January 17, 2021

Riffs: 12:31:07: Can Evangelicals Change?

logo.gifI don’t know much about Sydney Anglicans, so I’m not in any position to say anything about the truthfulness of this interesting comment found on the Light of the World, A City on a Hill website. What I will say, however, is that the commenter is a bright fellow saying some very perceptive things about evangelicals these days. If you hear some echoes of Paul Metzger’s Consuming Jesus in those comments, then I’ll say “amen.”

It raises this question for me: When will evangelicals be ready to engage in a critique of their own movement? When will evangelicals be able to hear the truth about themselves and move forward in new directions as a result?

Is there a direction for evangelicals beyond going down the street, starting a new church with a new pastor and new gimmicks, then claiming that they have reinvented the “true” church yet again?

Our Roman Catholic friends shake their heads in continued wonderment at our addiction to reinventing church with the brash claim that we have FINALLY made it back to the simple forms of the New Testament. I realize that some of that wonderment can come from a sense of innate superiority, but I’ve come to realize that much of that reaction is warranted. From Martin Luther to Charles Spurgeon to D.L. Moody to Charles Finney to Billy Sunday to Billy Graham to John Macarthur to Mark Driscoll to Joel Osteen to the new emerging church meeting in a back yard near you for a poker game, the Protestant impulse of “we’ve finally got it right” goes on and on. As we like to say at our house in a favorite joke, “Hilarity ensues.”

Wait, someone will say. “Hey Spencer, aren’t you the guy who said he would rather have 20,000 fallible pastors with a Bible than one pope who believes he is infallible?” Absolutely. And I believe it, too. What I don’t believe is that those 20,000 fallible Bible toters are obligated to 1) restart the church in their own image and 2) operate without a reverse gear, i.e. without the capacity of solid self-criticism.

Let’s go back to the commenter’s lists of what he sees going on with Sydney Anglicans. My friend John H at the BHT summarized it this way:

…middle-class, culturally limited, inability to engage with unfamiliar modes of thought, simplistic evangelistic techniques, failure to listen to what cultural phenomena (e.g. the Da Vinci Code) may be saying to/about the church, failure to minister to groups such as Sydney’s large gay population, a simplistic and ill-informed attitude towards Islam, church growth fueled largely by transfers from other congregations rather than by conversions of non-Christians, and all this in the face of a society in which there are deeply-rooted reasons (read: capitalism) why the church has little relevance for most people.

Much of that critique applies to evangelicalism wherever you find it today, and to some of the healthiest forms of evangelicalism at that. My question is, “Can we do something about these things, or would doing so require a capacity for change resulting from self-criticism that evangelicalism doesn’t seem to have any more than our Roman Catholic friends?”

Remember that traditional Protestant church most of us grew up in? Remember how it was full of failing programs and activities that someone started fifty years ago and they were still holding on to? Even when they accomplished nothing more than sustaining some illusion of “being a good Christian” by the fact the church kept doing them and someone kept coming? Remember the pastors who got in major trouble trying to change some of those things? Remember the rather insane loyalty to some of those programs and activities; loyalty that drove potential new members and young people right out the door (if they came through the door in the first place?)

If that’s not part of your experience of the traditional church, you now know why this post feels weird to you. You’re too young to understand. Well, stay in your seat. Your turn is coming, I assure you. One day you’ll be defended your praise band against the young people who want a liturgy, and then you’ll remember me.

Back to where I was. The traditional church simply didn’t do self-criticism, at least not in a healthy way. How many pastors have done some version of an expensive self-study, or brought in consultants from denominations or elsewhere, presented a plan for change, and after all the surveys and listening sessions have been met with the cold stares of those who simply “weren’t gonna do it? Wouldn’t be prudent.”

And then what happens? The options go like this: 1) Pastor leaves. 2) Pastor lays down plan to run off the nay-sayers, splits the church generationally or otherwise and fights a battle to take over the church. Or 3) Pastor leaves and starts a real church.

