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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

The Church On Sinking Sands

Jul 7, 2014

One advantage of getting a bit older is that the helpful tool of hindsight kicks in, and perspective is enhanced over the flow of years. You start to see the bigger picture, even if just over the period of your own lifetime. You can look back and notice what has changed and what has stayed the same.

I became a Christian in the US back in 1971, and I have been in the evangelical Protestant camp ever since. So my remarks here are mainly about American evangelicalism, although similar sorts of things could be said about other Western forms of evangelicalism.

quicksandObviously many things do not remain the same. Culture changes, society changes, and institutions change. The church is an institution – among other things – which certainly should not change, in some ways, while being able to change in others.

Obviously its core beliefs and message should not change. But its methods can and at times should change, to make the unchanging message more accessible to modern ears. The problem is, the surrounding culture often has far too much impact on the church, instead of the church having an impact on the culture.

Too often the world squeezes the church into its mould. Too often the church therefore capitulates, accommodates, compromises and sells out the gospel message in order to fit in with the world around it. When that happens we are all in big trouble indeed.

Having been an evangelical now for 43 years, I can see this process happening all over the place. I can see churches selling out, I can see Christian groups compromising, and I can see individual believers losing the plot, if not losing the faith.

I have seen many fellow Christians come and go over the years. Far too many have tragically rejected their faith altogether. So being able to see changes over a long period of time helps us in our understanding of why the church is the way it is, and to see if it is getting further off course or not.

And it also helps when we can hear the perspective of other believers as well. One American evangelical, theologian, and Baptist pastor has just recently discussed these very matters. Born just a year before I was, Roger Olson has also been observing and assessing the evangelical community, and noticing the many changes along the way.

A few weeks ago he offered an article on his observations. I can relate to many of the points he raises. Indeed, he offers ten areas which demonstrate “How American Evangelical Christianity Has Changed…” Australian evangelicals and others may be able to relate to much of this.

He mentions some of his “credentials” here:

I’ve been in the “thick” of evangelicalism my whole life. I attended an evangelical college and an evangelical seminary. I have taught at three evangelical institutions. I have served as editor of an evangelical journal and on the editorial board of Christianity Today. I have published articles in evangelical magazines and journals and had books published by evangelical publishers.

He then says this: “In my seventh decade of life and being an evangelical I look back and wonder what has happened to evangelical Christianity during my lifetime. It has changed so dramatically it’s hardly recognizable. What are the most dramatic changes?” Let me share a few of his points with you:

First, when I was growing up and well into my early adult years evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on the return of Jesus Christ. I almost never hear or read anything about that anymore. We evangelicals seem to have dropped that—not as a doctrine but as something we look forward to and talk, sing and preach about. Now, it seems, only crazy fundamentalist “date-setters” even talk about the return of Christ.
Second, and related to “first,” when I was growing up and into my early adult years evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on heaven and hell. I almost never hear or read anything about that anymore. We evangelicals seem to have dropped that—not as doctrine but as something we look forward to (heaven) and talk, sing or preach about.
Third, when I was growing up and well into my early adult years evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on missions and evangelism—including “witnessing to the lost.” I almost never hear anything about those anymore. We evangelicals seem to have dropped those—not as things that would be good to do but as things we talk about and actually do….

