January 16, 2021

Art, Industry and the Evangelical Resistance

sssss.jpgSometime in the past, I read an interview with Michael Card and he was asked a question about contemporary praise and worship music. Somewhere in his answer, there emerged the comparison of the current contemporary music scene to an industry, and the music emerging from it was the product.

Art. Creation. Industry. Product. Useful categories for thinking about evangelicalism these days.

Sometime in the late 1800’s, the printing and publishing business began to mass produce certain products of evangelicalism, most notably sermons and devotional literature. Evangelical churches, freed from the restraints of state church parochialism, began to come into their own in the United States as “church growth” churches, with largeness the primary evidence of health. By the postwar era, the apparatus of a denomination like the Southern Baptist convention became industrial in scope, turning out literature, pastors, resources, programs, training and denominational “products” of every kind in the cause of denominational triumph.

As we approach the end of the first decade of a new millennium, evangelicalism itself is morphing increasingly into a marketing and growth enterprise. The open emulation of business and marketing methods is now old hat. Churches mass produce themselves like Mcdonald’s franchises. The “worship product” that Card referred to is undeniably real. Exhaustingly so.

Technology is the new currency of evangelicalism. Churches define themselves with websites, billboards and logos. Pastoral image is imported directly from MTV and the Comedy Channel. The formation of spirituality is a matter of mass consumption. Spending money on image is doing missions in evangelicalism.

Evangelicalism is a market share, a brand, a consumer movement. Churches are the outposts of choice and a measure of how successful leadership can be in using the tools of a technological age to create a phony version of awe and wonder.

The church is cool. The hip people are there. The programming is hot. The sermon series is on sex. The disdain of the past is open. The connection to the church historic and catholic is minute and sometimes non-existent.

The new pastor is a brash creature of attitude. He stalks the stage. He hits the audience with words, jokes, wit and brash cultural analysis. He has contempt for other points of view. He has swagger, jokes, sex appeal. He is more Jon Stewart or Chris Rock than Lloyd-Jones or James Boice. (Thank God for Tim Keller several times a day.)

Evangelicalism is industrial. Technological. A culture of consumption, getting more, winning the game, having the best. One need not buy into the “prosperity gospel” to be part of a movement that advertises itself as young, hip, relevant, edgy, successful, hot and trend-setting.

Christian spirituality, however, is art. Creation. It is poetry, not the work of an assembly line. It is spiritual, not industrial. It is not produced by methodology purchased in a kit or acquired by subscription service. It is not the result of surveys or research. It is God’s Kingdom work, now as always.

Evangelicalism is desperately telling itself that putting a person in a large room with the right band, visuals, technology, Bible verses and person talking will create a disciple. Christian community has become a code word for audience participation. The counter-culture of small groups holds out some hope against this assembly-line approach to discipleship, but it cannot overcome the industrial mentality of the promoters of megachurch evangelicalism.

Exactly what is the persuasive reason a disciple with a good seat near the band, all the sermons on podcast and K-Love on the radio needs a small group? I know there is an answer to that question, and a true one. But does evangelicalism really want to be a movement of small groups, taught by lay leaders, meeting in homes? even if its leaders know it should become that movement for its own life and health’s sake, will evangelical ever choose that road?

An evangelicalism that looks more like art and less like industry. An evangelical spirituality that is more creative and less blueprint. An evangelicalism that behaves less like a culture of consumption and more like the worshiping, serving people of God. A movement that doesn’t play Orwellian games with language. An evangelicalism of diversity, poetry, beauty, composition, freedom, experimentation and relationships.

An evangelicalism that resists the industrialization of the church and insists that the divine artist, the cosmic poet, the spontaneous creator be allowed to have His way among the movement that flows out of His son’s constant presence and power.

Resisting the religious-industrial complex and its various interests is not going to be easy, but it is happening. The same industrial version of spirituality that markets Blue Like Jazz in Wal-Mart can’t deaden its subversive message. The same people who won’t market Derek Webb’s announcement that the church is a whore can’t keep us from hearing those words. The same technology that evangelicalism has used to become what it is can be used to unmake evangelicals from what they’ve become.

Industrial evangelicalism would like to absorb the resistance into itself, but we can’t let that happen. We must determine not to play the game of seeing our efforts to cease giving up ground to the monster become just another section in the local Lifeway.

