In the same vein as Mojeaux’s (now not so) recent Christianity 101 article, I bring you a critical look at the modern western (protestant) church from the view of a former Lutheran turned former agnostic turned vaguely Baptist, but more generically Arminian Evangelical. My focus is on what I see in the Evangelical churches, mostly.
If you can’t tell from some of my previous articles here at Glibs, I have an interest in the history of the church. My first major series here was a law review article that I wrote on the early Christian origins of western public schooling. However, as I’ve grown into my adult faith, I’ve found something increasingly troubling about all of the churches I’ve attended, and many that I’m aware of without attending.
Nothing changes from about 8th grade on. That’s right, the theological depth expected of the adults at the church is that of a 13 year old.
About [the holiness of Jesus] we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you [the Jews] have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. – Hebrews 5:11-14
This isn’t necessarily bad for those that are called “seekers”. When you get into the administrative circle of a church, you start hearing a lot about seekers. The mythological person who walks in your door knowing not the first thing about Christianity, but is open to being convinced. Being friendly and welcoming to guests isn’t enough for most churches. The depth of study is limited to the lowest common denominator, because scaring people off with an overwhelming experience is considered worse than starving your regular flock by feeding them platitudes disguised as sermons.
The rot has occurred when this mentality seeped into all aspects of the church. The church members often have the emotional maturity of 13 year olds, the music is written to emotionally fragile 13 year olds, the message is tailored to 13 year olds. I run the video and lights for our Sunday services, and I also run it for our junior high summer camp. You know what the differences are between a Sunday service and junior high summer camp? 1) Interactivity, 2) A bit more crowd management, and 3) I run the chaser lights to make it feel like a rock concert. The message would fit perfectly in the Sunday rotation.
Ever wonder why most people leave the faith in high school? It’s because they outgrow the curriculum.
Not that 13 year olds receive the message particularly well. The church is well behind the times, and can’t hold junior high kids’ attention.
The Eviction of Intellect
Some would claim that the catholic (lowercase “c”… referring to the global church as a whole) church and especially the Catholic (uppercase “C”… referring to the Roman Catholic Church) Church have been stifling intelligent discussion for millennia. However, I vehemently disagree. It’s not worth going point by point down the list, because, frankly, I’m not a medieval historian, and it’s not really the point of this article. I recommend Tom Woods’ book How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization if you’re interested in apology against the presumption that the Catholic Church spent 1500 years handicapping the push to modernity. The book is a bit cloying, but I found it much more effective if viewed as a rebuttal of modern anti-Catholic presumptions as opposed to as a neutral treatment of medieval times.
Fast forwarding to the 19th century, we see Europe subsiding as nexus of the faith, and the United States was showing increasing strain across between the cultural segments that strongly aligned with geographic lines. Tom Sowell’s book Black Rednecks and White Liberals describes in detail the difference in cultural heritage between New England and the South, and how it impacted the culture of the slaves and their descendants.
To oversimplify, New England was flush with “Protestant work ethic” despite becoming more and more Catholic with successive waves of immigration. They were more educated and more pious. The southerners, while also technically Protestant, more resembled modern American Jews. Did they believe in God? Many of them did, sure. They even went to church some of the time. However, church was a social club, and it wasn’t uncommon for service to be shortened to allow for recreation and fun. To call them theologically agnostic is a couple steps too far, but they were certainly not very concerned with their faith, and in many ways were Christian in habit only, if even that.
Glossing over a whole bunch of interesting nuance, the late 19th century ushered in a period of evolution and revival in the church. In quick succession, waves of northern influence infiltrated the south, whether or not the southerners appreciated it. Reform groups, some guy named Sherman and a few thousand of his closest friends, Reconstruction era educators, and the like.
The revivalism that had swept across the north during the early 19th century (The Second Great Awakening), injecting fervor and simplicity into the faith, had seeped into the south with a bit of transformation. The Second Great Awakening is a highly complex topic and one that historians have written reams about. However, I’ll stick my neck out and summarize the impact. The 2GA was very different in the north (it was more doctrinal, more activist) than in the south (it was more moralistic, more individualistic). However, some of the commonalities that distilled out across the nation was that the 2GA was highly emotional, highly energetic, very feminine, and theologically stunted.
