July 11, 2020

Responding to D.A. Carson’s “Five Trends In The Church”

In his talk before the Desiring God conference, Dr. D. A. Carson mentioned Five Trends In The Church Today. Read the summary before reading my response. I don’t know if the talk itself is out there, but from the summary posted at Acts 29, I found a lot to agree with. (Which I usually do with D.A. Carson. He’s the most consistently “New Covenant” theologian and teacher I’ve encountered.)

Trend 1: It is important to observe contradictory trends.

Carson pointed out the increase in Biblical knowledge among churches that are seeing fewer and fewer conversions.

The same point could be made about those parts of the Christian world that are seeing large numbers of conversions. Biblical knowledge is decreasing in those communities.

What I’d say is that it is important to look at places where the contradictory trends are being reversed. For example, Mark Driscoll seems to have found a model for evangelism that is strongly Biblical and evangelistic.

Where the contradictory trends are dominant, those Christians in different camps need to make special efforts to come together and help one another.

Carson made the point that our enthusiasm for evangelism can be replaced with an enthusiasm for non-essentials and secondary matters. Is anyone out there listening?

Trend 2: Current evangelical “fragments” are moving into a new phase: polarized “clumps.”

Can anyone say “post-evangelicalism?”

Carson is right that this fragmenting will leave the “center” open. But I believe that center is not going to be the uncontested territory of the people Carson would like to see claiming it.

I believe the Catholic church in particular will assert itself as the “center” that evangelicalism is looking for, and the case is strong (even if ultimately unconvincing.)

Particularly under the last two popes, Catholicism has been able to assert its evangelical side and to make its strongest appeal to Evangelicals in years. Many evangelicals feel that Benedict 16 is much more of a friend of their camp than some in their own traditions! (Who shares more of a worldview with the PCA: the current leader of the PCUSA or the pope?)

With a “Year of Paul” underway and a gathering of Bishops coming up to explore the”Doctrine of the Word of God,” is it any wonder that Rome looks like the eye of the storm to many evangelicals who are weary of the circus that is their own movement?

Would that evangelicalism had the life and health to provide a”Gospel-centered center”for evangelicalism. But I am afraid the best of evangelicalism will continue to be found in the subgroups and “clumps” that are seeking to survive evangelicalism’s demise.

Trend 3: The most dangerous trends in any age are the trends that most people do not see.

This point was less clear to me in the summary, but Carson rightly points out that the new developments in evangelicalism are much more potentially threatening to orthodoxy than the previous enemy of mainline “liberalism.” I am surprised that he did not the point that “new” evangelicals like Brian Mclaren sound much more like Harry Emerson Fosdick than Billy Graham.

I don’t believe every trend of the new evangelicalism is dangerous. Evangelicalism’s diversity makes it easy to become defensive and especially to be shallow in our analysis of what is going on. (I’d put the fracas about The Shack and the theology of Rick Warren in that category. There are concerns, but they aren’t as dire as some make them out to be in order to keep alarmist enthusiasm going.)

What does impress me about this point is Carson’s list of issues that are being seriously examined by younger evangelicals and ignored my many traditional ones. I hope that Carson’s interaction with the emergents opened the window that many of those younger evangelicals are passionate about issues they see as being completely overlooked and passed over in the traditional church.

This will continue at various places in evangelicalism, and the result is going to be a lot of dead churches in twenty years and beyond, and a lot of new churches started by church planters who didn’t want to fight the tired battles of the traditional churches. The time is fast approaching that few younger leaders are going to make the effort to convince a resistant church to change. Starting from scratch will simply be much easier and more attractive.

As I’ve said in this space recently, my own denomination is going to see thousands of churches die and thousands of new ones begin. The question is whether the new churches will be part of the SBC family or have another identity entirely. Is anyone at SBC/KBC headquarters listening?

Trend 4: There is a trend in our churches to be consumed by social concern.

An interesting point, and one that I think Carson should continue to think about, because he’s quite right and, perhaps, a bit wrong.

He’s quite right that we need to be Gospel people above all. And he’s quite right that you can’t take the Gospel for granted or you’ll fall in the same ditch as the mainlines. And he’s quite right that pastors and elders should create an environment for ministry by devotion to the Gospel, and then equip the congregation to do the social and mercy ministries.

What I wonder is how he feels about the thousands of churches who say they are orthodox on the Gospel, but who have no social/mercy ministry at all?

Surely we’ve learned the lesson that telling a starving man about the Gospel without feeding him creates a major Gospel problem as well as a human problem?

There is a relationship between the Gospel and responding to the needs of persons in need and various social concerns. I agree with Carson that we may lose the Gospel if we swing too far towards social concerns. But I think we can lose the Gospel- at least in terms of credibility and consistency- if we don’t pay attention to pressing and legitimate social concerns.

Shall I name the churches and denominations that get the Gospel right but have nothing to do with the poor? Is that really the Gospel of Jesus they are talking about in there? The Gospel is “Jesus shaped.”