No, the resistance has to be real, on the ground, authentic. It has to actually resist and be willing to actually go a different path. Our resistance must be self-critical and not just angry. Resistance is not creation. It cannot be violent or self-justifying. Many of us are deeply implicated in the mess that Christianity has become in the west and we know it.

Resisting the religious-industrial complex that is evangelicalism must not take the form of more conferences and more t-shirts and more concerts. Our spiritual formation and pursuit of being the church must be in stark contrast to the evangelicalism of our time, and we must be able to stand in the presence of that evangelicalism without shame, knowing we are renouncing it, its products, its plastic heroes and its price tags.

This is the journey many of us are on, but it is a journey we want to more fully embrace in the presence of our brothers and sisters. We will not be intimidated by the name-calling of the doctrinal watchdogs who have, unwittingly, become just another manifestation of evangelicalism’s Faustian traffic with modernity. The great danger we all face is cynicism about what is possible in small ways, small places and with small resources.

The parables of Jesus remind us that the Kingdom of God is no industrial production and that even in its smallest manifestations it carries the dynamic power of the new creation. This is what I’m holding on to in my corner of the world: the small things I can write and do are enough, but they will be nothing if I don’t do them at all.


  1. Michael,
    Absolutely the best thing I have read on the religious-industrial complex. I have had similar thoughts about church being free. After all, if someone has a great idea, or product, or insight to help people come to follow Christ, shouldn’t they give it away? Should we make merchandise of the gospel? Isn’t that what Simon the magician wanted to do? Buy the Holy Spirit as a neat parlor trick? I read a line in a book on the missional church that it would take many years and thousands of dollars to figure out how to do missional church. I thought, No it won’t. It can’t. It mustn’t. Because the gospel is free. In all its expressions, it is free. Church should be free, too. Thanks, Michael. Absolutely great stuff! — Chuck

  2. I think that the way evangelicalism can make this happen is not easy, but it is possible. Reading this reminds me how easy it is to sell out. I imagine all the artists in the world who have sold their music to the music industry and we have seen the industry take control of their lives. I have nothing against Zondervan, but once Nooma’s began being produced by them I worried for the messages that will be coming out of those videos.

    I think that what Christ wants is for us to write less books. I’m not saying books are bad, but they are so permanent. Once they have hit the industry the words cannot be changed. I am thankful that MacLaren and others have written books to try and subvert a culture, but these words cannot be changed. Once the general church gets their hands on these books, and they are accepted by the majority of the church, I fear that there will be more copying and pasting marketing going on in the church. I think that marketing on a large scale will be the death of the western church.

    Instead we should write less and talk more. We should make transient works of art that can be changed over time. I don’t know if this makes sense, but it has to happen.

  3. A big, resounding AMEN from this little corner of the world! Keep preaching this, brother.

  4. Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg, the Joel Osteen of the 15th century! The church today is the new media and he who disseminates information controls the proletariat. The religious Bourgeoisie have captured the senses and can manipulate the serfs.

    We can spin it any way we desire in order to make “sense” of it all, but Christianty has morphed in the west into all kinds of different creatures that taken as a whole are an amalgam of confusing religious practices and beliefs. It is disingenuous to believe that Christ ever desired this or that in fact this fractured and hostile diversity is healthy and productive and most importantly redemptive to the world at large.

    Who do you believe? Usually the last person you listened to/read or at least the one you like. Discernment, I love this game!

  5. Amen and amen. Preach it brother. GREAT.

  6. urban otter says

    “An evangelicalism that behaves less like a culture of consumption and more like the worshiping, serving people of God.”

    I can’t tell American Evangelicalism from the culture of consumption. They look the same to me.

    Evangelicalism is always avid for the newest trend and dismissive of everything that came before, like Walmart. That trait is hard-wired into Evangelicalism. I don’t see a way to create your vision of Christianity out of American Evangelicalism unless you removed most of its defining features. But if you did that, you would not have Evangelicalism any more.

    Evangelicalism has always fascinated and confused me. It changes so often and yet remains exactly the same.

  7. Sharon Waters says

    Good one, Michael. Thank you.

  8. Brilliant.

  9. I know you don’t need the comment thread to be an echo chamber, but this post is a knock-out.

  10. John L. Cash says

    Excellent post, as always, Michael. I was having some of these thoughts earlier this morning as I was drinking my first cup of coffee. But, I think that some of our concerns will become moot points if the American economy takes a major downturn. The present evangelical model only works in a society where there is an abundance of spending money. If we have “won them to what we won them with” we will just as quickly lose them when the cash cow dries up.

