Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ The Prevailing Sin of Evangelicals

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In the midst of an extraordinary amount of stone-throwing and name-calling from across the political and theological spectrum, the Church in North America has shuddered and shaken from its timbered ceiling (or its artfully exposed industrial lighting) to its hallowed stone foundation (or tiled coffee house floor).

(Astute readers perhaps will have noticed the use of the capitalized word “church” but not the use of the phrase “Body of Christ.”)

The various branches of the organization of Christian faith in North America are flailing in a storm that some see as a clearing, cleansing front needed to wash away theological detritus while others see a hurricane destined to imperil and destroy life as we know it.

The shake-up, for better or worse, has caused a great deal of soul-searching and reflection – though perhaps not as much as is needed, one might think after wearily skimming the morning Facebook news feed. What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be human? How has the way in which the Church relates to prevailing culture changed in the past 30 years? What leaders to we need to pay attention to right now? Who has the answers? Will my congregation die if we don’t change what we believe?

How did we get here?

To the dismay of many, a startling realization is beginning to dawn: we thought we were strong, faithful, and following where God led. But what if we weren’t?

I know that many of my progressive friends will read the above question in a different light. “You thought you were strong, faithful, and following where God led, but you weren’t, because you refused to be fully inclusive. Now you’re realizing that and you’re reevaluating what you believe and who you are. That’s a good thing, because now you can change.”

That angle is not the one predominantly preoccupying the evangelical consciousness right now, however.

(I use “evangelical” for lack of a better word to describe theologically orthodox Christians who place a high value on the understanding of Scripture as the inspired Word of God and, out of that understanding, hold a humble but defined traditional theology of marriage and human sexuality. Personally, I think “evangelical” is largely a useless term because of the number of meanings that can be painted onto it.)

How did we get here? We thought we were strong, faithful, and following where God led. But what if we weren’t? These thoughts haunt laypeople and clergy alike who have spent years serving in the church and who now survey their surroundings in shocked disbelief. The sweeping changes in society over an extremely short time in the scope of historical context – a few decades, half a century at most – have left a reverberating tremor of shellshock.

No matter how many “statements” are issued from denominational spokespersons, individual clergy, and faith-based organizations, there seems to have been little direction, discernment or comfort gleaned from what many feel are either empty platitudes or hopeless, feeble claims of continued perseverance in the practice of the faith. This is understandable in part: there’s a great deal in flux in North American culture, in key denominations and in many pews. But behind a great deal of conversation lurk the questions above. We thought we were strong, faithful, and following where God led. But what if we weren’t?

It is time for the Church in North America to repent – but of what?

We must ask ourselves, “what made us think we were strong, faithful, and following where God led?” Were we confident we were being faithful because we could afford a new building? Were we assured we were strong because attendance grew and we implemented the leadership trends du jour? Were we assured we were following where God led because we practiced relevance and offered a traditional and contemporary worship service?

None of these are the fruits of the Spirit.

We should’ve recognized the symptoms – pastoral scandals brushed over and shrugged off, millions of budgetary dollars spent on state-of-the-art buildings while the missions and outreach dollars stayed steady or shrank, congregations of predominantly one race or socioeconomic status staying of predominantly one race or socioeconomic status. None of this characterizes the Spirit-filled Body of Christ. 

It did, however, characterize the Church.

What if the prevailing sin of evangelicals in the past 30 years was the same as the prevailing sin of progressives today – the cult of the individual? Protestants have this struggle wrapped tightly throughout our Reformer DNA. It was extraordinary, a gift of grace that individual people could read Scripture in their own language. It was extraordinary, the idea that the individual can reach out in response to God on her or his own because of the priesthood of all believers. It was extraordinary.  It also had a deadly-sharp edge, as all Truth does – for individualism, run rampant, becomes as much of an idol as a statue of a saint or a gilded icon does to uneducated peasants.

If there is a prevailing sin of evangelicalism, might it be the cult of the individual? Take, for instance, the far-right fundamentalist trope – “God says it, I believe it, that settles it” – and place it alongside what could easily be the far-left progressive credo – “I feel it, I believe it, that settles it.” Both hinge on the individual. And while we have inherited a robust faith that celebrates the one – the one up in the tree, the one lost or left behind, the one who came back, thankful – it is not a faith that relies on the individual. Far from it.

The Christian faith springs from belief in the Trinity, first and foremost – Father, Son, Holy Spirit (not suggesting that God is gendered, but that God is persons, that God is relationship – that God is love…). Unlike our Muslim and Jewish friends, we do not claim God is one without also claiming God is three. And of the Threeness of God, we believe that the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, Word-Made-Flesh, Emmanuel-God-With-Us, has called us to be his Body on earth empowered by the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.

