Leaving revivalism behind?

Christianity Today has posted a fascinating article by Gordon T. Smith, excerpted from his essay on “Conversion and Redemption” in the Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology.  The Handbook itself is a fantastic resource, though it is terribly expensive.  Thankfully the libraries I have access to have bought the electronic version.   Included in the Handbook are articles by my dissertation director, Ephraim Radner, on the church, and a chapter on spiritual gifts by Howard Snyder, who has been a mentor to me and many other Canadian Wesleyan theological students during his tenure as Chair of Wesley Studies at Tyndale Seminary.

Smith’s article argues that evangelical understandings of conversion are changing dramatically, and that a common feature that can be seen in the wide variety of changes in this regard is that, across the board, revivalism is being left behind:

It is not be an overstatement to say that evangelicals are experiencing a “sea change”—a paradigm shift—in their understanding of conversion and redemption, a shift that includes the way in which they think about the salvation of God, the nature and mission of the church, and the character of religious experience. Although there is no one word to capture where evangelicals are going in this regard, there is a word that captures what they are leaving behind: revivalism.

Smith offers a sketch of the ways that revivalism has impacted evangelicalism’s understanding of conversion: the focus on a dramatic one-time experience, often crystallized in the the saying of the “sinner’s prayer”; the emphasis on the afterlife; the practical distinction between “evangelism” and “disciple-making,” the emphasis on numeric growth, and so on.

He then traces how developments in evangelical thinking in a number of different fields have challenged the revivalistic assumptions which characterized much of 20th century evangelicalism.  New ideas in biblical studies, new approaches to religious experience, ecumenical influences, the changing face of global Christianity, and an increased interest in learning from Christian history have all combined to undermine the revivalist understanding of conversion.

Increasingly, there is appreciation that conversion is a complex experience by which a person is initiated into a common life with the people of God who together seek the in-breaking of the kingdom, both in this life and in the world to come. This experience is mediated by the church and thus necessarily includes baptism as a rite of initiation. The power or energy of this experience is one of immediate encounter with the risen Christ—rather than principles or laws—and this experience is choreographed by the Spirit rather than evangelistic techniques. Evangelicals are reappropriating the heritage of the Reformation with its emphasis on the means of grace, and thereby affirming the priority of the Spirit’s work in religious experience.

The excerpt ends with Smith pointing to the deeper issues that this sea-change will raise for evangelical thinking about the church.

The only question that remains, then, is whether evangelicals will trust these instincts and devote themselves to Christ-centered worship and kingdom-oriented mission. Will this be evident in deep trust that God will do God’s work in God’s time? To trust the work of God is to trust the Spirit and this necessarily means that the church trusts the Word—the Scriptures preached—as the essential means of grace and conversion.

This begs the question of what it means to be the church. The evangelical tradition is at a fork in the road and, given this sea change in the understanding of conversion and redemption, the most crucial issue at stake is what it means to be a congregation. Evangelicals will only be able to navigate these waters if they can formulate a dynamic theology of the church that reflects the Triune character of God, the means of grace—Spirit and Word—and a radical orientation in mission toward the kingdom of God.

The article is well worth a read.   I think it helpfully draws together and summarizes some of the important developments that are taking place in contemporary evangelical thinking.  While revivalism’s legacy includes many positive things, some aspects of revivalist thinking are deeply suspect, and a critical re-evaluation of its influence is most certainly needed.   This was, in part, what I was trying to do in my article “Five Ways to Improve SA Worship” –  I was highlighting the way in which Salvationist worship has been shaped by a kind of “routinized revivalism,” and arguing that there are aspects of this heritage that need to be jettisoned.  The same kind of thing is happening on a much larger scale, and in relation to a broad range of topics.  It is hard to say where any of this is going to end up, but I think this change in thinking about conversion certainly has potential to bear fruit in a genuine renewal of evangelical mission and theology.

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Ecclesial homelessness

Some comments here from Stanley Hauerwas on “ecclesial homelessness,” an increasingly familiar situation for many people today.   What he means by describing himself as “ecclesially homeless” is that he isn’t clearly rooted in one particular Christian tradition.   As he says here, he considers himself to be a Methodist.  But, as he accounts in his memoir, he has attended a variety of churches over the years, including a Catholic church while he taught at Notre Dame, and the Anglican church where he worships today (and where his wife, a Methodist pastor, serves on the pastoral staff).   Here are his thoughts, from a Christianity Today interview last Fall:

I call myself an ecclesial whore. I don’t know why God made some of us ecclesially homeless. I would like to think it has some ecumenical promise. Let me be clear: I am a Methodist. By that, I mean I think John Wesley was a recovery of Catholic Christianity through disciplined congregational life. Therefore, now that I am a communicant in the Church of the Holy Family [Episcopal Church], I understand myself still to be Methodist because I think the Episcopal Church is the embodiment of much that Wesley cared about. I think that’s true in much of Roman Catholicism. I don’t think any of us should look to Christian unity by thinking we can heal divisions of the past by some kind of artificial agreement. But by going forward, trying to live faithful to the charisms [gifts] within our ecclesial identifications, God hopefully will bring us into unity.

