There’s a sort of American Christian (almost always white and middle-to-upper class) who seems to think that the American church’s biggest problem at the moment is the previous generation of the American church.

There are various sub-groups within this broader camp. The radicals, of whom Matt has written in the past, want to critique the suburban comfort of the previous generation and replace it with a Christianity focused on doing hard things and rejecting the supposedly easy life of material affluence embraced by the previous generation.

The progressives, meanwhile, tell us that “Jesus Needs New PR” and seem to think that Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Matthew Paul Turner are the ones to lead the rebranding campaign.

That said, you can find a similar way of thinking about the previous generation with more conventional, orthodox evangelicals as well. Consider this piece written by former Covenant Seminary president Bryan Chappel on the state of the Presbyterian Church in America:

Perhaps nothing better illustrates these generational differences than the way many Christian leaders feel about major figures in prior conservative Christian movements. To mention Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jim Dobson, James Kennedy, and Chuck Colson is to identify the heroes of the 50-plus generation. Church leaders of that generation are shocked to discover that younger leaders consider these figures exemplars of failure, representing attitudes and approaches that have led to the church’s cultural ineffectiveness.

Later in the piece Chappel will suggest that one of the main goals of the younger generation, which he is certainly friendly to, is to gain credibility before the world in the aftermath of the previous generation’s many failings.

This line of thought is not unusual, though Dr Chappel has articulated it in a more helpful and gracious way than many who ascribe to it. It’s this search for credibility that seems to stand behind much of Tim Keller’s ministry in New York City as well as Gabe Lyons work with the Q Conference, to name only two examples. Lyons in particular has focused in on this issue in both his book UnChristian, which is literally market research on evangelicalism’s brand, and the aforementioned Q, which as others have noted, is basically TED for evangelicals, as if to say “hey, we have ideas worth spreading too!”

You can see similar concerns in Chappel’s letter and in Keller’s writing on sexuality and gender where he tends to work very hard to avoid giving a straightforward response to a simple question like whether or not sexual activity between two people of the same gender is morally licit. There is a concern with not saying the wrong thing, with wanting to avoid the worst excesses of the previous generation, and with trying to help non-Christians distinguish between the worst ravings of 90s era fundamentalists and the actual teachings of scripture and the historic church. They are trying to clear away some of the worst misconceptions about the church so that the central claims of Christianity can be given a fair hearing.

And, to be sure, there have been Christians whose sins have done great violence to the church’s name and the last generation certainly had its share of them. That said, there are two points that need to be made whenever we talk about evangelicalism’s image with outsiders or gaining credibility with those outside the church.

The first is that this group seems to think that a lack of credibility is one of the primary obstacles to the gospel’s advance in our culture. This idea has always been wrong-headed but five years ago it might at least have been plausible. But surely at this point it should be clear that that’s simply not the case?

Evangelicalism’s biggest problem with regards to those outside evangelicalism isn’t our image, it’s our beliefs. That’s why Louie Giglio was uninvited from President Obama’s second inaugural. That’s why there was a mass freakout about Chick-fil-a despite the fact that even gay rights activists admitted that the leadership at Chick-fil-a was consistently kind and gracious to them. That’s why laws so modest and restrained as the Indiana RFRA illicit such outrage and why the SCOTUS Hobby Lobby ruling met a similar reaction last year. The groups being attacked in these cases are not Fred Phelps clones or even Pat Robertson clones. They are simply ordinary evangelical believers trying to live out their faith.

If the issue actually was that most cultural elites outside of the church simply didn’t understand what we actually believed and had all sorts of wrong ideas from seeing one too many stories about Fred Phelps, then maybe a rebranding campaign could “work” in the way that marketing campaigns work. Trying to convince everyone outside the church that we’re cool and “get it” and care about all the things Portlandia hipsters care about would get us somewhere. I’m not sure it’s a place worth going, mind, but it’d be something.

But the events of the past five years, or at least the past three years, should make it abundantly clear that ours is not a credibility problem. The issues are much greater than that. As Rod Dreher noted several months ago (and David Sessions made much the same point here), what we’re actually talking about are two societies that have beliefs about the basic nature of reality that are fundamentally antagonistic to one another. Note that they aren’t simply fundamentally different, but antagonistic. Set next to a difference of that nature, the attempts at finding superficial similarities look rather silly–which is precisely what they are.

The second point follows from the first. If ours is a problem of credibility, then we begin thinking less about the core elements of the Christian life and public ministry and more about managing perceptions, convincing people that we aren’t like those Christians, and so on.

