Should Evangelicals Stay or should they Go?

Reading the intellectual property of a fine English gentleman somehow causes my mind to travel back to one of my favorite British punk themes from the 1980’s.  The Clash somehow speaks to our present day western Evangelical milieu.  How should Evangelicals relate to consumer culture, should we stay or should we go? 

This week’s reading for our DMin GML cohort has us digging into the working dissertation for Dr. Jason Clark.  Dr. Clark is a reflective practitioner in every sense of the term.  His thinking and writing digs deep into the rigors of theology, history, cultural studies and epistemological nuances.  His approach of attacking the great Evangelical questions of our time with this kind of breadth is indicative of his ongoing classical educational pursuits.  On the flip side of his academic research is his missional praxis.  With the heart of a pastor/church planter, his concern is people and the culture they live in.  He called us to be organic intellectuals where our churches were centered around mission.  This is the flavor he brings to his dissertation writing.

Dr. Clark wrestles with the barriers that keep his people from living a shared story and identity in the Kingdom of God together, most notably the modern giant known as consumerism.  I can still hear his haunting question to us during our first gathering together in Oxford:  “Jesus, is your Gospel big enough to defeat consumerism?”  This is surely my own question in my place of missional praxis.  It is hard to separate modern day Evangelicalism from the phenomenal rise of capitalistic markets.  It is hard to distinguish if it was the Protestant work ethic that created the capitalistic boom or if it was the capitalist boom that propelled Protestant Evangelicalism.  They seemed to be boats tightly linked together traveling down the same raging river and in the same direction.  Thomas Taylor remarked that “evangelical religion spread best where trade was growing.” (3)  Fast forward a couple hundred years and Dan Kimball states that the modern Protestant Evangelical Church has become about the “dispensing of religious good and services to Christian consumers.” (4)  As ekklesia, what is our relationship to be within the modern capitalist markets:  isolation or accomodation?  Do we run in or run away?  Do we enter or do we exit?  Should we stay or should we go?

Dr. Clark lays out what seems to be the present two Evangelical paradigms in terms of its relationship to the modern capitalistic markets.  One way is to despise the culture we find ourselves in and seek isolation, whilst the opposing way is “extreme accomodation” (12) where one finds its center and identity in the consumer culture as opposed to being unfettered from it.  It is in the midst of this proposed dichotomy where Dr. Clark asks a very big question:  Might there be a middle way for Evangelicalism?  Within his dissertation abstract, he asks:  “Can we then reimagine theologically an Evangelicalism that is more robust within its institutional habitation of capitalism?  Does Evangelicalsm intramurally have the resources for a reparative response to the pathologies of social relationships of late capitalist market societies?”  Implicating that not only could Evangelicalism seek a ‘tertium quid‘, but that within it’s history and ethos, Evangelicalism has the resources it needs within itself to find that middle way.  “It is suggested that Evangelicalism within this possibility, can be comprehended as a ‘double movement’, both symbiotic to capitalism and modern market societies and at the same time a counter movement to them.” 

What could be the different way, the middle way?  Dr. Clark suggests a symbiotic relationship with capitalist society and as well a movement and a critique against.  The difference is your center and identity.  Our identity is in a Kingdom that has come and Kingdom that is coming.  Our faith is built and anchored in the mysteries of and tensions of dichotomies.  Jesus as both God and man, Yahweh as a Holy Trinity, blessing enemies, beauty in suffering, grace and law, these are all a part of our Scriptural identity as a people.  Dr. Clark seeks a way that is neither isolationist nor accomodating, but a church that embraces the culture it finds itself in without being fettered to its trappings, therefore remaining free. 

In the modern western Evangelical context, the Emerging Church seeks to be a critique of modernity and its trappings to today’s capitalits markets.  However, can they ever truly be free from the system and constructs they live in?  Whilst the Mega Church appears to be working so within the grain of the capitalist milieu that it is criticized for having lost its ekklesia center.  Could they not also just simply be working within their missional context with a savy understanding of communication processes so that the message they so deeply are committed to reaches the hearts of their adherents?  Do they have to be opposing viewpoints?  Dr. Clark states:  “Emerging Church and Mega Church are not enemies:   they are two sides of the same thing.” (29)  To that I say a hearty ‘Amen’.  The reality is we need each other, it will be together, around the same table that we collaborate on the biggest questions of our day under the power of the Cross.  If we want to be missional, then we need a way forward and through, not a way out or a way in. 

