Speaking Prophetically to the Church or Publicly Criticizing the Church?

Derek Webb Prophet

If you want a good example of speaking prophetically to the church… start here.

One of the underlying questions behind the “should the church change along side millennials?” question is what it means to speak prophetically to the church.

As I mentioned in the comment section of the last post, there’s one sense in which RHE’s critique is a very familiar and reasonable one–at times in our recent history American evangelicals have abjectly failed to live up to the moral teachings of our scriptures and our tradition. It’s an indisputable point, which is why Francis Schaeffer raised it in the 60s and 70s, Keith Green raised it in this video from the early 80s, Rich Mullins raised it in the 90s, and Derek Webb has been raising it for the past 10+ years.

So there’s a way to register criticism, sometimes quite severe criticisms spoken in a strong, abrasive tone (go read the prophets… Amos calls the Israelites a bunch of cows and Ezekiel has some downright profane things to say in Ezekiel 23), that is actually a way of showing affection for God’s people. That’s not what’s in dispute here. I don’t think anyone is arguing that you can’t criticize the church. The issue is the manner of the criticism. The question we must ask is whether or not the criticism is embedded within the fact of one’s membership in a local church and a church tradition.

It’s fine to speak of prophecy, but prophecy implies a place and a tradition. When the Old Testament prophets spoke against Israel, they were doing it from the vantage point afforded them by the Torah and their membership in God’s people.

There are things we’re willing to say about family members or close friends that would make us quite angry and defensive if said by someone from outside the family. The point in these cases isn’t whether the criticism is true, but the context in which the criticism is offered.

Tolkien, for instance, was famously defensive of C.S. Lewis despite the fact that he actively disliked the Chronicles of Narnia, thought That Hideous Strength an awful conclusion to a marvelous series, and thought Lewis’s apologetic works were grossly inappropriate works for a layman to write. He even said that Lewis’s Anglican church was a “pathetic and shadowy medley of half-remembered traditions and mutilated beliefs.”

And yet for all that you would not have found a firmer defender of Lewis and his work at Oxford than the man Lewis called “Tollers” or “Ronald.” Indeed, it was Tolkien who was instrumental in helping Lewis secure a professorship at Cambridge later in life. He knew Lewis’s faults well, but few people loved Lewis like Tolkien. And whatever criticisms Tolkien made happened within the assumed space of relationship and intimacy which they created over many years of friendship.

I don’t see that kind of embeddedness in the way post-evangelicals write and talk about the church. I see RHE dismissing sections from the Old Testament as nothing but “genocide” and laying down a functional ultimatum that says if the church doesn’t affirm her beliefs about gender issues or sex ethics then she can’t participate in its public worship. But she isn’t the only one–not by a long shot. Elsewhere, I see Christian Piatt resurrecting the tired banana bit from Comfort and Cameron that should have been retired ages ago, I see Matthew Paul Turner finding church signs, albums, and other bits of Christian kitsch to mock because, you know, there simply isn’t enough of that going on. And, of course, one can’t talk about the Progressive Christian as Self-Appointed Church Critic meme without mentioning Frank Schaeffer. (If you need more examples of what I’m talking about, the good news is there’s an entire hub online devoted to this kind of detached, affectionless moralizing. It’s called the Progressive Christianity channel on Patheos.)

These are not comments made by prophets speaking from within the church. They’re comments made by people willfully standing outside the church, making demands of her and harsh, uncharitable criticisms of her. The thing that’s so tricky here is that RHE and the rest of the post-evangelicals aren’t (usually) just liberal mainliners, even if they sometimes sound a lot like them. If that were the case, I wouldn’t bother writing about them for the same reason I don’t bother reading writing about the PC(USA), TEC, the ELCA, etc. At this point writing about TEC is simply beating a dead horse. RHE, and some of the other post-evangelicals, are different. RHE, for example, is actually an exceedingly gifted writer with some really valuable things to say about the Christian life, as I noted when I reviewed her book here. Amongst other things, I said the following:

One of the big questions with transformative journals is “so what did your experience teach you?” Evans has a good answer for that question, offered in the form of several resolutions she shares at the end of the book. Here again her conclusions are very sound and helpful. They include the following: Eat more ethically, identify and praise women of valor, embrace the prospect of motherhood, nurture the contemplative impulse, make room for ritual remembrance, champion women leaders in the church, honor Dan (her husband), and keep loving, studying, and struggling with the Bible. Any evangelical Christian should be able to affirm that list and support and encourage Evans in her attempts to honor it. I’d be remiss if I didn’t add a personal note here, which is that one of the women Evans has personally helped is my fellow Lincoln-based writer, Michelle Derusha. Michelle has, in turn, been a great help to me with my questions about the writing life. So I am a direct beneficiary of Evans’ project.