    I had a hard-line fundamentalist-type professor in Bible college who had served in the preaching ministry for scores of years. He said, “Boys, the Lord’s church prospers in inverse relation to the economy. When times are bad, the church does great.” I have been thinking about that a lot lately when I hear media reports of a severe economic downturn.

  11. I think I may be out of my depth here so what I’m about to say might either not make sense, or get blown out of the water, but I think it’s helpful when you say (like you did) “industrial evangelicalism.” Or maybe you could say “industrial church.” I agree that what you describe is a lot of what is happening in evangelicalism. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s ALL of what is happening. I go to a fairly modernistic evangelical church at the moment (partly because I grew up there ever-so-long-ago, and partly because, since I did, I feel invested in the people, and they feel invested in me), but although, say, we have powerpoint, I would say the description above feels less like my home church and more like some emergent churches I have visited in the past. Even though those particular emergent churches have more of an emphasis on “art” and would be more comfortable with the term “spirituality.”

    This is not to idealise my home church. There are plenty of issues. I just don’t think one can tar all churches with the same brush, even if they’re part of the same basic “movement” (or whatever).

  12. I too am cynical about the prospects for getting out of the Religious-Industrial-Complex. I am even old enough to get the joke. I think consumerism is too ingrained into our thinking as Americans.

    I imagine it more likely that Lifeway WILL have a section of books labeled “CHRISTIAN SUBVERSIVE” than American Evangelism escape its merchandising obsession. In other words, the monster will eat all competitors and morph them into part of itself.

    We have become our own best parody of ourselves.

  13. Before I start, I have a good cold or maybe the flu, so if I have misinterpreted your point, forgive me…my thinking is cloudy today.

    The church has become too commercial but this is not a new occurence. It’s been that way for at least 15 years, maybe more. WWJD…need I go any further? Some of the very people, like Card who is one my heroes in the faith, have made a lot of money off this commercially driven church, but now lament it.

    “We will not be intimidated by the name-calling of the doctrinal watchdogs who have, unwittingly, become just another manifestation of evangelicalism’s Faustian traffic with modernity.”

    Name calling, like say, using music to call the church a whore? It’s a little hypocritical to say to the church that you’re selling yourself…now buy my stuff.

    The need for and lack of real disciple-making in the modern American church is simply a continuation of that same lack from decades past. I grew up seeing church goers who were sinning like the devil on Saturday night, but were accepted as members in good standing of the local church come Sunday because they looked the role. The discipleship was nothing more that peer pressure to wear the right suits, hold the right political views, like/dislike the same types of music etc.

    It was all superficial. Nothing has changed. Nothing will change. Every generation has those folks who look around and ask “Is this what we’re supposed to be doing?” There are any number of movements that have sprung up from this observation, been the rebels. Eventually, every one of them becomes the establishment that the next generation “reforms”.

    The “emerging” movement was supposed to be the answer this time around. Now, the leaders of the movement are making money hand over fist and their doctrine is getting fuzzy. When you start denying the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, you may be missing the point.

    “Because the gospel is free. In all its expressions, it is free. Church should be free, too.”

    Nice thought, but it does cost actual money to run a church. Bills still need to get paid.


  14. So is this a precis for your talk at Cornerstone? 🙂

  15. Joel: I think you’ve found me out.

  16. DD:

    >The “emerging” movement was supposed to be the answer this time around. Now, the leaders of the movement are making money hand over fist and their doctrine is getting fuzzy. When you start denying the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, you may be missing the point.

    What is the “emerging movement?” Ten celebrities and their churches? Give me a break. Whatever is going to survive evangelicalism doesn’t have a contract with Zondervan. This kind of team-sport analysis of possible reformers just falls into the Reformed categories of “us good-them bad.”

    This sticking “no atonement” on everyone who is “emerging” is fairly close to a smear tactic, in my opinion. There’s a lot more going on than these worst case scenarios.

  17. urban otter says

    Sorry if this is a stupid question, but what is the defining feature of the Emerging Movement? What makes it distinctly different from everything else?

  18. I don’t believe there is one.

    What gets labeled emerging is anyone who intentionally engages the emerging culture, but since there are so many “cultures” in our culture, I think it’s nonsensical.

    Perhaps taking seriously and positively certain aspects of the postmodern turn. I dunno.

