Popular evangelicalism risks allowing the fashionable themes of our times to invade the center of religious life. Thus, managerial techniques and therapeutic concerns sometimes seem to occupy the citadel of faith, while theology appears to be in exile.

Critics such as David Wells and Os Guinness have rightly called for a restoration of theology's place in the church. However, in this essay, Reformed theologian Richard Mouw suggest that theologians can only do their part as they charitably examine the sometimes-tacky religion of the laity. By so doing they may discern what agenda the Spirit is suggesting for their work—and they can better address the common difficulties of human living.

At a meeting of theologians, one scholar reported: "I met this young manager type. He was as s recent convert to 'born again' Christianity, and he was eager to tell me about his newfound faith. He said he had come to think of God as his CEO, and that God was working to see that his special employees made a profit."

Then the theologian gave his assessment of the man's testimony (and typified many theologians' view of lay religion): "How tacky!"

I found this disturbing. When theologians dismiss as "tacky" the religious experiences, thoughts, and longings of the untutored, they risk missing their main target: serving God's people.

Even though this is a minor example, it illustrates a larger trend: many theologians today are suspicious of, and perhaps even hostile to, more popular expressions of the faith. Many evangelical scholars these days are publicly worrying about, for example, the popularity of recovery groups, Christian therapy centers, church-growth workshops, seminars in managerial methods for ministers, "signs and wonders" movements, and "power evangelism'' strategies. Their worries, of course, go beyond tackiness. Aren't evangelicals obsessed with "success" and "technique" at the expense of careful theological reflection? they ask.

Take, for example the critique found in theologian David Wells's recent book "No Place for Truth, or, whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?" Wells is convinced that evangelicals have formed an unholy alliance with various non-Christian cultural forces: pragmatism, a democratized understanding of truth, a fondness for the therapeutic, and so on. All of this is grounded, Wells insists, in an unfortunate state of affairs where at the psychological center of much evangelical faith are two ideas that are also at the heart of the practice of democracy: (1) the audience is sovereign, and (2) ideas find legitimacy and value only within the marketplace. Ideas have no intrinsic or self-evident value; it is the people's right to give ideas their legitimacy. One implication of this belief is that the work of doing theology ought not to be left to an intellectual elite who...may consider the discovery of truth to be an end in itself. Rather it should be taken on by those who can persuade the masses of the usefulness of the ideas.

Article continues below

Christian leaders who endorse such a democratizing perspective have no choice but to "lead by holding aloft moist fingers to sense changes in the wind." In this, they differ markedly, says Wells, from the incarnate Son of God, "who never once tailored his teaching to what he judged the popular reception would be...."

Wells's main point is right: Jesus certainly wasn't a crowd-pleaser who had to test the winds of public opinion before he could say anything. But is it fair to say that Jesus never "tailored" his teaching to what he thought "the popular reception would be"? Certainly, in the teaching dimension of Jesus' ministry, he approached people in terms of their context. His ministry demonstrates the divine pedagogy that Calvin described: "As nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to 'lisp' in speaking to us." The incarnation itself is a profound exercise in divine "tailoring."


Evangelical intellectuals must be careful not simply to label trends such as church growth or Christian psychotherapy as bad theology. We must first explore the deep spiritual yearnings at work in the grassroots desire for visible and practical signs of God's presence. Is there not at least something in each of these developments that can provide important correctives to past evangelical habits? Don't pastors of large congregations need to manage budgets better and form more effective ministry teams? Shouldn't we explore the ways in which a sanctified sociological savvy can enable us to reach more people with the gospel? Even if much popular psychology is obsessed with "victimization," aren't we also learning much about real victims who have been hidden from sight in evangelical circles?

Why are so many theologians inclined simply to denounce these phenomena rather than to work to establish them on more solid theological foundations? Some of these scholars seem not to like popular evangelicalism very much. They seem to feel no obligation to find points of contact between their own scholarly formulations and the desires and interests of ordinary Christians. They see the yearnings at work in popular religion primarily as something to be corrected rather than as an agenda for theological consideration.

