The State of Evangelicalism 2017, Part 5: The Evangelical Church Is Amazingly Vibrant

evangelicalism-2017Where does the evangelical movement go from here?

In the previous blogs I have identified four trends that I see as troubling (even dangerous) for the future of evangelical Christianity:

  1. The increasing abandonment of biblical authority in terms of practice.
  2. The surrender of evangelicals to right-wing political agendas.
  3. The ongoing dominance of systematic theological constructs to define evangelicalism.
  4. The decline of both the effectiveness of and the demand for evangelical theological education.

This presents a pessimistic outlook for the future, and those who know me will attest that this is not my style. I am the eternal optimist, and I am optimistic about the prospects for evangelical Christianity. Why? Because I find the evangelical church to be amazingly vibrant.

I have had contact with many different evangelical church in the past few years. There is no single way to characterize them, but perhaps they can be divided into two categories: striving or thriving (certainly not buzzwords original to me).

Striving Churches. These are churches that are not growing. They are either plateaued (temporarily) or in decline. This can be for many reasons: declining community, loss of key members, bad reputation, poor facilities, etc. But the number one reason (in my experience) is the lack of effective and committed leadership. By this I mean the church lacks leaders who are:

  • Thinking strategically
  • Fiscally wise
  • Personally committed
  • Doctrinally sound

All of these are important, but the most important for the survival of the church is the first, strategic thinking. What I mean by this is the capacity to envision what a church should look like in the near future (2-3 years) and then to craft a reasonable strategy to get there. Many smaller churches are unable to do this, defaulting to plans that seek to restore the past glories of the congregation rather than adjust to the changing situation. Sometimes a church has declined to the point there is no realistic future for it.

When a “striving” church ceases to strive, it will die. This is not a doomsday scenario. Throughout the history of Christianity, churches have been planted, thrived, and died. Paul’s church in Ephesus, perhaps the most important church in early Christianity, no longer exists. Why? Because economic forces shut down the city of Ephesus. This can happen today and the Christian community will be relocated or transferred to other congregations rather than signal the end of the church in totality.

Thriving Churches. The evangelical landscape has many vibrant, dynamic churches. I would characterize a “thriving” church as one that has most or all of these characteristics:

  • Growing membership base
  • Fiscal health and stability
  • Talented, innovative staff
  • Dynamic worship services
  • Healthy mix of generations
  • Observable impact on the community

beacon-lighthouseHere is the good news: there are numerous evangelical churches like this all over America. When I visit a metro area, I often try to find out what the thriving churches are in that city. It is usually not too hard, because people who live there will know. Thriving churches are not candles under a bushel basket. They are cities on a hill, shining the light of Jesus brightly. They are beacons in their communities, guiding people to Jesus and his church.

What will the future hold? Part of the dynamic is that the role of the keepers of the evangelical flame has shifted from schools, societies, magazines, and denominational leaders to the vibrant churches of today. I think this shift is permanent. There are no national, universally accepted spokespersons for the evangelical movement. There are local leaders, some of whom have national reputations. And, for the most part, these are the leaders of the vibrant evangelical churches of our era.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The views in this blog are those of the author, not necessarily those of his employer.

The State of Evangelicalism 2017, Part 4: Theological Training for Pastors is Not Valued

evangelicalism-2017Where do evangelical churches find staff members?

Accurate statistics are difficult to find, but I would estimate that there are more paid staff positions in evangelical churches today than ever in the history of America. Where do these church leaders come from?

In the 19th century, American churches were using the European method of preparing pastors: college or university training. As some universities became increasingly secular, even hostile to the church, the pastor-training endeavor might be isolated to a “divinity house” or separate institution within the university. This pattern continued into the 20th century and is still used by mainline Protestant denominations.

At the same time, there were always pastors without a university background. They may have learned their trade under the tutelage of an older pastor or be largely self-taught. Such individuals were more likely to be found in rural situations where their lack of college education was similar to the members of their churches. But city churches demanded well-educated pastors.

Part of legacy of the Liberal/Fundamentalist controversies in the first half of the 20th century was the perception that the mainline seminaries were no longer to be trusted to train church leaders. The graduates of these seminaries were seen to be theologically liberal and to have lost confidence in the authority of the Bible. A reaction to this was the rise of the Bible college movement, the establishing of autonomous colleges whose curriculum centered around the Bible and whose focus was to produce pastors for conservative evangelical churches. In 1947, the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges was established to bring credibility and standards to these Bible colleges. In 2004, the name was changed to the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE).