  19. urban otter says

    “Perhaps taking seriously and positively certain aspects of the postmodern turn. I dunno.”

    I’m relieved to hear this. I was afraid that the definition of Emerging Church was so self-evident nobody needed to spell it out, and I was just too dim to see it.

  20. The emergent/emerging “movement” is recognized as a new way of methodology and theology as it is compared with “mainstream” evangelicalism. These shifts seem to be related to a recognition of post modern understands about the unproductive nature of common Biblical communication methods.

    Some changes are dramatic and some are moderate. I believe I’ve heard maybe two men actually say what seems to be a slight against the atonement, however some incorporate the atonement within a wider understanding of Christ’s sacrifice.

    The excitement of the embryonic movement seems now to have somewhat crystallized into the same “I’m of Cephas, I’m of Paul, etc.” structure with adherants to different men who have gained notoriety. Many of these leaders have some evangelical roots which probably keep them tethered subliminally to these moorings.

    However, the next generation who have no such roots and who cut their doctrinal teeth on men like MacLaren and Burke will “emerge” with many strange notions. Even pepole who are moving out of “evangelicalism” I believe severely discount the continuing postive influence such past teachings have on their mercurial theology. That influence many times is clandestine in nature but active nonetheless.

  21. “Perhaps taking seriously and positively certain aspects of the postmodern turn. I dunno.”

    That’s certainly the definition D.A. Carson uses in his book on the Emerging Church.

    Michael, great post. I’ve just started regularly reading your ‘blog, and I always find something on it to inspire or challenge me. Keep up the good work.

  22. Michael,

    “What is the “emerging movement?” Ten celebrities and their churches? Give me a break.”

    So, we’re going to start with your denial that there even IS an emerging church movement? It has leaders/proponents/whatevers. It has it’s own theology by which I mean not clinging to old moralism as “gospel”, a focus on helping other people etc. Those men like MacLaren who are credited with being at the forefront of this non movement have written books and made a lot of money from them and speaking tours. I don’t have a problem with that.

    “Whatever is going to survive evangelicalism doesn’t have a contract with Zondervan.”

    I really don’t understand your rage against Zondervan as opposed to all the other Christian book stores.

    “This kind of team-sport analysis of possible reformers just falls into the Reformed categories of “us good-them bad.””

    No, it’s just observable history. Emerging Church comes out of the Evangelical Movement which came about as a counter to the “seeker-friendly” movement which was spawned in response to the Moral Majority which was in reaction to the Jesus People… The pendulum swings both ways. Things get too legalistic, ignoring people’s real needs and the “relevant” movement counters that, shedding the moralising for real ministry. Eventually, in an effort to reach or at least not offend everybody, they shed the clear mandates of scripture as well. Suddenly sex outside of marriage isn’t labeled sin. The next generation rises up, sees the departure from the established faith and starts a “holiness” movement. This degrades into what you wear or who you vote for is more important for “showing” you salvation than the fruits. On and on it goes.

    “This sticking “no atonement” on everyone who is “emerging” is fairly close to a smear tactic, in my opinion. There’s a lot more going on than these worst case scenarios.”

    No where in my post did I say that everyone in the emerging church believed such things. I simply pointed out that there are already quotes out there by those deemed to be leaders in said movement that reflect the very historical trend that I pointed out. There’s a reason the arguement over legalism and antinomianism has been going on since just about the day the church was born.

    The cycle will continue until Jesus returns. Through it all, God will have his remnant.I’m not sure why you got so angry.


  23. I feel a little like Mclain watching Obama vs. Clinton.

  24. Mclain?

  25. Just a little simile/joke with me as the more conservative McLain watching the two liberals battle. It was meant in jest among brothers, funny to me. Hope ya don’t mind.

  26. Ah….McCain. I thought we in a Bruce Willis movie there for a moment.

  27. Sorry, I am an uneducated fundamentalist who still votes for Alf Landon. (There’s some trivia that dates me!)

  28. urban otter says


    Mr. Frueh,

    Is there an accurate and authoritative website that can explain the theology of the Emerging Movement?

    I have read McLaren’s Jesus Creed, found here:

    I don’t see anything new here other than substituting “have confidence in” for “believe in. The rather important part of Jesus being the second person of the Trinity, completely God and completely man, has been left out. Why?