Article continues below

A more charitable approach will treat popular religion as an important starting point for theological reflection.

Let's return to the young manager who saw God as his CEO He was obviously a theological illiterate. Yet it was just as obvious that he had found some appropriate analogies from his own experience to capture his sense of God.

Was this tacky theology? Perhaps. Indeed, we might think of many of Jesus' parables as a kind of sanctified tackiness. Jesus borrowed images from ordinary life to talk about profound spiritual matters: daily wages, loans, coins, sheep, seeds, oil lamps. It should not surprise us if the Savior who came to ordinary people riding on an ass reveals the Father in "tacky" images.

Now, I am not willing to settle for tacky theology. But I am willing to live with it for starters. My hope for the young manager is that he will soon outgrow the CEO analogy. Management and profit are not good organizing principles in a theology for the long haul. But they are acceptable entry-level concepts.

Most friendships and marriages begin with attractions that are hardly adequate to sustain them for the long haul . Similarly, there is nothing wrong, for example, with a person entering into an obedient relationship with God out of a fear of hell; it would be regrettable, though, if fear never stopped being the motivation.

Distinguishing between entry-level attraction and that which sustains a relationship for the long haul helps us recognize two important features of "pop" Christianity: first, the genuine vitality of many lay-originated beliefs and practices; and second, the aesthetically "low" level of many of these same beliefs and practices. We can affirm their vitality without endorsing them as adequate features of mature Christianity.

Recognizing the importance of these two factors can give us the right attitude toward popular lay religion: one that manifests itself as a hermeneutic of charity. Just as the much discussed "hermeneutic of suspicion" helps us take a careful look at things we might otherwise accept uncritically, so the hermeneutic of charity helps us take a positive look at things we might otherwise reject without considering their merit.

Article continues below


This focus on the religious impulses of ordinary believers may seem strange coming from a Calvinist. After all, Calvinists believe that human beings have a strong tendency to wander from the path of truth and righteousness. Why, then, give any consideration at all to an instinct for wisdom in ordinary people? Don't popular expressions of religion need to be monitored carefully by leaders trained in the nuances of orthodox theology?

This pessimism about the laity is rooted, I believe, in a failure to think carefully about two basic Calvinist (and biblical) themes: divine sovereignty and human depravity.

God is the creator and ruler of all things. He has placed his stamp on all he has created. In a special way, God has stamped human beings with his imprint. We are created to glorify God, to live in an obedient relationship with him. Nothing we do can eradicate this divine imprint. As Augustine put it, our hearts are restless until they rest in God.

Popular religion is the experience of people who bear God's image. Even at its worst, popular religion is an expression of the restlessness of human beings who cannot escape being creatures of the living God. To take popular religion seriously, then, is to pay special attention to the ways God's children—even God's rebellious children—attempt to deal with needs deeply implanted in their natures.

Human beings are indeed depraved. We are all in the same condition. Educated people are in no better position than the uneducated. Theologians have no better access to God than do farmers and waitresses. We all desperately need God's mercy. And we all need other Christians to encourage and admonish and nurture each other in our attempts to respond appropriately to God's sovereign grace. From my Calvinist point of view, then, theologians must take seriously the deep impulses at work in the Christian community, because laypeople are the children of God and because "depraved" theologians cannot be trusted to do their work apart from the rest of God's community.

One of my Calvinist heroes—the great Dutch theologian—statesman Abraham Kuyper—would have understood my concern. Kuyper's credentials as a representative of "high" culture were impeccable: university founder, author of major theological works, political leader, and prime minister. But he also regularly expressed a sense of solidarity with what he affectionately called "the little people," treating their theological-spiritual sensitivities as an important touchstone for his own theological reflection.

Article continues below

Kuyper's views on this subject were shaped by at least three concerns: The first factor was theological. Kuyper believed that ordinary Christians often function as preservers of truth during times of heresy. He experienced this personally as a pastor. Kuyper graduated from the University of Leiden as a self-proclaimed theological modernist. When he entered his first pastorate, he encountered some Calvinist parishioners who strongly opposed his liberal preaching.

