Mainline, Sideline, or Borderline?

An unsigned editorial posted on Tuesday (12 May 2009) on the Christianity Today website analyzes the new ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey). The news isn’t new. The mainline is shrinking and, according to the CT editorial, “evangelicals” (whoever they are and whatever they are) are the “new mainline.”

Among the more interesting trends, however, is the fact that the percentage of people who do not self-identify with any religious tradition is has doubled since 1990. These figures led Jon Meacham to proclaim the end of “Christian America.” CT ever zealous to affirm the abiding “relevance” of the “evangelical” movement (whatever that is and whoever they are) points to the political influence of Rick Warren and Joel Hunter as evidence for of evangelical cultural significance. CT notes that denominational identification is declining. The piece argues,

“A rigorous and public recommitment to the unchanging truth of the gospel is essential if we are going to continue in bringing more people to the foot of the Cross and assist them in becoming fully devoted followers of Christ. Spreading the gospel, not seeking social or political relevance, is the heartbeat of evangelicalism. More often than not, cozying up to the culture has been a ticket to later embarrassment.”

This is at least partly right, but even though the editorial insists that the “evangel” is at the heart of “evangelicalism” (whatever that is) the ugly truth is that, despite the Gospel Coalition, T4G, and even the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, the old Carl Henry-led coalition no longer dominates the “evangelical” movement and thus there is no consensus about what the “evangel” is.

There is a sort of schizoid character to the editorial, however. Just as soon as it finishes asserting the danger of becoming identified with the culture it just as quickly re-asserts the right path to cultural relevance: “If we keep that focus, we never have to worry about becoming the new sideline.” Wait a minute. I thought that following Jesus meant going to the cultural sideline? Is that exactly why Jesus disappointed his followers? Because he refused to take them to the center of the culture, to power and influence? Crucifixion is a terrible way to lead a movement and calling one’s disciples to “take up your cross” is no way to influence a culture.

How are the “evangelicals” (whoever and whatever they are) to steer away from the dreaded “sideline”? They must avoid becoming “consumed by our own theological distinctives and subculture.”

Amen to ditching the “evangelical” sub-culture (I think we can all do without Jesus as Che Guevara) but hasn’t avoiding theological distinctives been the very poison that has slowly weakened whatever is left of “the evangelical movement” (whatever that is)? Every time I read one of these editorials in CT I think that no one must actually read David Wells or Mike Horton.

Let’s assume that for the sake of discussion that there really is such a thing as an “evangelical movement” what are “our own theological distinctives”? Divine sovereignty? Nope. Inerrancy? Nope. Penal, substitutionary atonement? Nope. Divine foreknowledge even? Nope. Anthropology? Nope. Christology? Nope. Soteriology? Nope. Ecclesiology? Absolutely not! (if there’s anything that unites “evangelicals” it’s not the doctrine of the church!) Sacraments? Nope. Last things? Nope. The history of redemption? Nope.

Despite the very strong evidence that, as Darryl Hart (see Deconstructing Evangelicalism) has observed, there is no such thing as “evangelicalism” the editorial continues to speak of “our movement.” Well, if herding cats is a movement, okay, but it’s not much of a movement is it?

Who said that Christians are called to be influential in this age? I think I recall one of the apostles speaking to this very thing:

“…But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are….”

The NT theology of influence, as it were, is a theology of nullification, of death, of humiliation, shame and the cross. CT appeals to the influence of leading “evangelical” preachers (Rick Warren is notable for his preaching of the cross?) but the apostle Paul appeals to something altogether different. He appeals to the Savior who was rejected for us and he appeals for us to identify with him in his rejection, and shame.

Yes, God called some influential people to faith. Paul names some of them but it’s notable that we know precious little about them. What makes them noteworthy to Paul is not their social standing or political influence but their faith in Jesus. Unlike most contemporary “evangelicals,” Paul, that old unequivocal and unequivocating evangelical was crystal clear about what the “evangel” is:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve….”

For Paul Jesus was “the last Adam” the obedient man, who by his “one act of obedience” redeemed all his people and is making of them a new humanity by his sovereign, free, and gracious Spirit working in and through his church in the preaching of the message about the humiliated and risen Christ and signified and sealed in the ordinary means of grace.

This new study and the trends it heralds present an opportunity: to walk away from “the movement” and to embrace the visible, institutional church, to embrace “the sideline” rather than to fear it. Christianity was never intended to be “the mainline” or “influential” in the way the editorial seems to imagine. The paradox of influence is the paradox of the cross. One does not find one’s life by looking for it but by losing it for Christ’s sake. Our business is to trust the Savior as our only righteousness, to die to self, to die to influence, to die to power, and to live to Christ and to do it in the very place that evangelicalism has scorned for its entire modern existence: in the visible, institutional church. If, out of that death and dying, God chooses to make believers latter day Daniels, that’s his business. We have a vocation in this world: to live quiet, peaceful, and godly lives, and to pray for our rulers, but seeking influence isn’t one of them.

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  1. If there is no such thing as ‘evangelicalism,’ how do Christian bookstores make money?

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