The trouble with this approach is that when you begin behaving like a marketer, that’s what you become. And the clear presentation of the faith is lost amidst a thousand qualifications as you apologize for this awful Christian and try to distinguish yourself from that embarrassing group. By the time your done clearing your throat and awkwardly laughing at those silly evangelicals all you’ve succeeded in doing is confusing the room and causing no small number of people to wonder what exactly you do believe. But, then, clarity isn’t really the point if you’re a marketer. Getting the sale is.

Over time, this approach begins to infect other aspects of ministry, as church life begins to mirror the business world with evangelism starting to sound a lot like sales and advertising and midweek gatherings between Christians starting to feel a lot like business meetings where you offer an update on how your product is selling/your church or small group is growing.

And as you cultivate that identity, these problems begin to reinforce themselves. Speaking in this way creates a kind of echo chamber as those people who feel aggrieved by the church tend to rally around you. As this happens, it becomes harder to say what needs to be said because your own status as the “cool” Christian who gets it becomes more entrenched. To return to our business metaphor, you’ve begun to develop an audience for your brand, which creates a pressure to keep your brand consistent and not do something to lose your “audience.”

Behind all of these issues, of course, stands the perpetual temptation that exists in front of American evangelicals, which is to look more American than evangelical. We live in a moment when marketing and sales is the air we breathe. Business metaphors inform all that we do as we talk about “investing in relationships” or “launching a church plant.”

And that, of course, is the irony of these evangelical accomodationalists who are theologically orthodox but prone to this sort of approach to Christian ministry: They think they are separating themselves from the conventional errors of American evangelicals when in reality they are simply embracing a new generation’s errors to replace those of the previous one.

(image via http://www.veritaschurchpa.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Christianity.jpg)

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy as well as the Vice President of the Davenant Institute. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell and Austin. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play. His first book, "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured Age," will be published summer of 2019 by InterVarsity Press.

  • flipped4geekstuff

    Jake-

    Well said and on point. I attended briefly a community diversity forum last night. The topic was the First Amendment and separation of Church and State. I walked away after a few minutes of listening to the speaker. It is in essence what you stated: the beliefs of each side are fundamentally antagonistic to each other.

    The speaker’s viewpoint was basically that Hobby Lobby and RFRA are basically tools of the religious right to impose discrimination upon women and gays. She bandied words like “sincerely held beliefs” and “notions” as to not take seriously Christian faith in determining how we are to live. Discrimination trumps all moral and spiritual concerns because anti-discrimination is the ultimate moral high ground.

    Unfortunately I did not feel winsome enough to stay around and ask questions if there was an opportunity to do so. After reading your post, now I wish I had. We are all Americans, but above all, I am a follower of Christ. And I cannot apologize for that.

  • Isn’t the problem really ‘the other’. Individuals we know and either accept as they are or tolerate or don’t tolerate. So the gay rights people that said that they had been treated well by Chick-fil-a viewed their good treatment as good treatment by individuals. But those that were protesting were protesting not against people but against the faceless other that had ideas that were opposed to theirs.

    Louis Giglio was uninvited, while Andy Stanley (these guys are best friends that grew up together and remained close) was not disinvited even though I think they hold the same basic beliefs. There just wasn’t a 20 year old audio on Andy Stanley but there was on Giglio.

    I think it is more complicated than ‘they hate us for our beliefs’ on the one side and ‘we shouldn’t capitulate to culture’ on the other.

    My fear is that as we Christians again see those outside the church as ‘the other’ we will do just what others have been doing to us.

    I was briefly involved in church based community organizing. The group I was involved with used classic organizing tactics of polarization to overly simplify an issue, characterize the other as against them and then protest against that overly simplified other. The one that no longer had Imago Dei. After spending some time talking with the leadership about my concerns I left. I agreed with the goals of the community organizing, but could no longer participate with the methods.

    We have some of those tactics being used against us some particular Christians (like Louie or Chick-fil-a) and we have to live with it. But we must resist using similar tactics on our end.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    Great article, Jake!

    I wonder, though, whether ‘credibility’ is the right word here. Sometimes the concern seems to be closer to one of ‘palatability’ or ‘tolerability’, to produce the sort of Christianity that will not be decried in the HuffPo (and may even be featured there). It is quite possible for a belief system to be taken seriously and to be ‘credible’, even when it is unpalatable, intolerable, or felt to be threatening (sometimes it is more likely—do people really take the palatable Christianity featured in the HuffPo that seriously?). Of course, being unpalatable, intolerable, and threatening are definitely not virtues in themselves. However, there are respects in which faithful Christian teaching, even when it seeks to avoid unnecessary offence, will be these things within our society.

