"We can't support that?" the campus ministry leader informed us. "Not unless you include a tract or share the gospel in some way." My college roommate Dave and I had requested some material and volunteer support from the parachurch organization for a new project Dave had initiated. He wanted to show God's love on campus by raking leaves, cleaning frat houses, and providing hot chocolate on cold mornings. The ministry leader would have none of it. Showing kindness and love was not enough. For these acts to carry real value, he said, they had to be accompanied by something more.
That experience 20 years ago was my first encounter with the evangelical value of efficiency. One of the blessings of the evangelical tradition is it's commitment to proclaiming the gospel–a call that many other streams of Christianity have abandoned. This missional focus, however, is often accompanied by a tyrannical urgency that results in the devaluing of every other call. If the direct missional value of an activity cannot be demonstrated it is often dismissed as useless or at most a distraction from the saving of souls. The result is what I call "evangelical austerity"–the shedding of all activities and investments deemed unnecessary for soul-saving.
Evangelical austerity not only explains the campus ministry's refusal to help us rake leaves or clean up beer cans, but also the dreadful architecture of many evangelical buildings. A few weeks ago I was privileged to preach at the U.S. Naval Academy chapel in Annapolis, Maryland. The building is a soaring cathedral of stone and stained glass that seems out of place on this side of the Atlantic. The beauty of the space not only assists but also provokes worship. I can't remember the last time I felt similarly inspired within an evangelical church dominated by screens and theater seating.
Beauty, whether in the form of actions or architecture, is not a high value for most evangelicals.
The urgency of the mission doesn't afford the allocation of the time and resources necessary for the cultivation of beauty. Sure, we appreciate a well composed hymn or an excellent song in worship, and we would never denounce a beautiful act of Christian kindness, but the expectation is that our songs, art, and actions carry some practical missional purpose. The song must communicate a theological truth. The painting must have an explicitly Christian theme. The provision of a cup of cold water must include an invitation to attend Wednesday's Bible study.
In this regard evangelical austerity has something in common with the Soviet Union. In her book about the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, Iron Curtain, Anne Applebaum explains why the Soviets feared abstract art. "Art was supposed to tell a story. It was supposed to teach. It was supposed to support the ideals of the party." Abstract art, however, was open to interpretation and carried no discernible message. Therefore the Soviets went to great lengths to display only art, music, and architecture that conveyed a clear message.
The task of ensuring all art served the party's purpose rested with Alexander Dymschitz, head of the Cultural Division of the Soviet Military Administration. He famously declared, "Form without content means nothing"–a sentiment shared by many church leaders today. Applebaum explains that for Dymschitz "there was no such thing as art for art's sake. There was no such thing as art reaching into a spiritual or wordless realm." The mission of the state dictated everything's value. This was true of art, activities, and even people.