This is a strong point. Ten minutes talking with some church traditionalists – not all of them by any means, but some- and you realize they have no idea what is going on out there. They see any departure from what was being done in their “golden age” as Ba’al worship. Unfortunate.

Trend 5: There is a trend in our churches to emphasize discipleship over the Gospel.

Again, what I think we have is a lot of evangelicals who have a propositional Gospel largely disconnected from what Jesus was doing during his incarnation, what he instructed be done by his church in the Great Commission and what we see happening in the epistles: discipleship.

We just have a bunch of evangelicals who don’t know how to talk or think about this topic of discipleship. There are bloggers I could link right now that have a total hostility to the term disciple. What is with that?

If we can’t find a way to talk about believing the message of the Gospel and then living out the Kingdom which that Gospel has placed us into, then we aren’t going to be of much use evangelistically. We might as well just hand out tracts.

A big part of the problem is this: the traditional church isn’t equipped to produce disciples. The community and processes Jesus created to make disciples aren’t found that often in evangelicalism’s know-it-all denominations. They are pursuing their own agendas of growth, numbers, money and organizational priority. They produce religious people who fit those agendas.

Disciples are engaged in the processes of following Jesus. They are apprenticed to Jesus. They are his students. They are in community built to engage and further those processes. They are working with God, building the Kingdom. The church is NOT an end in itself, but a sign (a sacrament) of Jesus as Lord of the world.

Can discipleship be legalistic? Sure. Can it obscure the Gospel? I suppose some versions of it could. But discipleship starts with the Gospel and lives the Gospel. Discipleship is living out the script that is the Gospel. Disciples are lost without the Gospel.

So at the very least, we must learn to talk about discipleship and the Gospel in such a way that we can’t even conceive of how believing the message of the cross and living the life of the Kingdom could be separated.

Comments

  1. OK. This isn’t going to be a pro/anti Driscoll/Mars Hill thread.

    Do some people have something that tells them anytime a particular name is posted anywhere on the net?

    I mean, I write a whole post with one mention of Driscoll, and all of a sudden I’ve got these critical comments about Mars Hill in my mailbox.

  2. For obvious reasons I hope Trend #2 wins. Though I am not a big fan of clumps because I just see it as another step for further divisions.

  3. Point 5 left my head spinning. I need to hear the actual talk because the summary creates a split which actually undermines the fabric of the Christian life and, while I disagree with D.A. Carson not infrequently, I can’t imagine him splitting the Gospel and discipleship. That would be plain crazy.

  4. Jeremiah Lawson says

    contradictory trends interests me. For years I have wondered if the kind of teen culture some Christians have lamented in the 20th century was unintentionally the result of social movements Christians got behind like public education and prohibition in the previous century. My reticence about culture war stuff has been that in surveying the long-term history of social gospel movements it seems as though Christians have plugged for things that had unintended consequences. On the flip side, those sorts of consequences may be why Christians get to trends 4 and 5, which in some ways represent opposite reactions to the same problem, catching some trends and not others. Or I could be making no sense right now.

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Trend 1: It is important to observe contradictory trends.

    Carson pointed out the increase in Biblical knowledge among churches that are seeing fewer and fewer conversions.

    My writing partner is a burned-out pastor of two churches in rural PA. One of them — about two dozen strong, all over 70 — is dying. He has described this to me; the congregation there has itchy ears for all this Biblical knowledge but no interest whatsoever in doing anything with it than sitting back and marvelling at their Great Biblical Knowledge.

    It’s like the Christianese version of the Perpetual Student. Always learning, never doing.

    Trend 4: There is a trend in our churches to be consumed by social concern.

    What I wonder is how he feels about the thousands of churches who say they are orthodox on the Gospel, but who have no social/mercy ministry at all?

    Again, this is the backlash to the Social Gospel of social concern/action without personal salvation being a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation. Both are badly out-of-balance.

    Either Lewis or Chesterton said that “the Devil sends sins in matched opposing pairs, so that in avoiding one we commit the other.”

    Surely we’ve learned the lesson that telling a starving man about the Gospel without feeding him creates a major Gospel problem as well as a human problem?

    Evangelical emphasis on “Saving Souls (TM)” tends to select for this sort of “major Gospel problem”. And that particular problem is very easy for outsiders to spot. Check the opening sequence to the South Park episode “Starvin’ Marvin in Space” for an example.

    Trend 5: There is a trend in our churches to emphasize discipleship over the Gospel.

    There are bloggers I could link right now that have a total hostility to the term disciple. What is with that?

    Again, out-of-balance opposing pairs. There are those that are so fixated on walking the aisle that they ignore the process afterwards. And there are those so fixated on “discipling” they act like control-freak cults.

    If we can’t find a way to talk about believing the message of the Gospel and then living out the Kingdom which that Gospel has placed us into, then we aren’t going to be of much use evangelistically. We might as well just hand out tracts.

