more permanent home.

Back in 2007, Michael Spencer wrote that this may be the very moment when the mainlines and historic traditions have just what disaffected evangelicals are longing for:

It’s a moment that — believe it or not — some people actually want to go to something that looks like church as they remember it, see a recognizable pastor, hear a recognizable sermon, participate in the Lord’s Supper, experience some reverence and decorum, and leave feeling that, in some ways, it WAS a lot like their mom and dad’s church. It’s a moment when reinventing everything may not be as sweet an idea as we were told it was.

Perhaps it is time for evangelicals and mainline Christians to recognize what each has to offer the other and to work on creatively forging new understandings and partnerships that will allow each to do what it does best.

As for me, I am thankful for both. But only in a historic mainline tradition have I found a home.


  1. We’re both from alcoholic father families. We definitely knew from the beginning that we didn’t want a home like our mom and dad’s( and may I say they were not only Lutheran, but Holt Trinity Lutheran in the cities of Philadelphia, Chester, and Wallingford). Other than that, our spiritual story is very, very similar to yours. Now with 4 children and 7 grandchildren we know in our hearts we have participated in a solid, upward spirallng, Christian family. But we grandparents are in the wilderness.

  2. I was raised Methodist. I do not remember any talk of the gifts. I could not identify with it. Mostly it was extremely boring with the ritual of doing the service and then life went unaffected by it. In reality as I look back I probably was not capable of hearing the word having been distracted by my own wants and desires. I heard His voice after almost dying at 15 years old. Mid seventies and all the stuff that contributed to that. I knew I was saved but my life didn’t change much. No one knew what to do with me as I talked about Jesus and I went back into the world and all that stuff. Tried a couple more times In the Methodist church. My sister got me to try an AOG church and that was the first time I experienced the Holy Spirit being poured from a pulpit by a gentile very large man showing me real love and pouring his heart out from the pulpit. He left a time later due to health and I was empty again as the man who replaced him I could not identify with at all. Went to a really Charismatic church with dancing in the aisles and different things and I heard the good news and learned of the Spirit and wondered why I had not heard it before. It is now I realize i was not ready for it before. At this time I was totally empty and void and crying out to God all the time. I simply didn’t want to continue anymore here in this world empty and void. He answered. I look around so much and say what is missing still Lord. Many things with certain aspects of Charismatic do not give me peace. Especially the extreme hunt for signs and wonders. I expect they should follow not lead but I do not see that. I have been touched deeply by the Holy Spirit and I cry out still I need you Lord I am not at home. I am hurting again and my heart is falling out and I do not know what to do. I am in anguish most of my entire day and I hope He does soon answer me. Most of the time the best part of my day is feeding stray cats on a mountain which I have not missed a day in 2 years or more. My sister died of cancer there was no divine healing. I believe in signs and wonders and that God is capable of doing them. I have seen them first hand. You would think it life changing but it wasn’t as much as you would think. When I hear people say they can make a leg grow out I cringe a little. I am still without a home when I had thought I had found one. What is wrong with me.

    • w, nothing is “wrong” with you. You just appear to be a solitary soul who is still searching for meaning. I notice that you did not mention other people or friends in your post, perhaps because you do not form close bonds with others easily? Just a guess.

      My suggestion, such as it is, is that you find a bible believing church, one that is not so roiled up with the “signs and wonders” crowd. It COULD be AOG (I attended one for 20 years and learned little of the bible) or Baptist or Reformed, just SOMEWHERE, and just sit at Jesus’ feet, learn what the pastor has to say AND try to connect to others. Connecting with others is IMPORTANT because they are your brothers and sisters and can give you comfort and council, and just plain friendship. Small groups are good for that. Large churches ALWAYS have them because it is so easy to get lost in them. Smaller ones may not, so try to find one that does.

      Then I would suggest that you begin a personal program of bible study. Forget the “deep” stuff, just plain informational stuff, like who wrote what book, and when. What the author’s intent was in writing, to whom was it written, you know, basic stuff. Then delve into commentaries by bible teachers. Forget the “inspirational” stuff, stick to brass tacks commentary. Pray regularly and stay in regular fellowship.