Hauerwas seems to suggest here that being Methodist doesn’t necessarily mean worshiping in a Methodist Church.   He can, as he says, live faithful to the charisms of his Methodist identity while being a communicant at Holy Family.

There are many today who find themselves in similar situations.  I personally know of Methodists worshiping at Presbyterian churches, Mennonites at Anglican churches, and Lutherans at Reformed churches.   I myself continue to identify as a Salvationist, though I presently worship at a Free Methodist church.

The lines of denominational demarcation are getting blurrier, but what does it all mean?  Are we entering a post-denominational landscape?  Do people even care about traditional differences of doctrine, worship, and polity, which were so divisive in the past?

With Hauerwas, I think this new situation has some ecumenical promise, although I also worry that it is due, at least in part, to cynical apathy regarding any kind of formal institutions.    The promising thing is that walls are coming down, and people are willing to worship, fellowship, and serve with people from another denominational background without thinking much about it.  In this sense, people on the ground are actually way ahead of their denominational institutions, which often remain relatively isolated.

The danger, of course, is that there are some real historical disagreements which should be aired out and discussed, rather than ignored through an easy ecumenism which treats differences as unimportant.

There’s something more to Hauerwas’ comment here, though, as it relates to the whole idea of ecclesial charisms.  He presumes that a Christian person can live out the charisms of one historic tradition while being part of a community that is based in another tradition (hence his status as a Methodist communicant in an Anglican parish).   I’m not sure how much he has thought about this, but it seems he presumes (as I am arguing in my dissertation) that charisms are personal, even when they are identified with a community like Methodism.

That is, properly speaking, the Methodist charisms are not borne by the Methodist community as a whole, but by the persons who call themselves Methodist.  The communal aspects of Methodism might encourage and cultivate those charisms, but at the end of the day, persons are the bearers of the diverse vocational charismata.

In that sense, it should be quite possible for a person to exercise one ecclesial charism in a context which is not normally identified with that charism.  Actually, I would say that this would make more sense than isolating large numbers of people with a particular charism from other parts of the church!

This is also why Methodism was intended in Wesley’s day to exist as a leaven in the Church of England, not as an independent church.   Though the Methodists were to have their own gatherings, which came in various forms, they were to remain within the church, worshiping alongside others in the C of E on Sundays, where the gifts that they brought could excite a renewal among the established structures.

This all might seem pretty far removed from the contemporary issue of “ecclesial homelessness,” but I think there could be a connection, and the changing denominational landscape of the twenty-first century just might make such a vision of the church more plausible than it was in the previous century.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deists

Christian Smith, Notre Dame sociologist and author of some significant books on youth in North America’s churches, uses the term “moralistic therapeutic deists” to describe the default religion of our time.  Christianity Today had an interview with Smith in their October issue, in which they discussed his new book on “emerging adulthood,” Souls in Transition.  He’s got some really interesting things to say about young adults and the Church. I wish the book had been published earlier, as I’d already finished up my young adult project for the SA when Souls in Transition hit the shelves.  For example, his typology of emerging adults might have got me thinking in different ways about how I might have summarized my interviews.  He breaks down the population of young adults as follows (found on p. 36 of the print edition on CT but not in the online article):

  • Committed traditionalists (15%)
  • Selective adherents (30%)
  • Spiritually open (15%)
  • Religiously indifferent (25%)
  • Religiously disconnected (5%)
  • Irreligious (10%)

Maybe in another post I’ll speculate as to how these categories play out among young adults in The Salvation Army.

Right now I’m interested in this idea of “moralistic therapeutic deists”, because I think it is a great description of the default religion of our day. While Smith’s research indicates that some young adults are questioning the moralistic therapeutic deist framework, it still remains the dominant form of religious practice:

With Soul Searching, you found that most U.S. teens are Moralistic Therapeutic Deists (MTD). They believe in a benevolent God unattached to a particular tradition who is there mostly to help with personal problems. Are emerging adults still MTDS?