    Well, passing out tracts means you never have to get to actually know somebody…

  6. I hope that they learn from the Catholic Church. The religious orders that have emphasized social work concerns without having enough prayer to balance it, are the dying ones.

  7. I like Carson’s point #5. I think he has a good observation. He’s talking about legalistic christianity or churches that make the christian life all about “do this, do that, don’t do that”. It’s basically “rule-book religion”.
    We should always begin and remain in the grace of God first and then discipleship. I have in mind one church near where I am from that is known for knowing their bibles and knowing all the rules and having alot of bible knowledge but also have the reputation of being legalistic christians. For this church and others like them discipleship begins with the gospel theoretically but not practially or functionally.

  8. Trend 5: There is a trend in our churches to emphasize discipleship over the Gospel. I find it difficult to believe because the church has no idea what discipleship is. I didn’t know it was even possible to split the gospel and discipleship. Oh well, I learn new things every day 🙂

  9. “Discipleship is living out the script that is the Gospel. Disciples are lost without the Gospel.”

    Amen to that. I think it’s a false choice to say you’re either emphasizing discipleship or Gospel. Everybody is following someone. What we need is the constant reminder to make sure we’re following Jesus and not ourselves or some political or religious figure. The freedom of the Gospel is freedom from self (Galatians 5).

    Basically, this is the same line of argument that Cross Gospel vs. Kingdom Gospel folks are having. Rather than insist Cross people develop a social conscience (if you consider yourself a Kingdom person) or Kingdom people develop a vision of grace (if you’re a Cross person), figure out how you need to be challenged in their direction.

    Well, that’s worth exactly $.02,
    Michael A.

  10. “Carson pointed out the increase in Biblical knowledge among churches that are seeing fewer and fewer conversions.

    The same point could be made about those parts of the Christian world that are seeing large numbers of conversions. Biblical knowledge is decreasing in those communities.”

    In my previous church their were two factions within the elders board. One wanted to emphasize discipleship, the other wanted to emphasize evangelism.

    After their long serving Pastor moved on, the church board could not agree on a replacement to present for a congregational vote. Each candidate could only get approval from half of the board.

    Eventually things got to such a point that the District Superintendent stepped in, dissolved the church board and appointed a committee of area Pastors to make a recommendation for the future of the church.

    They voted to close the church down.

    My point is that if we don’t understand in our churches that things like discipleship and evangelism need to go hand in hand, our churches will be severely limited in their Kingdom effectiveness.

  11. Aren’t Trend #4 and Trend #5 really the same thing? Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say Trend #4 is a subset of Trend #5.

  12. Greg DeVore says

    imonk writes:”Shall I name the churches and denominations that get the Gospel right but have nothing to do with the poor?” Are there such denominations that you can name? It is hard to imagine an entire denomination of Christians without any relief work, any food bank, any soup kitchens.

  13. Another very big problem is that alot of churches seem to end up being cults of personality.Which Paul so vehemently warned against.The maturity and patience that come across in Pauls letters is rarely seen today and one of the other reasons is that the gospel in large part has been entrenched in a capitalistic AKA / “American babylonianism” Americana mentality if you will.This tends to leave the TRUE gospel in the dark.
    And of coarse Christianity has basically been turned into a cottage industry with various franchises selling there brand of salvation.And the MEGAchurch mentality is the latest symptom of this phenomenon.
    Of coarse theres nothing new in all this or in D A Carsons ideas you can read through the OT and see Gods constant frustration with Israel for the exact same behavior which really shows us our fallen human nature hasnt changed.
    I really think that the internet is Gods newest way of bringing likeminded individuals together it allows someone to participate with a clear conscience,exchange ideas & questions freely without all the trappings of the cult of personality and phony peer pressure that goes along with so much of modern CHURCHIANITY ……..

  14. I really like Don Carson. I had the privilege of hearing him speak 3 times at a minister’s conference and he was fantastic. During one of the meals he sat down to eat with me and my wife and I then discovered that even though he is incredibly educated and smart, he’s also a real person and not too distant from the rest of us.

  15. I appreciated Carson’s talk (the summary of it) and iMonk’s response. I have only a couple of comments.

    Trend 1: I think those churches where many conversions are occurring and biblical knowledge declining don’t really exist. I know, that’s absurd until you look more closely at what they mean by a “conversion.” People who have responded to the gospel… which gospel? Raising a hand or walking an isle to “allow Jesus to be your personal Savior” (whatever that means) counts with the bean counters, but may not be representative of true conversions.

    Trends 4 & 5: I think the differences here are a matter of where we are now and where we are heading. Carson is gauging the noise level and the current push for change, and iMonk is simply recognizing where we are right now. Many in the church, particularly emergents and “ordinary radicals” (click my name for a review of Shane Claiborne’s work), have done an effective job of critiquing the lack of social concern and community in the church. This is the trend Carson is critiquing, one that is just starting to get traction.