Do Not Resuscitate: The Death of Evangelicalism

“We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.” –Michael Spencer, 2009

To be clear evangelicalism is just one of the dozens of versions of Christianity; it is not christianity. It has grown in North America over the past 50 or so years but it has significantly declined over the past 10-15 years. We can point fingers at many different reasons why- all which have some validity. However, I would argue that the main reason this collapse is inevitable is solely due to the fact that the evangelical church has “sold out”.

To be fair, the evangelical church has “sold out” on so many different levels in so many different ways, that it’s hard to find an area that they have NOT sold out in. Their passion to stay relevant to the culture has taken a fatal turn into compromise and destruction.

I can rant all day about the number of areas that have been jeopardized (maybe one day I will), but today I want to focus on a couple major areas that the evangelical church has “sold out” in.

  1. The first area of “sell out” is in the area of defining success. The evangelical church has completely redefined the understanding of a successful church.  I would bet that every evangelical church when asked what a successful church is, would say that a successful church is one that “brings the gospel to the world”.  But that is not happening.  I don’t need to throw the stats at you as they are widely available (Suggeted reading: UnChrsitianby David Kinneman, You lost meby David Kinneman & Barna Group, & The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church by John Dickerson). All the stats point to major decline in all mainline denominations over the last 10-15 years along with the average age of people who attend church increasing above 50 years old. The decline is not just in church membership, but in baptism and new believers. This means that not only are churches not reaching non-believers in their community with the gospel, but once avid church attenders are losing interest and no longer going to church as well. Instead of addressing the issues head on and realizing the failures of evangelicalism, churches have tried to redefine what a successful church looks like, in hopes of re-wiring the minds of its members.
  •  Production based church: A successful church is one that produces a great experience for its attenders. Utilizing the latest technology is not sinful nor wrong but after the service is over, those serving gauge the “successful-ness” of the service based on how many “hiccups” or ” screw ups” occurred during the service. The lights have to be perfect. The sound has to be flawless. The outfits need to be coordinated. The pastor needs to be eloquent. The “flow” of the service needs to work for the people. The service needs to end “on time”. The emphasis is placed on the production.
  • The Worship Experience: A successful church provides a touching worship experience. I mentioned this in one of my earlier blogs (What is the goal of worship? (https://wordpress.com/post/jonscarpuzzi.wordpress.com/4 ). How can there be so much effort into the worship experience and walk away feeling satisfied even though no one connected with the Spirit? The result is like walking out of a theater after watching a great movie. It was great but it didn’t change your life. There is such a huge emphasis on the “worship experience” that I get nauseated even thinking about it now. I wanted to kick something every time someone told me “that was a great experience, it went really well”.
  • The Mega-Church. The formation of the Mega-church has severely warped the minds and expectations of evangelicals. Don’t get me wrong, there has been good that has happened through the mega-church movement over the years. However, evangelicalism has elevated the mega-church as it’s “pride and joy”. They highlighted the pastors of mega-churches who became the “go to” for answers on “how to grow a successful church”. They started showing the glitz and glamor of the mega-church on TV, and soon the mega-church was seen to contain all the answers to a “successful church”. As a result, theology started to exit the church almost as quickly as people streamed in. BUT according to church growth statistics, this too was a fad and is now declining. What it has left behind, among other things, is spiritual confusion, consumer-driven churches, un-fulfilment, disappointment and unfortunately–something a majority of evangelical churches are still striving to become.  It is ridiculous the amount of breath I have wasted explaining to people that the mega-church model is NOT the ultimate church that Jesus expected his church to be. It was something that was tried, and had its “heyday”…now let’s move on.

“Evangelicalism has made buildings, numbers, and paid staff its drugs for half a century.”

  1. The second area of “sell out” is in the area of clinging to the “Business Model”. All of the churches I have been a part of over the years, have either adopted the “business model” of running the church, or were in the process of doing so. I have to say this for the sake of my sanity. If the church is NOT a business, it should NOT be run like one. You only run something like a business, if it is a business. Leaders that have come to believe the best way to run a church is by using the “necessary evil of a business model” have been duped to believe a lie. If a church “has to” be run as a business…there are probably a bunch of other things wrong that need to be addressed. The challenge for churches is to avoidthis model at all costs. Agreed, it may be more work but it is better than being lead astray. Churches that run by using the business model shelter their leaders from the accountability that business leaders are held to. The stage is set for total abuse of power; using God as their witness–“church leaders need to be completely respected and obeyed and never questioned”. Businesses would not be able to get away with a fraction of what church leaderships have been able to do. The “money eyes” of church leaders are completely humiliating…I have seen it first hand multiple times.
  2. The third area of “sell out” is in the area of “Replacement”. If Jesus could write one sentence to the evangelical church, I think it would be, “You have replaced me”. Jesus has been replaced with the Bible, christian education, the worship experience, the preaching, the singing, the fellowship, legalism, the church culture, the building, morality, church leadership, christian bookstores…and so on. Evangelicals have such strong relationships with “Christian things”, but all those things have silently and slowly replaced a legitimate relationship with Jesus. Thus leaving evangelicals questioning their faith once one of those things are taken away. As a result, evangelicals have begun substituting their faith with books, unbiblical teachings and heretical aspirations (ie the prosperity gospel). Going hand in hand with that is the replacement and marginalization of the Holy Spirit. The evangelical version of Christianity has been able to operate without intentionally seeking the leadership, guidance and teaching of the Holy Spirit.

