January 27, 2021

iMonk Classic: The Unresolved Tensions of Evangelicalism (3)

Lent 2012: A Journey through the Wilderness
The Unresolved Tensions of Evangelicalism, part 3
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 look at the sources of disillusionment within evangelicalism. This will be a five-part series, with four posts on the sources of personal disillusionment and one on responding to these personal sources.

3. The Disillusionment of Christian Community

[I want to be very clear that there are a lot of quality experiences of Christian community in evangelicalism, and many good people who practice it. I live in one good example. I know that many, many people have experienced the kindness of God in and through churches that demonstrated the reality of community in the Spirit. But it’s from working in churches for almost 20 years and living in a Christian community for 16 that I have developed an appreciation for what so many are going through in their own painful experience of dysfunctioning community. Despite many examples of the body of Christ being beautiful, this subject- disillusionment because of Christian community- is continually relevant.]

Does anyone really need to write this post?

Do we really need to spend even five minutes establishing that many current and former evangelicals are disillusioned because of their experience of Christian community? Or that evangelical apologists are fully stocked with responses that overwhelmingly place the blame for the failure of Christian community on the person who says Christian community is failing?

Is anyone going to argue that evangelicalism is that branch of Christianity most likely to change the church sign or ad to say “A Friendly Church” or “A Caring Community” or “A Family of Love and Acceptance” or a dozen other rhetorical announcements promising a great experience of community?

It was evangelicals that invented “Now stand and shake the hands of everyone around you,” replacing passing the peace of Christ with pretending to be friendly. (And I’ve got nothing against being friendly, but being coerced to do so is a bad idea.)

This particular kind of disillusionment presents such a warehouse of evidence that the problem is how to make sense of it all.

Let’s start with this: Most churches haven’t thought much about what community means. There’s very little distinctively Christian definition of why the church is different from the Rotary or the girls meeting at the local hair salon. How is the church different from a team? How is it different from an audience gathered to hear their favorite band or celebrity speaker?

The church has the problem that even secularists and Muslims have some idea of the kind of community that Jesus would have formed. They may be completely wrong on what that ideal means or why Christians can or cannot achieve it, but it’s pretty hard to miss the basics of what community would be like if Jesus is involved.

The church’s failure has been the failure to follow Jesus on this rather clear path. Instead, churches and Christians default to other kinds of relationships within culture, work, family, geography, history, etc. So you have Bob Jones University apologizing in 2008 for its race based admissions and dating policies.

Really people, how hard is this one if you are paying attention to Jesus?

But that’s the point. The culture, history, family, tribalism- they all trumped Jesus-shaped community on that issue. When it comes to going wrong on the issue of how to treat people, it’s hard to exceed the church.

So when we actually ask and answer the question “What does a Jesus-shaped, Spirit-empowered, Biblical community look and act like?” we’re going to get in trouble. It’s completely predictable. A lot of religious people simply are not interested in following Jesus on the “who is my neighbor?” question. We want Jesus to define religion, and we’ll decide what the club will look like.

I show my classes a documentary on the life and work of Southern Baptist scholar and civil rights leader Clarence Jordan. Jordan’s work of building an inter-racial Christian community in Georgia during the 1960′s just about got him and dozens of other people killed. It did inspire shootings, bombings, terroristic threatening and Klan intimidation. And, of course, the local Baptist churches were right in the middle of it, making a huge issue out of Jordan’s insistence on bringing persons of color into these churches.

You watch this and you can’t believe it, but I am old enough to remember it. Culture ruled. Christ didn’t shape the idea of community in most churches in the south. Integrated worship services had nothing to do with Jesus. Go with your own kind. (Contemporary evangelicals seems to be retrying out that idea with their various consumer shaped worship options and ministries.)

The church has largely repented of this failure of community, but it’s instructive. It tells me that the church really can’t be trusted to know what Christian community means, and whenever other sources of community definition are in the neighborhood, they will likely be heeded. Enter dress codes, economic snubbing, second classing women and singles, generational tyranny, denominational and stylistic narrowmindedness and so on.

