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Decentralizing Evangelicalism

Is the standard Evangelical church model doomed?

A reader comments:

Douthat has hit the nail on the head. The Reformed camp is a notable exception, but it has its problems too. As Chris notes, the Reformed camp is so focused on pushing people into marriage, and, once married, into having kids, there’s little place for people who want to remain single, either temporarily or permanently. I still meet regularly with a close friend who’s a PCA pastor, but I don’t attend his church. I just don’t feel welcome there as someone who’s single and childless.

I’m somewhat favorably disposed to Tim Keller’s ministry, and even attended his church for a season. But that movement is likely to head off in its own direction. The current alliances that make up evangelicalism were forged in an era before liquid modernity. There is no reason why we should expect those alliances to continue to make sense in the very different social context that we face today. And we have to avoid the trap of conflating Christian orthodoxy with practical Christian wisdom. Families raising kids need something very different from a church community than what I need, as a 30-something professional who travels 50% of the time, usually in Asia. As of this writing, I’ve slept in my own bed two nights during the whole month of November, and have spent the better part of the month in China. But the prevailing theology of Reformed evangelicalism assumes a certain social station that’s very different from mine. I don’t begrudge them that. Just don’t assume that I’m sinning because I chose a different path. When I was last a part of a church, my membership application was denied because the church required 90% attendance. I’d have to quit my job to do that, and I love what I do.

Liquid modernity poses a certain challenge to Western rules-based cultures. Things change faster than our ability to develop rules to address certain situations. And that places a degree of stress on existing institutions, requiring them to be thicker than they were in the past. But it’s hard for institutions to be both thick and broad. For thickness to work, there has to be a high degree of overlap in people’s life situations. Demographic differences matter more.

I’m actually an advocate of an evangelical break-up. I believe that the Benedict Option is necessary. But the Benedict Option is going to look very different for different people. My fear is that evangelicalism ends up targeting the largest market, middle-class white suburbanites with kids, and castigated everyone else as a sinner. One need not look to hard for criticisms of Tim Keller’s efforts to reach out to people like me. And it disappoints me that Keller is largely silent in the face of those criticisms. If Christianity is to survive in an age of liquid modernity, it’s going to take more than suburban mega-churches. It’s going to take smaller communities that are locally thick but still in communication with other such local communities.

The problem with the evangelical establishment is that it’s still trying to be JCPenney. But such an approach relies on the culture to do a lot of the work of shaping people. And, as you’ve noted, the culture no longer does that well. So, I no more mourn the breakup of evangelicalism than I mourn the downfall of JCP. In fact, as a short, skinny guy who spent his entire childhood wearing clothes that were too big (because JCP didn’t offer anything for a guy 5’5” and 110 pounds), I cheer it’s demise. It’s demise opened the door for retailers who offer things that fit me well, even if at a higher price. If only Uniqlo and H&M has been around when I was younger! Retail is thriving right now, despite the fact that the old-line retailers are failing. If we want Protestantism to succeed in an era of liquid modernity, we have to be willing to let the old-line evangelical establishment fail, so that locally thick options can arise in its place.

I find this fascinating, and invite comment from Evangelical readers. I had not thought of Evangelicalism as anything but radically decentralized, but this reader suggests that it needs even more radical decentralization.

I can see his point about how the suburban megachurch can’t be all things to all people. I wonder, though, if it is reasonable or even desirable to expect a church to be so custom-tailored to individual demographics. Can it still be a church? I try to apply this reader’s insight to Orthodox churches, and it just doesn’t compute. Maybe it’s because Orthodox Christians don’t have the same expectation of church that suburban Evangelicals do. The idea that church should “meet our needs” is weird from the Orthodox perspective.

As it happens, I had to leave church early yesterday because I seem to be experiencing a recurrence of mono, which flared up at first on Thanksgiving day. I was feeling so bad that I was having trouble focusing on the service or my private prayers. I thought about how disconnected from the liturgy I was, and how this reminded me of the first few times I attended the Orthodox liturgy. I was quite aware this morning of how distant and unaffecting the liturgy seemed to me, and how, if I didn’t know better, I would walk out of this service and say, “I didn’t get anything out of that” or “the services at that church didn’t feed me.”

The fact is, because I was distracted by sickness, I was not prepared in any way to receive the liturgy. I left after the Gospel reading, drove home, and went to bed. On the way home, I thought about how my shortened liturgical experience today was like a hurried tourist dashing through the Uffizi gallery in Florence. If a tourist visits the Uffizi, one of the world’s greatest art museums, and comes away “not getting anything out of it” — that’s entirely his fault. It’s not the fault of the Uffizi, or the paintings that hang on its walls, but of the person who was unable to receive the beauty present there. This is not necessarily a moral fault. The tourist may have been distracted by anxiety or illness, or may have been too pressed for time to give the paintings the time and attention needed to appreciate them. But it’s also possible that the tourist was simply unwilling to open himself to the art such that the art could communicate to him.

If an American tourist visits Florence, refuses to try to speak any Italian, only communicates with Italians who speak perfect English, and refuses to eat anywhere but at American fast food restaurants — and he comes home complaining that he got nothing out of his trip to Italy, well, is that Italy’s fault? Or did he not prepare himself for what is actually there in Italy?

That’s how I feel about the Divine Liturgy. You don’t judge it any more than you judge a Raphael or a Titian. It judges you.

Now, because I don’t know the Evangelical world, I don’t know to what extent this model is applicable to Evangelical churches and Evangelical worship. It might be an apples and oranges thing. It probably is, given that the purpose of Evangelical worship and the purpose of Orthodox worship are not the same (or are they?). I put these questions to you Evangelical, and former Evangelical, readers. Please take my anecdote, and the Evangelical reader’s comment, together, and let us know what you think.



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