August 12, 2020

They’re Not All Clowns

Update: Thanks to all who pointed out that Michael Spencer, the original Internet Monk, came up with the phrase “evangelical circus.” Credit duly noted.

I don’t know who first came up with the phrase “evangelical circus” here at the iMonastery. It was either Chaplain Mike or myself, but we both use it frequently to describe what we see as the Big Top of American Christianity. The ringmasters are familiar names to those of you who frequent this blog. Joel Osteen. Ed Young, Jr. Mark Driscoll. Ted Haggard. They make such easy targets for writers such as we that it gets kind of boring after a while. So Young and his wife spent 24 hours in a bed on the roof of their church last week to promote his book. Yeah? No surprise there. He’s a clown. And what do we do when we see a clown at a circus? We laugh at them. We don’t need to overanalyze a clown. He’s just someone who has painted his face and put on exaggerated clothing to get attention for himself. It’s all a part of the whole circus act.

But there is life out from under the Big Top. Sure, many are working hard so they can have their shot at being ringmaster. But there are far more who take on the moniker “evangelical” but want nothing to do with the circus. There are many Baptist, Assembly of God, Pentecostal Holiness, Free Methodist, Charismatic and independent churches that are far from being part of a circus act. And their are many Baptist, Assembly of God, Pentecostal Holiness, Free Methodist, Charismatic and independent pastors who toil long and hard within their churches to nurture, disciple, and minister to those placed in their care. These pastors don’t see themselves as clowns but as shepherds. And there is a big difference.

I came to faith in a Charismatic Baptist church in Centerville, Ohio in the height of the Jesus People movement of the early 70s. Evangelicalism was just finding its voice among mainline Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic churches in my neck of the woods. In my church we learned Scripture. Sunday school was just that—a place where you learned the Bible. We didn’t have topical classes or age-divided classes. We all went to one class where a teacher walked us through difficult passages of the Bible. The pastor in his sermons walked us through books of the Bible in deep ways. No “How to have a happy marriage” messages from him. We were hungry for the word of God, and came with open hearts to be filled. I was there Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, Wednesday nights, Saturday nights for youth events (where there was teaching) and Tuesday morning early prayer. God grew my baby soul from the food I received at this church. I was raised in the faith as an evangelical.

Somehow I just can’t come to believe there are no more churches under the evangelical umbrella whose pastors serve as true ministers, forsaking the spotlight of the center ring for the dingy, smelly hospital rooms and dark funeral homes. I have to think there are still among us those who consider themselves evangelicals who are just as embarrassed as I at the antics of the Mark Driscolls and the Ed Youngs.

Because we are a media-soaked culture, those who are getting their time in the spotlight seem to be representing all of us. We think all evangelicals approve of and long to be like Joel Osteen. We see his books piled up in both Christian and general market bookstores. Yet that does not mean all who call themselves “evangelical” buy such books. Just because it is a “bestseller” does not mean all of your neighbors have bought the book. There are ways of goosing book sales to make it look like a title is a hot seller. Amazingly—or maybe not so amazingly—Christian authors are the best at doing this. I could name names you would instantly recognize who, when coming to a town to speak, will send their assistants a day or two in advance to buy up all of their books from the local bookstores. This increases their sales rank. Then they turn around and sell those books “rounded up” at their book tables after they speak. And who, after hearing a dynamic message of faith and hope, is going to mind paying $25 for a $20 hardcover? So the author gets on the bestseller list and makes a profit. Yes, it really is done that way by some.

There are clowns who spend a lot of money on radio and TV so they can raise even more money and line their pockets. They tickle ears and pass out cotton candy. And who doesn’t want to hear what makes them feel good? And who is going to pass up some delicious candy?

Or there are those clowns who spend their time calling our attention to the fact that children are being led away from the Truth because they don’t know the proper dimensions of Noah’s Ark.

The pastor of the Evangelical Free church in your neighborhood doesn’t have time to have a radio or TV program and doesn’t have the name to get published. So he spends his time feeding his sheep. That leaves plenty of broadcast airtime for those with ultra-white teeth, slick hair and a gorgeous wife. Sheep? He has “his people” deal with the messy sheep. (Joel Osteen does not even have an office at his church. He does no face-to-face ministry with those who attend the church his father built. Or at least that’s what I heard him say at a pastor’s conference just a few years ago.) Sheep are needy and smelly and dirty. You’re not going to get a three book deal with a New York publishing house dealing with sheep.

Evangelical megachurches are mostly led by circus clowns. They put on a circus act each week so they can attract people under the Big Top. Once inside, those who bought their tickets hear anything but the Gospel. Call it, as Allen Krell did so eloquently, “Unitarian Christianity,” or as commenter K.W. Leslie suggested, “Inconsequentialism.” Call it Therapeutic Moralistic Deism. Call it dancing bears. It’s not the Gospel, and we do right on these pages and elsewhere to call it what it is: a circus act. (Another term would be “heresy.”) But this does not mean all evangelical megachurches are evil. And even those that are led by clowns can have a few shepherds actually tending the sheep quite well within their walls. For instance, Young’s Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas is the home church for friends of mine, Paul and Paula. Their oldest daughter has special needs requiring constant care, care that Paula was unable to give when she was diagnosed with cancer. While Paul helped his wife through the terrible stages of chemo, members of their church—the one led by a pastor who just called attention to himself by writing a book about sex, the pastor who proposes a seven-day sex challenge, the pastor who was streamed live online in a bed with his wife on the roof for 24 hours—took care of their children, including the one with special needs. My friends never wanted for a meal or for company. That is the body of Christ. And somehow it was seen in the midst of a circus.