In the post-war years, a stream of evangelicalism dissatisfied with the educational standards of Bible colleges and still distrustful of the mainline seminaries began to establish seminaries and graduate schools to bring a higher level of training for evangelical pastors. These included Fuller Theological Seminary (1947), Dallas Theological Seminary (founded 1924, expanding with the ascension of John Walvoord to the presidency of DTS in 1953), the merger of two schools to become Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (1969), and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (so named in 1963). These seminaries began to attract faculty with Ph.D. degrees from top-flight institutions, often British universities. These seminaries adopted a Master of Divinity curriculum as a graduate level method of training pastors for evangelical churches.

Many evangelical churches today have pastors who are graduates from an ABHE school or from an evangelical seminary. However, it is easy to see that a disconnect has developed between the evangelical institutions of higher education and the churches they were founded to serve.

Why is this? I offer three reasons.

  1. In some ways, the evangelical project in colleges, universities, and seminaries has been unsuccessful. This is true for a couple of reasons. First, many Bible colleges and seminaries focused on producing graduates who were theologically orthodox Bible scholars and not on producing pastors with ministry skills necessary for the church. There was an idea that if students were drilled in Bible and theology, that they would figure out how to do ministry once they got a job in a church. This has sometimes succeeded, but has had some spectacular failures. Bible knowledge and people skills are not the same thing.
    Second, the Bible colleges in particular became isolated from the churches they were founded to serve. This can be seen in a couple of ways. One was that the faculty members of some Bible colleges were academics, not pastors. While able to teach history or theology or Bible with great precision, they had little but theory to offer students in pastoral studies. They were not successful church leaders, but sometimes refugees from failed ministries.
    Another factor was that churches were increasingly reluctant to send their best young people to be trained as pastors. The reasons for this are complex, but Bible colleges were more and more tasked with rehabilitating church misfits rather than molding high-potential students.
    Simply put: too many of the wrong faculty and the wrong students to be successful and respected as a source for churches looking to hire staff members.
  2. Larger churches began to groom and hire staff members from within. The reason for this is articulated in many ways. Some churches believe paid staff members must be permeated with the church’s particular “DNA,” meaning its methodology that has proved to be successful. In other cases, this has been little more than the hiring of family members of the lead pastor or other influential church members. Often this is seen as less risky, assuming that a person will be observed in action as a volunteer for several years before an offer of employment is made.This has been successful, very successful for many large and growing churches. It seems to me, though, that we are living on borrowed time here. Large churches often have a core of older staff pastors with theological training from a college or seminary, but this store of training is being stretched thinner and thinner. It feels like a few professionals working with many skilled amateurs.
  3. Lastly, formal theological education is not valued by many churches. A pastor with a master’s degree or doctorate is not respected because of their education, only because of their performance. So, in many churches, the preaching, while it may be entertaining, is shallow, repetitive, and with little biblical content. Proof-texting reigns. Biblical literacy among evangelicals is at dismal levels. Theological contradictions, mild heresies, and non-Christian teachings are all too common. The popularity of “preaching without notes” has sometimes devolved into “preaching without preparation.” Commitment to Christ is sometimes superseded by commitment to the congregation.

I don’t think it has to be this way. Colleges need to do a better job of preparing students for ministry rather than for careers as Bible scholars. Bible college teachers should be practitioners who love the church. Churches need to value both theological education and ministry skills. And we desperately need to design delivery systems for theological education that will be used by the many church staff members who have had none.

We all need to do better in this.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The views in this blog are those of its author, not necessarily those of his employer.

The State of Evangelicalism 2017, Five Issues, Part 3: The Systematicians Still Reign

evangelicalism-2017Modern evangelicalism has its roots in the European Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, particularly the stream that comes from John Calvin and his writings. “Calvinism,” after all, is not a book in the Bible but a theological construct based on Scripture. It seeks to answer theological questions not directly addressed by any particular passage of the Bible. This is done in various ways, but mostly using syllogisms. The syllogistic method assumes that if two propositions clearly addressed in Scripture are combined, a conclusion (third proposition) may be deduced that will have equal biblical authority. If A=B and B=C, then A=C.

