January 17, 2021

iMonk Classic: The Unresolved Tensions of Evangelicalism (4)

Lent 2012: A Journey through the Wilderness
The Unresolved Tensions of Evangelicalism, part 4
A classic Michael Spencer iMonk post from Nov. 2008

NOTE: On Sundays in Lent, we will run these classic essays from Michael Spencer on the evangelical wilderness.

I am continuing my series on The Unresolved Tensions of Evangelicalism.

Here is part 1 and part 2 and part 3.

4. Disillusionment With Christian Commitment Itself

In these posts, I have explored the various personal reasons evangelicals have for leaving the church. I have discussed the difficulty many have in coming to terms with the “Biblical worldview” as it is increasingly interpreted within conservative evangelical circles. I have examined the abuse of Christian experience and the multiple failures of Christian community that are bringing many evangelicals to leave the institutional church.

As I expected, these posts have received many confirming comments as well as the predictable criticism for allowing these disillusioned voices to be heard. Some are concerned that I am allowing these posts without endorsement or criticism of the point of view. Our fears of the implications of these voices are understandable, but the choice to hear them cannot be ethically avoided.

One last personal experience of disillusionment with evangelicalism needs to be heard before I write a response to all four. This is the disillusionment that leads a Christian to question or abandon Christian commitment itself.

At the outset I want to be clear that I am not necessarily talking about apostasy or embracing atheism or another religion. Not at all. Moving away from explicit Christian commitment is, for many people, a vital part of their own faith journey.

Let’s use “Ed” as an example. Ed is a friend who has been a Baptist evangelical for many years. No one experience has moved Ed out of the church. He is educated and thoughtful; he is not impulsive or demanding regarding church. He sympathetically understands various forms of evangelicalism and is not a highly critical person. Ed’s lifetime experiences in evangelicalism have been overwhelmingly positive. A graduate of two evangelical schools, he is an academic today and a mentor to many college students.

But Ed is reluctant to call himself a Christian. His family is not part of a church. While his family practices the Christian faith in their own way, they do not do so as part of an evangelical faith community. They would never choose to do so under the present configuration of evangelicalism. This is not because of a crisis of belief as much as a matter of personal authenticity and individuality, values that are very important to Ed and his family.

Ed only calls himself a Christian when pressed to distinguish himself from other kinds of commitments. What Ed wants to avoid is somehow stating “I am a follower of Jesus. Look and listen to me to know what God is all about.

Ed’s posture is one of considerable humility regarding matters of faith. He respects the choices of others and feels no need to evangelize or proselytize. He feels the burden of Christian commitment particularly heavily in his friendship with a gay colleague. The response of most Christians to this gay man is predictably negative. Ed feels it is important to accept this friend and to not burden the friendship with all the baggage of evangelicalism’s moral obsession with homosexuality.

Ed is a Christian, but he does not feel he is in a competition to be a “good Christian” or a “strong witness.” His faith expresses itself in the way he treats his students, his colleagues, his friends and family.

Ed’s mother has made many attempts to get him into church, but Ed finds the seeker circus to be impossible to tolerate. While his mother finds the entertainment oriented “worship” meaningful, Ed is tortured.

Ed may seem on the verge of agnosticism to some, but his faith is genuine. For Ed, the journey out of evangelicalism has been a journey away from making public declarations of Christian commitment.

Is Ed an anomaly? I do not believe so. I believe that evangelicalism has fostered forms of Christian commitment and behavior that many find untenable and impossible. For the sake of the authentic practice of their own faith journey, many people are unwilling to “check one of the answers” that evangelicalism necessitates as “true commitment.”

This situation is made much worse by the high public profile of many evangelicals in the culture war. How many readers of Internet Monk have, at some time, listened to or read about a pronouncement in the culture war, and your immediate reaction was “This is not my religion?” You want to say “That’s not me.” You may joke that Buddhism or agnosticism seem more reasonable.

This response is common in a culture where the fulminations of James Dobson and various high profile pastors are everywhere.

For example, on my lunch hour I was subjected to Ed Young, Jr. promoting his “Seven Day Sex Challenge.” This kind of Americanized, prosperity Gospel influenced freak show makes me want to run from evangelicalism at high speed.

In fact, I would count myself among those more than willing to lose every public use of denominational labels and even to minimize the use of the term Christian. Like Kierkegaard, I suspect that the profession of being a Christian may, in fact, be the adversary of actually being one, especially in our culture.