This blog, the one for which I serve as publisher, uses the subtitle, “Dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness.” Most days I have my bags packed for a journey through those woods. Yet here I am, still attending an independent evangelical church, still working with pastors who desire their time in the spotlight, still doing life with other evangelicals. So am I still one myself? Yes, I suppose I am. But I don’t vote straight-ticket Republican. I don’t go to a church just because the hottest ringmaster is speaking that day. I don’t like shopping in Christian bookstores. I can’t read Christian fiction. And most Christian music gives me ear warts. (And no, I don’t own a Jesus toaster.) I know things about many of the circus leaders that would lead you to call them, not clowns, but another “c” word. Crooks? Conmen? Maybe at best comedians, because they are laughable. I follow not a single one of them, and we will continue to poke holes in the circus tent to expose those enamored by elephants balancing on balls to the true light of the true Gospel. Chaplain Mike is taking us on journey using the Way Back Machine so we can see what some earlier “clowns” did in order to live the Gospel. (I, for one, can’t wait to read each installment!)

There may come a time when I can no longer associate myself with the term “evangelical”—and I think most days I am very close to that place in my life. Yet even then I know there will still be true believers under the Big Top. You will find them selling drinks and popcorn to those watching from their seats. But most evangelicals, like I, don’t want anything to do with the traveling circus acts that come through our towns. We want instead to learn what it means to live a Gospel life. It’s getting harder and harder to do that in evangelical trappings, and I honestly hold out no hope that it will recover and get better. Transform into something else, yes, but not improve as it is.

So, not all evangelicals are clowns. And for those who are, well, do what they are dressed for you to do: laugh at them. It will do you no end of good.


  1. Nice job, Jeff.

    You call it like you see it. I admire a person who is not afraid to criticize their own.


  2. Uhm…hate to burst anyone’s bubble but it was Michael Spencer who came up with the “Evangelical Circus” phrase. He used to introduce his podcast for years. as he liked to say he had reserve seats high above the Evangelical circus. God rest his soul..not a day goes by that I don’t miss him and his writing.

  3. Hi Jeff,
    I agree, but isn’t that what Christ said? The many Christs would be preached(many will come in my name and deceive many)? The phrase that keeps resonating in my head from the words of Jesus: “Moses and the prophets they testify of me”, when I hear the new evangelical mantra: “the old testament is the old covenant , it’s all done away with, has caused my attention to be drawn to the question of why so many denominations anyway? I have come to the conclusion, that other than the syncretism derived from Rome, and claims of apostolic authority, or authority of the church, historically, that most doctrinal differences dividing the Church today, is over a disagreement over something Paul said, or the author of Hebrews said. I really have to wonder when we have the words of Moses and the prophets, who Jesus said testify of Him, and Jesus’s own words in the Gospels, what exactly does Paul bring to the table that Christ’s hand trained disciples, Moses, the prophets, and God’s own word in the flesh didn’t make clear?
    My question for new evangelicals: Does Your faith rely on Paul’s words, can You defend it from scripture in all it’s aspects without quoting Paul? If not then Paul, a Asian born Pharisee convert by blindness, who turns Roman under pressure, trained in the oral law that Jesus condemned as traditions and doctrines of men is the author of Your faith. Nothing against Paul, he was zealous for God when he went after Christians, and he was zealous in his conversion knowing then Christ is true, but I don’t think Paul thought his letters would be called scripture either, in fact he would say Moses and the prophets are scripture instead.

    • Oh yes, 2000 years later we can definitively say the church was wrong to pay any attention to Paul.

    • Why should one need to find his/her faith relying any more or less upon Paul’s writings than upon the Gospel texts? There is no reason to believe they are any less inspired or in the least inconsisteht with any of Jesus’ teachings (which Paul himself directly confirms, repeatedly). And why should one’s awareness of one’s God-inspired writing of Scripture be any less perceivable in Paul’s writings than in any of the likewise human authored Gosples or any of the OT Law? There is nothing in the texts themselves to indicate any difference or inconsistency. (And you realize, of course, that Paul ironically is the only writer in all of Scripture that even speaks of Scriptures being inspired by God, OT included.)

      Paul’s writings are entirely compatible and consistent with Christ’s Gospel, as well as with the God-inspired OT Scriptures. There is no reason to trust (in faith) that his writings are any less inspired of God (and therein, Scripture) than any other text in the whole of the OT and NT.

  4. But, clowns SCARE me! I find them creepy and odd and threatening, no matter which circus they are performing in.

    • Forgive me, Pattie. But your words reminded me of Stephen King’s book, “It.” I remembered the evil clown pushing up the drain in the school shower room, poking his head through the hole and saying, “Hey Billy, you can float down here…we ALL float down here….”

      Spooky stuff…but you’re right: Clowns are clowns, period!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        You know, that’s not a bad image of these Clowns:


    • Wasn’t there an infamous criminal Gacy, who was a clown?

