Alone in church

I’ve felt mostly by myself in church during two periods of my life, neither of which have been the fault of the specific church I belonged to.

The first time was in my mid-20s when I’d become burnt out through ministry and questioned the validity of the whole “church experience” as I knew it because it felt far removed from the experience of God as depicted in scripture and in the history of the Church.

That was remedied when I found a different expression of Christian worship that offered the kind of interaction with God I’d craved and matched in my estimation the intent of worship as depicted in scripture and tradition.

The second time is now, when my path in sanctification had been bringing me to a particular place in my spiritual life that was slapped upside the head by the evangelical embrace of the Trump phenomenon.

I’m not sure what will remedy this, which is why I’m writing.

Evangelicalism is a kind of broad catch-all form of Christianity that spans across several denominations.  It dates back to roughly the mid-1700s, arguably, with George Whitefield and John Wesley among the early practitioners of a Christianity that became aggressively concerned with evangelizing (hence the name), or actively trying to convert people to the faith.

Over the intervening three hundred-ish years, the evangelical movement has split into several different sub-types and has adherents in basically every Christian denomination you can think of, though it’s mostly at home in the Protestant churches (there are certainly Roman Catholic evangelicals, though, and plenty of former evangelicals have flooded the ranks of the Eastern Orthodox church, as well).

As such, there is no single definition for what an evangelical looks like, because they can look like several different things – Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, non-denominationalists, Catholics, all have their adherents to evangelicalism.

In one sense, I suspect this common kind of evangelical spirit is the reason we have seen such a great increase in ecumenism (different kinds of Christians getting along with each other) over the last couple hundred years, because a lot of us have indeed all started speaking the same kind of Christian language.

And that’s a wonderful thing.

It’s also a wonderful thing to spread the message of Jesus so as to attract more people to his teachings.

Evangelicalism has resulted in a Christian explosion in both Africa and Asia over this time frame, the most successful missionary ventures in terms of number of people attracted to Jesus in the history of Christianity.

Praise God and amen.

Evangelicalism has thus served a vitally important role in spreading Christ to places he’s never had a strong foothold and also in revitalizing dormant and dying churches.

It’s hard to argue, therefore, that it has not been integral to the Church as a whole, and surely the need for revival is something that will from time to time continue to be of necessity if indeed a church loses touch with the power of the Holy Spirit.

But there are certain core teachings within particular kinds of evangelical groups that I find I no longer adhere to, which makes me feel isolated amongst good and godly people, and I’m unsure how to handle the resulting internal discord.

There’s nothing left but to share my own story to elaborate, and many of these elements I’ve shared before.

I was raised as a Methodist in the Southern U.S., so the brand of evangelicalism I was blessed to be a part of would be considered theologically conservative (read: adhering to the same kind of beliefs that date back to the beginnings of the Church) without going so far as to be fundamentalist (read: adhering to super-strict ways of interpreting scripture – i.e., inerrant, no women speaking or teaching, etc.), as distinct from theologically liberal (read: adhering to evolving Church teachings that can conflict with scripture and tradition purportedly through the prompting of the Holy Spirit).

As a teenager and into my 20s, I didn’t have a clue about any of these distinctions within Christianity – all I knew about was whether you were a Baptist, Methodist, Catholic or something else.

So as I explored the contemporary world of Christianity, I came across several writings and teachings that ran the gamut from conservative to fundamentalist to liberal without really having an appreciation for the differences.

I did have an idea on how to eyeball the really liberal theologians (I thought), but otherwise I had no appreciation for telling any kind of differences between Reformed, Arminian, fundamentalist, etc. thought.

Pretty sure that’s true of most Christians, so that the wide smorgasbord of Christian writings and teachings out there look incredibly confusing and contradictory (because, well, much of them are!).

But one thing I thought was really clear early on was that the Republican Party sure looked like it supported a lot more biblical ideas than the Democrats.

I also took it for granted that the Book of Revelation was clearly all about the end of the world, and the Left Behind series that became super popular before Kirk Cameron (and recently Nicholas Cage – come on, bro) starred in a really bad movie was pretty much a faithful – though fictional – interpretation of what the Bible says about how the world is going to end.

And dudes like Josh McDowell, Francis Schaeffer, Norman Geisler, Hugh Ross and Ravi Zacharias nailed the whole defense of the faith thing in a way that – clearly to me – if you had an open mind would lead you to conclude that Christianity is true.

Well, funny things occur as life happens to you.

First I got burnt out on ministry and church as I knew it, as stated above.  That led me to dig deeper into the history of the way I worshiped with the church I was a part of.

