Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Painful Success of Evangelicalism

John Wimber once wrote,

Evangelicals emphasize accumulating knowledge about God through Bible study—specifically the grammatical-historical study of Scripture. This is the foremost, if not the exclusive, method of training among Western evangelicals today, especially in our seminaries. The grammatical-historical method employs history, linguistics and historical theology to discover what Scripture meant to its first-century audience (Power Evangelism, 186).

To his credit, Wimber sees value in this method, going on to write that "what God intended to say to first-century Christians is what he intends for us as well." But something is missing if training—i.e. discipleship—consists of merely learning how to study the Bible well. And I think it may be one of the reasons that even otherwise committed Christians are walking away from the church.

On the one hand, I think we know, deep down, there's more to walking with God than being able to find Haggai really quickly in a sword drill or being able to spot a chiasmus in a New Testament Epistle without too much trouble. We want to connect with God—to talk with Him and hear from Him, to live life with Him everyday, no matter what's going on in our world. And too often church doesn't help with that. Honestly, for many of us, it can be hard to make the connection between time spent in an auditorium, singing and listening, and an infectious, vibrant relationship with God.

And on the other hand, if discipleship is mostly about learning the Bible, there are much better ways to do it than attending church. A Christian can binge-watch his favorite Bible teachers on YouTube, read books on any biblical subject he can think of, and set his iPhone to automatically download podcasts that interest him. If he's really motivated, attending Bible classes at a Christian college or seminary, in person or online, will help him in his study of Scripture much more than any Sunday sermon series at his local church ever could.

I'm afraid that by emphasizing the grammatical-historical method of discipleship, as John Wimber put it, we evangelicals have unknowingly made church obsolete. The local church is not the best place to study the Bible; it's certainly not the most convenient. And since studying the Bible really isn't all there is to following Christ, church—at least in its current evangelical makeup—undoubtedly falls short.

What about worship and community? Church provides those, too, right? Again, I can't help but wonder if a church service on a Sunday morning is really the best place to experience those things. With its emphasis on a personal worship experience amidst a concert-like atmosphere, the mixed message of church can't compete with private times alone with the Lord. And as far as authentic community goes, it can be frustrating to try and foster that in one hour—or two if you count Wednesday nights—per week. It's often much easier and more practical to develop Christian friendships in our neighborhoods or workplaces.

Could it be that the reason church attendance is down and young people (especially) are leaving the church in droves is that American evangelicalism has been so successful, it's made church itself just about obsolete? Those things we value most—worship, community, and especially Bible study—can all be found outside of the local church in large part because of the ministry of other evangelicals.

But what if church isn't really supposed to be about acquiring Bible knowledge—or even about worship or community? What if church is supposed to look more like Jesus' ministry? The disciples who followed Jesus certainly learned to understand the Scriptures in a much deeper way (Luke 24:45). They also had intimate and passionate times of worship (Matthew 14:33). And of course they had community. But more importantly, they were on a mission. They participated in Jesus' declaration that the kingdom had come—through miracles and teaching. And after Jesus ascended to the Father, they didn't stop. In fact, their mission only intensified.

Imagine the fire in the eyes of men and women who have just returned from a short-term mission trip to South America or Africa. There is just something about following Jesus to a foreign land and trusting Him in the work He has put there for you to do. Now imagine that fire in the eyes of everyone at church, every week.

I'll bet if church were like that—accompanying Jesus on his mission, risking it all for the kingdom—church attendance wouldn't be an issue. It wouldn't even be questioned.


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