It’s hard to have a conversation with someone who thinks they know everything. And none of us wants to be one of those people. But hubris is a bit like body odour: it’s very easy to notice on someone else and very difficult to detect in oneself.
The collective response to evangelicalism recently should therefore give us pause. Is everyone outside our tribe just poorly informed about what a healthy body is supposed to smell like or is it maybe true that we actually stink?
Contrary to what it may feel like within large churches or within the organizations that serve their growth, evangelicalism is in decline on this continent. Millennials and younger Gen-Xers are now leaving or never signing up for evangelicalism in trends similar to their changing attitudes about another cultural monolith, Facebook. A global media company where users select friends and sources of information based on which ones best support their opinions, Facebook is increasingly known for its social shallowness, creepy leadership, susceptibility to political manipulation, and suffocating inescapability.
Some people, it seems, find none of these things appealing.
With so many leaving the evangelical party we’re fast approaching the point in the evening where we slip away to casually sniff our pits. (And, while we have a moment, maybe check our Facebook. As Providence would have it we might just find an encouraging post from one of those popular neo-Reformed churches about the way the gospel is offensive, about how being awkwardly bold is a sign that we’re probably doing something heroically right. Or, maybe we’d just find viral cat videos.) But let’s not get distracted.
We can be almost certain that Jesus, by modern North American standards, did indeed non-metaphorically stink. Nobody would’ve noticed at the time of course, Jesus being fully incarnate in his aromatic context, but anyone from our cultural context would’ve noticed the distinction immediately.
Evangelicals love to talk about context. We like to hear about how people spoke and thought and lived during biblical times. But let’s be honest, we only like cultural context because it is chaff – that useless husk our sermons raise to the wind and blow away before the big reveal: a transcendent kernel of timeless truth.
We like to talk about context because it’s how we arrive at our real aim – culture-free “biblical” principles. We usually call these things the gospel.The message. The good news. Our namesake euangelion. It’s what we’re all about.
But slow the reel for a second and zoom in on that sleight of hand in the middle: we take a decontextualized message and slide it gently into our own culture then we pack the two together and call the combination a single whole. It’s a subtle switcheroo but once it’s complete everything fits perfectly. Nothing is out of place or off script because today’s evangelicalism functions like a social media echo chamber – in here the news always sounds good because a hermeneutical algorithm has selected only what appeals to our culturally supplied tastes. In here we’ve persuaded ourselves that we’ve so thoroughly accepted the odourless Jesus into our hearts that our own sub-culture has simply become the gospel.
If that were the whole problem we’d just be a boring and relatively harmless sect. No big deal, just a bunch of comfy white folks off on the side somewhere congratulating ourselves with God’s approval. But if there’s one thing everyone knows about evangelicals it’s that we insist on sharing.
If I share a cat video with my “friends,” they’re distracted for a minute or two then eventually find their way back to more pressing concerns. But if I share a message that transcends and judges all cultures except my own – well, that’s a very different kind of virus. That is something we’re supposed to call sin, and something at the root of what everyone else usually calls colonialism.
There’s nothing morally bad about doing church on a small, even shrinking, scale. Size doesn’t matter and diminishing interest is certainly not about being persecuted. What is morally bad, what does deserve evangelical trepidation, is the way our biblical-cultural switcheroo means we’ve uncritically supported and exported some of the worst and most harmful aspects of our society – racism, misogyny, militarism, ecocide and systemic inequality among them.
Historians will tell us that the term evangelical is much older than its current headline-grabbing iteration and that “true evangelical faith,” in the words of Menno Simons, has some very attractive and less newsworthy things to get on with. And long-time evangelicals will object to declaring deceased the only spiritual mother we’ve ever known. Academic and sentimental concerns aside, however, modern evangelicalism on this continent is in very rough shape.
Can it be saved?
The question is not rhetorical.
Neither is it one that can be adequately answered by the same leaders we followed into this mess. It may turn out that the way ahead involves becoming more thoroughly evangelical rather than more intensely committed to the movement’s current forms. To figure out what that might look like we’re going to need some serious prophetic imagination – some speaking to power rather than from it – so our strongest and most hopeful voices are likely to come from the fringes. As Canadian Mennonite Brethren* we are already doubly outside the dominant centre, both as non-Americans and as Anabaptists, and we’d be even further ahead by listening to more women, people of colour, indigenous Canadians, and Christians from other parts of the world.
Evangelical hubris is more than just a lapse in hygiene or a knack for media bias, it’s something in our water. That may mean our party is over, it may not. Either way, everyone could benefit from some fresh air.
* This piece was originally commissioned by a particular denominational magazine. Publication was subsequently vetoed.