  5. Actually, Ed and Lisa Young did NOT spend 24 hours on the roof of their church. After burning their eyes (bright January afternoon in Texas) they eventually had to bring in their “stunt doubles” and check into the local emergency room. For a while they could be seen wearing dark sunglasses, but apparently the damage was already done for they realized. I like to think that God struck them with blindness, but can’t prove it 🙂

    Jeff is hitting on something I realized years ago: every time allegations of misconduct about a priest breaks the news, every time Fred Phelps protests a funeral, or every time Joel Osteen is on the cover of Time rolling money (okay that never happened) it makes all Christians look bad. Average Joe American doesn’t know the difference between evangelical circus church member and normal, reads the Bible and prays like he should Christian. When we’re on our blogs debating the finer points of Calvinism, we’re just talking to each other. If we give a cup of water to a small child, which Jesus says is like giving him one, that doesn’t make the news. You will never be interviewed by CNN or Fox News Corp for inviting your neighbor to church or giving a friend from work a ride to his AA meeting. A mission trip to Haiti might be noticed if it immediately follows a big news headline (earthquake) but all the trips before and since go unnoticed. The “casual television viewer” types don’t notice Christians until one of them does something really stupid.

    • I warned him he’d poke his eye out.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Actually, Ed and Lisa Young did NOT spend 24 hours on the roof of their church. After burning their eyes (bright January afternoon in Texas) they eventually had to bring in their “stunt doubles” and check into the local emergency room.

      “Blinded by the Light —
      (Cast off like a douche into the runner in the night…)”

    • Clark, your last paragraph hits the nail on the head. It can be very frustrating.

  6. I agree with much of what you said, but to equate Driscoll with Osteen or Haggard (or even Young) is just not accurate.

    Does his mouth get him in trouble now and then? Yes. Has he written a controversial book? Yes. But he does not water down the gospel. He does not spend a week on a roof.

    You may not like his rough-neck personality. You may not like some of his theology. But he is no Osteen, Haggard, or Young.

    You can do better here by making clearer distinctions, and not broad-brushing. I expect better at this blog.

    • Agreed Rick! I also think Driscoll is solid. The other big factor in all of this is that God is indeed using all of these so-called “circus” ministries to bring hundreds of thousands of people to himself. I think we must be very careful to condemn anyone who preaches the gospel, no matter how much we disagree with their “methods”.

      I would certainly agree that the system is very flawed, and many individuals have used this flawed system to build their pride and net worth, but God is using them non-the-less. As a church we must stand behind them and pray for them, the Spirit is the ONLY one who can change hearts and minds. Our job is to love unconditionally and obey the Spirit.

      • It’s not a matter of methods for me when it comes to Driscoll. It really scares me that he has so many followers. I don’t think he’s a clown either, but I worry it could be worse. I’m really struggling with this at the moment and I don’t think I’m alone.

        • THIS: It’s not just that he has many followers, it’s that he uses the size and breadth of his/GOD’s ministry as a “get out jail free card” to deflect anything critical of him or his methods. Doubt this ?: then listen to the Real UK interview with the Driscolls and Justin Brierley (sp?). This is spooky: I’m more GOD ordained than you because my church is xxxxxx-1000’s large. Oh, forgot: size really DOES matter. Piper needs to reel him in (if possible).

          • @ Redeem Christianity: One can have solid theology and very unsolid methodology and church practice. Driscoll is walking on VERY thin ice, and making his success the arbiter of how to steer the ship. I won’t go on and on with this, but MUCH of what I see in his leadership style (and I do NOT mean just a complimentarian posistion, I mean being “large and in charge”) is cultic. Yes, I used the “c” word. Been there , done that with a different group yrs ago.

            Yes, clowns CAN be scarey, as someone pointed out. I celebrate every soul won in Seattle, but that doesn’t mean I have to ignore the elephants marching thru the city either. May the GOD of grace help us all, and give all of us wise counselors to keep us straight. I’m pretty sure Mark D had them available to him IF he wants them.

          • greg r:

            I had downloaded that interview (it is a good radio show to subscribe to), but have not listened to it yet. Thanks for the heads-up.

            I don’t disagree that there are issues to be discussed, but those issues are different than the “circus” ones discussed in the post. I just think people need to be careful in lumping together people and/or ministries that are, in fact, quite different.

          • @Rick: I agree that “Driscoll” and “heretic” do NOT belong in the same continent. But that might make his situation even more problematic. having the basics of theology unassailably “orthodox” can even be a weapon used against others, especially the “naysayers”.

            I’m not saying bad theology is better, but the church has to be vigilant against what Rachel Held Evans bluntly called “being a bully….” she was not just venting she was “calling out the clown…”.
            I’m not trying to put myself above him or his ministry, but his public platform and braggadocio makes this call out, by MANY, a needed thing, IMO: hence posts like this.

          • I know that RHE has been critical, and has perhaps the best comment about him (“Mark has the tendency to project.”)

            That being said, the issues raised about him are in a different category than the one discussed in this post.

          • Richard Hershberger says

            It seems to me that the use of large attendance as a “get out of jail free card” is pretty widespread in Evangelical circles. This is wrong on so many levels that it is hard to count. The other “get out of jail free card” is missionary work. The logic in both sometimes seems to be that sure, the church in question teaches borderline heresy or worse, but they teach this heresy to lots of people, and that is somehow a Good Thing. To which I respond “Huh?”

