November 30, 2020

Subcultural Spirituality or “I know he’s a Christian because I saw it on his bumper sticker.”

One of the axioms of my critique of evangelicalism is this: methodology creates theology. By this I mean that when evangelicals have adopted particular methods, such as the evangelistic sales pitch or the powerpoint designed sermon, they will soon develop an accompanying theology, generally morphed in the direction of justifying and spiritualizing what they are doing. Therefore, the most pragmatic of churches are usually the most defensive and the least self-critical about their innovative methods. Churches who do this for decades have all the characteristics of the vault at Fort Knox.

Of course, one might expand this critique in a number of ways. We might say that methodology has created theology, which has, in turn, created more methodology. It’s a circle, a cycle that goes on and on. Which brings me to the question of “what is the result?” And the answer: the corruption of individual Christian spirituality itself, something abundantly evident among evangelicals today.

Let me illustrate. Which of the following is going to attract evangelicals? Which expresses the personal spirituality of the typical evangelical? Which best describes what appeals to you and me?

1) Our church decides to have a prayer emphasis. We have a 24 hour prayer clock and sign up for 15 minutes to pray in the worship center. We have a seminar on prayer featuring a well-known teacher. We sell books on prayer. We have themed t-shirts about prayer with cool mottos and witty art. We have special prayer meetings at designated homes. The youth have a prayer walk. Prayer testimonies are featured in worship all week. A praise and worship band is coming to lead a musical concert of prayer. Here- have a free pen and a balloon. Prayer and pizza for the youth happens on Saturday. The Children’s Choir is doing “Billy, The Praying Bicycle” in the evening service.


2) The pastor preaches on prayer, and encourages members to pray every day for the church, missions and themselves. He recommends you read J.C. Ryle’s “Call to Prayer.” Accountability groups for personal prayer are encouraged as well. Then, it’s up to you.

Of course, I hope you will agree that while we understand the second option, we also know that our evangelical spirituality is drawn toward the festival of events in the first option, an option that actually promotes not so much prayer, but events and actvities somehow related to prayer. Kindof.

Our spirituality has become corrupted by methodology that emphasizes evangelical Christian subculture, a subculture that looks to activities, conferences, concerts, products and many other outward events to measure spiritual reality.

When I was growing up, our church had evangelistic visitation one night a week. On that night, we were supposed to go out and knock on doors in the neighborhood and do evangelistic sales pitches. We trained for this, using all the latest SBC materials. This night was promoted endlessly in all the usual ways. The training was offered constantly. You easily picked up the message that the “real” Christians in our church were the folks out knocking on doors on visitation nights.

Now, relational evangelism with our friends and neighbors was mentioned in our church, but all of us knew that “real” evangelism was that weekly foray into the neighborhood. And if we never witnessed to another person, if we never mentioned Christ to our co-workers or relatives, it was no big deal, because true spirituality had you down at the church for the evangelism event. The event was our focus, not the personal reality of evangelism in my own life. In other words, we were shaped by this emphasis on an event rather than by a balanced, Biblical and humble approach to evangelism.

I hope these two illustrations move us down the road I want to travel. We need an honest discussion of personal spirituality among evangelicals, because we are not in good shape. Southern Baptist teacher of spiritual disciplines Don Whitney has many wonderful insights on Biblical spirituality. His emphasis is very healthy: Basic disciplines. Primarily individual disciplines. Simple disciplines. Whitney has a much needed ministry, because these things, while talked about, are almost unknown in the real lives of many evangelicals. If it doesn’t come to us in concerts, conferences, celebrities, consumer goods and the general noise and racket of the evangelical subculture, we probably aren’t doing it.

We have become people who must be in a crowd or at a special event to feel we have fellowshipped with God or known the power of the Spirit. We must have products to buy to feel we are following Jesus. We must decorate our cars, walls and bodies with slogans and art to reassure ourselves we are Christians. We want Christian entertainment, and we call it “worship”, but that is almost nonsensical in any ordinary sense. When we must have a stadium, a six-figure audio visual set up and a major league praise team to have worship where “God shows up”, who are we fooling?