  • Eh, I sorta disagree on this. There’s a world of difference between “the last generation ruined our credibility” and “the new generation will respond better when there’s a message articulated in terms they understand or value.” There is also a difference between “the last generation ruined our credibility” and “the last generation hid their Gospel in a morass of cultural warfare such that a lot of people haven’t encountered the claims of the Bible.”

    For example, I think Tim Keller actually does a great job at laying out traditional doctrines, but framing them using the values of the average middle-to-upper-class New Yorker so they’ll actually punch through people’s defense mechanisms.

    As far as the “business” critique goes: yes– to an extent. It’s one thing to buy a sermon series to keep your midsummer attendance from flagging and get your third quarter tithes at goal. It’s another apply principles of organizational management or social psychology to how the structures the church has built to facilitate evangelism and discipleship are working.

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  • Joe

    “Behind all of these issues, of course, stands the perpetual temptation that exists in front of American evangelicals, which is to look more American than evangelical.”

    This is even more obvious when it is transplanted to another country. There’s a market for business model evangelicalism in the UK but the brand appeal is limited to a small slice of the urban and suburban middle-to-upper-classes (with 5% of the British population attending any kind of church on a Sunday). Evangelical churches in the UK have all but given up on trying to attract anyone but this evangelical ‘type’ and never really question how their largely imported (US) materials perpetuate a form of family orientated “lifestyle Christianity”.

  • Marcus Hübner

    Thanks alot, I thinks that artikle was mindfull, well-written and also illuminating at points. Now I was wondering:

    You are making a very sharp and clear distinction bestween the two conceptions of the world and reality, which are like two societies. Being one of thos evangelicals, that tend more to see and imageproblem then a believeproblem, I was thinking, that the reason for it may be, that “we” cannot make as sharp the distinction as you do, since we grew up in both worlds.
    Hence the subtitle of my blog is about “dancing on the overlap of evangelical spirituality and postmodern culture”.
    So, some of “us” (and I know how undefined that sounds and actually is) don’t really see why those two conceptions are all that uncompatible at all. It’s more that the older evangelicals like Falwell and Robertson really didn’t seem to be all that reflected on their believes. (in that, I was surprised you took Colson in that list, since I always admired him as a great thinker).
    That’s pretty much why I love to read mere-o since it connects deep thoughts, sophisticated lifestyle, with old-school evangelical believes, which I do hold dear. That’s what I see with Tim Keller too.
    Do you see, where I am going?
    How shall I than live, when I do experience the good in both of these worldviews, and don’t see, why it is called to be totally incompatible?

    Grace and Love and all,
    Marcus

  • For the record I am an EX-Evangelical; you couldn’t drag me back in chains. I am not an Evangelical because Evangelicalism has a massive credibility problem. These beliefs and efforts that scandalize Evangelicalism with the rest of America – those are the only beliefs that seem worth fighting for to Evangelicals. THAT IS THE CREDIBILITY PROBLEM. Justice, Equity, Charity, love of your neighbor, BAH, that is all light weight fluff – it is marriage and SEXUALITY 24/7.

    “They are simply ordinary evangelical believers trying to live out their faith.”

    Hogwash. Simple people living out their lives … and the passage of laws in a state legislature or the machinations of a family of millionaires with a long history of political activism? Is the space between these things really not clearly visible?

    The marketing meme is a problem with Evangelicalism. It is yet another way to get around actual self-reflection; the realization that the hot issues are carefully chosen so as to never be issues that would cost the believer anything.

    • geoffrobinson

      ” it is marriage and SEXUALITY 24/7.”

      I’m not going to sit here and defend everything anyone’s ever said, but the culture is pushing sexuality 24/7. That’s why there’s a reaction to it.

      • Who ever “the culture” is. This perception is due to the Evangelical community being very [self] isolated. Of course they will never believe this, they are simply incapable. But there are many many other discussions happening, the greater culture is not nearly as sex-obsessed as those observing it from *the outside* believe that it is. This was a very pleasant surprise I found upon leaving Evangelicalism. I have dozens of conversations every week… and sex/sexuality never comes up. This is a false trope used by Evangelicals to promote/maintain their isolationism; they should continue to promote that, because if any of their people attended the meeting last week about parks where the lady spoke about how her and her parish priest took on neighborhood drug dealers it could really damage their sense of moral superiority. And sex didn’t come up. It did not come up in a conversation about how a section of town is very inaccessible to the handicapped and disabled either. Or in the conversation about how to make one of the most dangerous streets – that has recently killed school children – safer. You know – conversations about people’s actual lives where people actually live and issues over which a parish sized group of people can exert actual influence. But Evangelicals are conspicuously absent from all these conversations; conversations where the crowd is trending younger as Evangelicals trend older [absence does not even make sense from a missional point of view]. Evangelicalism carefully chooses “big picture” issues that will keep them isolated and avoid human level interfacing with the other.