    I’ve read other McLaren’s posts and have yet to see any new theology. Perhaps it’s there and I haven’t run across it yet (but there’s only so much time in the day).

    After reading Mr. Spencer’s article and the comments, I’m left with the impression that the emerging movement does not consider the fact that people have been thinking about Christianity for 2000 years now. The movement doesn’t consider the possibility that somebody, somewhere, might have already hit upon what the gospel means and the identity and purpose of the church. Is this impression accurate? If so, why does the emerging movement believe that everything that has come before is wrong? What criteria are they using to determine that they are on the right track?

  29. “The great danger we all face is cynicism about what is possible in small ways, small places and with small resources.”

    I agree wholeheartedly with this statement.

    urban otter:

    My initial reaction to your question is simply that emerging church people are dissatisfied and dissillutioned by, I suppose, the evangelical church. I find myself in a lot of ways in that camp, although I think the proper way of conducting a Christian life is not new, but is barricaded by falsity of person. So perhaps that is where the emerging folks are coming from; they are trying to “restore” an authentic Christianity, but maybe they’re trying to hard? See, its hard to use terms like “they” because there is a lot of diversity within any group, so I don’t want to stereotype. Anyway, I was about to get more off topic, but I’ll shut up now.

  30. urban otter (nice name – how about iOtter?)

    My understanding of the origins of the EM is that it started with a growing dsicontenment with the modern evangelical church. To their dredit they usually eschew tghe “health and wealth” teaching, and our reisitant to the “mega-church” model as well including the church growth strategies.

    They have moved into a “post-modern” cummunication style of teaching which means using words unfamiliar to historic Christianity to define and descibe doctrinal issues. Even the ones who are more orthodox (i.e. Kimball, Driscoll, McKnight, etc) embrace a wider parameter of religious practices and thoughts from places like the Roman Catholic Church which would normally be eschewed by others.

    Within the movement they still allow for an almost non-descript view of Biblical doctrine, and the “conversation” seems to be the one lynchpin that hold it together. Again, it is mercurial and not well defined on purpose and those in the movement enjoy the nebulousness of their movement. Many of us would have been attracted to the movement if they had sought to break up the stagnation, materialism, and doctrinal pride of the broader western church.

    However, along with their admirable journey to meet humantitarian needs came dcotrinal changes, some with very dangerous implications. There does seem to be an effervescence for the new and a repulsion for the old, unless the old is rebirthed as new. With respect for this blog I will just say the EM movement has many dangerous qualities that may eventually prove devastating to our understanding of God’s redemptive plan.

  31. Appreciate your passion Michael but I have to say that i don’t see it as ALL bad.

    God has brought many people to himself through printed materials (see Bill Piper’s ROGMA ministries). God has also brought many people to himself through church marketing, advertisement, and technology – including podcasts).

    There’s nothing inherently evil about making money. Especially if that money gets filtered into church missions.

    Jesus drew huge crowds using miracles (the main attention grabber of that age).

    Also have to say that I’m disappointed for the first time as a result of listening to or reading your stuff (esp. your reply to Henry (Rick) Frueh). Seemed really “bitting” or maybe you were just kidding (which if this is the case please forgive me).

  32. I have to agree with DaveD; the church seems to be a pendulum of reformers reforming the reformation of the previous generation of reformers. I grew up in a Free Methodist church that was joining the Charismatic Renewal because the old church was “dead” and needed an infusion of the “life of the spirit”. Hymns were replaced with choruses; sermons gave way to “teaching” using overhead projectors and markers, and etc. Theology was discarded in favor of experience.

    Now I’m part of church that is trying to replace the kookiness of barking like a dog with readings from a lectionary, replace mass media presentations and oil changes in the parking lot with communion. Our church is way too small to have gone anywhere near the above, but it’s what we see and don’t want any part of.

    The thought I try to hold while riding the pendulum of reform and counter-reform is to not throw out too many babies in this batch of bathwater. I would like to have the experience of the awe inspiring, soul-stirring presence of the Holy Spirit (the “HOLY Ghost” to my southern Pentecostal friends) while rightly receiving the sacrament of communion. Hopefully this isn’t another form of syncretism (right word?), but a desire to know AND experience all of God.

    Hopefully a little more on topic: identifying the babies we don’t want to throw out while trying to get rid of the crud we’re trying to wash off – that’s a toughie!

  33. Excellent piece, Michael.

    A great example of why I gravitate to this blog.

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