We should also note that many who have journeyed with evangelicalism through its various ways of including those who have never personally embraced the faith are likely to find it remarkably easy to move to generic deism, agnosticism, atheism or no religious/philosophical profession.

Evangelicals like to act as if they are involved in a battle of belief systems, but many of the disillusioned are simply jettisoning what, they believe, is too much belief. They are not so much rejecting evangelicalism as they are reducing Christianity to a far “humbler” expression of personal faith experience. They believe that a religion that is telling people who to vote for and how often to have sex is claiming too much.

I think these persons are currently everywhere in evangelicalism, and their departure from evangelicalism will be a significant development. While new seekers will be attracted to the evangelical show, the evangelical wilderness will be full of those who simply cannot call themselves Christians by the evangelical definition of the term.

• • •

Next: My response to these four kinds of personally disillusionment.


  1. Pseudonym says

    I shudder when people try to list success as number of conversions or commitments, or the success of an event by number of people who showed up. When my friends talk about Christianity, sometimes I want to know how my Jesus can be linked to what’s in the media, and what my atheist and agnostic friends believe. Thank you for posting this much neded artcle.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I shudder when people try to list success as number of conversions or commitments, or the success of an event by number of people who showed up.

      “Butts In Seats.”
      Just like Pro Wrestling.

    • I think we’ve so made the capitalist business model our god that we’ve gotten further and further away from true faith. Capitalism is fine, but it isn’t everything and it sure isn’t God. Church has now become as business with marketing and quantifiable business practices and identifiable outcomes. In this mindset, every person is seen as a potential customer and how many we are able to “sell” our product to assumes great importance. In this free market mentality, there are winners and losers and if your church doesn’t bring in the numbers, you are a loser. The free market is good for some things, but it is a harsh taskmaster and this type of thinking is killing the church bit by bit. I don’t want to be looked at as a customer and I don’t want my faith seen as a product and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

      • pam who likes chartreuse says

        hmm — i do like our church, but they are putting on a seminar next week for how to make all the Easter visitors feel welcomed. I truly cannot help but feel like it’s a sales meeting, pumping us up to snag those potential customers with “welcoming” sales tactics.

  2. pam who likes chartreuse says

    Wow — i get to be 1st! (& all because i’m refusing to go to bed but instead am here, cooling down from an argument).

    Sounds like me, pretty much. Except I have found a church we as a family like — I’ve made friends I enjoy seeing there. Other than that, I would not go. For all the same reasons as Ed. Having grown up in a christian family, always identifying as “christian” (and that was always a good thing), I am amazed and befuddled that i no longer have any desire to identify as such. So much attenuating baggage attached to that word that i had never realized (was it there in the ’80s and ’90s or is it all some new kind of invasive species, changing the landscape of my religion?).

    In the last few years, I’ve been quite surprised at the reaction I’ve gotten from people when I somehow mention I go to church and am “christian” — a kind of shift in how I’m perceived, as if suddenly credibility is starting to drain out that I’m a fair-minded and reasonable person. I don’t blame them — I’ve been further surprised to find that I actually agree with them. “Christian” doesn’t seem to mean either what I thought it meant or what it used to mean.

    Am i still 1st?

  3. I know Ed well: I see him staring back at me every morning as I shave and comb my hair.

    Thank you, CM, for reposting this.

  4. Maybe part of the problem is that there are not enough options. You can be Catholic, mainline Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Mormon, etc. but most of the newer start-ups are either variations on one of these, or complete personality cults. Where are the churches for people who really want something other than either an archbishop or a TV evangelist? (Organ and choir music on one hand, or sock-waving on the other!) I guess I should check out the Quakers, the Messianic Jews, or one of those New Age groups.

    • Instead of wondering where you might fit, why not try to find out which faith is TRUE?

    • Joseph (the original) says

      re: Quakers. my limited interaction with some friends that have been raised in this faith tradition has me wondering if there is any Quaker community that adheres to its historical expression. from what i understand, today you could not tell a Quaker service from the more contemporary Evangelical versions. this seems to be the case in Southern California, so other parts of the country may have the less structured meeting arrangement historical Quakerism was known for.

      re: Messianic Jewish/Christians. i would stay away from this synergetic admixture of Jewish trappings in Evangelical clothing. whatever the motivation is being championed for doing such things, it all boils down to this: the gospel plus observing Jewish customs/rituals/feast days, etc. it is a version of extra-spirituality/specialness. the added ingredient of being the “apple of God’s eye” by adapting Jewishness. religious kitsch & elitism sung to Hava Nagila.