RHE is a gifted writer whose work I’ve benefitted from on many occasions. And, as I noted above, I’ve personally benefited from her kindness to another Nebraska-based writer. And that is precisely why I swung so hard at her posts about millennials and the church. She is too talented (and her influence is too broad) for this ecclesiological issue to not be addressed.

The problems she is highlighting in her post are very real–American evangelicalism often does have a strikingly faddish, consumer-oriented feel. And as she’s written elsewhere, we do not always do a good job of answering questions well or of welcoming people who don’t look or act like the rest of us. Those are all fair criticisms and we need to reflect carefully on what is to be done moving forward.

But when you frame it in terms of how the church needs to change to adjust with millennials you are setting up a basically antagonistic relationship between the two parties. You are saying that the institution must change “along with” a generation, which, as I tried to demonstrate recently, is nonsense. Framing the issue as “the church vs. millennials” is a fundamentally problematic way to approach the issue, and so the best thing to do to promote the conversation is to dispute the framing of it and try to refocus the question in a better direction.

I don’t stand outside the church as some sort of independent ethical supervisor ready to wag my finger and frown in a stern, disapproving way whenever she fails. (And, by the way, assuming a definitionally adversarial relationship between a generation and the church is an extremely modern approach to the issue.) I stand within the church and whatever critique I make of her comes from that vantage point. Her sins are my sins, and sometimes they are quite grievous. But, likewise, her salvation is my salvation.

I think perhaps we could be spared a lot of silliness if we simply made hymns like “The Church’s One Foundation,” and “For All the Saints,” a more regular part of our liturgies (and, to be sure, if we sang them with people who annoy us, bother us, or disagree with us). Prophets speak affectionately from within, they love the church as she is, but also long for her to be what God has called her to be. And so they say things that can seem harsh, difficult, or excessively strict. But they do it within the context of relational intimacy, which allows those things to be received within the history of that relationship, and so you can sense both the anger and the hope in equal measures. Where many of the hand-wringing posts from the post-evangelicals go wrong is in failing to recognize this intimacy and in their insistence to speak of the church as if they are outside it.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis warns against precisely this kind of mentality. In the second letter, Screwtape writes the following to Wormwood:

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do riot mean the Church as we see her spread but through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes I our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather in oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew.

The church’s public critics tend to see what Screwtape wants them to see. The prophets, in contrast, see the reality but also hold in their minds a glorious image of the church “through all time and space rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.” When her public critics discover that vision of the church and become prophets, she will be well-served indeed.

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  • Keith Miller

    This post encapsulates so much of what we should desire for the church. Thank you for this, Jake.

    “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints.” -Paul

    “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his
    brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he
    has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.” -John

  • Thursday1

    One should actually pity Rachel, as, in reality, she has set herself up for a world of hurt.

    Right now she’s playing the rebel Evangelical role to the hilt, and it’s working for her. Nice work if you can get it! She gets to explain evangelicalism to the mainstream, and be the rallying point for a lot of disaffected evangelicals who don’t want to go all the way and leave.

    But eventually the PC overlords are not going to be content with half way stances.

    1. If she defends Evangelicals who adhere to traditional teaching on homosexuality, she is going to be classified as one of those bigoted evangelicals. It isn’t going to be enough that she’s in favour of gay marriage etc. and they aren’t going to care if she’s a feminist or whatever. In which case, she isn’t going to be so special and loving or whatever. She’ll be just another one of us. Not edgy, not cool, just another slob in the pews.