      This is all basic stuff, but important, so that you won’t be “blown about by every wind of doctrine” as the apostle said. You will slowly become grounded in your faith and will discover that your feelings of rootlessness and disaffection will begin to fade. They probably won’t disappear completely, it just might be in your nature so don’t worry.

      But don’t forget FELLOWSHIP! I feel for you and I think I understand. I am a fellow wanderer who sometimes feels alone in a crowd, disconnected from those around me. But my faith is grounded in the Father alone, and His son Jesus Christ, in whose image I am slowly becoming conformed, God Bless and keep you…


      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        One caveat: Churches who describe themselves as “Bible-Believing” are usually heavy Fundagelical.

        • And if “Bible Church” is in the title it’s it’s own particular brand of fundamentalist. All the beliefs, none of the title association…unless you’ve seen through their clothes.

        • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

          Yep. Most churches believe they believe the Bible. The ones who describe themselves that way often don’t.

  3. Mike Bell gave us a series of tests to see “Where do I Belong?”. Do you remember the Chambers’ brothers song “The Time Has Come Today”? That’s what this post and those tests reminded me of. Homeless.

  4. Adam Tauno Williams says

    I suppose I could say the same thing. Being of Finnish descent my family was Lutheran [Missouri Synod], we went to church regularly and attending confirmation was mandatory. But my participation fell off steeply after that.

    It was a small rural church, or what we would now call ex-urban; the local economy had collapsed with the coming of the interstate and the leaving of the railroad, so just about everyone commuted to the city or a factory 45+ minutes away. The church building was originally an old grange hall, it had moved there when it split from another Lutheran church to the north where the pastor had ‘gone Pentecostal’. It was all around a rather hap-hazard affair with a steady rotation of pastors – it is hard to believe it was economically viable, who knows how they paid them. A dreary establishment in a dying place. All any of my peers could talk about was when they could leave.

    It is hard to quite explain what pulled my back towards church as I neared high-school graduation. None of my peers were doing it – far from it. I did it alone. I started attending a local Baptist church which in truth was almost as sad a place as the Lutheran church; it may have been a motivation that nobody there knew me – but my calculus at that age is hard to parse. In hindsight actions that felt so important and intense look ad-hoc and arbitrary.

    From that church I followed some peers to a local non-demon [aka Baptist] mega in the city – that is where the colleges were/are. Thus my journey through and back out of Evangelicalism, began.

    It is so odd in hind-sight. My family was not “religious”. In many ways very much not. It seemed just like a cultural thing. But my grandfather helped repair the grange hall so the church could move in, and then spent many summers traveling all over the country helping to build and repair churches. However, he never said anything about it. I would learn much later my other grand-father was a major benefactor to several organizations and the church “in the city”; there is now a community garden named after him. Posthumously the largest local para-church organization for refugees, children, and the mentally ill would host an award banquet in honor of my grand-mother, present an award to my family, and name a wing of their facility after her for her work with “wayward” girls – something I knew next to nothing about – other than the childhood memory that there were always really strange people at her house. She never said anything about it.

    I cannot help but wonder if somehow, even through their silence, I inherited this impulse. I suspect I owe them a lot, a great deal more than the angry young man could have imagined. Evangelicalism did provide me with a lot of ‘life education’ – both by it successes and failures. It certainly provided me a better and healthier place to be than I might have otherwise had/chosen; it deserves some credit for where I ended up in life in contrast to many of my peers. There is really honestly truly something to be said for old-school parochial morality.

    But I couldn’t stay there – it may sound arrogant worded this way – but I outgrew it. It answered a lot of questions for the young angry lonely me. But when I asked it the questions of the adult me it had little to say; it started to sound more and more like an angry young man.

    • “… local non-demon [aka Baptist]…”

      I’m 99.99% sure you meant “non-denom[inational].”

      But mayhap I am wrong. Truly the internet is vast and full of wonders . . .

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Yes. 🙂 In any case it was “non-demon” and “non-denom”. I do not believe I met any demons there, just people.

        The smaller church I went to after leaving the mega… maybe, that is a harder one to call. Smaller churches can paradoxically give more room for crazy, operating as they do with less institutional oversight.