Much to his surprise, however, Kuyper was attracted by their simple faith and experienced a thorough evangelical conversion. This experience of the laity's theological ministry to church leaders, as preservers of truth during times of doctrinal decline, is vital.

A second factor was political: Kuyper insisted that Calvinism is profoundly democratic. The proclamation that God alone is sovereign has an important social-political corollary: no human power or office can claim the kind of authority that belongs only to God. Totalitarianism, whether civic or ecclesiastical, is unacceptable. Every human being is directly responsible to the Creator.

A third factor was cultural: Kuyper strongly insisted that God's rule extends over all human interaction. Theology must therefore deal with all of life. It has as much to do with families and businesses as it does with the Trinity and the sacraments. Kuyper's concern is not far from the spirit of that "long tradition of democratic Christianity in America" described by historian Nathan Hatch—a tradition whose adherents have refused to "surrender to learned experts the right to think for themselves...[and] have taken the faith into their own hands and molded it according to the aspirations of everyday life."


What Kuyper experienced, other theologians have named. Since Vatican II, Roman Catholic thought has begun to focus on the role of "the sense of the faithful" in theological development.

The notion that the laity's perspective should be taken into account is not new; but in the past, it has been used to assign a passive role to the laity in theological formulation. In the nineteenth century, however, Cardinal Newman signaled a shift in emphasis on the laity's active role when he wrote of the importance for church leaders to take seriously "a sort of instinct...deep in the bosom of the mystical body of Christ."

Newman's remark was about moral deliberation: there resides, deep in the bosom of Christ's mystical body, a profound, practical moral wisdom; laypeople possess an important share of this discerning power; no account of what is right and wrong is adequate without taking into consideration the laity's prudent sense of how our moral prescriptions are to be lived out.

Article continues below

But I would argue it is also fair to extend Newman's meaning to the theological. There resides, deep in the bosom of Christ's mystical body, a profound, practical theological wisdom. This means that laypeople possess an important share of this discerning power; no account of what is theologically true or false is adequate without taking into consideration the laity's prudent sense of how our doctrines are to be lived out.

An important part of what goes on in the propagating of the faith is that the teaching actually "takes" in the hearts and minds of the people. If the church sets forth something as true, it will be a good sign of its truth that it is actually received by the membership.

Charles Spurgeon experienced this phenomenon with a particular layperson. Mary King was a cook by trade, but the great pulpiteer considered her a gifted theologian. "I do believe," he testified, "that I learnt more from her than I should have learned from any six doctors of divinity of the sort we have nowadays."

Spurgeon continued: "There are some Christian people who taste, and see, and enjoy religion in their souls, and who get at a deeper knowledge of it than books can ever give them, though they should search all their days."


Are there still Mary Kings around? Or have we lost the possibility of producing them?

A theologian friend of mine has no problem with the respect for the laity shown by Newman, Kuyper, and Spurgeon. But he wonders whether things have not changed drastically.

Couldn't it be that what Newman saw as a "natural" instinct for theology in the laity was, in fact, a product of a culture steeped in biblical faith? Because the folks who prayed for Kuyper's conversion knew the basics of Reformed orthodoxy, they could serve as guardians of a theological tradition. Where are such people today?

I have three responses to this question.

First, I meet many laity who are able to "guard" orthodoxy effectively even when they are at odds with pastors and theologians.

Second, those nineteenth-century thinkers were not praising laypeople for a specifically doctrinal savvy. Newman talks about an "instinct." Kuyper refers to his parishioners' "adoration and exaltation" of God. And Spurgeon commends some laypeople for their ability to "taste, and see, and enjoy religion in their souls."

Article continues below

These attributes, while not doctrinal expertise, embody sensitivities against which doctrinal formulations need to be tested. Gifted laypeople have a spiritual wisdom that is tuned to the basic rhythms of the religious quest.

Third, what is the evidence that shows that contemporary laypeople lack the theological savvy of their forebears? Is it that the present-day laity are too taken up with such things as recovery groups and managerial methods? To assume that such things are clear signs of theological decline is to beg the question.