    2. On the other hand, if she jettisons traditional teaching on this issue, she will be effectively exiled from the evangelical world. (And, of course, the most vital parts of the church will be the morally and theologically conservative parts, because as I noted in the comments to Mr. Meador’s previous article, progressive religion is just less religious religion.) She’ll become “Just Another Liberal Christian (TM),” no different from Bishop Spong or whoever. Trying to sell books to liberal Christians and being stuck on the mainline circuit sounds like hell. It’s so dead, as she herself has noted. She’ll also lose her credibility with the mainstream media. Who wants to here what someone from that dead tradition has to say?

    There’s a reason she has so carefully cultivated her Evangelical bona fides, and likes to push boundaries without overstepping them. She’ll be a nobody. She needs us.*

    This is going to be a hard choice: bigot or nobody. But she’s gonna have to make it.

    That’s one thing about a true prophet, they aren’t afraid to totally overstep a boundary, because they have deeply examined themselves and are doing it in the spirit of total obedience. These tiptoe people don’t cut it.

    *Now, if you have the media skills of a Rob Bell you might be able to find yourself a nice niche in the mainstream. But, though Rachel is sometimes an engaging personality, she is simply no Rob Bell. Nor did Bell, for all his faults, tie himself so tightly to the mast of the rebel Evangelical.

  • CT

    Very well-written.

    I have found that the “post-evangelicals” who are so disparaging of Evangelicals often critique them for things they do themselves. There is as much to parody among the “post-evangelicals” as some Evangelicals. They tend to talk alike, think alike, dress alike, read the same books, and so on. They have their own echo chamber and bubble they live in. I say this lovingly. I myself went through my Rob Bell and Donald Miller phase so I know of what I speak.

    I think there is a problem with the echo chamber itself. The non-Christ followers I work with (and many Christians) have no idea who Rachel Held-Evans is (I had never heard of her until last week), or Andy Stanley, or Steven Furtick, Mark Driscoll, Donald Miller, and the list goes on and on. Yet we assume that they do. Yet most would know who Billy Graham is, who Tolkien is, and who C.S. Lewis is. I am digressing here a little. The point is that too many become “groupies” or disciples of these people and the battle lines are drawn deeper. Each side slings arrows at the other. If people would be disciples of Jesus, instead of people this would not occur as often as it does.

    Additionally, I find that many of their critiques are either outdated or mistaken. None of the Evangelical churches in my area would turn away anyone because of how they dressed or what they looked like. They would welcome people who have questions. There is actually nothing they like better than for people who are seeking God. They are not “anti-science” (whatever that means). Where I live, Evangelical churches are found in various traditions including Catholic, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, Community Churches, and so on.

    I think these errors in their critiques occur because of what you stated. They are not loving from within, encouraging the Church in faithfulness to Christ. They are disparaging and adversarial in their comments. For some, it has unfortunately become an identity for them. It is job security, so to speak.

  • http://livinginawhale.wordpress.com/ benlemery

    Jake Meador, where in the heck did you come from? Your last two articles are critically thought out and worth pondering over and over. As a student of the Charismatic movement, I am always curious how the Evangelical movement embraces the role of the prophet. Your thoughts on mixing personal taste vs rising above for the good of the church community are very interesting.

    Rachel’s ability to be vulnerable enough to openly share her thoughts and narrative honestly is something to be commended. Many times, we criticize that person for being honest and sharing from their view, when we should instead thank them for simply being real about what they think.

    I think your article represents how to have a blog conversation when you are unable to sit down, face to face, with that person. This type of article is a great template for how to share differing points of view well.

    Finally, on a very unattached point, would you be willing to spell out an acronym, it took me awhile to realize that RHE was Rachel Evans haha. Thanks.

  • JamesM3

    Thank you Jake. Very well written.

  • Levi

    This seems to be an exercise in missing the point.

    Rachel Held Evans’s CNN article and blog post should be viewed as neither public criticism nor prophetic critique from within. It was an attempt at explanation.

    It is an undeniable statistical fact that church attendance among millenials is down, both at the raw top-line number and after controlling for age, marital status, income, etc.

    Moreover, it is a fact in need of explanation. This is not a “chicken little” situation where RHE is running about claiming that Christianity writ large is dying. RHE acknowledges this fact, and notes that she has been asked to provide an explanation for it on more than one occasion.

