In the Beginning, Grace
A couple of years ago, I received a flier in the mail:
A new flavor of church is in town! Whether you prefer church with a more traditional blend or a robust contemporary flavor, at [church name], we have a style just for you! Casual atmosphere, relevant messages, great music, dynamic kids' programs, and yes, you can choose your own flavor!
The "flavors" were described with phrases intended to attract the unchurched: "Real-life messages," "Safe and fun children's program," "Friendly people," and the marketing coup de grace, "Fresh coffee and doughnuts!"
What pagan could resist?
I poke fun, yes, but I also recognize two realities. First, we must not mock the desire to reach the unchurched. Second, any evangelical worth his or her evangelistic salt has from time to time succumbed to the cultural pressure, in personal conversations or creating outreach programs, to say things that make the gospel seem small.
In our better moments, we recall with the apostle Paul that it is the gospel of Jesus Christ that reaches the world. But we often find ourselves thinking the theology of one character in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, who said, "If you want to get anywheres in religion, you got to keep it sweet."
A New Evangelical Creed
There are various ways that we "keep it sweet"—that is, try to make the gospel inviting to as many as possible. The results have been mixed. Who hasn't met a new believer who came to faith in Jesus Christ, miraculously, through the most superficial means? For God's mercy on our often foolish attempts at contextualization, we should be ever thankful.
This doesn't excuse us from the hard task of self-criticism as we seek to be more faithful. In fact, in the last couple of decades, our self-criticism has practically become an addiction. But it is worth rehearsing some of the more devastating critiques of our movement—both to recall the wonder of God's mercy, and to put into context our various efforts at reform.
Historian Mark Noll addressed one concern in his Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, writing, "The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." He was arguing not for mere intellectualism but for a use of the mind that would, in the end, give us a greater vision of God.
Theologian Ron Sider aimed wider in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? Sider was called up short for not clearly defining evangelical and for sometimes relying on questionable statistics, but overall his outrage over evangelical morals and lifestyle is commendable. God forbid that we should ever not be scandalized by nominal Christianity!
And then there are the titles that suggest not just flaws but something much more serious: Frank Viola and George Barna's Pagan Christianity? and Michael Horton's Christless Christianity. Yikes!
Such sweeping critiques hinge on what the critic means by evangelical. Some use strict definitions that include a complex set of beliefs and behaviors, and so define evangelicals as a step above the ordinary mortal. Others use loose definitions in which the word seems to mean nothing more than "nice religious person." Evangelicals by these definitions fare pretty badly when compared with the rest of the world.
In this article, I lean toward the looser definition. We might feel better about ourselves as a movement if we restrict the word to the most committed—that would eliminate the problem of nominalism anyway. But talk to any evangelical pastor of any evangelical church, and they will tell you that the broad definition is what they work with week in and week out: people who think of themselves as "Bible believing" or "born again" or "evangelical" or "saved" and yet, except for the committed few, have beliefs and behaviors that fall far short of New Testament ideals. And if we as pastors, teachers, missionaries, parachurch leaders, and thought leaders—we who write most of the material decrying our movement—are honest with ourselves, we will admit that the enemy we've found is often us.