So the Southern way of religion that successfully emerged from the maelstrom of the Great Revival was conversion-centered, more concerned to convert individuals than the society, oriented around individual congregations and hence localistic in focus, and practically devoid of complex theological doctrines—their theology consisted of a series of vivid tropes describing the path leading from sinful life through conviction to conversion with the promise of heaven after death. Old Testament images of divine wrath and punishment were blended with New Testament homilies about the friendly Jesus dying a substitutionary death to purchase their salvation. All the theology one needed could be summed up in a paragraph. Here was an easily learned, quickly described, and immensely effective religious message, a sure-fire strategy that made possible the almost complete domination of the South by the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. Even the Episcopalians borrowed the strategy, the planter elite (many of whom began their lives as plain folk) soon followed the evangelical pattern, and by the middle of the second quarter of the 19th century the Old South had become the most emphatically Protestant section of the nation. . . .
The Southern way of religion was decidedly moralistic, with ministers more apt to attack individual moral failings than social evils. One of the real attractions of evangelicalism to Southern women was the extent to which it sought to rein in the behavioral excesses of Southern men—notoriously individualistic, hedonistic, and prone to violence. But Southern revivalism, unlike that, for example, of Charles G. Finney in the North, did not lead to a wave of reform activity. Later Southern ministers joined the temperance movement and thundered against alcoholics, but the late-19th-century Social Gospel was anemic in the Southern states.
Coming back to the modern day, what’s the impact? The cultural differences are still apparent, even though there has been some geographic mixing and some borrowing across the battle lines. Evangelical denominations are generally highly individualistic, moralistic, and emotionally driven. They appeal most to the uneducated and, frankly, to those who don’t care about the difference between the eucharist and eschatology. Mainline denominations are more corporate and doctrinal, but have become susceptible to the emotional lucre, too. Some of that is seen in their relativism, which results in an over-deference to cultural norms and mores. Some is seen in an over-reliance in creedism to transmit doctrine, rather than on fostering deep understanding of the faith. Both sides seemed to come away from the 2GA with an understanding that the laity expects spiritual milk, and those ready for spiritual meat will find it on their own.
Sola scriptura: one of the foundational principles of the Protestant Reformation. In a reaction to the legalism and outsized importance placed on modern interpretation and doctrine by the contemporary Catholic church, the Protestant denominations declared the Bible to reign supreme. However, the increasing anti-Catholic and anti-intellectual fervor undergirding the revivalism of the 19th century in the US resulted in the baby being tossed out with the bathwater. Aquinas’ writings may not be on par with Paul’s, but they’re damn helpful in figuring out what Paul meant. Sadly, today, your average Evangelical thinks that Aquinas is a megachurch pastor in Houston.
Whether primarily driven by the intentional rejection of tradition or the lack of curiosity fostered by the anti-intellectual foundation of the 2GA, the modern church is untethered when interpreting, preaching, and enacting the Bible. The prototypical example is the Social Gospel (precursor to the Progressive movement) that came out of the postmillenial eschatology. Postmillennialism is the belief that man will improve the world to a point where there are a thousand years of utopia, which then harkens the second coming of Jesus Christ.
As libertarians, we can probably recognize the same technocratic pablum that infects much of the modern Progressive left in that interpretation. However, theologically it’s also a problematic interpretation, bordering on heresy. Of course, if you haven’t read the church fathers, you probably aren’t being exposed to interpretations of scripture that undercut postmillennialism, and the post-Enlightenment cultural blind spots may bias you towards a technocratic armageddon. What’s that saying about new ideas being old heresies? Yeah…
Downstream Cultural Implications
Until recently (1960s?), Protestants enjoyed a hegemonic domination of western culture. However, cracks were showing as early as the mid 19th century, primarily in what is now Germany. As much as the shift to the current culture of pseudo-moralistic hedonism was a philosophical one, it was also a shift that was championed, at first, by the church. As the Iron Law dictates: me today, you tomorrow. For the Social Gospellers and first generation Progressives, that law bit them in the ass in no time flat. It took less than a single generation for the power of the Progressive movement to be wrenched from the hands of the Protestant church and planted firmly in the hands of the secular humanists. As with any movement, the Progressive Protestants got bit by their own hubris. All of the “well maybe we can bend the rules here in pursuit of Heaven on Earth” turned into the foundation of the technocratic dystopia we live in today. Overzealous, understudied Christians birthed the modern nanny state because they couldn’t be arsed to actually RTFM.
Fast forward 100 years, and the church became a waning influence in culture, which, in combination with a sickly relationship with book learnin’, led to a stylistic split in three directions. Direction 1, followed by mainstream denominations, was toward liberalism (of interpretation of the Bible) and conciliation to the less-than-Christian dominant culture. Direction 2, followed by conservative evangelical denominations, was toward radical legalism, skepticism toward outsiders, and a canonization of 1950 cultural norms as akin to Gospel. Direction 3, followed by more contemporary evangelical denominations, was toward candy coated emotional fluff.