        The mega was at least always artful and superficially diplomatic with its crazy.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        “Non-denominational — you know, Fundamental Baptist with the labels painted over?”
        — line from a Chrsitian talk show phone-in in the Eighties

      • I missed that one. That is truly an epic misspelling.

        I would imagine most of our experiences with worship involve non-demon churches. But as you said, the internet is vast and full of wonders.

  5. Half a lifetime ago when I bit the bullet and committed my life to follow Jesus, I spent the first five years in a Foursquare church in Grants Pass, Oregon. I was welcomed and eventually given responsibility for the high school group. I learned a lot in those five years, much of it on my own, but the most important thing I learned was the reality and necessity of the Presence of God as Holy Spirit, both in church and in private. The church was not extreme in any way, did not feature doctrine, and yet toward the end I was realizing that I could not be entirely open and honest answering teen-age questions about some of the more questionable Pentecostal beliefs that I was questioning myself.

    That was 35 years ago. I am still grateful for what I learned there in my spiritual education and evolution. I still remember the pastor and congregation, and especially my high-schoolers, with great fondness. Unless I dreamed it, the first time I attended the little Lutheran church I am going to now, there was a banner reading Welcome Holy Spirit. I need to ask someone about that since liturgical furnishings change with the season. My response was “Yes!!!” It must have been there for me because I haven’t seen it since. Maybe I was the only one that saw it.

    I don’t share the division many feel toward the Evangelical wing of the church including charismatics. Where I do back away is when doctrine drives out the Holy Spirit, whatever the denomination. You can sense the Presence or not as you enter a sanctuary. I thank my Pentecostal education for that, and look on people who scorn those outside their personal doctrine and beliefs as woefully ignorant. That would include some Pentecostals as well as some Lutherans and others too numerous to mention.

  6. Evangelicalism is at its best when it gets the attention of prodigals, gets them moving, and points them toward home.

    Couldn’t agree more. This is the one thing that Evangelicalism, in general, does consistently well. But as you say, what then?

    A speaker at my (Evangelical) church a few years ago, in describing the function of the local church, used the analogy of a battleship and contrasted this with a “cruise ship mentality”. I appreciate the distinction but I thought “why does it have to be one or the other?” Isn’t there a middle ground between a constant state of uber-vigilance and battle-readiness on the one hand versus a self-indulgent “what can my church do for ME ME ME?” on the other hand?

    In other words, can’t a church sometimes just be a home?

    • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

      Very good.

    • “…points them toward home.”

      I dunno.

      From so much of what I have heard (Evangelical preaching)…they are pointed to ‘the self’.

      The who thing even has to start with them, and ‘their decision’. And it just continues along that same track from there. It’s always needs to be revolving around ‘you’.

      • This causes people turmoil that could easily end in despair. They are correctly told to look to the finished work of Christ, but unfortunately it doesn’t stop there. The focus is quickly shifted to the believer, and how strong is the believer’s faith. Is your faith so strong it never wavers? If not, they might suggest it is not saving faith. How sincere were you when you made your profession of faith? Are you really 100% sold out for the Lord? If not, how do you know you are saved? What have you done for the Lord today? Faith becomes something that the believer has to generate from his own strength, and a perfect God will only accept perfect faith, so the believer is driven to look at a thousand subjective things in the hope of finding evidence that his faith might be strong enough.

        • You are spot on, Jacob.

          These poor folks just never arrive. There is ALWAYS another rung on the ladder to ascend.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          The focus is quickly shifted to the believer, and how strong is the believer’s faith. Is your faith so strong it never wavers? If not, they might suggest it is not saving faith. How sincere were you when you made your profession of faith? Are you really 100% sold out for the Lord? If not, how do you know you are saved? What have you done for the Lord today?

          All to pass the Great White Throne Litmus Test. “Are You Sure? Are You Certain You’re Sure? Are You Sure You’re Certain You’re Sure? Are You Certain You’re Sure You’re Certain You’re Sure? Are You Sure You’re Certain You’re Sure You’re Certain You’re Sure?”

          That way lies Madness.