          • @ Richard H: yes, exactly, And when you combine the two (#;s plus the missionary zeal, the phrase-du-jour seems to be “making a BIG IMPACT for Jesus. And if you can produce and promote THAT, then any and all correctors, admonishers, NEGATORS can just go to the revelation corner, talk to GOD and get right……

            I think we have it very backwards: Jesus never said “Let me show you how to reform ROme…..” OR “Let me show you how to turn massive amounts crowds around to march with us…’ what HE said/says is “The Kingdom of GOD is like……” and sends out private invitations. The modern evangelical church only gives lip service to that reality, inwardly, I think we scoff at how puny, how ineffective, how boring it is. Not very 4-G is it ?? Or is 4-G now “analog” ????

          • This thread about Driscoll seems to have people asking a couple of questions. I won’t try to answer them here but they are:

            — Do the ends justify the means?
            — Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            But that might make his situation even more problematic. having the basics of theology unassailably “orthodox” can even be a weapon used against others, especially the “naysayers”.

            I can second that and then some. Back in the Seventies, Christian Cult-Watch groups defined “cult” entirely in the sense of aberrant theology, not repeat not in the sense of abusive behavior towards their members. A LOT of “cultic” Fellowships (including the one I experienced) slipped in under their radar. While they were parsing theology letter-by-letter, a LOT of Spiritually Abusive behavior went down combined with Proper Evangelical Theology. And the clean bill of theological health (“We’re NOT a Cult (TM)! See? See? See?”) WAS used as an additional weapon against dissidents and naysayers. The usual method was to accuse dissidents of the Sin of Rebellion Against God.

            And Driscoll, and Ham, and others appear to be skating that thin line, acting very Cultic and abusive in their behavior within Properly-Parsed Theology. For the hearts of Men are easily corrupted, and a Ring of POWER has a Will of its own…

    • Yes, Driscoll is a hardcore Calvinist, and he’s not afraid to make people mad (why that is the measure of someone being authentic, I don’t know), but he still buys into the idea that the church should go out of its way to be attractive to certain groups of people. For his church, he’s pretty much said that it’s young men he’s going after.

      Personally I find his machismo and chest-thumping to be just another kind bowing to culture. It’s more like the WWE than the circus, perhaps.

      • But he tries to relate it to a certain context, and it does match more who he really is (his personality), he does not water down the message to make it “attractive”.

        • But I actually do think he’s watering down the message in his own way. He paints Jesus as some sort of combination of an ultimate fighter and Rambo. He’s stated that he could serve a Jesus who he could beat up. Well, that’s sort of a big point of the Gospels. Jesus came and suffered. He let us “beat Him up”. He’s still suffering and downtrodden, and we’re still beating Him up.

          To me, he’s just a guilty of creating Jesus in his own image as Osteen is.

          • “he’s just a guilty of creating Jesus in his own image as Osteen is.”

            Totally disagree.

            First of all, everyone is somewhat guilty of putting their own stamp on Jesus. We just need to be open to learn further.

            Second, Osteen is not really all that interested in diving deep into who Jesus was. He is more interested in “your best life now.”

            You may disagree with some of Driscoll’s conclusions, but he is trying to counter (perhaps going too far in a certain direction) some common held views of those who are projecting their own views of Jesus. Rachel Evans is probably right, Driscoll projects himself, and his background, too much. But he is wrestling with Scripture and others in learning about Jesus. And Driscoll does not hesitate to point out:

            “Jesus can sympathize with us in our weakness. Do you know Jesus has been tired, hungry? He wept. He suffered. He had pain. He bled. He died. He buried people that he loved.”

            Driscoll wants to make sure people recognize the full humanity of Jesus, and not portray him as just God and just seemed human.

            Osteen is not even going for that discussion.

          • I was flipping through Osteen’s newest book at Barnes and Noble, and the titles of the first and last chapters are “Don’t Give Up Your Power” and “Celebrate Yourself”!

        • I would also add that the “ticking people off” as a litmus test for orthodoxy street seems to only go one way. If preachers tick people off, it’s because they’re preaching the truth. When those preachers themselves are ticked off, it’s because they’re standing up for truth. Perhaps they need to be open to the idea that the people who are ticking them off may be speaking some truth as well.

          • Ok. Maybe. But that is a different discussion than the theme of this post. That deserves a different post, one about Driscoll’s style and theology. In regards to Driscoll and Osteen, I would just rephrase the old question:

            What does Seattle have to do with Houston?

          • Driscoll does wrestle with the scriptures. I’ll be more encouraged when Mark wrestles with Mark and lets us know how that went. To be clear: this self-wrestling is the road ALL of us get to walk, esp. GregR….. so no exceptions here…

            for an example of that: rewind J. Bierley asking Driscoll about an instance (any instance) of when mark had “blown it”. this may be ‘nitpicky’ but let’s just say my take on his answer was ”meh….” with a mcrophone in front of my face, maybe I wouldn’t have fared any better, but we need a LOT more honesty and a LOT less dookey from our leaders, and ourselves.

          • No doubt there are things he needs to work on. Unfortunately, arrogance in ministry is not just limited to him.