There is no such thing as a solitary God in Christianity, this Three-In-One “I AM,” and there is no such thing as a solitary Christian.

Yet for decades, evangelicalism swooned into a vast approach not unlike marketing rather than evangelism – and make no mistake, the two are different. For one thing, marketing targets consumers, not believers. And when you market, you see demographics made up of individuals. The North American Church began attempting to market the faith to what it perceived as “swing voters” – every young new emerging generation, seen as the trendsetters that predict the future.

“Now hold on a just minute,” pastors counter, having spent thousands on demographic research, relocation trend watches and seminars on relevance. But I counter that a small but important tell-tale sign that North American evangelicalism got too self-centered is the fascinating migration of Protestants to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. I have begun to lose count of the number of friends from college and seminary – not counting friends of friends – who now have icons in their living rooms, rosaries next to their beds, and a surprising but joyful number of children springing up.

Fed up with the elevation of the individual, this minor but very significant trend reveals people from their 20’s to their 50’s deliberately seeking out traditions that emphasize a great many practices and doctrines before the individual comes into play. Eastern Orthodox followers spend seasons fasting together, feasting together, venerating together. Roman Catholics turn to a higher authority than the individual in the pew, looking to time-worn dogma, to a faith community of extraordinary countercultural fellowship. Both traditions practice exclusivity, interestingly enough, something that occasionally offends unwitting Protestants expecting to “take communion” like everyone else. Yes, both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have strong traditions of mysticism – something experienced by the individual. In the main, however, you do not have the tail wagging the dog.413px-Muzeum_Diecezjalne_w_Sandomierzu_Chrystus_niosący_krzyż_XVII_w._odbicie_30.12.2010_p

Before we repent, then, for what “those people” are doing (“thank you, Lord, that I am not like that person over there…”), fearing that they will bring about the Apocalypse during our lifetime or our children or grandchildren’s lifetimes, Church, we must repent for being an organization of Christian faith but not the Body of Christ. We need to face that we have made an idol out of self, a god of the individual. It is not about us. It is about Jesus Christ – and him crucified…

We have shaped the Church in our own image, so that it is a safe, suburban place to be, with mall lotion in the ladies’ room and shrubbery trimmed to perfection. We have shaped the Church in our own image, so that we worship only in ways that will attract people we want to be seen with. We have shaped the Church in our own image, so that “benign” segregation is practiced while we allow cultural differences to trump unity in Christ. We have shaped the Church in our own image, so that it is something that will appeal to our grandkids or our yoga friends or our IT colleagues, though hopefully not the foreclosed-upon, the elderly poor, or the bi-racial kids of a single woman missing several teeth driving a broken-down car.

If we attempt to address theological challenges with answers that rely on the individual, we return immediately to where we started.

We thought we were strong, faithful, and following where God led. But what if we weren’t?

“It’s not as I would have it,” said Rev. Richard Coles, priest in the Church of England, gay, living celibately with his civil partner, on the doctrine of the Church of England. “But then – it’s not about me…”

What a splash of cold water in the face. It’s not about me. When’s the last time you heard an activist, commentator, pastor or church member say that? (And that’s what was so stunning about the shooting victims’ families confronting Dylann Roof, after all: “I forgive you” is a profound wail of pain combined with the acknowledgement that it’s not about me. “Accept Jesus Christ.”)

I’m not sure what to think about this community worship our pastor set up with a neighboring Black church. I want the other church to know I like them, but I don’t know how they perceive me and I don’t know the songs they seem to love.

It’s not about me.

Is my ministry making any difference? Are my family’s sacrifices worth it? If we build a new $7.5 million worship center, that will be something I can look to for affirmation that something I’ve done is of value, that something will outlast me.

It’s not about me.

I don’t want my friends to think I’m ignorant, predictable or gullible because of my traditional theology of human sexuality.

It’s not about me.

I don’t want my friends to think I’m ignorant, predictable or gullible because I feel called to volunteer and serve with AIDS ministries.

It’s not about me.

If there is anything that God is calling us to face, it might just be the reality that there has been a stark difference between the organized Church and the living, Spirit-filled Body of Christ.

I am crucified with Christ, therefore I no longer live.

If there is anything that God is calling us to celebrate, it is that we are not alone – we are not individuals squabbling over foyer paint color – we are called to live and breathe the fellowship of the saints, the suffering of our Lord, the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the community-generating creative motion of the Father.

We confess we have not loved you with our whole hearts. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

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Elizabeth Glass Turner serves as the Managing Editor of Wesleyan Accent. Elizabeth holds an MA in Theological Studies and has written for Ambrose University College & Seminary, Good News magazine and others. She also has an essay in “The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes.”

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