Should we stay or should we go?  We should do both, whilst understanding that our narrative center is a Kingdom that has come and a Kingdom that is coming. 


6 thoughts on “Should Evangelicals Stay or should they Go?”

  1. Chris – great post. I am always awed by your work and the work of the rest of our colleagues. Your post causes me to reflect on many items – too many for this response. Two things. re: the title I thought of a famous event] that occurred at an Evangelical Alliance meeting Oct 1966 at which D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones [supposedly] called Church of England evangelicals such as John Stott to leave the Anglican church and visibly unite with other evangelicals. Stott didn’t leave though assumingly some did and it fractured relationships between evangelicals in the traditional churches and the ‘evangelical churches’. A fracture that only now has some movement towards healing. The other thing has to with consuming religious resources – Reginald Bibby a Canadian sociologist about 20 years ago described religious adherence in Canada as centred in consuming around felt needs and passages of life…this may not be preferred yet has this really changed from previous centuries in which many people believed yet didn’t belonged to the churches in any intensive way. With this reality how do churches engaged with people in any meaningful way? The crux is defining meaningful, and it is here that churches may or may not be up to the challenge. Perhaps the place to begin is with Jason’s symbiotic relationship of church and culture? As you know in ecology symbiosis is two species using each other for mutual benefit. Consider rites of the church like weddings and baptisms [or dedications] even communion; these may be seen as helping to satisfy people’s implicit need for God, at the same time embodying God’s love and grace to the people and presenting opportunity to further the conversation along towards Christ. The temptation is to become more intense and exclusive with these rites and sacraments, narrowing the door even closing it to the many in our communities who believe in God, have some need to experience God, and want to fulfill their yearning for God, particularly in crisis or significant passages of life, through the resources within the church. The challenge concerning a symbiotic relationship with consumerist society is accepting it and the people who live it [akin to Paul’s ‘judge not’ 1 Cor 5.12], yet not living it ourselves. Then we might have the benefit of showing and telling people the better way in Jesus. #dmingml

  2. Hi Rodger, I had never heard of that story with Stott and the Evangelical church, that is fascinating. Ironically, just as you pointed out, this week I had a conversation with a Pastor of a traditional Presbyterian church in town where 2 of our members were married 20 years ago. They want to do their vow renewal back at the sanctuary they were married in but have not been a part of. That Pastor had no concept of a house church community (which is understandable) and I think assumed we are some sort of cult. He had a hundred questions for me about what would be a 20 minute vow renewal with about a dozen people. One of the things he said was, "This is God’s house and we don’t normally let outsiders use it who don’t have respect for it as that." I thought to myself, if i was someone outside of Christianity, what would this communicate to me about God, Christ and the Church that represents him. It was a little painful just in that this pastor meant well, but the building superceded mission. It would seem to me that weddings and funerals would be opportunities to get outsiders in the walls of the Church and the price to pay for that opportunity would be ‘wear and tear’ of the space and custodial cleaning. At the university I work at, we are an ‘open’ testing center for standardized tests. We use this as marketing opportunity for students from other universities who may be frustrated with their experience to receive our care and customer service and many have either transferred to us after "tasting" our our ethos while testing or decided to come to us for their Masters degree. It would seem to me the church could do the same.

  3. arrghhh! cut. of. my. comment. first, i liked that snippet from your post.second, epic use of The Clash.third, Clark argues that both E/C and Mega/C get it wrong for the same reasons. That’s the foundation of his desire for tertium quid. Yet, as you observed in your response to Rodger’s comment above, such a third way is having a hard time gaining any traction because of the oddity of its "thirdness."any ideas on how one might pursue embodiments of tertium quid in a way that increase their legitimacy and influence without sacrificing their innovative thirdness?

  4. good question, Eddie. Not sure I have an answer. This much I do know, is that if we were going to be faithful pioneers, in the meantime, we had to embrace our "illegitimacy", which can be a lonely place. As well, I’ve long thought that if God was using us to find a "thirdness" as you put it, that maybe the best thing I could do is make all the right mistakes and step on as many landmines as i can so that it would be a more informed and smoother path for those coming after me. One metaphor I learned from studying pioneers is that as they trekked west, they would mark trees by etching the bark. That’s how I see our role, if God continues to call us down this path, then I’ll keep marking trees and leaving my learnings behind.

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