Eighth, when I was growing up…evangelical Christianity in America prepared its people, especially young people, for persecution and expected it. We fully expected that someday, probably in our own lifetimes, society and even government would arrest us and possibly even torture us for our fervent loyalty to Jesus Christ above “this world.” When I watched on TV the ATF assault on the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco and the ensuing FBI siege of the compound and eventual attack on it with a tank and gas I thought to myself: “That’s what we evangelicals used to expect would happen to us—someday.” I don’t know how many evangelical youth events I participated in where we pretended to be a group of Christians worshiping in secret only to have other members of the youth group “break in” (pretending to be government agents) and “arrest” us. That was a common practice in evangelical youth groups in the 1950s and 1960s. It was evangelical churches’ way of preparing their youth for persecution which they should experience on some level even now (then) if they were being “good Christians” in public (at school). I haven’t heard any talk of persecution among evangelicals for many years (except in other countries).
Ninth, when I was growing up…evangelical Christians knew their Bibles forward and backward. Any evangelical worth his or her salt had read the Bible “through in a year” at least once. “Family devotions” were normal and expected among evangelicals and it included the father or mother reading a chapter or more from the Bible before or after dinner. Most evangelical churches engaged in “Bible quizzing” with the youth. (The churches I grew up in even had elaborate contests between teams of youth sitting on electric pads on chairs that buzzed when you lifted your butt off them. A contestant whose pad buzzed and caused a light to go on on a light board had to answer the Bible question which often involved quoting a verse if not a chapter from memory.) Evangelical churches emphasized Bible memorization. Every good evangelical had a “life verse” he or she could quote at the drop of a hat. All that has gone away. The vast majority of evangelicals, in my experience, know very little about the Bible and never memorize any portion of it. Evangelical sermons are as likely to quote Dr. Seuss as Paul the Apostle.
Tenth, and finally, when I was growing up…evangelical Christians talked a lot about “the blood of Jesus.” Liberal minister-theologian Harry Emerson Fosdick called it “slaughterhouse religion.” We had “passion plays” in our churches on the Sunday night before Good Friday. We sang songs that included lyrics about Jesus’ blood. We “pleaded the blood” over our cars before lengthy road trips. (Now that’s called praying for “traveling mercies.”) We were not ashamed or embarrassed about the blood of Jesus. In fact, whether a church used that language or not was one marker identifying evangelicals over against “mainline religion.” Those “mainliners” didn’t like to talk about the blood of Jesus. It offended their sensibilities. I haven’t heard “the blood of Jesus” mentioned in an evangelical setting in a long time.

I agree with his closing paragraph, so I will make it mine as well:

So what conclusions do I draw from all this change? Some of it may be for the better. We 1950s evangelicals had obsessions that were probably unhealthy. However, on the other hand, taking it all together, I suspect we American evangelicals have become “comfortable in Zion”—a phrase that we used about mainline Christians (who weren’t really Christians at all) to describe how their religion was non-threatening to themselves or anyone else. And by “threatening” I don’t mean we thought Christianity ought to be physically threatening, but we did think authentic Christianity should shake people’s comfort in this world and focus their attention on sacrifice and separation.

www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2014/06/how-american-evangelical-christianity-has-changed/#ixzz36XHZlbX4

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6 Responses to The Church On Sinking Sands

  • So true.
    Sadly, those with 40 years of experience are now considered too old to be ‘actually’ relevant in such a modern world.
    Youth is in, age is out.

  • Some really good points there, Bill. The modern Christian Youth Group seems to be more about having fun, playing music and less about knowing the Bible.

  • Hmm, plenty to think about, and agree with.

    But I would quibble a little about the over-emphasis on “the blood of Jesus”, taking my cue from Eph 5:25-27:

    Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

    Thus we are washed with water, not with blood.

    Some expressions have become mantras, as in “pleading the blood” which needs to be unpacked as a shorthand representation of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice on the Cross, followed by His victorious Resurrection. It remains valid, but we need to beware of pseudo-magical incantations.

  • Thanks John. But given the many hundreds of times the Bible speaks about the overwhelming importance of the blood, and how very vital it is, I don’t really think we can overemphasize it too much. Without the shed blood of Christ there is no salvation, etc.

    The fact that some people might wrongly use the term is no more reason to minimise it, than the fact that some people might wrongly use the term “word’ and therefore we must minimise it.

    So we can never over-emphasise the word blood, when used properly and biblically.

    And even something like the phrase “plead the blood” must be understood in context. For most believers this of course is simply nothing more than Christianese shorthand for something like, “I rely upon the benefits made available to me because of the finished work of Christ at Calvary, and his blood shed for me”. So in that sense there is no magic here at all. As I say, the fact that some people misuse or abuse a term is no reason to get rid of the term altogether, or unnecessarily underemphasise it. Both the words “Jesus” and “Christ” are of course also horribly abused all the time – that does not mean we should stop using these words therefore.