Why couldn’t we just say we were wrong and make changes? Love each other like a real family, compromise, make changes and move on?

I had to be amused when Willow Creek Community Church pastor Bill Hybels announced recently that the church’s approach to discipleship didn’t work. It had failed. This was, of course, unheard of because Willow Creek was successful by all the measures of contemporary church growth. What were all the pastors who had been attending their “do it like we do it” seminars and buying their discipleship materials supposed to do now? Everyone was commending Hybels for his honesty, but in the little balloons attached to their heads, the thoughts were “Danger! Danger! This does not compute!”

Of course, the most fascinating response came from the Truly Reformed ™, who laughed their self-satisfied laugh and wrote on their blogs, “Finally Hybels and company are seeing the error of their apostate ways. How can we know they are serious? When they become reformed and do things exactly like our church. Let’s see if they mean it.” Now there’s the attitude toward change we all need: “Please notice that some of us have always been doing it right. Admit it and all will be forgiven.”

I ask again: Why can’t we engage in self-criticism? Why do we have to write books like “everything must change?” Everything doesn’t need to change, but some things always need to change, and most of that change amounts to “we’re wrong. Let’s find a way to do what’s right.” Why does evangelicalism seem to be destined to become a movement that restarts its churches in the image of every age niche, cultural niche and consumer niche that comes along? (And call it “church planting.”)

The Sydney Anglican commenter seems to me to be right on the money. It’s the kind of critique that could be applied to most of evangelicalism. Too rational. Too culturally stratified. Too simplistic. Blind to culture. Reductionistic. Defensive. We can do better, but in order to do better, all of us- ALL OF US- need to be able to become committed to healthy change and the necessary process that proceeds and follows change.

We might not get everything we like. Our kids may not say church is cool. We may have to give up being the next megachurch. We may have to invite strangers over for dinner. We may have to embrace someone with a very different lifestyle. We may have to actually love someone who isn’t a Christian. We may have to realize that the early church didn’t restart the whole process every time someone was unhappy. They found seven good men and solved the problem. We may have to be disciples, not consumers, for a change.

Have a Happy New Year. May we all be wrong about some things, stop being so defensive and make some healthy changes for the good of all.


  1. “We may have to be disciples, not consumers, for a change.”
    Ouch! Good one.

  2. Michael,

    Unfortunately, on the parish level, the same things MUST be said and asked in the Catholic Church as well. That’s why some of us are cafeteria Catholics, in which we tend to choose where we get fed and where we serve, rather than just the closest parish.

  3. Well–a thought provoking post. I think the church is constantly reforming itself—may be not as fast as we like. In the past year I have joined a liturgical church and have found that for the first time in a very long time (maybe 30 years or so) I have felt that the purpose of church–going to church–is to worship the living Christ. So that has been a revolution in my own life—I always felt that church should be about this, but it was more for what I could learn or get out of it–granted in worhipping I get a lot too!! BUT the focus has been on Christ himself and His glory—worshipping Him. The church I attend has some interesting attitudes—they really do feed the poor….they do have gay members that are couples (even though they do not condone gay marriage)….I know all churches have their weakness and of course that includes myself ;-). There is something beautiful in the old liturgies–a uniting to the past and a focus on Christ, His word, and prayer. The music is a huge pipe organ that reverberates in my chest and lifts my heart in praise. Perhaps part of the churches problem is the individuality of our culture—I have read Bonhoeffer’s (sp? ) book on community and perhaps he speaks to this idea of community that is needed in our American churches. I think the focus on Christ himself is sometimes lacking—I wonder what the persecuted church thinks about all of our bickering?

  4. Great post Michael. It is my opinion that my own inability for self-criticsm is directly proportionate to my inability to accept the Grace. Perhaps this is the problem with the Evangelical Church. Less Grace focused, more program focused. Once they have a strong grasp of the mind-blowing characteristics of Grace, then they just might be able to look at themselves forgivingly and say, “Hey, we’ve been messing up.”