“There are three kinds of evangelical churches today: consumer-driven mega churches, dying churches, and new churches whose future is fragile. Denominations will shrink, even vanish, while fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.” –Michael Spencer

Evangelicalism doesn’t need a bailout, it has already signed a DNR. All evangelicalism needs is a funeral. Let’s remember the good, learn from the bad, bury it…and move on!  Personally, I am not mourning the impending death of evangelicalism, I am rejoicing as I know there is a new chapter that the Holy Spirit has waiting to unveil for the Church!

“Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”–Matthew 9:17

“Un-Focusing” on the Cross

“It is all about the cross!”, the preacher declared from the pulpit, sweat dripping from his brow as he thrust his finger towards the 8 foot tall crucifix that stood plastered to the back wall of the church. He closed his rant by stating, “you don’t understand love unless you learn how to love the cross, who you are is found in the cross, it’s all about the cross!” As the audience rose to their feet in applause and to respond by singing “wonderful cross”.  Why did we spend a whole two hours focusing on the cross?  I literally counted over a hundred times the preacher said “the cross” and seven times he said Jesus. I sat there perplexed wondering how in the world had the evangelical church strayed this far. It certainly did not happen over night. Little by little the symbol of the cross has been allowed to become an idol in the church.

“you don’t understand love unless you learn how to love the cross, who you are is found in the cross, it’s all about the cross!”

To be fair, the cross does hold a great amount of significance for the believer.  It symbolized freedom, new life, the death of sin, forgiveness and it plays a major role in the atonements. But at the end of the day, it still is just a symbol.

Just for sake of the argument, if Jesus was hung, beheaded or electrocuted, would we be embracing the  “noose” the “sword” or “electric-chair? Would we be placing such value and emphasis upon the instrument of death that took the life of our Lord? It is not all about the cross, it never was and it never should be for a true follower of Christ.

“The cross is just a symbol”

Interestingly enough, the early followers of Christ embraced the ichthus (the fish) and the dove more commonly as a symbol of their calling. For them, the calling to be fishers of men (Matthew 4:19) and be empowered by the Holy Spirit, was the primary focus.  This mentality shaped the early church into an exponentially growing movement that brought the love of Jesus to the world in the first hundred or so years. Consequently, the cross bore the painful memory of the execution of their Lord, not something they wanted to constantly remember.

It was not until Justin Martyr in the mid 150’s wrote that the symbol of the cross should be engraved on all objects of Christianity. The Emperor Constantine expanded the use of the cross eclipsing the use of the ichthus after claiming to have received a dream that commanded him to conquer in the name of the cross (if he was truly a follower of Christ, he would have recognized this dream was not from God). Constantine used the symbol of the cross to incite fear and dread in the lives of his foes. For Constantine the cross symbolized power, destruction and impending death to his foes if they resisted his expanding empire. Needless to say, the cross was not viewed in a positive way by those outside of Christianity.

In recent history, the cross has become sacred, especially to evangelicals and in subtle ways–a substitute for Jesus. There are numerous worship songs that glorify the cross, sermons are structured that focus on the cross, crosses are affixed throughout houses of worship; evangelicals have put the cross at the center of their lives…in many cases, instead of Jesus.

“The cross has been put at the center of the evangelical experience…instead of Jesus”

Evangelicals have a unhealthy obsession with the cross. The cross speaks predominantly to a certain part of the Christian life…mainly the early stages of belief. Unfortunately, at the cross is where a majority of believers stay their whole life.  Battling their sins in the shadows of the cross, working on themselves to be worthy of the cross or even living in self guilt and shame, even though that is exactly what Jesus came to deliver us from. They never seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit and never act on the command to be a fisher of men. When the focus is upon the cross it places more emphasis on justification, the struggle against self and sin and the personal experience.

No one focuses on the limo that brings the superstars to the red carpet. 

There needs to be a balance between using symbols in the Christian experience and allowing symbols to dictate or define the Christian experience. The christian life includes the cross but is not defined by the cross, it is defined by Christ. It is always a danger to cling to symbols as it leads to idolatry. Quiet frankly the use of the cross in almost every “christian thing” (music, stationary, jewelry, statues, sculptures, buildings, prayer rooms, multi-media, carvings etc.) is becoming hard to defend as “not-idolatry”.

“The cross is the mode–something used to accomplish a greater purpose.  Don’t focus on the mode, don’t obsess over the mode. Worship and focus on the greater purpose which is Jesus Christ and his love for the Father and His plan for salvation.”