November 26, 2020

My Post-Evangelical Wilderness

By guest blogger Chaplain Mike

Spend any time at all around Internet Monk, and you will hear about the “post-evangelical wilderness.”

This is one of the phrases that first attracted me to Michael’s writings, and it is clear from reading those who have commented over the years that it has resonated with many.

What it means for me practically at this point is this: “church” is problematic for me right now.

Let me tell you why.

I served as a pastor in local churches for about 28 years. Starting out as a summer assistant in my home Southern Baptist Church right after Bible College, I helped the pastor during his recovery from back surgery. I moved to Vermont that fall to be near my fiancee, and was asked to serve an American Baptist congregation that had lacked a pastor for several years. We eventually moved to Chicago to complete my seminary training, and during my studies, I was asked to minister in an independent Bible church. After graduation, and failed attempts to get aligned with the Evangelical Free Church denomination in a pastorate, we moved to the Indianapolis area, where I served in two Community churches. These congregations were started by men from a United Methodist background (Asbury seminary), but were intentionally non-denominational and evangelical, with an emphasis on practical discipleship, missions, and church planting.

The second congregation I served here had been through a troubling experience, dismissing their founding pastor. I came in after him and was never quite able to turn things around. I was the proverbial “unintentional interim” pastor. After I resigned, we were suddenly homeless, ecclesiastically speaking. We wanted to stay in the community for family reasons, but there were no options for pastoral ministry. My ministerial ethics taught me that starting or serving in a church in the same community was bad form, so that was not an option. We were out of church; I was out of job.

Through a friend, God graciously opened a door into hospice chaplaincy for me, and this month marks five years in this good work. I love my situation, and feel in some ways that I have finally found a place where I can do true pastoral ministry, without the baggage that contemporary evangelicalism has placed on the pastor in a local church.

However, church is still a problem. These five years have forced me to do a lot of thinking about ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). And as I write, I am still somewhere on the road out in the “post-evangelical wilderness” when it comes to feeling fully comfortable in church.

It affected our family. Upon leaving the ministry, for the first time in our lives, we were without a church home. This was especially hard on my wife, a classic “GUBA” (growing up born-again) who had been in evangelical churches since birth. To our children, who had struggled with being PKs anyway, it was further confirmation that “church” was more about rules and people being judgmental than anything else.

To me personally, it confirmed doubts and fears that had been growing for years about the inherent insecurity of serving in non-denominational churches. There is no safety net. No structures to provide support, counsel, and guidance. No mentors on the “apostolic” level beyond the local church to help. I learned the hard way that what I had feared was true: the pastor in a non-denominational evangelical church succeeds or fails on his own. I had “failed” in the light of some unwritten standard so, vocationally, I was out in the cold with few options.

Pastoral issues were not my only concerns. For years, I’d had a growing dissatisfaction with evangelicalism’s lack of tradition, historical perspective, reverence and order in worship. I resisted its programmed approach to spiritual growth, its bourgeois commitments that blatantly disregard the NT emphasis on sacrificial service and inclusion of the poor and disenfranchised, its “temple” mentality that has little sense of serving Christ in daily life and instead revolves around what happens in the institution and its programs.

Evangelicalism’s lack of theological thoughtfulness and depth had bothered me increasingly over the years. I cringed at the moralism of its sermons, its “me and Jesus” approach to the spiritual life, the celebrity status of its pastors, the crass and unabashed commercialism of its media industries. The endless dissemination of Protestant groups, each claiming its own “biblical” way with no more authority than an open Bible and the assertion that the Spirit is leading strained all credulity that this was God at work.

Despite its name, I increasingly found little “evangel” (gospel) in evangelicalism. The place I thought was “home” proved no refuge, and we became homeless, launched on a journey of wandering through the evangelical wilderness.

Today, I’m still on the journey.

For some time now, we have attended a Lutheran church (ELCA). Long a fan of Luther and his grasp of the Gospel, I have found a place of rest in the Lutheran emphasis on grace. It has also become my confirmed belief that liturgical worship has it right. Those who practice the ancient forms of worship celebrate the Gospel. And no matter the weaknesses of an individual congregation or pastor, there is a place to stand and rejoice each week when we confess our sins, receive God’s mercy, confess the Creed, hear the Scriptures, are fed at the Table, and are sent into the world to live and serve in the grace of Christ.

However, despite strong historic connections and continuities, mainline churches like ours have their own serious and well-documented problems. This I accept. I have never been one to look for “the perfect church.” I know no such place exists, so my current restlessness and continuing sense of ecclesiastical disorientation springs from other sources.

For one thing, I have enough evangelical in me that I still don’t feel like I’ve found my bearings in our current mainline setting. Serious Bible study, a strong emphasis on evangelism and missions, and other aspects that I still appreciate from my evangelical background and training are missing where we are.

I don’t worry that God is absent. He most definitely is not. But I am in one of those transitional places in life, one of those “in-between” places. I don’t fit in where I’ve been. And I’m not quite sure where I’m going.

Manna’s OK, but I long for milk and honey. It’s great that God keeps my shoes from wearing out, but I’m ready to kick them off in a place of real and lasting rest.

This is what the “post-evangelical wilderness” means to me.

What does it mean to you?

Please keep your comments as brief as possible. Feel free to express strong emotions, because this is personal. But stay respectful in what you say.