The problem is the choice of “A” and “B” will influence the outcome, “C.”

Example
A – God is invisible to the human eye. (Romans 1)
B – Jesus was recognized as God by the early disciples. (John 20)
C – Therefore, Jesus was invisible.

I know this is an unfair and ridiculous example, but it shows the danger of careless theology by syllogism. To me, the basic problem is that syllogistic approach privileges logical method over the authority of Scripture if we are not careful. It assumes that our powers of rationality are an authority higher than God’s Word.

Syllogistic method, therefore, is not the province of biblical scholars who seek to interpret Scripture passages directly. It is the realm of systematicians. There are two levels for this in evangelical systematics. First is the “Analogy of Scripture,” where two (or more) passages of Scripture are used to draw a theological conclusion unstated by any single passage. A common version of this is the strategy of taking “clear” passages of Scripture to illuminate “less clear” passages of Scripture.

The second level of this syllogistic method is the “Analogy of Faith.” In this method, previous theological conclusions derived from the Analogy of Scripture method are used to interpret Scriptures whose theological intent may have some murkiness that is undesirable.

Where does evangelicalism stand in this regard today? In my 30-year career, I have seen the rise of biblical scholarship within the ETS that is somewhat disconnected from the syllogistic methods of the systematicians. The thoroughgoing biblical scholars seem to be guided by a couple of assumptions:

  1. Authorial Intent. This assumes that the only valid meaning of a text is the meaning intended by the original author for his original audience. If the biblical author is teaching his readers something about God (theology), we must understand this in context and therefore learn about God from an inspired source.
  2. Reluctance to allow indiscriminate application of outside texts for the interpretation of texts that are not self-evident in meaning. Therefore, the best help for interpreting a text is another text in proximity. For example, what does John 4:10 mean when it has Jesus promising “living water” to the Samaritan woman? It is not explained in chapter 4, but the phrase “living water” comes up again in chapter 7, and there the author explicitly says it refers to the “Spirit” (John 7:38-39). A common characteristic of evangelical theologians has been to use Paul to interpret everything. This is amazingly consistent if you watch for it. How many times have we seen an evangelical pastor preaching Nehemiah and throwing in a couple of quotes from Romans to help us understand? Or, preaching Daniel, we “cross-reference” Revelation to help us understand Daniel’s prophecies.

Grant Osborne, in his influential book The Hermeneutical Spiral, sought to challenge the indiscriminate cross-referencing of verses as a “best practices” method for interpretation. Osborne, one of the most capable evangelical biblical interpreters of his generation (and my teacher and friend), demanded that a strategy for consultation of texts beyond the immediate verse be ordered according to a “logical context.”

 

hermeneutical-spiral

The Logical Context graphic from Grant Osborne’s “The Hermeneutical Spiral” p. 22

Osborne’s students (including the authors of the current college classroom standard, Grasping God’s Word) have challenged the legitimacy  and supremacy of the systematicians in places like the ETS.

If you are still reading, you may be asking, “Why are you drawing such a hard distinction between biblical interpreters and systematicians? Aren’t the systematicians biblical scholars, too? And don’t the biblical interpreters produce theological conclusions?”

Here’s the difference, and I say these things from the perspective of one who is squarely in the biblical interpreter camp. The systematicians and biblical scholars have different starting points and therefore different products. The biblical interpreters seek to recover the author’s intended meaning in a given text and are not controlled by systematic presuppositions. The systematicians used the Bible as a resource with which to construct their comprehensive and coherent theological grids. The systematicians begin with questions and seek answers from the Bible. The interpreters begin with the Bible and uncover its answers without initial concern for how that might fit into a master system.

In 2016, the differences were on full display at the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meeting in San Antonio. The conference’s theme was “The Trinity,” which is both an essential, hallmark evangelical doctrine and a theological edifice created by systematicians. It was clear, at least to me, that systematics and systematicians are still the dominant party in the ETS. This has many ramifications, but let me offer three in particular.

