In this interview, Senate Chaplain Richard Halverson discusses the symptoms and antidotes for secularism and pragmatism.
Richard C. Halverson is the current chaplain of the United States Senate. Born in North Dakota in 1916, he has been pastor of churches for over 40 years, including most recently 22 years at the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Washington, D.C. Halverson serves as chairman of the board for World Vision, Incorporated, and is a prolific author as well as frequent participant in Christian leadership conferences throughout the world. Barbara Thompson conducted the following interview for CHRISTIANITY TODAY.
The current age is frequently disparaged as “the me generation.” Do you think this is a fair assessment of contemporary society?
Yes and no. There is of course a strong hedonistic strain in our culture, which I would identify as the selfish pursuit of pleasure. But the new generation, which didn’t grow up during the depression, reject the straightforward materialism of their parents. Instead, they pursue self-fulfillment, often through public service or the giving of themselves for others. The old narcissism was selfish and carnal; the new springs from a higher motivation. But to my mind, it is still based on the same self-seeking principle.
Do you think the church today is a healthy exception to the “self-seekers” that surround it?
I wish I could believe that. Instead, I think the so-called worldliness of even conservative evangelicals is far more subtle than it was 25 or 50 years ago. We are badly infected with secularism, with the materialism that says, “Live for the now.” Generally speaking, the people of God today are living to get as much as they can out of life this side of the grave. The eternal reference we profess in our theology we deny in our practice.
For example, if you could pin people down, I think you would find very few longing for the return of Christ. His return now would instead constitute an interruption in our plans. Of course, if we had to choose, we wouldn’t choose “the now” instead of eternity, but that’s why the problem is so subtle. We are living without an eternal frame of reference and not even realizing it.
As a result, there is very little kingdom-of-heaven interest. There is no real longing for an “awakening.” God is sovereign in all these things, but to the extent that conditions have to be met for God to send an awakening like the past great revivals, I think all the conditions have been met except one: the desire on the part of God’s people for an awakening that would issue in righteousness, in selflessness, and in authentic piety.
Why do you think the church today is so vulnerable to the values of the culture that surrounds it?
It always has been. Think how vulnerable Israel was to Egypt. The Israelites were set free, and they kept yearning to return to the life they had left behind—despite the fact that it was slavery. They were constantly being enculturated by the nations around them, and God was constantly warning them not to go in that direction. They did anyway, and not just once but over and over again.
It seems it is the nature of a sinful society, even if that society is the church, to identify with this world and its pleasures and values. It is just one of the dangers of living in this world, and it is always there. That’s why Paul has to exhort us in Romans 12 to present our bodies a living sacrifice and not be conformed to this world. The Phillips translation says, “Don’t let the world around squeeze you into its own mold.” The world is a constant, seductive danger.
Many times all that stood between the Israelites and their return to Egypt was Moses and a few other leaders like Joshua and Caleb. Do you think the church is having a leadership problem?
I would be very careful about identifying specific leaders as the problem. But the success orientation of our culture has clearly infected even the principles of church growth. We are enamored with numbers; all the criteria of success today for a pastor are materialistic. If a pastor has a big church building, a big congregation, and a big budget, well, obviously he is successful. You can’t argue with it. And I can say for myself as a pastor, it is very difficult to resist that kind of motivation.
The whole so-called electronic church is built upon the effectiveness and success of television and radio. And it is very successful; so it becomes more and more difficult to draw a line between what is really of eternal value and what is only temporal.
Do you think the mass media in general are playing too large a role in the shaping of our minds and values?
There’s no question about it. We want and accept the predigested answers those media give. As a result, we think much more horizontally than perhaps ever before. Our values are shaped largely by modern advertising, and we receive our truth piecemeal, as in a cafeteria. We aren’t constantly processing biblical truth, or any truth, for that matter. So we don’t get the vertical, the divine perspective.
God says in Isaiah 55 that his thoughts are not our thoughts, that as high as the heavens are above the earth, so his ways are higher than ours. This means we think 180 degrees opposite from God. And it is very easy for us, as it was for Israel, to let tradition become our truth, rather than the Scripture in which the tradition is rooted. If you go back far enough, the tradition is grounded in the Bible, so in a sense it is biblical. But it is far enough away from the root that it is almost unbiblical, or even antibiblical. It’s no longer God’s thoughts or God’s way.
Can you give an example?
Evangelism. If we could scrap momentarily all the evangelical tradition about evangelism and ask ourselves what the New Testament teaches, I think we would be absolutely amazed at what we would discover. Instead, we bring together all the successful methods of evangelism and start with the assumption that “it works, therefore it’s good.” That’s pragmatic, but it isn’t biblical. In a world where the Devil, “the prince of the power of the air,” is in some way in charge, just because a method works doesn’t make it right. But when an evangelism method is successful, no one dares challenge it.
I don’t want to condemn the evangelistic tradition of the past 100 years. Thank God for whatever is helping to proclaim the gospel, for whatever is making the lost aware of their lostness and of the remedy in Jesus Christ. But I don’t sense that this evangelism is building community as the New Testament speaks of it. Nor is it developing relationships, maturing believers, and making disciples.