            That being said, he does admit his failings. Here is an example from a sermon he gave:

            “I believe that humility is the great omission and failure in my 11 years of preaching. I believe that this is my greatest oversight, both in my example and in my instruction. I therefore do not claim to be humble. I do not claim to have been humble. I’m convicted of my pride and I am a man who is by God’s grace pursuing humility…. I truly believe that were there one thing I could do over in the history of Mars Hill, it would be in my attitude and in my actions and in my words, to not only emphasize sound doctrine and courage and strength and commitment and conviction, but to add in addition to that, humility as a virtue. And so I’ll start by your forgiveness and sincerely acknowledging that this has been a great failure… I apologize and repent publically to you, the church, for whom I am responsible for much pride in the history of my ministry that some of you have poorly imitated. And for that, I’m deeply sorry. And thirdly, to say that I am not a humble man. But as result of study, I’m a man who is acknowledging his pride and pursuing humility by God’s grace… pride leads to arrogance, cockiness, smugness, and it’s repugnant. I tell you this as a guy who has had some of his teaching rejected, not because I believe my doctrine was an error, but my attitude was in the way. Arrogance, cockiness, it’s repugnant.”

          • Amen to all Mark preached there. Very well said. When did he preach that, I’d be curious to hear …

          • 2007

          • And here is a 2010 interview where he shows that it is still on his mind, and him talking about wrestling with himself:


          • thanks, Rick; I think I’m drawing too many, or too strong, conclusions of Driscoll based on the one UK interview. Maybe he just had a very bad day or afternoon. Of course I’d still have to deal with his “take” on Justin’s motive’s and interviewing process, which I still don’t get.

            The two Driscoll’s, this one and the UK interview one, seem very different. I hope he is able to maintain and feed all of what he spoke to his ACTS 29 friend (ironically named “JUSTIN” …..weird, huh ??). Mark is 100% right when he emphasizes having the right kind of friends to keep on the right track. I couldn’t agree with that more. I hope with their, and GOD’s , help, he can do just that.

          • Driscoll does seem to go back and forth between being more humble and moderate to his obnoxious “Macho Man Monster Truck Christianity,” like when he said Ultimate Fighting is the purest expression of manhood. I find the latter rather repugnant. I wouldn’t mind him so much if he weren’t such a big celebrity.

            I have mixed feelings on the Acts 29 movement. I attended one of their churches for a few months. There are some things about the direction of the movement that seriously bother me (like its complete embrace of a 1950s white household as specially “god-ordained”), but even so it seems like a lot of the churches (well, I only sampled one) and members are fairly healthy at the smaller level.

  7. Great post, Jeff. I discovered iMonk after years of serving as a pastor in churches that were either a part of the evangelical circus, or wanted desperately to get out of the stands and into center ring. I actually took a little over one year off from ministry, and discovered the riches of historical (pre-reformation) Christianity. I actually wound up gravitating toward the Anglican Church, because even though I consider myself post-evangelical, I still consider myself evangelical (if that makes sense…and I think it will for many of the folks who comment here). For me, it represented a good balance of ancient liturgies and practices, combined with some evangelical ideas.

    I would be curious to know from some of our other regular posters…Where did you start out, and where did post-evangelicalism carry you?

    • Lee
      I was in a large church that is in the ‘Toronto Airport’ stream. I was attracted to it because they recognized that renewal is needed in the evangelical church, and so they were open to change.

      There was constant mention that ‘God is making a new container’ but lack of a detail in walking it out. A few years ago I read ‘Deep Church’ by Belcher and was able to see that this same question is being asked by thousands of people.

      What I saw was because of the lack of historical depth in our faith, our solutions to the problem were really just extensions of our culture, and that we were a Baby Boomer church with God Rock, tons of Charismania where we could come late, sit in the back and have our coffee and be treated to a concert. And our attention in projects would last only until something new came up. Our worship was shallow and emotional, not neccesarily life changing. And our beliefs (or theology) were just as shallow.

      It seems to me that we are in a great time of flux, perhaps evangelicalism’s days are numbered. I recognize the need for a deeper spirituality that goes beyond either the rationalism of one side of Evangelicalism or the emotionalism of the other side of Evangelicalism. I decided that I needed to become informed some by the church fathers, because they faced exactly the same issues we do. In the end, I came into a movement that recognizes the need to be informed deeply by the first 350 years of the church.
      So I now attend an Anglican church plant. I love the liturgy. I love the openess to learning from other Christians (so far no beliefs that we are God’s chosen). I love the influences of Bendictine spiritual practices such as the church year, the daily offices. Very rooted in the idea that spiritual practices engulf all of life.

      • Ken,

        I think you’re right. We are in a great time of flux. Things are starting to break down, and the iMonk’s prediction of “The Coming Evangelical Collapse” is right on the money. I suspect the neo-Fundamentalists will control the non-Charismatic wing, and the those of us who remain will be a very uncomfortable minority.

        I recently spoke with a Church history professor at a major Evangelical seminary, and I asked him what he thought of the future of Evangelicalism. His response, “Free Evangelical churches and institutions have sold out to pragmatism and I don’t hold much hope for their future.” I think there are a lot us thinking the same things.

    • Lee: I’m not post-evangelical. Postmodern, maybe, but that’s a different can of worms.

      I started fundamentalist, dispensationalist, conservative, and evangelical. Ditched the first two when I became a Pentecostal. The third took longer. Still sticking with evangelical, though.