  5. This, along with yesterday’s message from the London Presbyterian Church, offers much food for thought and challenge to be honest about ourselves with our total need for God. My colleague preached yesterday, saying among other things, that many don’t welcome God because when God comes, we have to change. As he put it, we don’t want the light of God in Christ shining into the dark places of our lives, and, I would add, of our churches. Yes, we continually need that light and need to heed God’s call to confess and repent. Simply acknowledging that bit of reality would go a long way toward banishing the arrogance so prevalent in so many corners of the church. I always seem to come back to that ancient prayer of the church: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.” Just make it plural for our churches: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us sinners.”

    God bless in ’08!

  6. Evangelicals as a “block” may or may not change. I personally think as a “block” they will not, but that some will “come out of it”, the exhausted, the tired, the poor and sick and tired of church worship being from earth to heaven rather than receiving FROM God from heaven to earth.

    The reason I think the “block” will not is that as a block like Rome, there will always remain a remnant of that “church group” that has rejected the Gospel. Post Luther, even trying to reform Rome, Rome still is. The institution stands, so will “evangelicals” as an institution – big or little who knows – but I think it will stand. Where the Gospel once was in strength but is ultimately abandoned or covered up, often as it “moves on” the remaining apostate still remains. The Jews once held the truth of the Gospel, as a block/institution rejected it, some came out (e.g. Paul), yet to this day the block/institution stands and some keep coming out. Rome once held the truth of the Gospel, as a block/institution rejected it, some came out (e.g. Luther), yet to this day block/institution stands and some keep coming out. KEEP IN MIND we are not saying in any case that an individual that remains in any of these cannot be OF the faith, just in a very ill situation. I think the same will happen in evangelicalism as a block/institution, and in MANY other protestant denominations both conservative and liberal that have or are in the process of rejecting the Gospel in some subtle way or another. Yet, many come out of them, some stay in attempt to reform until exhausted. But I don’t think you will ever see a whole sale conversion such that “evangelicalism” disappears per se, any more than Rome will over throw Trent or the Jews Judaism. At least not until the end of all things. We may pray that it does change, but it may never. Is that a failure of the Gospel? No, not at all, it’s the success of it. Such pure altruistic love from God will ALWAYS raise up the and feed “the naked passive trusters in Christ alone” (the new man) and raise up and feed the fury of the religious doers (the old man) no matter what ilk they come from.

    False religion need not be “outside” the church, the entire amazing thing of Luther’s reformation was that they, Rome, denied Christ under the name of Christ. The same is happening in MANY protestant denominations on a whole sale level.

    That’s not being defeatist but a realistic look at it. It’s not hopeless for ANY individual/family in ANY of those apostate or in the process/danger/brink of apostacizing groups (I use those terms not as mean spirited but lamentable terms of a sad sad heart wrenching reality). For we cannot draw them back with “law” but Gospel, yet that Gospel will repel many who want law.



  7. I attend a small inner city Baptist church in Houston. I’m seeing an interesting change in church dynamics. We left one of the major churches last year for a small congregation. I’m in the later 30 generation and many of my friends are wanting a closer connection to church, In the mega churches we keep hearing we need to get plugged in. But by the time we park, get our kids on 3 different floors – we have over a 3 hour adventure attending. I’m stressed out by the time we leave. Forget volunteering because attending with several kids wears me out.

    The small church we’re now attending almost died. Most small Baptist churches in the city have died or are barely hanging on. However, in 2007 my church developed a change of direction…reinventing as you might say. However, we went back to the basics and are not following the mainstream. We don’t overprogram our congregation with busy stuff and, instead, focus on developing a stronger community of believers. This year we are focused on reading the entire bible in one year and we have all sorts of stuff planned around this objective.