    The question before us is whether she is in a good position to offer an accurate explanation. If one is trying to explain why people leave the church, the very least qualified people to ask is people who are regular attenders through thick and thin. That would would be like a non-smoker opining on the reasons someone picks up a pack-a-day habit. In order to put forward a plausible explanation, one would need to have a foot in both worlds, familiar with both the current state of evanglical Christianity those who have walked away from it. On that count, RHE is manifestly qualified.

  • davestrunk

    I should add that the “millenials” vs. “the church” trope is particularly amusing to me, as someone ordained in a Presbyterian denomination, and I’m 29 years old. Which group should I stand with (said very tongue in cheek)?

    The irony of the RHE critiques for me is that they just seem so tired. I agree with much (though definitely not all) of what she says, particularly about sensitivity to people in sexually difficult life situations and about listening to people’s questions. I just can’t help wondering, where are these churches she is talking about and can she list them, if she doesn’t actually darken the door of them? In other words, would she even be able to recognize that she had gotten most of what she wanted? How would she know if she’s not a member of one?

  • Matthew Loftus

    Could part of the divide be that RHE and the more progressive crowd wants to see specific policies and/or doctrines change, while the MLA School of Old People Are Always Right would like to see more subtle changes in tone, emphasis, style, and praxis? There is a big difference between, say, wanting to decrease the inflammatory language used around LGBT issues and affirming same-sex unions. There’s also a fairly big divide between wanting to affirm doubters wherever they might be and encouraging more rigorous questioning.

  • http://www.michaelhadley.org/ Michael Hadley

    The fundamental problem here is a right vs wrong mentality. Millennials vs the Church, your ideas vs RHE’s ideas. We have this deep belief that someone has to be right and someone has to be wrong. That the way I view church is how church should be done. We can admit that millennials are leaving the church by and large. Why? There are a host of answers. Yes the churches policies on things should change. I mean what would have happened if the church hadn’t accepted the civil rights movement in the 60s? And yes millennials should change for the church as well. Our basic goal is to be more like Christ right?

    The basic problem that I can see is that Millennials are leaving because there’s no engagement with them. A lot of them at times have tried to be part of the church, but they have to fit the americanized 50s version of what a church person is. So when they offer their skills they’re told how they do things should change. In essence, this is the way we’ve done it and this is the way we’ve always done it. I mean in my parents church, it basically took an act of God to get the song we sang before prayer changed. We need to plug millennials in with their given talents and let them use them with a little guidance. There are so many talent people my age who left because what they produced wasn’t churchy enough. Which is the 2nd problem.

    We have reduced the almighty saving power of Jesus and his death on the cross to what? T-shirts? Bumper stickers? For a couple hundred years the church (for better or for worse) created culture. They hired the best artists like michaelangelo to create stunning works of art for the church. We now have trite sayings on t-shirts that resemble the subway logo. This is something that we should burn and never let see the light of day again. We have made our church beliefs and culture easy to digest and when we’re asked about big problems, we give trite little answers. Or we stand from a place of i’m right and you’re wrong. We make such a big deal over certain things, the girl who got pregnant as a teenager out of wedlock. But not the elder who’s on his 2nd marriage, he’s ok.

    We need to come to a place where both sides can dialogue. There are things that should stay the same and things that should change. Tradition for traditions-sake at the expense of people is not good. Fundamentally, we’re all serving the same Jesus right? We have the same basic beliefs. But we start trying to prove beliefs verse by verse. Show that we’re right, when we don’t know who is. People hate the “existentialist” movement like Donald Miller and Rob Bell. But maybe we need a little more of that. In the chronicles of narnia when lucy is in narnia for the 2nd time she remarks to Aslan, you’ve gotten bigger. He replies, yes child, as you grow so do I. God should get bigger the older we get, harder to understand, more mysterious. Not smaller, not cramped into a box. There is some right and wrong. But there’s also a lot of room for change, both should be accepted.

    • Stuart Blessman

      Amen.

  • Michael Snow

    A great example of one who spoke out within the church and is still ‘prophetic’ for us today: Spurgeon http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/