      I read Internet Monk because it’s a solid, practical critique of shallow Christianity. Going the post-evangelical route to a more traditional, historical, liturgial form of worship can be one solution. Going the Pentecostal route is mine. The important thing is that we’re trying to follow Jesus as he is, and the Father as Jesus revealed him to be. If historical traditions facilitate that, I’m all for them. If they get in the way — which is the story I hear from a lot of the ex-Catholics in my church — I’m not. Depends on the person. (Which, I suppose, is very postmodern of me, but hey, I warned you.)

      I actually disagreed, and still do, with Michael Spencer’s coming evangelical collapse. I expect churches to collapse, but evangelicalism to continue growing strong in the global south as it takes over from the decaying west, and become (as it is becoming) more indigenous, more charismatic, more Christ-dependent than money-focused, and ready to evangelize us right back. We need it.

  8. Been following this blog for awhile, and appreciate the insights.
    Today, it was kind of fun to read a shout out to the Free Methodists! 🙂

  9. Have you ever wondered: To what degree is the church antichrist?

    • In a word, Yes.

    • Yes, many times. I see the result of hateful, ignorant opinions spoken as though from God’s mouth that morning directed toward anyone different than those faithful ones in the pews each week. I see many preachers as having blood on their hands, standing behind the mantra of “The bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”. They look past the love Christ compels us towards and stand on the list of those who will not inherit the kingdom. The scripture that talks about those who will come in His name, fooling many to believe. How large is the CHristianity movement in this country and worldwide? I can’t find Jesus represented fully anywhere, even here. This is a catty piece written here, but that’s not unusual. Afterall, some are called to call others clowns, so sayeth the lord. I can watch Joel Osteen’s 30 minute sermon on tv and find myself in the presence of God as He draws my mind and heart to hear, but Joel is merely a clown here today.
      So, yes, I find the “church” culpable, and cannot mark them off the suspect list of possible antichrists.

  10. Thank you for this post! I like to visit the iMonastery because it has the courage to speak out, quite eloquently, against the glaring faults of “fundagelicalism” (whoever made up that term, I think it is hilarious). It is good to read a post like this that recognizes those within evangelicalism that love Christ and the gospel supremely, and who value pastors who shepherd the sheep.

    My journey has been as painful and troubling as any who have testified here, and I can certainly resonate with those who cannot be an evangelical anymore. For reasons unique to me, however, I am compelled to stay. It can be very difficult to have a Gospel centered mentality in such an environment, but I can’t think of a place where it is more needed!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      My writing partner is one of those non-clown “shepherds”. He’s currently putting three sons through college on what amounts to minimum wage, literally living hand-to-mouth. That is, when they pay him minimum wage — “It’s A MINISTRY; Must Provide Own Support.” He has told me the only way to get above the poverty line as a pastor is to be crooked. Like a Televangelist, Celebrity Megachurch Apostle, or bona-fide Cult Leader.

      You want to hear a miracle story? All his sons are believers, even after growing up seeing what the church did to their dad. None of them wants anything to do with ministry.

  11. David Cornwell says

    Excellent reminder. I’ve been in evangelical churches where one can truly worship God and where the pastor is a person who cares for the flock. Also there are some very erudite evangelical scholars still among the living. Some of them dare point out the frauds that also seem to abound while capitalizing on the word “evangelical.”

  12. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I could name names you would instantly recognize who, when coming to a town to speak, will send their assistants a day or two in advance to buy up all of their books from the local bookstores. This increases their sales rank. Then they turn around and sell those books “rounded up” at their book tables after they speak.

    This is EXACTLY the same trick Scientology uses to get L Ron Hubbard books onto Best-Seller Lists across the country. The only difference is they returned the “rounded up” books to the publisher (Bridge Publications, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Scientology) and sold the same book four-five times to increase their sales rank to the top of the pyramid.

    And who, after hearing a dynamic message of faith and hope, is going to mind paying $25 for a $20 hardcover? So the author gets on the bestseller list and makes a profit. Yes, it really is done that way by some.

    Give enough of a sob story, use enough Christianese, and …

    “I go chop you dolla;
    I make you money disappear,
    419 just a game,
    You be the Mugu,
    I be the Masta…”
    — Nigerian pop song

    • where do you find all these songs and quotes?! as a nigerian i can say i have never heard that song…thank God.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        These days, mostly on YouTube. I think that one was called “419” or “419 Song”, by someone whose name I’ll never be able to pronounce or spell but whose first & last names both began with “O”.

  13. Thank you, Jeff, for your compassionate words about evangelicals. I no longer live in Texas, but I did live there for many years, and so my experience of Baptists comes from my time there. Are you familiar with the Baptist General Convention of Texas? Let me tell you that whenever there is a disaster, a flood, a hurricane, an earthquake, those EVANGELICALS are there and, in the name of Jesus, loving the hurting, feeding them, providing them with water and clothing and anything else they need. They are rebuilding afterwards, too. Baptist congregations are reaching out to internationals, teaching them to speak English, helping them to get jobs, etc. They are taking care of orphans and abused children all over the world. (Look up Buckner International) I could personally name hundreds of these people. The people I know are hearing the gospel proclaimed and studying the Bible. They know the big story (Genesis to Revelation). Many of them have been hearing it all their lives. And they love to tell it, too. Of course, they have seen the foolish things, the ridiculous things, and the downright evil things that have been done in the name of Christ and His Church. They dislike it as much as anyone. I could go on, but I suppose I have said enough. Yes, there is life out from under the Big Top as Jeff has said so well. You may have been hurt by evangelicals in or out of the circus. I get it. A lot of folks who have found a home in evangelicalism have been hurt, too. We are all capable of doing the wrong thing and hurting people. Hypocrisy is not exclusive to evangelicalism. Oh, by the way, they are not all fundamentalists either.