  • Having been a Christian for over 45 years, I can see some of the same things, and things that I don’t see are likely due to my experience being in Australia. I don’t recall ever hearing the term “plead the blood”, for example. But on one thing I do differ from Olson. I used to hear the stories of Christians in other countries, including communist ones, being persecuted, and even that those Christians sometimes prayed for more persecution in the West to make us stronger Christians. But it seemed so far away; it wouldn’t happen here. Practising for it? Never heard of it. But unlike Olsen’s comment that he hasn’t “heard any talk of persecution among evangelicals for many years (except in other countries)”, I have heard of it, both happening and likely to happen more (including from you, Bill). In that respect, my experience is the complete opposite of Olsen’s.

    But one point that Olsen doesn’t make, and possibly because the church had already capitulated before his time so he didn’t see the change, is the influence of the secular views of deep time and evolution, which, in the words of Oxford academic Sherwood Taylor, had “changed [England] from a Christian to a pagan nation”. These secular views masquerading as science have long ago infiltrated the church, and these views directly contradict biblical teaching, having the effect of undermining its authority. So it starts in Genesis, and having compromised there, seeps through the rest of the Bible. As a friend of mine said to himself before he became a Christian, “why should I believe in a book that science has shown to be wrong?”.

    So even for many Christians, the Bible is no longer as authoritative as it used to be. And so the rot starts, and we are seeing the fruits of it.

  • Well having come to know Christ as a child 65 years ago in an evangelical Methodist Church where our Sunday School studied the Bible, memorised verses and catechism and even took SS Exams up to 15 years of age, I see major changes of emphasis in the Church today, especially in teaching the young. And then at 15 we went to Bible Class for 2 years and attended Adult Sunday School thereafter, none of which was compulsory but we just loved to learn more of God. Christian Endeavour was a further time of learning, practicing and outreaching our faith. Our Church had weekly Prayer meetings and Bible Studies in homes, and prayer always accompanied every church event, even concerts, picnics and other outings. The whole church met for a monthly Fellowship Tea – simple fair really, but great fellowship with singing afterwards and usually a Missionary speaker with a challenging message to full-time service for Christ. The other Sundays we had a Youth Tea with Bible Study, prayer and testimonies as to what the Lord had been doing in our lives and prayer for any challenges we were facing as Christians.( We fully expected to face challenges and to make sacrifices in following Christ.) We then had an Open Air meeting down in the shopping centre before church testifying and inviting people to know Christ and come with us to church. The God of the Bible was alive in us and a vital part of our lives and we were not ashamed of Him and the gospel message “which was the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes”. Testimonies to the changing power of Christ in people’s lives were also a feature in our worship services. Needless to say many lives were changed in that time and we were very involved in the Billy Graham Crusade in 1959 which also had a lasting affect on many lives.
    I heard on the ABC today that the culture of the world today is very narcissistic and I thought that is why so many new hymns are full of me, my and I, not Thee, Thou and You (God). Not that I don’t love to personally praise and worship God for he is our personal Saviour and Lord but so often today we dwell on what we want, we know and we feel and not enough on who He is and knowing Him.
    I agree with Philip that faith in the God of the Bible has been watered down even in our churches in light of the supposed “superior scientific” understanding of the evolutionary theory of how the world began and the modern moral relativism that is taught in our schools. So that even the fact of our falling short of God’s standards and being sinners and being in need of salvation, has been downplayed to a gospel of God is good and we must love everybody and be an influence for good in our society. The full impact of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross which necessitated the shedding of His blood as the only acceptable atonement for sin is often lost in the more aesthetic Christ loved us and gave himself for us. Actually a sheep farmer told us once when studying the cleansing power of Jesus blood that when farmers are mulesing lambs ie is cutting off tails, they would wash their hands in the blood because it has a bleaching effect and made them clean and white.Reminds me of an old chorus, “O far whiter than the snow, washed in Jesus blood I know, that from temper, anger, selfishness and pride he can make me free today if I look to Him and say, ‘Lord Jesus Thou hast died.’
    I long to see Christians better versed in the Bible and a knowledge of Christ (in heart and head) eager to share the gospel of salvation and strong to defend the Truth of the Bible. Hope this is not too long and I don’t wish to imply we had it all together and were in any ways perfect!

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