  7. Then there are those of us whom have finally gotten into evangelicalism and it feels nothing more than salting the ground after it’s already been burnt over…

    I give thanks to God for my friends there. Not the church itself; it’s on a downward spiral and they don’t realize it.

    • Anyone else ever ask God to revoke your salvation? Either fix me or let me go, Lord.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “It’s already been burnt over…”

      Like Upstate New York in the 19th Century, called “the burnt-over district” because it had been burned out by Revival after Revival after Revival. Like California today, it became the “Offbeat/Weird Religion Captial” of the US, spawning Spiritualism, Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism, and other movements which have not survived to today.

      • Probably accurately describes SO MANY of the younger generations at the moment…

      • Actually the term was coined by Charles Grandison Finney, who in his 1876 book Autobiography of Charles G. Finney, referred to a “burnt district” to denote an area in central and western New York State during the Second Great Awakening. He felt that the area had been so heavily evangelized as to have no “fuel” (unconverted population) left over to “burn” (convert).

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          And the Burned Over District became a Burned Out District, where the fuel got burned out on all the Revivals. And things had to get Weirder and Weirder to attract the burnouts.

  8. “In my opinion, evangelicalism, for reasons often discussed on this blog, works best as a mission but not as a church tradition. In general, it does not have the theological depth, historical heritage, ecclesiological and liturgical traditions, or institutional ballast to provide a stable home where people may be formed into communities with the ability to pass the faith on for generations and centuries.”

    Excellent point, Chaplain Mike, “fair and balanced” as some folks like to say. I especially agree with your statement about Evangelicals not having a “church tradition…theological depth, historical heritage.” Not only are these essential elements missing but attempts to introduce them into the Evangelical sphere are often met with resistance.

    I have found that Evangelical churches that lean Reformed at better at accepting these things than those which adhere to a Free Grace theology. Still, one must not give up, and I find that changes do come if we just keep at it.

    For all the reasons mentioned in this post, Evangelicalism is worth reforming–one local church at a time.

    • attempts to introduce them into the Evangelical sphere are often met with resistance.

      If it makes you feel any better, we’re really not a whole lot better off on that front in the Lutheran church either. You are absolutely right, though, that the Reformed seem more interested in touching their roots (and some Methodists!).

      I am nothing short of grateful that my naively aggressive doxologically reforming agenda has been very well received in my congregation. I do not see many “contemporary” churches in the LCMS with a low-church mindset that are very open to reconnecting with the past. Meanwhile, I see serious hymn and liturgy revivals going on in hip, young Presbyterian churches around the country. By the time that movement peters out, Lutherans will discover it and think it’s the hottest new thing. That’s our one tradition you can count on! I just spoke to a pastor and congregation the other day who were considering starting a “seeker service.” That’ll reach your community, alright! …cause they can’t found that done anywhere near you, especially not 10 times better than you will ever be able to. Ok, I better stop ranting…

      • I appreciate your ranting very much, Miguel. And I sympathize with you.

        A bout two years ago I took over supervision of the worship service at my church. I am neither musically trained nor talented, but I know good worship music when I hear it. The previous worship service supervisor had no particular preference for worship music as long as the musicians and the congregation were happy with it. Consequently our lead musician, who considers what he hears on Christian–and sometimes secular–radio to be “worship music” performed (yes, “performed” is the right word) what he pleased. Some liked it, some didn’t, I hated it!

        When I took over the worship service I met with our musicians to try to get them to understand that we must “worship in spirit and truth.” I also explained that secular songs have no place on Sunday morning and that songs like “Give me Jesus” by Jeremy Camp may sound “worshipful” but it is short on theological profundity. I recommended that they find songs that included complete sentences and which were aimed at praising God rather than telling ourselves how warm & fuzzy we feel about our feelings towards Jesus.

        You would have thought I asked them to sacrifice a chicken to Moloch! And in spite of gentle persuasion (yes, I can do that) we ended up losing four our best musicians. We struggled for a while but eventually found good replacements.

        In time the rest of the musicians adopted my suggestions. We still have a ways to go, but I can count on at least one hymn each Sunday and songs that actually say something about God.

        And yes, we still have a few folks in our congregation who reminisce about the good ol’ days when we sang stuff like “Oh Happy Day.”