    Since we made this change, we have grown by over 30% in 12 months without trying. Our services are simple. We have a variety of music, a prayer time and sermon. If we try a power point, it usually doesn’t work. We’d never dream of using a video. There will be no new gym or new worship center. We’re happy with our little building. We’d rather send the money to missions.

    My pastor is older and looking to retire. However, we don’t know where to find a pastor with a passion for small churches. We don’t want to get big. When we hit 200 coming every Sunday, we plan to send 50 out to another small churche that is struggling. Finding leadership with our same vision has been a challenge.

    I”m really encouraged to see what is happening at our church. But I don’t see much leadership withing SBC that we can pull from.


  8. It has become my conviction that Roman Catholicism has the power to stand over against culture – and win. Evangelical Protestantism, of which I am a part, does not have that power. It is continually trying to be first century church in its freestyle form and loses its way. I finished last year John Henry Newman’s The Development of Doctrine. His thesis is that trying to return to the first century is like trying to return to an embryonic stage – why would anyone want to do that? The development of the church and the development of insight into the meaning of its doctrine is what we should embrace.
    I continue to be impressed with the reality that in all the history of the RC church there has not been a heretical Pope – in other words, one who denies supernaturalism and the cardinal doctrines that express it. If an evangelical Protestant church can stay orthodox for three generations, it’s a miracle. The Puritans in England and New England couldn’t pull that one off.

  9. From the inside looking in as far as evangelicals go I can say that to suggest that evangelicals are not self-critical of their own movement is a bit uninformed. Of course, 150 years of psychological research can illuminate all(humanity) of us on our perception of reinforcement, punishment, and assignment of credit or blame in a way that clearly demonstrates our own selfishness. All humans are subject to this, evangelicals included.

    The issue for all of us is having the humility to understand that our understanding is most certainly fallible and derived from our sinfulness (i.e., selfish nature). It seems that our unwillingness let go of those things that we find reinforcing whether they be status, power, lust or drugs such as alcohol, cocaine, or heroine is a demonstration of our imperfect humanity. At some level, we find our own interpretations intellectually, emotionally, and physiologically satisfying for the wrong reasons.

    That said, many evangelicals are asking these types of questions. You don’t have to go to an entertainment church more than once to perceive that there are some serious issues with the non-participatory consumer model of church in the evangelical movement. But that is not the only thing going on in evangelical circles it is just very noticeable (for obvious reasons).

  10. Michael, thanks.

    To answer your question, “I don’t think Evangelicalismâ„¢ wants to change or be self-critical.” It would be nice if the coalition would have enough self-awareness to accomplish the task, and I wish I could point to some grand thing the Holy Spirit was currently doing to give the coalition the self-awareness it so desperately needs, but I’m not holding out much hope in the matter.

    Mark Noll had it right, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there isn’t much of an evangelical mind.” I remember when Scandal first came out. My friends and I at Eastern read it and jumped for joy. All throughout our years at college we kept being drawn into the deep waters of Christian history and spirituality by our professors, and then told by too many of our pastors “that doesn’t really matter much.” Scandal gave us the idea for the intellectual and spiritual project which we had all felt called to do but didn’t have an image of – so we went off to do it as our way of expressing the reality of the Christian Faith.

    I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere in the 5 or so years after college, my friends and I heard the door click behind us – we’d been locked out of the very same Evangelical “world” that had brought us into the faith in the first place! Even mentioning Mark Noll’s book to folks, which shortly before had been a wonderful conversation starter, became a dangerous name to drop (worthy of a serious verbal smack-down by “real Evangelicals”). I held on to the title the longest, by the time I got out of Seminary most of my friends had ceased claiming to be part of the movement – 5 years after seminary I couldn’t claim it anymore either.

    In short, Evangelicalismâ„¢ is incapable of being self-reflective because the very same people who are willing to undertake such a task are expelled from the herd.

