Wednesday, December 20, 2006

What is American evangelicalism like?

I’ve been a little surprised to hear this question asked in various forms in a number churches. It surprises me on two fronts. First, I’m a little surprised that a startling number of people may be aware that American evangelicalism has it’s own unique twist. On the other hand I’m, perhaps naively, surprised at how many people don’t. I’m often asked, “So what do you notice most about being back in America” or variations like “What do you notice about the church in America now that you’re back.” Those are a little tough to answer.

Christopher Little, writing in Evangelical Missions Quarterly (subscription only) gives some good insight into answering this. While Little is writing about a better way for American missionaries to think about their work, he makes some good observations about the American church. He opens by commenting:

…there is indeed a distinct variety of American evangelical Christianity which has booth strengths and weaknesses. It is tremendously creative, efficiently organized, strategically oriented, highly energized, incredibly diverse and endowed with seemingly boundless resources…Yet is also exhibits serious shortcomings.

That’s a pretty striking statement! In truth, there are up-sides and down-sides to the way Americans “do” church. Little offers five, which are listed below. The bold titles are his, the comments after are mine. I’ve also added a sixth to his list, just to add a little personal investment into the issue.

1. Americans have a systematized theological perspective. Our culture is deeply rooted in modernism, the scientific method and critical thought. Synthesis and analysis (making a whole of its parts and breaking down a whole into its parts) are a normal part of our everyday lives. As Americans we often want a degree of theological precision that sometimes isn’t supported by the Bible. Last week I was in a Sunday School class were we discussed the make-up of humanity: is humanity spirit-soul-body or body-soul/spirit, etc. It’s a good discussion to have, but this bit of analysis (again, breaking the whole down into its parts) is very typical of American Christianity. In college I, like most theological students, study “Systematic Theology” which breaks down theology into the study of God (theology proper) Soteriology (salvation), Christology (the study of Jesus Christ), etc. There’s nothing wrong with this, but we need to understand that this is a very Western approach for studying God. What’s the downside? The downside is that theological students believe that they “know God” because they’ve studied systematic theology. Theology is divorced from spiritual development and character development.

2. Although Americans did not invent the “professionalization of ministry,” they have taken it to new levels. We’re struggling with how to do leadership development in the Balkans. What defines a pastor? What kind of school should he have? Earlier in my career I served for six years in another denomination and couldn’t be titled “pastor” (even a youth pastor) until I’d graduated from seminary with my Masters, even though I had a BA from a gen-u-ine Bible college. The early church was essentially a lay-movement. We are educationally driven, degree driven. I’m all for education, and I’m all for pastors that can organize, manage and lead a church. But that’s our way of doing it. The downside is the people of deep character, deep communion with God tend to be overlooked and undervalued.

3. American Evangelical Christianity is extremely anthropocentric. This one is a little scary. I sat in a men’s Bible Study this morning watching a DVD of a very gifted speaker. The video happened to have been shot at Christmas time and I sat stunned as he said, “Jesus isn’t the reason for the season, WE are the reason for the season.” He went on to make a decent point Scripturally, but he also serves as a great example. In the West theology and practice begins and ends with us. As Little says, “…the American Gospel starts with humanity’s need and invites God to meet it.” In our individualistic culture God is all about us. God’s agenda is all about my self-actualization, my self-improvement, my climbing the ladder. Does God love every individual person on the earth? I believe he does; I also believe that the thing most important to God is God.

4. American-style Evangelicalism has been thoroughly McDonald-ized. Calling it “unrestrained pragmatism,” Little criticizes the American church for its emphasis on program, large staff, complex facilities and big budgets. In many ways he is right on. We live in, not just a consumer-oriented society, but a consumer-centered society; the business without customers dies. The church has to function within that culture and will naturally reflect it. At the same time, it is a uniquely American tendency to franchise the effective ministries of another church. Books are written, seminars are held to duplicate effective models of doing church. There are upsides to this tendency, the downside is that we place an emphasis on reproducible human dynamics and less on sovereign movements of the Spirit of God.

5. American Christian exhibits a dichotomistic world-view. Because of our analytical orientation on life we tend to see everything as contrasts between poles. Little gives the following examples: sacred/secular, church/state, church/parachurch, clergy/laity, faith/works, evangelism/social action, sovereignty/free will, natural/supernatural, literate/illiterate and form/meaning. We might add Calvinist/Arminian, hymns/praise-choruses and liberal/conservative. These constructs aren’t necessarily wrong, but they can be misleading. Few of us would be comfortable at either pole in the above list. We generally live somewhere on a continuum though we tend to think in dichotomies. People who both think and live on continuums don’t quite fit.

6. American Christians usually assume that bigger is better than smaller and faster is better than slower. The pastor of our national partner church made his first visit to America a few years ago. When he returned he commented on how everything is big in America. From cars to bathrooms to bathtubs things just keep getting bigger and bigger. As Americans we tend to assume that bigger and faster are inherently superior to smaller and slower. Interestingly, when I make this observation to fellow Americans I’m often met with a grin and a wink…yeah, isn’t it great. The pastor, however, didn't think it was inherently good. The further away we get from an agricultural basis of our culture the further we get away from a deep understanding of national processes that cannot be hurried or magnified.

All of the above characteristics have up-sides and down-sides. Every national church assumes some of the characteristics of its host culture. This is normal and has always been the case. This isn’t an attempt to criticize the American church, but to try and describe it for those who ask.

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