The simple disciplines of the inner life escape us. We rarely pray, but we have all Stormie’s books on prayer. We rarely evangelize, but we’ve been to all the seminars and can use the Evangecube with skill. We can’t stop complaining about the boring worship at church, but we’d drive 500 miles to hear Third Day. We don’t read the Bible and we don’t read books about the Bible and we don’t train our minds, but then why should we? Pastor Rick has been to the grocery store and brought home all the verses we need on every topic, illustrated and alliterated. We aren’t talking to unbelievers, and we can’t turn off television- Christian or otherwise- long enough to read a book. We can go to a Beth Moore study, but we can’t go to the scriptures on our own for 15 minutes a day.

We’re pitiful. I’m pitiful. What are we doing with our lives? And how the heck did we convince ourselves that membership in the mall and the amusement park is following Jesus, loving God and serving our neighbor?

We sign up for mission trips, but quiet, consistent service that doesn’t end in applause and a good cry is hard to find among evangelicals. It’s too hard for us to lay aside our comfort and selfishness to do service without being surrounded by all our friends. The inner life, the daily call to individual discipleship, the genuineness of Biblical spirituality- we only know these to the extent we can have them sold to us in the currency of our evangelical subculture and packaged for us in events and products that make us feel special. We can be bribed and we can be flattered. And we will call it Christianity.

When I look at my life, I long to have the kind of spirituality I see in the lives of those who value solitude, love to read the Bible, know how to pray and find quiet ways to love and serve others without applause. I want my life to show the evidence of the Spirit of Jesus and not the imprint of all the religious hucksters and hawksters that need my butt in their seat and my dollar in their cash register.

I want to do these good, simple, and beautiful things because they are what I passionately desire in my life. I want them to be in me because they are real, not because they are promoted with a pizza fellowship for everyone who comes all five nights.

In the center of our campus is a poem that all of us who work here have heard a hundred times, but it says something important that is rapidly vanishing in these days of subcultural spirituality.

Father, where shall I work today?
And my love flowed warm and free.
Then He pointed out a tiny spot
and said, “Tend that for me.”
I answered quickly, “Oh no; not that!
Why, no one would ever see,
no matter how well my work was done;
not that little place for me.”
And the word He spoke, it was not stern;
He answered me tenderly:
“Ah, little one, search that heart of thine.
Art thou working for them or me?
Nazareth was a little place,
and so was Galilee.”


  1. You are very much on point. I especially agree with your statement that: “In other words, we were shaped by this emphasis on an event rather than by a balanced, Biblical and humble approach to evangelism.” Too often, in an effort to get people involved in any task in the church, we make an event out of it and make is seem as if you have to do this to be “the right kind” of Christian. But it is the humble effort that is the type that God seems to desire (if I read my Bible right).

    Still, without the fanfare, how do we get Christians to engage in certain–shall we say–less comfortable tasks. Very few of us are willing to go door to door in any neighborhood unless we feel as if it is necessary. So, how do we encourage the one without causing the other?

  2. To answer the previous poster’s question… you preach the gospel of salvation by grace through faith consistently and constantly to those in the pews and expect that God will do what He promises in His Word. Do not look for results, but trust that He will get the ones He wants.

    We get caught up in “how do I…”, not realizing that these things must be completely of God’s doing for them to succeed. Not simply cooperation, but total submission, doing nothing of our own initiative but only that which God leads. We just must be faithful in what little things He gives us to do… He is the general, we’re the infantry, who are we to question His designs?