Near the same time, I got burnt out on politics (I was a political science major in college and served on a couple political campaigns, with potential aspirations for becoming a legislative aid if things worked out right).  That led me to dig deeper into the history of the ideologies I’d long supported.

And the thing you begin to realize as you learn is that all ideas have a history – there was a time when they didn’t exist, which, if you are a true believer in something, is often a hard truth to come to grips with.

With church, there was indeed of course a time when worship was far different than what I knew from a late-20th Century Mainline Protestant experience, and of course there were churches that worship to this day quite differently (Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Episcopalians, even fellow Methodists depending on the flavor of the church you stumbled across).

Also turns out that the particular interpretation of the Book of Revelation that I thought was as old as the Church itself is, in many respects, a pretty uniquely American phenomenon – within the last couple hundred years.  Most Christian teaching through the 2,000 years of the Church would think the Left Behind series was nuts.

And there’s a lot of politics in the Left Behind series, basically all the tropes of standard fundamentalist-light / further-right-than-most conservative evangelicals hold to that I’d never questioned – the United Nations is basically the devil; don’t freaking mess with Israel; etc.

Which really got me questioning a lot of the ideas I’d held and taken for granted.  So, as I went through my personal crisis of faith and politics, I began to educate myself on the full depth of not just Christian history as a whole, but also within America, from leading evangelical scholars and activists themselves.

The Search for Christian America by Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch and George Marsden.

The Democratization of American Christianity by Nathan Hatch.

Fundamentalism and American Culture by George Marsden.

Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism by George Marsden.

The Myth of a Christian Nation by Gregory Boyd.

God’s Politics by Jim Wallis.

Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne.

And so my understanding of both Church and politics in relation to the Church shifted (and I’ve written plenty of blogs about those very things: What the American Church needs to hear; What is a great America?; There is no “us vs them;” The Christian’s relationship with politics; Letter to politically conservative Christians; Second letter to politically conservative Christians; The problem with Pax Americana; Legislating morality?; Death to the idea of “Christian America” – Ending our civil religion, Part I; Tyranny of the “Gospel of Freedom” – Ending our civil religion, Part II; Why should I care? Apathy and exploitation – Ending our civil religion, Part III; Angry Americans; and Angry people).

But all was largely well and good in my new church that still had a large evangelical presence because, though I may have begun to disagree with some of the standard tropes conservative evangelicals believed, by-and-large I still agreed with them about the most important things.

And then those standard tropes of disagreement that I thought were largely secondary resulted in most people I knew supporting Trump, who literally was the opposite of everything evangelicals said a president should be during the Clinton years, because of political expediency and power in this world when the Christian is supposed to be focused on subverting the powers of this world, not being those powers (did Constantine and Rome teach us nothing, let alone the results of a Christianized Europe that ultimately resulted in World War I [see Philip Jenkins’, another evangelical, insightful book The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade]?).

Everything about Trump the man screams “the opposite of Jesus” to me: his words, his actions, his ethics, his morals.  We have a word in Christianity for someone that is the opposite of Jesus, and it’s antichrist (here are my extended posts on why I’m against Trump: Explaining the Trump phenomenon; The last thing I’ll say about the 2016 election; and Understanding what happened).

Yet by and large evangelicals sold out to this dude because he was the champion of their political beliefs, which in turn have been informed by questionable-at-best religious beliefs.

So let’s very briefly look at those:

  • Abortion: yes, evidently, evangelicals will literally vote for anyone who claims to be pro-life.  So here’s the thing.  I hate abortion.  I really do.  But it wasn’t until the very late 1970s and early 80s that evangelicals had a settled opinion on how to feel about abortion.  That’s when Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson et al formed the Christian Coalition, the political arm of evangelicals that went lock-step with Republicans beginning with Reagan.  Until that time, evangelical opinion was actually largely split on whether they supported the right to abortion or not.  Because the whole concept as “abortion is murder” didn’t begin until that time.  And, look – I’m with evangelicals in that killing a late-term baby that is fully formed is murder, because that baby’s a human life that can live outside the womb.  And I’m also with evangelicals that it’s ethically wrong to abort a fetus prior to that point during development because that is playing God – presuming to take ownership over a human life that has been initiated – but it’s wrong to label that as murder, properly, because a zygote or very early stage fetus is not fully human in the same way you and I are; but it’s still wrong.  But, also, calling any of this murder isn’t going to win you any converts to your side.  And I also agree with evangelicals that abortion has absolutely nothing to do with a woman’s right to her body, because there are myriad things the government already prevents all of us from doing to our bodies – it’s illegal to use illicit drugs; it’s illegal to expose yourself in public; it’s illegal to kill yourself – so I think it’s disingenuous and misleading to fall on the sword of “it’s my body” when our bodies are already regulated by the government.  But here’s the thing – there were a lot of abortions prior to Roe v. Wade being passed in 1973.  There are no hard statistics because almost all states outlawed abortion, but estimates range that there were anywhere from between 200,000 to 1.2 million abortions per year during the 1950s.  Considering that there were an estimated 740,000 abortions in 1973, I’d hazard the 1.2 million estimate is too high, but easily there were anywhere between 200,000 – 500,000 illegal abortions.  The average number of legal abortions since Roe v. Wade hovered around the 1.5 million per year mark until decreasing steadily through the 2000s until it’s under 1 million today.  So, yes, Roe v. Wade has resulted in a ton more abortions.  Yet, there were still a ton of abortions when it was illegal.  If you are truly pro-life, you have to recognize that whether abortion is legal or not, there are still too many occurring, so fighting till your blue in the face to make the thing illegal should not be your primary focus.  The primary focus, as always, should be on understanding and helping to solve the issues surrounding why women choose to have abortions – low income / poor access to birth control / rape.  Instead of imploding Planned Parenthood, we should be fighting to reform it.  If we don’t, a repeal of Roe v. Wade will simply result in a large and lucrative cottage industry of illegal abortions that will still be in the hundreds of thousands and become even more dangerous to women because the root causes for women seeking abortion will not have been addressed.
  • The End of the World: Christians of all kinds anticipate Jesus will return (the Second Coming) and redeem all of creation.  From there, it’s open to interpretation, but many beliefs evangelicals hold regarding the end of the world (such as dispensationalism, which thinks God divides history into distinct ages or periods of time) are only one or two hundred years old and run contrary to Christian teaching from the previous 1800 years.  The concept of a rapture (popularized by Left Behind, which is based on the rapture premise that Christians are removed from the world before God begins a period of “tribulation”) does have some ancient roots in that it is briefly mentioned by Irenaeus in the second century and Cyprian in the third, but the rapture as currently understood by evangelicals wasn’t fully crystallized until John Darby did so in the 1820s.  And the fact is that much of Revelation was written about contemporary matters regarding the Roman Empire – it was anti-imperial writing encouraging Christians to withstand the evil times of Roman persecution.  That does not mean that some part of it doesn’t have far future ramifications (sure it does – the way biblical prophecy often works is it has both a present and future tense to its interpretation), but we often read way more into this book than was intended.  Regardless, an obsession with figuring out precisely how and when the world will end betrays a lack of trust in Christ – the root reason seeking out fortune tellers and soothsayers to predict the future is considered a sin is because it attempts to wrest control of what is out of our hands from God himself instead of putting our trust in him.  Jesus himself said in the Gospel of Matthew that no one knows the day or the hour for when the world will end, and, frankly, I don’t think we should care.  If we trust in God to be our source and our provider as we are supposed to as Christians, then what’s the difference?  Which leads to…
  • Guns: I suspect a large reason evangelicals are often so adamant about opposing gun restrictions owes to their end of the world beliefs that all hell is going to break loose so they best have a small armada of weaponry available to protect themselves in case God doesn’t rapture them first.  I reference the above: evangelical end of the world beliefs are suspect to begin with, but, far more importantly, feeling a need to be armed like a drug cartel betrays yet again a trust in Christ as being in charge of life.  Is God in charge?  Is God our provision, our source of life, our defense?  That’s not to say that some reasonable means of basic self-defense is uncalled for, but feeling the need to be armed against a zombie horde certainly is.  Trusting in God means putting ourselves under his protection and trusting him to work things out, even if it may not result in our idealized results.  It means letting go.
  • Capitalism: capitalism was an invention of the 17th and 18th Centuries, so obviously there’s nothing about it in scripture.  But the principles on which it stands are certainly addressed there.  Capitalism by its nature is competition in which there are economic winners and thus, by necessity, economic losers.  And God and Jesus express quite a bit of preference for the poor throughout scripture and have a lot of harsh things to say about the rich.  In fact, God’s instructions to Israel in the Old Testament regarding Jubilee and debt forgiveness as well as the life of the first church as depicted in Acts reads an awful lot like socialism (see my post Second letter to politically conservative Christians).  I would hope all those facts would encourage evangelicals to support social nets like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security among with other possible “socialist” ideas that are designed to ensure that all people have their basic needs met as God himself seems keen on.
  • Israel: tied intimately with evangelical end of the world scenarios is the health and vitality of the nation of Israel, which has resulted in blanket evangelical support for any and all policies and actions that nation undertakes.  Unfortunately, Israel is run by people just like every other nation in the world, and all people no matter who they are make mistakes.  And one of those frequent mistakes is their treatment of Palestinians within their national boundaries, Palestinians who were living on the land before the European powers decided to encourage Jewish settlement after World War I and then created the state of Israel after World War II.  The fact is that the nation of Israel has engaged in terrible humanitarian practices regarding the Palestinian people.  Several Palestinians are of course not innocent themselves, but that is no excuse for continuing to encroach on internationally agreed upon Palestinian land, among other practices.