  11. Leigh,

    Though unusual its not isolated (I came from one of those busy busy body bee churches myself that exhaust you and starve you to death, plus raid your $$$ with their tithe sermons near the end of the physcal year). My best fried who is a pastor/elder at a very small (left the SBC) bapist church took a similar turn. They preach nothing but 200% Gospel in the Word. Changing the worship from earth to heaven as if to move God (paganism) to one of receiving from God weekly and afresh the Gospel and forgiveness of sins.

    We always heard the “you’ll get plugged in, no pew sitters here, etc…” One of the things they “joke” about but are serious is that they “love pew sitters”. And I kid you not that literally drew a family some 90+ miles away, exhausted with the opposite in SB-ism and shamefully I must admit a PCA church in KY. They, like many of us were simply exhausted both in body and soul, no Gospel food, no weekly return to forgiveness of my weekly, daily, hourly, by the second sins…etc.

    If some denominations would just grasp against their blind stupidity that one’s vocations are the physical manifestation of the law of God on a daily basis (mother, father, son, boss, clerk, doctor, milk maid) and how much we fail in heart, word and deed at loving our neighbor through these alllllll week long – THEN just maybe these very very very DULL minded so called “pastors” of sheep (most are more like American cattle rustlers than eastern shepherds) MIGHT know why the Gospel is for the CHRISTIAN ALREADY TOO!

    But that’s simply too much to hope for in this “do it yourself”, “try harder” idolatry here in America.

    Blessings to you in Christ’s all sufficiency alone,


  12. I’m a lot more, than a bit surprised, to see this post, (the quoted material, I think comes from another blog dated late 2006, from memory) about Sydney Anglicans.

    As with all ‘good’ stories there is about 90% truth and 10% nonsense – as a recent member of the Sydney Anglicans – and having endured their last two Synods, I’ve become a little familar with current developments. A tiny bit of research, might have been in order – or even a reference to their site and maybe some material on their Archbishop could have been useful in presenting a balanced view on what’s happening in Sydney e.g. this article on Archbishop Peter Jensen’s role in global Anglican directions:- http://your.sydneyanglicans.net/sydneystories/future_anglicans_unite/ ,which might be of interest to the wider community.

    Sydney Anglicans are not liked – very much not liked, in the wider, western Anglican community because of their strong biblical focus. Yet, although I am critical of many facets of what they do, I have to admit one important point – they are being blessed with some church growth where many other (liberal) areas in Australia, are not!

  13. Despite being a Presbyterian since 2001 I was a Sydney Anglican from 1988-2000. I still consider myself one (I now live out of Sydney).

    Much of the critique is fair in my opinion. Sydney Anglicans have not only the reputation for disagreeing with the wider Anglican body (which is often a good and necessary thing) they also have the reputation for turning on their own when someone within the “Sydney Anglican” circle voices criticism.

    I have seen too many ungodly people enter Anglican ministry in Sydney – men who are manipulative and argumentative and who are not sober minded. When these men get out in ministry they ride roughshod over churches and lay leaders. The hierarchical episcopal model prevents congregations from ejecting bad pastors without the Archbishop’s approval. Moreover, even when a majority of congregants might see a potential ministry candidate as ungodly, their opinion is not what matters when the man enters Moore College.

    Having said that I also agree with Shayne. There is much about Sydney Anglicanism that is good. Here in Newcastle (NSW) we have an Anglican church that condones homosexuality, condemns gospel preaching and uses robes and incense. The entire Hunter valley has less gospel churches per capita than the most “godless” regions of Sydney.

    Moreover, Sydney Anglicans have championed Biblical Theology, which is a vibrant and common-sense (and thoroughly biblical and Christ-centred) alternative to dispensationalism. Anyone who has read dispy literature for decades will then have a head explosion paradigm shift if they read Gospel and Kingdom by Graeme Goldsworthy.