        • Wow, Cal. Good for you for fighting the good fight! It is encouraging to know that I’m not the only one vocationally swimming upstream against the pervasive degrading influence of pop-culture with a Jesus sticker on it.

          “Happy Day” is the worst, though I’ve had to do it ONCE since the youth brought it back from the National Youth Gathering. But I wouldn’t stress to much about “Give Me Jesus,” it is an African American spiritual before Jeremy Camp ever recorded it. It is simplistic, but it can be appropriate. In fact, that one was included in our latest hymnal! We sing it occasionally (but especially during February) during communion distribution. It is not good to have an entire repertoire full of such simplistic lyrics, but having some can serve as a helpful balance for more complex 15 stanza hymns in old English. This particular lyric is very Jesus-focused.

          Complete sentences are good to sing in church. So are profound theological thoughts. But there is always space for more simple, emotive texts, so long as they are supplemental and not the only course. Balancing the sort of appeal to different personality types (intellectuals verses expressives) is a challenging task, and something a good hymnal can help with. Our Lutheran Service Book provides an outstanding foundation of essential and substantive music, from which I can supplement with more contemporary songs, knowing that if I do not have the wisdom to filter out the disposable jingles, at least they won’t impoverish our repertoire. This enables me to pull freely from both styles without being bound as much to the trendy. Does your church have or have they ever used any particular hymnal?

          • Thank you, Miguel, excellent advice. In particular, I believe that there’s merit to balancing the simplistic with the profound, albeit in small doses and at appropriate times (e.g., communion).

            Perhaps I’ve overreacted to the “all heart no brains” nature of contemporary Evangelical worship. What I wish some of our musicians would do is argue with me from a standpoint of good theology of worship, as you do here, rather than just telling me what makes them feel good.

        • I’ve just volunteered to be on the search committee for a music director for our Catholic church in order to do what you’re doing, Calvin, or at least have a vote in that direction. Correct me if I’m wrong, but surely there have been some okay Catholic musicians who wrote before 1970, not to mention Protestants hymnwriters, and if we try really hard, we might be able to find something “old” that’s worth singing.

          • “And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’”: (Matthew 13.52)

            I don’t know if this answers your question or addresses your concerns, but this idea of bringing to worship “what is new and what is old” intrigues me. It means that we can connect with our Christian heritage going back 2,000 years and yet take out of our “treasure” (Spirit-given gifts and talents) “what is new and what is old.” By this I mean new songs which maintain the spirit of the Scriptures and the old hymns and old songs sung in new ways, even hybrid hymns such as “The Wonderful Cross” by Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, and of course, Isaac Watts.

            I wish I had musical talent and could express this more eloquently.

          • I agree completely, Calvin. Our priest preached on that passage a few weeks ago and said almost exactly that.

  9. I fancy there’s a place for what might be called an
    Evangelical Traditions Church — ETC, Because Life Goes on.

    “Oh sing to the Lord a new song…. (Ps. 96:1)
    “… but test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess. 5:21)

  10. > Evangelicalism is at its best when it gets the attention of prodigals, gets them moving, and points them toward home.

    And when there was no “home” to begin with? When somebody *started* with evangelicalism? Or to somebody like me who has no options from their past? (I know this series has more posts to come, so if there are answers to these questions, maybe they will come)

    • Steve:
      Many of the people who follow Internetmonk became Christian through an evangelical church or movement but over time have discovered that it lacks the teaching and environment that they need to grow.

      So we are a restless bunch and some of us have found solace in some of the older mainline churches.

      • Ken,

        True, no doubt. I just don’t see mainlines happening for my family. Or RC or EO. Been there, done that with Neo-Cal and Pentecostal/evangelical. Wilderness is a difficult reality.

  11. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    In my opinion, evangelicalism, for reasons often discussed on this blog, works best as a mission but not as a church tradition. In general, it does not have the theological depth, historical heritage, ecclesiological and liturgical traditions, or institutional ballast to provide a stable home where people may be.

    i.e. Lotsa Flash, lotsa Sizzle, but little or no staying power. Especially after the death or retirement of the One True Church’s founding Head Pastor/Apostle.