  14. Jeff

    This post is such a needed reminder here. Every church tradition will have strengths and weaknesses, shepherds and clowns. Of course, the clowns are more entertaining, and the weaknesses more glaring, so it is natural they get more attention, both from mainstream media and on blogs like this. And often those who have been hurt by the weaknesses or sins of a movement are the most vocal commentators about it.

    As for me, this I know: my parents grew up knowing next to nothing of Christ or the cross, despite being baptized members of a mainline (non-evangelical) denomination. They followed the lifestyle of the world, and suffered the consequences, including a failed marriage. As my mother was leaving my father, she sought bus fare from a nearby Baptist pastor, who instead led her to a saving belief in Jesus Christ. She was never the same. And I never was either, from that point.

    I no longer go to a Baptist church, and I could match horror stories with almost any commenter on this blog. I have seen the human (read: fleshly) side of the evangelical church. But I have also seen the same thing whenever I peer deeply into another faith tradition. To expect any less now strikes me as hopelessly naive. So I dance with the one who brought me.

  15. I’m with Pattie (above) — clowns are just disturbing on any level, literal or metaphorical. I think that’s the source of most of my frustration now: currently the clowns are running the circus, not the ringmaster. Show seems to trump substance every time.

    • CJ: to mix a metaphor, there is a loving Theatremaster operating (usually quietly) simultaneous to the circus show. Anyone can “switch shows” whenever they choose. It’s not as if the Theatremaster EVER went out of business or on sabbatical, though it sure feels, sometimes, as if HE has.

      Folks need to just taste the real deal now and again, and they’ll leave the peanut husks , and Jumbo doo-doo behind. This can be done, sometimes, from the very shadow on the Big Tent. I think that’s Jeff’s point here.

  16. As a pastor in an independent church, I appreciated this post today. Lately, I’ve found that I cringe whenever some of my favorite blogs are posting something about pastors. Normally, the comments of those posts turn into a game of “kick the pastor” with many people who have no idea the toll being a pastor takes on the person and his family giving their various opinions about what a pastor should be doing or saying. There are things done to pastors and their families that would shock most of those same commenters. The sheep very often have very sharp teeth, and big claws too.

    I appreciate the fact that Jeff acknowledged that there are some of us trying to distant ourselves and our sheep from the circus. Still, we are swimming up stream. In truth, if not for a couple of theological issues, and the impracticality of raising a family while going through a multi-year transition, I would jump ship to Anglicanism tomorrow. As it is, I am where God would have me. In our church, we are attempting to reconnect our people to a worship modeled after the Great Tradition. I believe Michael Spencer wrote a series of posts on creating an Evangelical liturgy. This is what we’re trying to do.

    There have been challenges. The first time we introduced the Nicene Creed as a part of worship, we had push back form some of our people who come from Baptist backgrounds. It happens that most of our people are from mainline or Catholic backgrounds, those the idea of liturgy is not foreign to them. Still, many, many Evangelicals are utterly ignorant of church history, relegating everything pre-Reformation as “Catholic” and therefore automatically bad. For some of our most inflexible sheep, anything appearing to come out of the Mainline is automatically liberal. I believe many of them think the true Church didn’t show up until after the Scopes Trial.

    Anyway, thanks for the post and the recognition that there are many Evangelicals who are where they are by the calling of God.

    • Eric
      I just found a series of videos on worship, coming from a historical bent, basically ancient future.

      They are at called History of Christian Worship, can be downloaded at $10 each

      The one I saw (the 1st one) will be shown to our congregation as it forms!

      I hear you about suspicion of the Great Tradition. I get suspicion from relatives and long time friends.

    • I agree with you Eric. I attend an evangelical church up in Manitoba. There has been a recent interest in church history at our church and as a result we have added a liturgical service , alongside our tradition & contemporary service.. Lots of young people seem to be interested in the liturgical service…that includes me.

  17. Still, many, many Evangelicals are utterly ignorant of church history, relegating everything pre-Reformation as “Catholic” and therefore automatically bad. For some of our most inflexible sheep, anything appearing to come out of the Mainline is automatically liberal. I believe many of them think the true Church didn’t show up until after the Scopes Trial.



  18. Evangelical Circus? That was Michael’s coinage.

  19. Not trying to be snarky, but at what point are we just being busybodies and gossips?

    Is what these churches and leaders are doing really any of my business and does knowing about it, and criticizing it helping me or anyone else?

    If I was a part of one of these churches or at least in some real life contact with them then maybe I have an obligation to say something, but considering most people don’t even have the nerve to talk to the guy or gal who preaches a bad sermon that they themselves sit through, where do we find the obligation or right to be investing energy into critiquing what strangers are doing?

    I have had times when people have expressed to me the lack of credibility that they think christianity has because of something so and so did or said, but even in those cases, I didn’t need to know more than what the person was able to explain to me for me to be able to explain to them how so and so was wrong in doing or saying whatever they did and then explain what a christian really should do or say.