I am not proposing, let me emphasize, that the Laity be left to their own theological devices. On the contrary, I am insisting that theological reflection must employ the insights of the entire Christian community. Rather than send the laity off to do their own theology, it is important to draw them into a larger process.

And it is not only laypeople the theologians need to consult. Many clergy are much more deeply involved in the realities of popular religion than in those of academic theology. Thus, much could be Yearned, for example, from discussions between pastors and professional theologians.

What is essential is that theologians allow their own reflections to be shaped by the topics that arise out of what Hatch calls "the aspirations of everyday life"—the questions that emerge in concrete attempts to live out a Christian world-view: questions about the media, selfhood, leisure, technology, friendship, sexuality, politics, and so on.


The mission context provides a helpful insight into dealing with these issues of everyday life theologically. As a missionary in India, Paul Hiebert became aware of a gap in his understanding. He had a "high" theology of the nature of the cosmos, a biblically grounded account of "the origin, purpose and destiny of the self, society and universe." He also had a scientifically oriented understanding of the nature of empirical reality. This left him with a middle range of questions, posed by converts from folk religions, that he could not address: What can I do to avoid accidents? How can I be delivered from illness? Why did my child die so suddenly?

When Christian leaders are not able to address these questions, Hiebert found that the people "return to the diviner who gave them definite answers, for these are the problems that loom large in their everyday life."

Article continues below

Lay religion can function the same way. If the Laity cannot see how the "high" theology of the theologians connects with their day-to-day concerns, then they will, at best, not value the work of theologians, or, at worst, embrace a less-than-orthodox expression of the faith.

To develop a theology of this middle realm—in other words, to develop a biblically grounded account of God's day-to-day dealings with us in the midst of our practical uncertainties-we must deepen the practical theological wisdom of the Christian community. This requires a strategy that integrates various kinds of sensitivities and insights theological, pastoral, ethical, spiritual, social, scientific. The goal is not so much a set of guidelines or concrete decisions as it is the formation of Christian character, a how-to-be rather than a how-to-do.

I would like to illustrate this by focusing in the rest of this article on two controversial sets of sensitivities that need to inform our efforts to deepen the practical wisdom of the Christian community.

The first set of sensitivities is missiological. The missionary setting has often been a useful place to test our theological formulations. In recent decades, missiologists have heightened our awareness of the way our cultural lenses affect the way we receive and "package" the data of biblical revelation. It is necessary to apply the lessons we have learned from missions to our own cultural setting.

I am convinced that some of our best domestic contextualizers are televangelists and megachurch pastors. In saying this, I mean to turn what is often a stern criticism into a low-key compliment. The critics accuse these leaders of cultural accommodation, of presenting a version of Christianity too close to the beliefs and practices of popular culture. My low-key compliment is meant to point to the ways they have often been very sensitive to middle-range concerns—the televangelists, for example, with their concern for healing; and the megachurch pastors with their well-targeted programs for parishioners of every age group and marital status.

My compliment is intentionally low key, however, because I am not convinced that megachurch pastors and televangelists have always paid close enough attention to how their address to the middle range fits with high theological formulations of biblical truth.


The second set of sensitivities is psychological. To say a positive word about the "therapeutic" these days is to oppose some of popular evangelicalism's harshest critics. David Wells, for one, rebukes LEADERSHIP journal for the image of the clergy that it consistently promotes: "In the study, the evangelical pastor is now the CEO; in the pulpit, the pastor is a psychologist whose task it is to engineer good relations and warm feelings."

Article continues below

Let us take a look at the therapeutic portion of this image, which Wells considers a corruption of the pastoral task: ministers today "engineer good relations and warm feelings." What happens when we apply the hermeneutic of charity to this account of what ministers do in the pulpit?

People come to church with middle-range questions—to quote Hiebert: "questions of the uncertainty of the future, the crises of the present life and the unknowns of the past." And not just the "ordinary" laity come with these questions—many of us who love high theology come to church with them. On most Sundays, these are the issues that dominate my own psyche as I enter the place of worship. I regularly carry real fears about things that may or may not happen in the next week. Often I am "tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within without."

