Category Archives: christianity

From Community to Cult

This has been a difficult post for me to contemplate, not to mention for me to actually write.  It is my hope that anyone who has faced (or is facing) similar issues will find some guidance and peace of mind. 

I grew up Presbyterian, but have attended mostly evangelical/charismatic ‘style’ churches for the last 20 years (see my earlier post).  Twenty years is more than enough time for some common problems to have been reinforced:  Many evangelicals have an underlying distrust (if not disdain) for intellectual thought, and have adopted a “fortress mentality” – where they attempt to combat the difficult questions and challenges of our culture with greater religious “emotional intensity” while never actually addressing or confronting the challenges leveled at them by those of different convictions.  Nancy Pearcey, in her book “Total Truth” (a book I’ve found to be a wonderful resource on Christian worldview), writes at length on this phenomenon, since it is a common scenario in many evangelical churches.  This vein of anti-intellectualism has caused evangelicalism to lend itself to a systemic distrust of questioning.  In some cases, it’s simply a moderate fear of “will I have the answers if someone questions my doctrine?”  That can be a healthy fear – if it leads one to confront those questions in their own life head on, rather than hide behind ‘religious experience’ alone.  However, in two specific instances, I have seen the ‘distrust of questioning’ taken to an extreme that I cannot find any Biblical support for.

At the heart of this is the desire – the need – for communal bonds.  For all that good that came of evangelicalism’s early days, there was a prevailing attitude of distrust towards the ‘religious authorities’ of the time.  In Total Truth, Pearcey writes, “Taunting religious authorities became so widespread on college campuses that in 1741 the trustees at Yale University had to pass a college law forbidding students to call college officers ‘carnal’ or ‘unconverted’” (pg 271).  The point here is that while there was good that emerged from what evangelicals know as the “Great Awakenings”, at the same time the old order of strong communal bonds within believing communities was disintegrating.  You cannot assault the institutions that made those bonds possible, without also dissolving the bonds as well.

The result is a problem evangelical churches have wrestled with for decades: how to foster real community.  Pearcey explains, “In the colonial period, the dominant political philosophy had been classical and Christian republicanism, which was highly communal.  But in the new liberalism…the ethos of self-sacrifice was replaced by one of self-assertion and self-interest” (pg 280).  In describing the emerging style of preaching at the time, Pearcey writes, “Increasingly, the populist preacher became a performer, stringing together stories and anecdotes…this method engaged the audience’s emotions while subtly enhancing the speaker’s own image by highlighting his own ministry and spiritual experiences.  The outcome of all this was the rise of personality cults, the celebrity system that has become so entrenched in evangelicalism” (pg 287).

And here is where the fine and dangerous line is crossed.  This is how many evangelical congregations have moved from the desire for real community, into the territory reserved for cults: “One of the dangers in personality cults”, according to Pearcey, “is that they easily lead to demagoguery…strong-willed leaders who, ironically, ended up exercising an even higher degree of dogmatism and control than pastors in traditional denominations, whom they denounced” (pg 289).

How those leaders assert their control can vary.  However, in my experience, the squashing of dissenting opinions seems to be a common symptom.  A close companion to that symptom is that members (especially leaders) in that congregation have no qualms about severing relationship with those they disagree with, regardless of prior history.  So, here’s a short quiz for you:  If you currently attend a church, how well do they handle disagreement?  If you disagree, are you ostracized, directly or indirectly?  What about others who have disagreed?  Does your church push for “unity” by attempting to enforce “uniformity”?  If the leaders of your church show no broken-heartedness over ‘severed’ relationships with those who’ve disagreed with them, may I humbly (albeit emphatically) suggest you find a new church?  As Christians, we should be among the best examples of the power of reconciliation.  We have several Biblical examples (Paul & Peter, Paul and Mark, to name two) of Christians who disagreed and came into conflict, and yet continued to support one another in the end.  If we have a pattern of cutting people out of our lives because they won’t “line up” with our “vision”, are we not simply acting like petulant children?  To borrow a paraphrase from Augustine: “In essentials, unity.  In non-essentials, liberty.  In all things, love.