    My church, for example, realizing that people weren’t excited about such things, chose to begin training them solely on “application”, believing that the parishoners already “knew enough Bible facts.” In fact, the very wording of their directive was: “Teach less Bible, more application.” I was reminded of the Scriptures which state: “There is a way that seems right unto a man…”

  3. “When I look at my life, I long to have the kind of spirituality I see in the lives of those who value solitude, love to read the Bible, know how to pray and find quiet ways to love and serve others without applause. I want my life to show the evidence of the Spirit of Jesus and not the imprint of all the religious hucksters and hawksters that need my butt in their seat and my dollar in their cash register.

    I want to do these good, simple, and beautiful things because they are what I passionately desire in my life. ”

    I’ve thought about these things for the last several years. As the years have gone by; the revivals have fizzled out; the huscksters get more brazen; the entertainment business and record businesses who have corrupted so many talented Christian artists and the lastest books telling us “how to” whatever; I just removed myself from the pew from whence I had begun to take note of all the heartbreaking things going on.

    Do I know how to pray? I don’t know. The important thing I ask myself is; do I know how to listen to what our Father is saying. That, to me, is more important than anything I can say to Him that He doesn’t already know anyway. I need to hear Him and know Him more and more as the years go by. I’m 60 years old now. I’ve seen a lot of junk come and go in the religious circus.

    On the other hand, I have met and loved many people who are not religious but have a heart for God and it shows in all they say and do whether they go to church or not.

    I know women who have given up men she could love and who could love her but would have to compromise her commitment to God to have him. We don’t hear a lot about sacrifice and it’s truly hard to bear…to hear. Some women have given in to some weaknesses only to have to repent and let go what may seem her only happiness in the earthly realm of relationship. It’s a big mess out there where relationships are concerned and we don’t seem to have the answers or want to address them or even know how to address them-……

    What is church? It’s loving God and each other and showing it in everyway we know how; in whatever gifts and talents we have been given for the good of the Body of Christ. At least, that’s my opinion.

    As for knocking on doors to evangelise…let’s just knock on the doors of our neighbors’ hearts and love them THEN maybe they will come to us to ask to know the Jesus in our hearts.

  4. The call of Christ to every believer in every age has been to deny one’s self and follow Him. I suspect that call has always been counter-cultural if we believe in the doctrine of the total depravity of man. As our current western culture dumbs down more and more each decade and we find, at least in Canada that we actually live in an anti-Christian culture, not a post-Christian one, the rot insideously creeps into the church and is reflected in our consumer oriented excuse for worship. Time honoured, classic Christian spiritual disciplines are barely comprehensible by a generation raised on sound bits who really believe history began at the time of their birth. Silence and reflection seems to be a lost art and may only be recaptured in small modules through individual demonstration. Unfortunately, quiet service, Godly humility and a new fear of the Holy may go completely unnoticed in the socially chaotic, event riddled,noisy and self-centered direction of our current conservative evangelical culture.

  5. Cake and circuses…the mainstay of the modern American church.

  6. Beniamin Nitu says

    it’s like Tozer said it: if Holy Spirit will leave the church no1 will notice, because we have “programs”.
    I also remember Francis Schaefer in “True Spirituality” saying that at one point in his life he stoped and really wonder where is the difference between our lives and the non-christians? Did Bible failed us? Did Bible lied?
    Of course, God’s power is more than enough, but it seems that God’s church is more and more imature.
    that being said, we need to help our brothers and sisters, not to get out and wash our hands saying we’re not guilty. We need to give an example and be a light in our own local churches.
    first God help me
    then … God help us.

  7. your first paragraph is aimed at evangelicals. i can relate to the feeling. but if you think about it, it is not just evangelicals for whom “methodology creates theology” but everyone. it is human nature for our beliefs to be reinforced by our actions. one of my theology teachers once taught a sermon along the lines of, “you can pretend to be someone, as a means of becoming more like that person” … probably why Jesus doesnt say, “Get your theology straight, and then you’ll be fit to start a church” instead, he simply says “follow me”, and upon following, together we become a body, constantly maturing and becoming more like Christ. none of us have our theology straight. but if we’re following Jesus, we’re approaching his theology.