Julie Duin’s stories of how her experiences as a single woman in evangelicalism are enough to make you wonder if we’re, literally, suffering some kind of mental disorder.

And then we have the actual failures of Christian community that are all around us. The list is daunting and we need to hear it. We need to hear it so we won’t be surprised at all that so many people have said “so long” and “good-bye” to evangelicalism and the church altogether.

  • There are those sexually abused in the context of church. And what they endure later from Christians – especially those in authority-for saying so.
  • There are persons used over and over again until they are used up and burned out.
  • There are persons who simply cannot break into a church’s fellowship structure, no matter how hard they try.
  • There are the experiences of single men and women.
  • There are the experiences of the divorced and the divorcing.
  • There are people who disagreed with a leader and were labelled as “divisive.”
  • There are persons with questions, who often have trouble accepting the accepted “answers” as satisfying.
  • There are persons who can’t adjust to changes in pastoral style, and are told they should leave.
  • There are persons who despise the dumbing down of preaching, the loss of hymns and the abandonment of liturgy.
  • There are persons who don’t make friends easily.
  • There are people who need rides to get to church, but who can’t find dependable transportation.
  • There are persons who were abandoned when they lost their family, spouse or child.
  • There are people who feel they are being avoided (and blamed) because of a tragedy or loss they’ve suffered.
  • There are persons with physical limitations who struggle with the slowness of the church to recognize their situation in some way.
  • There are those people who don’t want to spend more money on buildings and are told they are opposing God’s vision for the church.
  • There are the poor who feel embarrassed with all the financial posturing and preening that goes on in church.
  • They are the people who are shunned by pastors and leaders for reasons that are never clear.
  • There are persons whose views on science, politics, gender, sexual and social issues cause them to be rejected.
  • There are those whose interactions with Christians have been painful, dishonest or violent.
  • There are people who want the church to identify with the suffering, the powerless and the excluded, not the powerful and the privileged.

Writing- and I hope, reading- such a list is a litany of disillusionment. It brings back many painful memories of situations that seems so unnecessary, but are so common.

There is no conspiracy to disillusion these people. Many Christians would quickly respond to these things if they could or if they knew about the situations that exist. But these situations exist throughout evangelicalism.

Well, if you didn’t know these things exist, you do now. There are thousands and thousands of Christians who have been disillusioned by the church in these ways and many others. The unresolved tension of Christian community has been very, very costly.

One last comment, easily the most painful of all.

The arrogance of many Christians in regard to these matters is one of the most disillusioning experiences of all.

How many people have left the church when they discovered that once the hurtful and painful experience was known, they were blamed and the church exonerated the guilty or ignored the need for change?

I realize that many defenders of evangelicalism have a ready script on this one. The church is just doing its best. These critics are hostile. You can’t please some people. Don’t believe their story. These are spiritually immature people, even tools of the devil. If leaders paid attention to all of this sort of thing, nothing would get done.

I know these responses because I have often given them. I’ve been a major apologist for the terrible experience of failed Christian community. I understand why Christians want to be given credit for what they are doing and not criticized for what they have done poorly or failed to do.

I simply leave it with you. This is a major issue of disillusionment. It is a door that is open all the time.

I need to change my attitude about those who have gone out this door. How about you?

• • •

Next, I’ll look at disillusionment with Christian commitment itself. (And yes, I will be writing a post suggesting responses to these sources of personal disillusionment.)


  1. It is so easy to become disillusioned when the emphasis is on what ‘we do’, or should ‘not do’. (no matter how much Jesus is talked about)

    People start to show their real selves in close quarters, and it often isn’t pretty.

    So, we go in knowing that none of us measures up. That we all are self-obsessed idolators at heart. And that we need a Savior who forgives REAL SINNERS. And not when they eventually “clean up their act”. But the sinners that we are right now. And we try as best we can to forgive each other and be thankful for each other…for we are all in that same little boat being tossed to and fro by the waves of this earthy existence.

    Thanks to the Imonk for this one.

  2. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t hold up “community” as this ideal thing, and then celebrate the “civil rights” activists who came in from outside to mess with the way things were done, and impose their own version of community.