Feeling Over Knowing

Recently, my wife and I visited a church in the Nashville area.  Everyone was very nice, welcoming and sincere – I say that because I have a complaint to make, and certainly don’t mean to malign anyone there.  During the worship service, we were singing a song that I had never heard.  It was building up to the climax of a passionate chorus and the first line of that chorus read “All I need is to feel Your love”.

In that moment I had inadvertently stumbled upon a portion of the complaint I have with evangelical Christianity.  I have become more and more convinced that the ‘currents’ of evangelical Christianity are hostile (mostly unintentionally/unknowingly, sometimes intentionally) to intellectual discussion, and obsessed with feeling and experience over any other aspect of ‘understanding’.  That statement may sound harsh, and to my evangelical peers, I can only say that I’m sorry if it does, please hear me out.

I understand the evangelical case against many mainline denominations.  I grew up Presbyterian, and as I began to read the Bible for myself, I questioned why certain topics and passages were ignored.  As a 15-year-old, I saw no real passion or vibrancy in the faith of those around me.  Instead, I saw a group of people adhering to a particular Protestant tradition – and many were not recognizable as Christians when I saw them during the week.  Something inside me knew instinctively that if a Creator existed, then He wasn’t limited to the ‘safe’ and ‘docile’ presentation of Him that I witnessed at that particular church.  In my teens I was introduced to evangelical churches, and discovered Christians who were passionate about their faith, and who wanted to impact those around them.  I was fascinated with Scripture, and being around others so passionate about their faith was a breath of fresh air.  It wasn’t until years later that I began to discern some issues.

Around 13 years ago, a conversation with a co-worker revealed to me just how ill-equipped I was to discuss hard issues – life, death, suffering, justice, purpose – with those who didn’t hold the same faith.  I began to see that there wasn’t really much of an effort in many of the evangelical churches I’d attended to understand the world around them.  No one seemed to be asking “how did we get to where we are?”, and “How do we answer the questions posed by a postmodern world?”  Oh, don’t get me wrong, those churches were asking “How can we make Christianity appeal to those who don’t believe?”  Some call it “seeker-sensitive” – but that’s just one of many frustrating examples of a language ghetto that is encouraged.  Absolutely no effort was being made to understand the mix of philosophies that had led Western culture to where it now sits.  As a result, many evangelical churches have accepted premises that find their roots in worldviews hostile to Christian thought.  We’re encouraged to share our faith, but without any foundation in apologetics.  And when we encounter someone who questions back, we’re given a trite response of encouragement, as if the sole failure is on the part of the ‘hearer’.

My Presbyterian heritage was fairly rich when it came to thought and teaching, though it was sorely lacking in many other respects.  But my complaint with evangelicalism is that anything smacking of tradition is dismissed as legalism and intellectual debate is dismissed as “the pride of man”.  There is such an emphasis on feeling and experience – both of which are an integral part of a much larger whole – but I fear it’s an over-emphasis.  Evangelical leaders lament the ‘consumer’ nature of many congregants, but their whole system lends itself to “what can I experience?” – since that’s all that appears to matter.  So, no, I’m sorry, I need much more than to just “feel” His love.  I need to understand how what Christianity teaches is relevant to my life – from the big, epic questions down to how I love my wife and sons, how I perform at my job, and how I take care of my property.  I need to stop chasing experience from weekly pep-rally service to service.  That kind of ‘consumerism’ only breeds an inability to understand or esteem anything other than the pursuit of the next ‘fix’.  That mindset, in my opinion, has dumbed-down religious discussion among evangelical Christians, it has robbed them of a critical tool in applying Christian teaching to daily life, and it has driven others away from Christianity as a whole.

More on this in the future….