So it is I find myself feeling alone among conservative evangelicals, though I know I’m not alone, just part of a minority.  I belong to a wonderful church filled with amazing and loving people, so I’m struggling to reconcile those facts with the beliefs above that seem so clearly to me to be opposed to Jesus.

But one should never let feelings like that keep you from the important and necessary means of grace offered through the church – the tangible connection with Christ through the sacraments.

Look, we’re all hypocrites, ever single one of us, myself included.  If we let that stand in the way of being a part of something, we’d never join anything, nor should we ever be comfortable with ourselves.

And, frankly, that comfort with myself is ultimately what I’m struggling with.  Am I misreading the situation?  Or am I and those like me on to something that needs to be shouted out prophetically to evangelicals?

While I’m certain my views aren’t perfect because no one’s are, I hope that perhaps those of us who are clanging warning cymbals are taken seriously by those who are influential in the evangelical world lest evangelicals completely gain the world at the cost of their souls.

3 thoughts on “Alone in church

  1. I don’t think you are alone in questioning all of this. The thing is, I believe that it is possible to “be of good cheer, for [Jesus] has overcome the world.” I mean that in a sense that those who choose to follow him in the real daily sense (however imperfectly) are able to see beyond the deceptive, ignorant, and/or historically limited narrative that we are being provided politically.

    What I mean is this: if you had met me about 15 years ago, I would have told you that I believe women ministers are out of the question. Not only did I believe scriptures were against it, I also had more than one negative experience with women preachers and ministers dividing churches. I also had a pretty fixed beliefs on many other things, including politics. That said, Jesus over the years would take me by the hand and show me things that are different. He challenged and changed my beliefs in a way that no argument or article ever could. There was even a season where I received the most breakthrough from the prayers and directions of faithful women ministers. In the same way, my 1+1 = 2 beliefs on how society should function is also changing.

    What you said above about abortion: I completely agree with you. I will continue to vote against abortion, but the true issue is that we have a society that is making abortion a real option.

    1)There is no accountability with men who get women pregnant and then run off. I cannot even imagine the courage it takes for a single woman to say no to abortion, and to raise a child by herself (I have met one, and she only was able to do it with the loving support of her family). Am I my sister’s keeper? We should be.

    2) Our chosen philosophies and values as a society match widespread abortion, and do not match choosing life. We see children as massive interferenes and money drains. Even in our movies, we portray little children as the ones who ruin things, do things they shouldn’t, and endanger others. Our individualism and selfishness come first, so a child is sacrificed to the gods of convenience, comfort, and career. We even judge and give looks to people who have children early or have large families.

    On the end times:

    I think it is interesting that both in my own faith journey and witnessing the life of my friends, that those who tend to put heavy interest and stock into rapture theories and about the second coming, are exactly those people who do not experience the power and life of Jesus now. At least looking at myself, and at my friends, it seems those who feel the most unhappy about being on earth are the ones who talk about the end times the most, because they do not expect things to dramatically change. However, those who believe that God is working the same miracles now as in the past (as opposed to the above referenced dispensationalism) seem to be the ones going around and trying to restore the broken and hurting things.

  2. Actually, the most important thing is that we must be on guard whose narrative we are listening to. The news stations (well, Reuters) seems to only show what they want to show, and glamorize the most discouraging things: upheaval in the Middle East, the words and acts of Trump, violence in schools, mudslinging politicians, the fear that our economy has been growing for too long, and everything else.

    I remember years ago attending a missions conference called Urbana, where I heard and saw lots and lots of good things being done around the world, by unheralded and unpublicized faithful brothers and sisters, doing a little each day to make the world a better place. People rescuing child prostitutes, people loving and caring for those dying from AIDS, people bringing food and medicine, and many other examples that I have forgotten. It was encouraging, because you almost never hear the good stories about the little acts of kindness that hold the planet together. Let’s turn our eyes upon Jesus.

    There are lots of people who feel what you feel, and see what you see, I am certain of it. The world will shout that we are alone, but they can shout all they want, we have assurance of something better.

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