While each direction is unique, a few common themes emerged.
First, the focus was on entertaining the lowest common denominator. To an extent, this was always the case. However, with the growth of bedroom suburbs, long commutes, increasing traffic, and other social changes, the community dissolved, and church became a social club. Sure, some were sitting at their spot in the proverbial moose lodge every night, but the bulk of the church was a rotating cast of characters coming in to do their hour’s penance on Sunday morning so they could go back to their largely secular lives on Monday.
Second, with the Great Society in the 60s, the last nail was plunged into the coffin of the church as community leader and caretaker. Rather than caring for the community being a primary focus, many churches have moved such ministries behind the curtain, using scant volunteer effort and a whole lot of tithe money to “check the box” on community outreach.
Speaking of checking boxes, the focus on entertainment and reaching the seeker has led to a check the box mentality in many churches, especially the contemporary evangelical churches. I have to chuckle when church staff talk about “X saved at Jr. High retreat this weekend” or “Y new guests visited this week”. They’re chasing numbers rather than chasing Truth.
Where did all this come from? The downstream came back upstream. Culturally, churches have absorbed an obsession with metrics from the corporate boardroom, a focus on butts in seats from marketing firms, and a dumbing down to the lowest common denominator from the mass media. The same church that was driving western culture for 500 years has been neutered by it’s own progeny.
What does the modern church look like today, what does membership consist of? There are five main archetypes that I see.
Rollin’ up in my Mercedes, #praiseJesus
The first one is the Instagram Christian soccer mom. She wouldn’t know hardship if it smacked her in the face. Poverty? Oh, you mean they can’t afford Starbucks every day?
While I described this in female terms, the male equivalent exists, as well.
You said ‘crap’? I’ll pray for your family
Often, staff fall into this archetype, but sometimes you’d be surprised. It’s that person who is constantly using Christian codewords and cringes when you say “darn it”. It’s Ned Flanders and Dana Carvey’s church lady. These days they’re on the retreat, but you still get that scolding side-eye when your tone gets too confrontational or you don’t pause to pray enough during hard conversations. Often these people are very generous, nice people, but they’re so disconnected from the real world that it’s hard to relate to them. Some can be more than a bit judgy, too.
My priorities are ‘murica, guns, and God, in that order
This archetype is more expansive than just Republicans who worship God because it’s culturally expected, but that’s the best example that came to me. These are the people who may or may not actually believe all this shit, but they’re here for other reasons, whether that be because the spouse is dragging them here, some other social pressure is bringing them to church, or even simple habit.
This is probably my favorite group. They’re certainly the most interesting. People who have gone through some wild shit and found Jesus in the midst of it.
This could probably be somewhat merged with the first archetype, but there are some distinctions. These are the people you meet and you wouldn’t know that they were Christian at first glance. For some, that’s because they’re not living out the faith in their daily life. For others, they’re very generous, devout people, but they are plugged into mainstream culture enough to avoid sticking out like a sore thumb.
What’s the point of bitching if there isn’t an attempt at resolution at the end? I don’t want to spend too much time on this because I don’t know that I have good answers. As much as the modern church has problems, there aren’t always easy, readily apparent solutions.
- The default activity should be an active, communal one. Rather than sit and listen being the default, shared meals, shared outreach, and community should be the default.
- Churches should be mindful of their size. It’s said that once a group grows beyond 150 people, it loses its sense of community very quickly. Efforts should be taken to encourage the sense of community, whether that be shrinking the size of the church, offering activities that tighten the bonds of subgroups, etc.
- Ditch the rock band and the knock-off pop music. It reeks of desperation, the music is generic and awful, and it tears apart the sense of community when half of the church service is performative rather than participatory.
- Dive in deeper. Don’t be afraid to lose some people. Making them think is a GOOD THING. Rather than keeping sermons superficial, spend some time breaking things down and promoting true understanding.
- Don’t ignore the 2000 years of knowledge that we have available to us from church history. People should be familiar with names like Zwingli and Chesterton and Aquinas and Augustine and Athanasius.
- Preach the church doctrines. Nothing’s more sad than when a whole bunch of church members have no idea why they’re [insert denomination here].
To conclude, as the church’s influence wanes, and Christianity is set on a course to become a minority religion within most of our lifetimes, the absolute worst thing that the church can do is play hanger on with the modern secular culture. Now is the time for them to distinguish themselves from modern culture, in style, in members’ behavior, in generosity, and in tone.