  1. Decline in biblical scholarship. I know this is a huge generalization, but in past generations, systematic theologians were also fabulous biblical scholars. John Calvin was a student of the Bible first and the author of the Institutes second (in my opinion). Luther, who was a theologian and a keen biblical scholar (especially in the Old Testament) was also influenced heavily by Augustinian theological presuppositions. Frankly, I don’t see this in the ETS as much now. I see systematicians who are amateurish in their handling of the text. To be fair, I see biblical scholars who attempt systematic syntheses who are not trained in systematic theology.
  2. The uneasy truce between Calvinists and Arminians in the ETS is waning. The Calvinist theologians have always controlled the ETS as far as I can tell. But there was always a mix of the two perspectives. Both groups understood their theological conclusions as “biblical,” even if they seemed to be irreconcilable to some. The ETS weathered a storm a few years back with the rise of “Open Theism,” which I have described elsewhere as “Arminianism on steroids.” This theological view was seen by the Calvinists of the ETS as a threat that could not be allowed within the membership, and it was crushed. Since then, I don’t detect much in the way of an Arminian voice or perspective in the ETS, especially among the plenary speakers or presidential addresses.
  3. The systematic method is dominant in evangelical preaching. I will say more about this next week, but there is a long-term decline in biblical preaching. We are now given thematic sermons based on proof-texts rather than teaching a particular passage. Many pastors have their favorite proof-texts that show up with regularity in their messages, no matter what the starting text might be. This is systematic presentation on the popular level. Scripture becomes a tool for theological presentation, not the source of doctrine the authors intended.

Next week: #4, Theological training and the church.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The views in this blog are those of the author, not necessarily the views of his employer.

The State of Evangelicalism 2017, Five Issues, Part 2: Faith and Politics

evangelicalism-2017In the previous blog, I discussed issue #1 for evangelicals: the decline of biblical authority. Here is the second issue:

2. Separation of politics and faith is more and more difficult.

Recent elections have been polarizing in the Christian world, and I mean more than the presidential primaries and election. It is often assumed that evangelicals vote as a block and must be courted by candidates. It is true that evangelicals represent 10-20% of those who vote, numbers that may be decisive in close elections. One problem with this political analysis is the ignoring of minority communities, for many black or Latino churches would be considered evangelical except their members are not white working class folks and, therefore, outside the evangelical voting block.

Therefore, the “evangelical vote” is loosely defined on things other than church membership. It includes white people with right-wing political loyalties who attend church with some regularity but with many exceptions. It has a strange mix of covert or overt racism, rural anger at urbanites, demand for tax cuts, unrelenting criticism for public schools, and a patriotic bent that idealizes America of the past. Hot buttons for the “evangelical” voter are support for America’s military and for the nation of Israel. For politicos, the “evangelical vote” may include conservative Catholics and Mormons, distinctions lost on national media and pundits.

At Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) meetings, this is evident. There is a large block of members, perhaps the majority, who seem unable to understand that not all the members are right-wing Republicans. For some, the message seems to be that if there are disagreements here, the non-right-wing Republicans should resign their memberships for it is impossible to separate the society from politics. To me, this is seen in two specific events, one in 2015 and one in 2016.

First event: In 2015, the business meeting of the ETS was used to pass four resolutions relating to gay marriage and sexual identity. (See Stanley Gundry’s analysis of this situation here.) These resolutions covered topics that have been studied and debated within the society for many years. It seemed in 2015 as if the time for debate or disagreement was declared over, and the majority conclusions in these areas were now required areas of orthodoxy for ETS members.

I was unable to attend this meeting, held in Atlanta, but would have voted “no” on the resolutions. This is not because I fundamentally disagreed with their intent (although one of the unspoken agendas is to deny women an equal role to men in church leadership). It is because this is not what the ETS exists for. Gay marriage (which I do not support) has become a political issue. Let us keep studying and presenting a biblical answer to this issue for public use, but there is nothing in the stated purpose of the ETS that either expects or even allows for this sort of action, unprecedented in its history as far as I know. I do not want the ETS to be seen as politically partisan and I am saddened that many members have no concept of separating the ETS from political frays.

Second event: In 2016, the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia gave an opportunity for President Obama to appoint a justice to the highest court. In defiance of the Constitution, this nomination was blocked without a hearing. Many evangelicals saw this unprecedented maneuver as a victory, hoping a new President would appoint a justice who would participate in a reversal of Rowe v. Wade, the decision that legalized abortion in America. The evangelical politicians who claimed to be “constitutionalists” were hypocritically comfortable with this disregard for the intent of the Constitution when it suited their religious and political agenda. I think this will be regretted. There is more at stake in Supreme Court personnel than the abortion issue: pro- or anti-business decisions, voter suppression laws, etc. I believe we will need to weather an intense constitutional crisis before we ever see a new member on the nation’s highest court. Many evangelicals will think this is worth the fight no matter how destructive that battle may be.