For those of us who go to church with those kinds of burdens, the expectation that we will encounter a pastor who knows how to "engineer good relations and warm feelings" is not such a bad thing. And this kind of experience can be very positive indeed if the "good relations" and "warm feelings" are "engineered" by someone who knows how to lead us into a vital communal encounter with the living God.

Given who we are, psychological sensitivities have an important place in worship. This is not to argue for a thorough psychologizing of worship. Worship must include the acknowledgment of God's glory and majesty, a renewal of our commitment to the goals of the kingdom, the proclamation of the Word, Eucharistic fellowship—it is impossible to contain all of this within the confines of the therapeutic.

But we must also reverse the formula: a psychological perspective that is biblically grounded is too valuable to be squeezed into the confines of the worship experience. The Christian community needs more, not less, psychology than Wells allows for. Psychological issues need to be dealt with in one-on-one counseling, small groups, conferences, and workshops.

Do I mean to suggest that psychology is as important as worship? No, very few things are as important as worship; writing theology books is not as important as worship, for example, but theology books are still worth writing.

Article continues below

Doesn't the therapeutic perspective encourage an unhealthy introspective preoccupation with the needs of our own psyches? Yes, which is why it is important to encourage a healthy introspection; "Search me, O God, and know my heart." Good psychology can help me understand the complexities of the self that I present for divine scrutiny.

Sociologist Os Guinness is one who is concerned about recent fundamentalism's "general reliance on both the therapeutic and managerial revolutions." He rightly worries that Christians who loudly denounce "secularism," a viewpoint that denies the supernatural, run the risk of themselves embracing "secularity," a way of acting "that gives no practical place to supernatural perspectives."

But does it follow from the fundamentalist use of therapeutic and managerial motifs that they have bought into "the therapeutic and managerial revolutions"? Guinness seems to think so.

Of course, it is not enough simply to point to common behavioral patterns between fundamentalism and secularity. It is necessary to ask—the hermeneutic of charity again—why the fundamentalists are so interested in management and therapy.

To the degree fundamentalists really are becoming managerial and therapeutic, they ought to be given credit for working on some weaknesses in their movement. The managerial culture pays much attention, for example, to such things as organizational "process" and conflict management—areas where fundamentalist communities have been notoriously weak. Similarly, if fundamentalists, who have in their own ways fostered a highly "intellectualized" understanding of Christian faith, are now attending to such therapeutic concerns as "being in touch with your feelings" and "listening skills," this is a major step in the right direction.

We cannot accuse popular Christianity of compromising with modernity, then, simply because many Christians are now interested in therapy and management. Many people today show an interest in therapy and management with the same kinds of middle-range questions that have made folk religion so attractive. When I read Guinness's observation, then, that much of our "increased religiosity" these days "is actually a new secularity with a religious gloss," I am strongly inclined to reverse his point: that much of our increased secularity today is actually a new religiosity with a secularist gloss!

Article continues below


If they are to glean what they need from the struggles of ordinary Christians, theologians need to act like ethnographers, the anthropologists who study human cultures. Now, theologians should not simply be anthropologists and psychologists. Theologians need to devote much of their expertise to high theology. But they also need to be informed by popular culture, not only to be more effective at giving out guidance to the larger Christian community, but also in order to gather in insights crucial to their own work.

Christian scholars have often looked only at the surfaces of popular religion. That is unfortunate, for there are many signs of eloquence and grace to be found there. We need to probe the hidden places of popular lay religion: to listen for deep calling unto deep; to search for the deeper quests, the deeper pleasures, the deeper hurts, the deeper plots. And in all of this probing, to be especially watchful, following Newman's advice, for that "instinct...deep in the bosom of the mystical body of Christ."

Richard Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary. This article is adapted from his book "Consulting the Faithful: What Christian Intellectuals Can Learn from Popular Religion," to be published in August 1994 by Eerdmans.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.