      this incorporating of ethnic/cultural elements into a worship expression is how i see Greek Orthodoxy. i’m not sure why such a church must elevate its Greekness above the culture it is established in. seems a bit insular IMHO. i have attended a few Greek Orthodox/Orthodox services & the liturgy is indeed rich+expressive. but i may not like Greek food or speak Greek or have an ounce of Greek genes. the Greek thing overdone if one is not Greek. i do know of ethnic Roman Catholic parishes that eventually adapted to the changes in the neighborhood demographics. but the Orthodox faith expressions are content with keeping their ethnic identification as something sacrosanct. interesting…

      re: New Age Groups. not familiar with this type of faith expression. i do know some churches that identified with being postmodern or emerging, but the New Age label given by those that had no clue to what they were critical of. incorporating the arts? adding candles? incorporating older traditions into their worship practices? the blending of liberal theology & liturgical methodology? whatever the problems seemed to be would not prevent me from attending such a worship expression.

      blessings on your search. it is quite the varied landscape out there to be sure… 😉

      • I’ve been to Orthodox churches and like the atmosphere, but I don’t think I could stomach supporting some of their political stances.

        Some “New Age” services are held in Unity or Spiritualist Churches, but some cities have independent groups with their own philosophies. Of course there are always a lot of groups that meet in people’s living rooms or something. A lot of them say they’re not a church or religion, though–more like “religion helper.”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I’ve always gotten bad vibes from “Messianic Jews”. I find little that I associate with Judaism among them — the sense of humor, the respect for learning, the impetus of living life.

      Instead, the vibe I get is of a Calvary Chapel resurfaced with Hebrew buzzwords — “HAVE YOU ACCEPTED YESHUA HA-MOSHIYAH AS YOUR PERSONAL ADONAI AND SAVIOR?!?!?!?!?”

  5. I am Ed. This post is CLEARLY about me. although i do go to church more regularly now. The evangelical church i attend has recently added a liturgical service , and its wonderful. On a daily basis i don’t speak about my faith much. matter of fact , i don’t even have many christian friends. Most of them identify as agnostic. It’s interesting that all the things i once feared have strengthened my faith : accepting my doubts(huge ones some days) , science , questioning & thinking critically about what i believe , and learning who Jesus really is (thanks N.T. wright & Mark Goodacre!).

    in conclusion: now the way my faith works , is i try to live it out everyday. i fail 99.85 of the time , but thankfully there is bread & wine , and extraordinary grace for that 😀

  6. I was an elder in a storefront church and eventually left with little explanation (over 25 years ago), or at least an extremely weak explanation, because it was no longer working. I was becoming more and more dysfunctional and was in no position to lead anyone, not even myself. After 15 years of no church I went back to my Catholic roots and remain an anonymous back seat figure. There is a ton more to the story but anyway, it was something I HAD to do to salvage my faith although I didn’t know how it would play out at the time.

  7. Pastor Don says

    From the beginning, the denominational meetings–small and large–I attended were little different than sales and business meetings I had been a part of in earlier years. The main question always asked was, “How many are you runnin’?” I felt uneasy about that question even then. It seemed to me the emphasis was wrong, but I thought, “who am I to know, I’m new.” Time and experiences have shown me that maybe I wasn’t so far off. We are sinful creatures and everything we do becomes tainted–even our churches and ministries. I think the job of any Christian leader–pastor or otherwise is to stay focused on Jesus and remember that not just salvation, but “all of it” is by grace through faith (and more importantly, in that order). It is so easy to let the world and our cultures determine our faith experiences. If left unchecked, they can impact any person’s theological thinking and teaching. That, I think, is where much of evangelicalism/Pentecostalism has missed it. I too have struggled with how to identify my faith and myself because of the evangelical baggage that comes with the term Christian for many people. But I am one, and I’m going to let others deal with how they interpret that word. I cannot let their misgivings keep me from professing my faith as we are called to do (Romans 10). I am a Christian, and walk in the light and his forgiveness, thankful he has introduced me to both.

  8. It’s encouraging to see so many people saying the same things (because I can relate), and yet, it’s somehow simultaneoulsy discouraging as well. My story is not at all unlike Ed, other than the fact that I have not attended any “formal” religious training; although I have read enough books I could be a pastor (my wife says). I don’t know where to go with the whole church thing anymore, because I have become convinced that everyone is included in Christ- believers and non-believers- the only difference being that “believers” don’t believe this, and instead want to throw people who do believe this out of their churches.
    Seriously. What is Paul saying in Acts 17:28?

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