This attitude is exemplified by politicians who campaign on the promise to “go to Washington and fight,” an appealing message to many evangelicals. Politics is a battleground, not a system (however flawed) to elect leaders who will govern the nation. This may be understood in biblical ways: challenging the Pharaoh, denouncing the corrupt and heretical kings of Israel, resisting the hostile Roman empire; all seen as exemplars for citizens fighting against their own government.

Let illustrate this in my own state. The current governor, Pete Ricketts, is widely praised, even admired, by evangelicals in the state of Nebraska. He wins support by promising to cut property taxes (even while the state is facing a $900M budget deficit, huge for Nebraska). He led a voter referendum to repeal the legislature’s vote to abolish the death penalty in the state, even contributing from his own vast fortune for this purpose. He gives the appearance of fighting the government for conservative voters (even though he is the government). These are moves applauded by many evangelicals. But Ricketts is not an evangelical, he is a Roman Catholic. The religious connections with evangelical church-goers is weak, the political connection is strong.

The separation of faith and politics is nearly impossible for some, and politics is often the trump card.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The views in this blog are those of the author, not his employer.

The State of Evangelicalism 2017, Five Issues, Part 1: Biblical Authority

evangelicalism-2017Rapid change is the norm for now. This includes politics, economics, social standards, and ways of communicating. Irony abounds. Distrust of the “mainstream media” is countered by the proliferation and acceptance of “fake news.” Social media is hated and loved by the same audience.

What about the evangelical Christian world? Where does it stand as we begin 2017? Is it in a period of rapid change?

The modern evangelical movement came out of post-WWII reactions to the modernist-fundamentalist controversies of the early part of the 20th century, battles somewhat suspended during the Great Depression and the second world war. One of its enduring post-war expressions is the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), founded in 1949 to define and defend the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and to do biblical and theological research among a community of scholars who accepted this doctrine.

I have been member of the ETS for over twenty years and have attended a dozen of the annual meetings. As a Ph.D., I am a full voting member of the Society, one of about 4,000. Since I joined, I have been fascinated by the social aspects of the ETS: the influence of certain members, the uneasy alliances, the method of dealing with those seen as threats, the integration of new generations of scholars, and the growing influence of publishing houses (among other things). My analysis of the current state of evangelicalism is based on the shifting tides of the ETS as well as other personal observations. Here are five things I believe define evangelicalism in 2017.

1. Biblical authority is an increasingly empty claim for evangelicals.

The ETS stream of evangelicalism was based on two presuppositions concerning the Bible. First, the Bible spoke with God’s authority and was therefore the final word in all matters for humans. Second, the Bible was without mistakes in any and all matters (inerrant). Therefore, churches, families, and society itself should be ordered around teachings of the Bible.

Of course, the rub is that the Bible must be interpreted in order to be used. This has always been a weakness in evangelical scholars (see #3 in two weeks), for proof-texting and systematizing were widely used. The problem with proof-texting in particular was that it allowed the choice of some texts and the ignoring of other texts when one wanted to use the Bible as an authoritative guide.

On the congregational level, this picking and choosing is more evident than ever. Some large churches avoid teaching on the prohibitions and expectations of Scripture so as not to alienate congregants and (especially) visitors. God is love, not justice or judgment. Even when biblical standards are taught, they are widely ignored by members. Example: there is little difference in rates of divorce or premarital sex between evangelicals and the general population.

A few years ago, I was “working” at a Starbucks and overheard an interesting conversation between two young mothers who had just dropped off their children at school. One said, “I hear you and your family have been attending _____ Church. Do you believe all that stuff they teach? They are radicals in so many social issues, so out of step with modern society!” Answer, “Well, we don’t believe any of that stuff, but they have good programs for our kids.”

This is certainly no endorsement of biblical authority in the lives of members of a very large and well-know evangelical church.

Next week: 2. Separation of politics and faith is increasingly difficult.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and in no way are intended to speak for his employer.