    It does seem like all the attention given does work like a charm to get the clown more free publicity, though.

    • I’ll agree that, for a daily reader of this blog, some of these posts get wearisome, but I don’t think much is commented on here that isn’t already out there begging for attention.

    • I agree! Most of the time I honestly dont even read the comments because of all the going back and forth and hair splitting over certain ppl or issues. We are all sinners saved by grace and have different struggles. Its easy to set back and judge and say how this other pastor should be running his church and should be leading this way or that way. but we arent that person and we arent leading those churches and have no idea what that person is really dealing with on the inside. I think the best thing we can do is pray the Holy spirit leads them and helps them and Jesus’ name is proclaimed and glorified. Now we should help our brothers and sisters understand what they are teaching is harmful or whatever such as Osteen basically setting ppl up for failure and the exact opposite of what he promotes. But someone like Driscoll who is wrestling with scripture and preaching the Gospel of Jesus we shouldnt be so hard on he isnt perfect and neither am I and if everything I said was recorded and talked about Im 100% sure I wouldve said something stupid more then once. Having a big church and popularity doesnt automatically make you heretical even if you say something wrong or incorrect sometimes we all have. No just defending Driscoll just useing him as an example. There is not one pastor out there who gets any media coverage whatso ever that hasnt said something ppl are talking about or questioning their teachings or whatever just some are louder then others.

  20. Ouch! This is a really hurtful post. Not to the pastors, mind you, but to clowns. Clowns are so much better than these people you are associating with them. Clowns put on make-up and hide who they really are; they play a roll – a part, and give joy (hopefully!) before melting away again. When did “clowns” become a negative? When did the word “circus” become a description of a messed up situation, when circuses are very intricately planned and designed? I know that is a popular use and not limited to the iMonastery.

    These guys are not clowns, they are celebrities. They are celebrities during award season. They are walking down the red carpet with sycophants asking them, “Who are you wearing?” They gather on their stages and fawn over each other, “you are so wonderful, I love everything you do,” “every year, best-selling pastor/authors bring joy to millions…” They are doing their stunts to get the paparazzi to take their pictures so that they can get in the tabloids and turn that into an interview in People magazine. They are willing to do nude photo shoots for the cover of Rolling Stone or Cosmo so that “everyone” will be talking about their appearance in this month’s issue. Never mind that the vapid information that comes out of the interview is rarely new or different from any other celebrity’s “insider” interview.

    No, they are not clowns. Clowns are better. So, please, let’s not besmirch clowns. Sweet, loveable, clowns.

    (I also go by David)

  21. Randy Windborne says

    Evangelical Circus Clowns – an effective accusation. Even if true, it’s still an accusation.

    Here’s a few questions for you, Jeff. Before you maligned Joel Osteen, Ed Young, Jr. Mark Driscoll, or Ted Haggard as evangelical circus clowns to the entire Christian world, did you meet privately with any of these brothers to show them their sin? Did you then return with a few witnesses to confirm your words? Did the original Internet Monk do that before employing lashon ha’ra against these men?

    Do Messiah’s teachings mean anything to you?

    • I won’t speak for Jeff, but for myself. Those who seek public exposure are subject to public criticism.

      As for Michael Spencer, read his classic essay, “Talk Hard (On the Role of the Critic)”

      • Randy Windborne says

        Just so we’re absolutely clear, Chaplain Mike:

        (1) In your case Messiah’s instructions are not applicable because

        (2) You’ve adequately justified yourself.

        Is that correct?

        • Did you read Michael’s article? If you can read Jesus and the prophets and the apostles and not see a place for public, prophetic critique, then you are reading a different Bible than I am. I also wonder whether or not you really understand “Messiah’s instructions” as well as you think you do.

          • Randy Windborne says

            Of course I read the article: ‘The entire Prophetic tradition is a kind of criticism. I call the prophets “the cops of the covenant,” because it is their job to show up and write Israel a ticket from time to time.’

            So you see yourself as a “prophet” and a “cop of the covenant?”

            OK – if the Holy Spirit is calling evangelicals “circus clowns” and you’re faithfully speaking that word, then I have no objection.

            But if these evangelical circus clown diatribes are coming from your own heart, that’s a very different matter – a dangerous matter. It’s your call, but there’s a lot on the line so don’t foul this up.

          • Mike,

            I agree with you. D. A. Carson wrote a perceptive editorial on the limits of applying Matthew 18 to modern, public disputes:


  22. May I point out that in any area where there is an American Evangelical Seeker-Driven circus Church, there are solid reformed or reformed-leaning conservative or moderately fundamentalist Churches that are struggling to keep the doors open because the ringmaster is sucking up all the oxygen in the area, including people like you Jeff, who could make a great contribution to a work in need. As a pastor of such a Church, in the shadow of both Hybels and James MacDonald, I meet good people all the time that are in those places, disturbed by the music, concerned about the direction, but unwilling to leave and attend a small church because so few others are there. Obviously, if some would lead the way, others may follow, but at least the truth might get an audience, and survive. The ringmasters aren’t going to change for the better. Things will get worse, and the blind will continue to follow the blind into the ditch, while truth passes off the scene for lack of support from those who say they love it.

    American “christians” will get what they chose.