  14. Apodeictic says

    @ OSO: In Sydney you will also find that pastors “robe”. And for at least one Sunday service they are by canon law required to wear traditional Anglican robes. That the pastor “is robed” is not really the issue; after all, I’m sure you would prefer him robed (clothed) than naked 🙂 The real issue is what *kind* of robes he wears and what those robes signify. In Newcastle they by and large wear the robes of a sacerdotal priesthood the wearing of which was abolished in English parish churches at the time of the Reformation and illegally reintroduced at the time of the Oxford Movement. In Sydney, however, the robes worn are true to the Anglican Reformation settlement and signify that the office of “priest” is one of a *presbyter* who is a pastor-teacher rather than a *sacerdoter* who offers up the “sacrifice” of the “mass”.

  15. Apodeictic says

    Despite no longer (regularly) attending a church in the Diocese of Sydney — I’m currently abroad pursuing graduate study — I too consider myself a Sydney Anglican. I sympathise greatly with OSO in Newcastle where the Anglican church north of the Hawkesbury is far from being in good health and where the hierarchy is often hostile to the preaching of the gospel. I came to faith and was raised as a Christian in Sydney Anglican circles and I still keep up with what’s going on back home.

    To a large extent I agree with the original commenter. I think many Sydney Anglicans (and by extension other evangelicals) would also agree with him to a point, but most would fail to begin asking themselves the kinds of questions Michael is driving at.

    The main problem, as I see it, is that in “evangelicalism” theology and culture are intertwined, but most evangelicals fail to acknowledge the cultural aspects of the movement and fail adequately to reflect on how evangelicalism relates *culturally* (as well as theologically) to the rest of the visible church as well as wider society. Evangelicalism carries with it a distinct culture (or cultures) which appeal(s) to a certain kind of person (and not others). Although “evangelicalism” definitely has a theological centre, it also has a significant cultural coating. For some this makes evangelical a very difficult pill to swallow. For others the coating makes it far too easy to swallow and the theological side of evangelicalism is downplayed or even lost entirely. I think the history of the evangelical movement (especially in the United States) makes it plain that over time the significance of evangelicalism as a cultural movement has waxed but its significance as a theological movement has waned.

    Because evangelicals too often neglect the cultural aspects of evangelicalism, far too many of them identify Christianity with Evangelicalism. Although for the most part such people mean well, their efforts at evangelism and discipleship often end up being failed attempts at making people cultural evangelicals rather than genuine followers of Jesus. Whether we as evangelicals like it or not, “evangelicalism” as a block just can’t relate the gospel, Christian discipleship and the church to large chunks of the outside world. And as evangelicals we need to start being honest with ourselves about this. I know many people who just wouldn’t fit in within evangelical circles. But I desperately want them to know Christ and to be joined to his body. And if that’s not to be then I want the stumbling block to be Jesus Christ himself rather than our evangelical “baggage”. This does not mean that evangelicalism is doomed to failure or that we should suddenly run to Rome or Constantinople or the Emergents or whomever else. There are no easy answers. But we do need to
    begin asking ourselves the tough questions.

    Evangelicalism (along with the rest of the Church) needs to reform itself in line with the Word of God. I’m not sure to what extent it will be able to do this. But I think the Anglican Diocese of Sydney has a better shot at achieving this than much of “non-denominational” evangelicalism in the U.S.

    I got the general impression that the original comments were meant to be “critical” in more than a “constructive criticism” kind of way. I won’t lie; some of the charges levelled against Sydney Anglicanism are fair. But it would be a mistake for people who’ve not experienced Sydney Anglicanism first hand to draw too many negative conclusions from the original comments. Compared to much of evangelicalism as well as Western Anglicanism there are an awful lot of good things going on. The commenter’s criticisms need to be viewed in that context.

    My guess is that as Western culture increasingly becomes less amenable to Christianity much of evangelicalism (particularly in the U.S.) will wither and die. But evangelicalism as a whole won’t necessarily die and far more important than what happens to “evangelicalism”, the Church of Jesus Christ certainly won’t die. Not even the gates of hell shall prevail against it.

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