    A church should not be a “community” that you’re born into and never leave, like an ethnic group, because there’s no way to do that and have standards. If somebody refuses to follow what the church believes, then an elder needs to be able to show him the door–no excuses. Just because everybody else is doing it is no reason we need to jump off the cliff too. And just because you grew up in this church, or your family is in it, doesn’t give you any right to be here. Church membership is a privilege, and it comes with obligations. Once we start listening to a bunch of vague complaints like these (“Woe is me, I’m so oppressed!”) then we might as well just let the so-called “victims” take over and right their own church service. (Oh wait…)

    • “Church” membership is a privilege……..granted by whom?

    • That Other Jean says

      Florian, just because you’re a community of people who all think the same way about certain issues doesn’t mean you’re all correct. Warren Jeffs’ community of polygamists had many defenders of their way of life within their community; they were still wrong. It may require a group of outsiders, like the civil rights activists you mentioned, to bring that home to the community, and enable–or perhaps force–them to change.

    • I want to join you church Florian.

    • One day your church will be whittled down to the point that only the faithful half-dozen or so remain. Oh, happy day!

  3. The problem comes in when church membership starts becoming like the country club membership. At that point, acting right, believing the right doctrines, and knowing the right catch phrases becomes the be all and end all. Those that are in “the club” can then look down their noses at those poor slobs who aren’t able to follow the labyrinthine rules to get in or stay in. The hardest thing in the world is to have a relationship with someone who isn’t like you or to love someone that you may not even like.

    Why do you suppose you see most churches filled with people who are similar to eachother? Others don’t fit in. And it’s all about fitting into the Jesus box at so, so many churches.

  4. Watched a documentary on the political life of 1st century Palistine and how Jeses defied the rules of the games both in secular and Jewish terms. It had a Hebrew cast and was filmed on location, making it easy for me to envision some of the scenes illustrated, with the actor speaking in (I think) Aramaic with English subtitles.

    My point?? The well done scene of Christ healing the lepers, and the look of love “He” gave them instead of the digust they were treated with by everyone else. It seems no matter how public our sin and ugliness, Jesus still looks on us with Love….and expects His followers to do the same!

  5. I like what Jim Belcher pointed out in his book Deep Church. Jesus seemed to have an open attitude about community and welcomed people. But at a key point, when they wanted to draw close to Him, the hard questions started.
    He told the rich young ruler: You lack only one thing, go and sell all that you have’. To others it was different things. He seemed to hone in on whatevwer their idol was that kept them from God.

    There does come a point when we are called on to act. Sometimes our communities try to take God’s place and call on people to act too early, while they are still checking things out.

    As for Suzannes comment, the way of human life is hanging out with people that are similar to each other. It is that way whether it is a sports team, or rotary or church. Condeming a church for that is to condemn them for being human.

    But of course the question is are we to be merely human? Or are we called to something else?

    • It’s more than just like-minded people hanging out with each other. It’s hard to put my finger on, but it exists. There is a mindset and if you don’t follow it, you don’t really belong. Don’t like CCM? Don’t want to attend the latest Christian conference because you see it as a giant Jesus pep rally? Don’t care if your church sponsored school does great in basketball or not? See contraception as something with a lot of gray area? Then you don’t fit.

      I think, yes, we are called to something else.

  6. humanslug says

    Maybe we are failing in the “community” arena because we have little to no experience actually living, interacting, and functioning as a real community.
    Sure, we’ve got plenty of experience singing worship songs or hymns together, listening to sermons together, passing the plate to each other, and even shaking each other’s hands and exchanging friendly greetings on Sunday mornings.
    But is that enough for a group of people to call themselves a “community”?
    Probably not — or at least no more (and possibly less) than your average Elks Lodge or Rotary Club.
    But this lack is nothing new. For centuries the church has been more focused on what happens inside certain designated time slots in certain designated places than on the daily relational interactions of its members.
    Evangelicalism’s big Sunday Morning Show is just the latest distraction.

  7. Bill Metzger says

    It’s simple: when it’s about US, we lose it all.When it’s about JESUS, we have it all.

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