I think that I’ve mentioned before in this forum that a relative took me on a tour of his church’s newly constructed “praise center” roughly a decade or so ago. I had been removed from my childhood evangelical faith for more than quarter century, and I was a bit shocked by what I saw.
The church lacked most everything that I associated with conventional Christian worship – an altar and a cross, tapestry, even stained class – all those things to which I had grown accustomed after leaving my childhood Southern Baptist faith in the early 1980’s as a twenty-something college student.
It was a massive space with what seemed to be faux wood paneling, all constructed around a pulpit and a large screen. I was troubled by it – and all through this tour, I was reminded of something, but I couldn’t fully settle on just what it was.
A Funereal Atmosphere
Than a few days later, the thought occurred to me: The interior of this praise center and the surrounding concourse reminded me of a funeral home. And why shouldn’t it? Praise Christianity is in the business of delivering a product, essentially in the form of an emotional high. There is little connection to faith as it has traditionally been expressed, at least within the context of historic Christianity – no acknowledgement of the deep historical connections of the faith, reflected in stained glass, tapestry, vestments and other liturgical enhancements. No, this is simply about the individual’s personal relationship with God and how he/she feels about this relationship and, moreover, how this relationship will be enhanced by the experience of the praise worship.
Think about it: Much of Christian worship today is clinical by its very nature. It’s no different from any other environment aimed at providing the user with the optimal emotional experience – funeral homes and psychological counseling centers, for example.
A Tendency for Burnout
As I’ve argued before, there is a tendency in these environments for burnout. And, consequently, praise churches are compelled to experiment with and adopt new practices to reverse this sense of burnout. But sooner or later, the bag of tricks is exhausted.
I was reminded of this while reading a fascinating piece about how the modern evangelical church has unreservedly knitted together pop culture and scripture to reach rising generations of the un-churched through one of the old evangelical standbys: Vacation Bible School.
I read just recently the argument that DNA is likely prevalent throughout universe and likely the building block of all life because it is a molecule perfectly suited to self-organizing for life.
It seems to me that the DNA of evangelical Christianity – the simplified bibliocentric Christianity that grew out of the American frontier experience – worked for a very long time in the South and throughout much of the old American Back Country, even well into the 1970s, when I as a child growing up in a downtown Baptist church in northwest Alabama.
Yet, this DNA no longer seems to be yielding optimal results. The exodus from many evangelical churches, particularly Southern Baptist churches, that has occurred within the last generation or so speaks volumes to that fact.
Having lived 32 years in Auburn, Alabama, a university town teeming with lots of deep readers and thinkers, I’m struck by how far removed many adult Southerners are from their evangelical roots. The stuff that they were taught as children no longer speaks to them as adults in any meaningful way.
The local First Baptist Church in Auburn broke its ties with the Southern Baptist Convention years ago, and now affiliates with the progressive, Jimmy Carter-inspired Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Their current statement of faith is interesting, if only on the basis of its nebulousness:
“Founded in 1838, Auburn First Baptist Church is a free and faithful congregation of Christians, and a unique place of faith, learning, and ministry. We uphold the historic Baptist principles of soul competency, congregational autonomy and voluntary cooperation. It is our sincere desire to get to know you, to share in your gifts, to learn from you, and to contribute to your spiritual journey.”
I mentioned to a close friend last week that I heard the phrase “God is dead” by Baptist preachers frequently while I was growing up. The phrase was dropped so often in sermons that I became very curious about its underlying meaning. Needless to say, long before the advent of the Internet I had no way of understanding that term other than what I garnered from the infrequent allusions to it picked up from television. Our local library yielded no such insight – nor, for that matter, did my World Book encyclopedias.
Of course, I asked adults authority figures about it but was inevitably told that it was simply an expression of Satan’s unremitting desire to undermine God’s eternal plan.
Yet, today any bright, questioning child growing up in any conservative faith tradition can acquire a working knowledge of that Nietzschean term and, in the course of which, a dissident mindset relatively quickly, providing he or she has relatively unsupervised access to a laptop or smartphone.
Through the advent of digital media, rank-and-file humanity finally has been provided with the means of ascertaining answers to vexing spiritual questions. As my closeted agnostic father once observed, conservative religion no longer can operate on the basis of “mushroom management theory”: “Keeping followers in the dark, while periodically feeding them sh*t.”
Two Challenges for the Evangelical Church
Reflecting on all of this, the thought occurs to me that my childhood faith tradition, the Southern Baptists, and other faiths born of the frontier Christian religious legacy face two challenges, one old, the other relatively more recent.
First, evangelical Christianity has always functioned as a sort of parasitization of historical Christianity. Christianity has a very long and rather convoluted history, but it did not assume the form we know today until around 400 ACE, following the canonization of scriptures and the formal adoption of creeds. Evangelical churches can claim to be New Testament churches, but virtually everything that they take for granted as defining their faith is extracted from historic Christianity. And, yes, by historic Christianity, I mean Catholic Christianity, though I also include the Reformation Christian tradition that followed.
Second, evangelical Christianity has blithely and wantonly ignored what arguably should be regarded as one of the most significant chapters in the history of Christianity and, for that matter, the history of religion in generation. I’m speaking here of the roughly 200-year-old insights garnered from the critical study of ancient texts and from biblical archaeology.
We have learned a lot from this research and, frankly, many of the findings challenge the very foundations of historical Christianity. And for that reason, the case that Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong and others have made that the Christian faith must come to terms with this multitude of discoveries and evolve accordingly is a valid one. Otherwise, Christianity likely will be consigned to a slow but inexorable extinction.
Speaking as one who grew up in the evangelical Christian faith and who still harbors an immense amount of respect for its cultural legacy, I have to confess that I do find this scholarship fascinating and even inspirational in many cases, and I don’t consider it a roadblock to one’s living a satisfied and fulfilled life.
For me personally, undertaking a systematic study of this scholarship has helped me mature as a human being and to get on with life.
I moved on with life, while retaining a strong identity as a cultural Christian, and I suspect that there are many ex-evangelicals and even practicing evangelical Christians who are struggling to do likewise.