In what ways do you think New Testament evangelism differs from the way evangelicals do evangelism today?
Part of the answer is in the way you put the question. Evangelism today has become something we do, like a department or a program in the church. In the New Testament, evangelism was something that happened when the church was healthy, when its members were in right relationship with each other.
In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit, who was very economical in language, caused Luke to record four things about the apostolic church that I see as the irreducible minimum: the church devoted itself to the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, to the breaking of bread (which I see as worship), and to prayer. Now, their fellowship was just as important as the apostolic doctrine because it was the apostolic fellowship, the sum of their relationships with Jesus Christ, with God the Father, with the Holy Spirit, and with one another. “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”
I know this is oversimplifying somewhat, but reproduction is normal in a healthy marriage. Reproduction is normal when the bride of Christ is rightly related to the groom. You never find Paul or any of the other apostles exhorting the church to do evangelism. The Great Commission isn’t even mentioned in the Epistles—not because the writers weren’t aware of it, or that it wasn’t important, but because the burden of the Epistles is the relationship of believers to one another and to Christ. When we work on these relationships, when we are nurtured in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in worship, and in prayer, then evangelism is going to be a normal result.
As the evangelical community becomes more socially and politically conscious, emotion-laden issues such as abortion and nuclear disarmament threaten to divide believers. How do you think the church should balance the demands of Christian fellowship with the demands of Christian conscience?
I struggled with this question for 22 years as a pastor in Washington, D.C. I had to ask myself and others, “Do you really want the church to be so identified with a certain issue or cultural position that a person has to hold a particular view to be in church? Or is true Christian community a microcosm of the community at large where all kinds of positions are held?”
Civil rights and Vietnam were very important when I was a pastor. I had to decide whether to divide my congregation over these issues or to insist that our relationship in Christ transcended them. Many people felt that I was a cop-out in these areas, but that’s the way I was led and I really believe it was right.
Try to imagine what it was like for Simon the Zealot, who was committed to overthrowing the empire, to have to live with Matthew, who represented the system. Jesus chose them both, and it isn’t recorded that either of them changed instantly. Simon probably assumed that Jesus was going to lead the revolution. I don’t know what Matthew thought. But the point is, here are two totally opposite points of view among those closest to Jesus. There must have been violent discussions and arguments, and Jesus had to deal with them. But he never threw either man out.
There is a real tension here. We want to believe that the Bible, at least in principle, is not silent on the potentially devastating issues that face our society. Yet if we maintain silence to preserve unity, don’t we somehow imply that the Bible isn’t relevent?
It’s just very difficult; I don’t really know any answers. Perhaps part of the explanation is that all of us hear God’s truth a little differently. We hear it in terms of the way we are made, our backgrounds, our genes. The result is that the body of Christ is very diverse. And I suppose there is a sense in which we have to honor individualism within the church.
One historical example might help. Before the conversion of Constantine, the church was intensely persecuted. Then suddenly, with Constantine’s help, it was acceptable to be a Christian. Now as far as I can tell, neither of these positions is correct, because there is a sense in which the Christian always has to live in tension with his culture. And in somewhat the same way, believers have to live in tension with one another. That’s why it is so important that our allegiance be to Jesus Christ himself, and not our interpretation or methods of evolving doctrine.
Do you think the church has anything to say to a society that puts its trust in chariots and believes absolutely in the power of the sword for protection?
The church cannot support this view; absolutely not. But we have to recognize that there are those in the church who do not share our opposition. Rightly or wrongly, two people can be equally committed to Jesus Christ and be on the opposite sides of this issue.
At the same time, I don’t think the church can officially support a war, or aggression, or violence. Ron Sider has pointed out to me that until Constantine, the church was completely pacifist and opposed capital punishment. This was in the disintegrating days of the Roman Empire and there was no way to look at the government in an encouraging or resourceful manner.
I can envision a similar situation here, where our love for violence on television grows into a love for violence in the stadium. We are so numb now, how long is it before we will pay money to see two Roman-type gladiators kill each other? It isn’t unthinkable anymore. If our culture were to reach that point, it is very possible that true believers would find no intelligent, realistic alternative to total pacifism and voluntary martyrdom.
Is there any particular lesson you feel God has been teaching you since your appointment as chaplain to the U.S. Senate?
Over these months, everything I ever taught, preached, or believed has come together for me. There are two points that hit me strongly. One is the importance of intercession for people in public life. This work is mandated to the church by the Word of God.
The second is the witness of presence, which is very important to me now, the witness of a life that has a Christlike quality. For the love of God to be shed abroad in my heart, for me to be everybody’s servant, for Christ to display his presence wherever I am, that is the maximum witness, the witness of incarnation.
Barbara R. Thompson is a free-lance writer who is a farm worker with His Farm Fellowship in Berne, New York. She is a coauthor with F. Kefa Sempangi of A Distant Grief (Regal, 1979).
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