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is still the de facto practiced religious faith, but it becomes a little more complicated for emerging adults. They have more life experience, so some of them are starting to ask, “Does MTD really work? Isn’t life more complicated than this?” MTD is easier to believe and practice when you are in high school.

It’s good that today’s young adults are questioning popular religion, but the majority still practice their religion within a moralistic therapeutic framework.  By “the de facto practiced religious faith” Smith means the “cultural Christianity” of North America, but we shouldn’t think that by this he means Christianity of “the culture” as opposed to Christianity found in the churches.  It’s the pop Christianity of both Church and culture – not found in all churches but certainly preached and practiced in many.  Moralistic therapeutic deism is the default framework through which Christians interpret their lives and their faith.

So what is “moralistic therapeutic deism”?  (These are my thoughts, not Smith’s; I’m trying explain his terminology in terms of what I see in the culture.)

Moralistic: religion is basically about being a good person.  This could be taken in a number of directions. For example, a moralist religion might envision God as rewarding “good Christians” for their good actions.  They might support the popular notion that people who are basically good are going to go to heaven.   This doesn’t mean that young adults believe in absolute moral standards.  They are more likely to think of morality in relative terms, as this recent Knights of Columbus poll of Catholic millenials shows (82% say morals are relative).  Yet somehow “being a good person” remains the foundation of religious practice, even while a plurality of competing moral visions are accepted. The problem with moralism is not that it supports a moral vision, but that it makes morality the foundation of religion, rather than the saving action of God in Christ.  Salvation includes transformation, and of course it includes moral transformation.  But our moral behaviour is the result of God’s action. God’s action does not come in response to our moral behaviour.  North American churches are full of moralism.

Therapeutic: religion takes on the form of pop psychology.  In other words, God is there to help me get through my day (see my reference to the personal assistant God in a previous post).  Or, God is there to help me “reach my potential,” and “become a better me.”   Religion as therapy is about personal fulfillment, and meeting “my needs.”   God is domesticated and placed “at our service” as we journey on the road to personal “success” – whether that be in business, family life, or (as above) becoming a good religious person.  This kind of therapeutic Christianity often takes the form of psychological strategies or practical “life skills” by which we can attempt to manage our personal lives.

[I do think salvation has a therapeutic dimension, but not in the contemporary psychological sense of therapy. Wesley’s soteriology is often described as “therapeutic” as opposed to forensic.  This means that he saw salvation as entailing a process of healing as well as a declaration of justification.  Salvation is not simply about being declared righteous in Christ, but about being conformed to his likeness and renewed in the image of God.  This includes the re-directing of our desires toward their intended godly ends.   The key difference here is that the “therapy” in this case is christologically determined, and not based on a program of “self-fulfillment.”  In fact, “self-fulilment” would be the opposite of the divine therapy that the Spirit works in conforming us to Christ’s likeness.  My daily “needs” are not necessarily right and good.  Since I am totally depraved, I don’t actually know what my “needs” are.  The things I think I “need” may in fact be deadly poison.  The gospel doesn’t meet my pre-conceived needs; the “medicine” it provides also tells me what my true sickness is.  God’s mercy never comes independently of his judgment.]

Deism: This is not the same as the deism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centures, which saw God as an uninvoled creator, who got the ball rolling with creation and then just let the world take its mechanically determined course.  Moralistic therapeutic deism involves a generic concept of God, unattached to a particular religious tradition.   This God is benevolent and involved in creation, indeed he’s involved in the everyday ins and outs of our lives.  But he’s a bit abstract.  He’s the nice old guy in the sky. In other words, this deism is a far reach from the historic Christian proclamation of the particular God revealed in Biblical history.

I think we need to be constantly challenging this framework. Precisely because moralistic therapeutic deism is “the de facto practiced religious faith,” we need to hear again and again that it is not the historic Christian gospel.   People come to their faith with this basic framework already in place, and if it isn’t challenged it will remain in place.  Worse, if we tailor our preaching to moralistic therapeutic deism (which I think we often do, unwittingly), we perpetuate a vision of Christianity which is, in my view, foreign to the biblical message.

This is where I think sociological research like Smith’s can be of immense value.   Sociology is a descriptive rather than a normative discipline.  In other words sociology attempts to tell us how things are, not how they ought to be. It tells us how people behave, attempting to summarize patterns and, at times, discern causes of particular patterns of behaviour.  The Church doesn’t take its direction from sociological trends, but from the authoritative witness of scripture.  However, in understanding these trends, we can understand where people are coming from when they encounter the Christian message (including Christians themselves).   If we know that moralistic therapeutic deism is the default religion of North Americans, and we know that it is contrary to basic aspects of the gospel, how can we not respond by challenging these default assumptions?