        Evangelicalism’s moral crusades are far more political theater than they are about the issues.

        • geoffrobinson

          So after having one conversation that didn’t revolve around sex, you can confidently conclude that our culture at large is not pushing sexual libertinism? Is that what you are actually arguing?

          • That’s how you read my response ‘after having one conversation that didn’t revolve around sex’…. never mind. Thank you for proving my point.

          • geoffrobinson

            Yeah, the culture isn’t sex obsessed. Except for all of the porn. And sexualization of minors. And using sex to sell stuff.

            Just try telling some person they are sinning in their sexual behavior and you get to see how much they care for their sin.

            If you exclude all of the evidence of a sexualized culture and anecdotally point out you had a conversation about something other than sex, yes you can come to that conclusion.

          • “Just try telling some person they are sinning in their X behavior”. Of course that doesn’t work well. Substitute “sexual” with “financial”, “neighborly”, “racial”, … of course, that will never happen. Only the sexual stuff matters, everything else gets a pass, have to, of course, be ‘reasonable’ about those things, they aren’t ‘real sins’, merely non-optimal behavior, nothing other than can be reasonably expected.

          • hoosier_bob

            Whitemice,

            I concur with much of what you’ve said regarding the isolation of evangelical culture. I grew up in a mainline church, but started attending an evangelical church while in grad school. In the end, I walked away because I just couldn’t deal with how insular the culture was. And that’s not because the culture of my professional world (corporate attorney at large law firm) is obsessed with sex. It isn’t. Rather, it’s that more traditional variants of evangelicalism can’t seem to envision themselves as being anything other than middlebrow.

            I have a PhD and a JD, both from top schools, and spend my days socially interacting with fairly sharp people. But there seems to be no place within evangelicalism for intelligent laypeople to contribute. I started attending an evangelical church shortly after Mark Noll’s book came out in 1994. For a few years, there seemed to be an effort to provide support for more scholarly reflection within the movement. But that was pretty short-lived. When the Culture wars heated up in the late 1990s, it spelled the end of that nascent movement. From there forward, the movement seemed to aspire to nothing more than providing simple answers for simple people. And generally those simple answers revolved around marriage and sexuality, often provided from a very simplistic middle-class view of the world.

            I would still view myself as an evangelical. I went to a mainline church for a while, but didn’t care for it. I now attend a less traditional evangelical megachurch. The megachurch is growing, largely by attracting disaffected refugees from more traditionally evangelical churches. I feel like we’re all just hanging out waiting for the Al Mohler version of evangelicalism to die off so that something better can rise in its place. The old evangelicalism is an artifact of the industrial era. It just needs to die…along with CRT television sets. We need something to emerge that fits better with the fast-paced, cacophonous world we live in. Just because neo-evangelicalism came of age in the 1950s doesn’t mean that we have to keep pretending that the 1950s never ended.

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  • hoosier_bob

    I would basically agree with the Loftus assessment. The chief mistake of the previous generation was to conflate the Gospel with the Freudian precepts of the “family values” movement. We’re now seeking to recover from that. As we do, we’ll probably suffer from some of our own blind spots, but that’s bound to happen.

    Evangelicalism (formerly called neo-evangelicalism) is only about 60-70 years old. With the founding generation dying off, the baton is being passed. We’ll have to wait and see what emerges.

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  • Jack M.

    “That’s why there was a mass freakout about Chick-fil-a despite the fact that even gay rights activists admitted that the leadership at Chick-fil-a was consistently kind and gracious to them.”

    The so-called “mass freakout” occurred in the summer of 2012. The “admission” by gay activists (actually it was a statement by one activist about his interaction with Dan Cathy, not an admission by numerous activists regarding the corporate leadership of Chick-Fil-A) occurred in 2013. So the protest did not happen “despite” the kind and gracious conduct. It happened months prior.

    There are all sorts of flaws in this piece, but it seems that Meador’s main goal was to say “Since they’ll hate you anyway, don’t worry about whether you are being cruel, obnoxious or overbearing. No need to question yourself. Just keep fighting the war.”

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  • hcat

    For a lot of people, especially in the younger generation, there is no difference between tone and content; the content of some of our beliefs is a hurtful microagression, no matter in what tone it is said. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be merciful or nice to our GLBT friends. I’m just saying that for some of them, or for their friends and allies, it won’t be enough.