How Can Evangelicals Be Right and Yet Get it So Wrong?

March 12, 2013 — Leave a comment

I’ve been talking with my dad about the state of Christianity in America. My dad is a well-known youth evangelist who in his thirty plus years of ministry has lead thousands of people to the Lord.  But in recent years he’s become increasingly concerned about the church’s growing superficiality.

For example, he’s been asking Christians, both young and old, “why did Jesus have to die?”

The typical answer he hears is of course, “To save us from our sins.”

“So why couldn’t God just forgive?” He responds.


At this point most are at a loss.  He’s seen it over and over again – even among life-long believers and leaders in the church.

But of course our shallowness is more than just anecdotal.  In 2005, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in a comprehensive study identified a new belief system among otherwise fervent “Christian” teenagers which they termed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

  • Moralistic” because their Christian faith was primarly about living a moral life.
  • Therapeutic” because it’s aim was for them to feel good about themselves and therefore didn’t include things like “repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering…”
  • Deistic” because God is viewed as “one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs—especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved.”

Some of you might be thinking, “Hey wait a minute!  I’m a Christian.  And that’s what I believe!”

I know.  It does sound a lot like what people call Christianity today.  You’ve heard it said, “It’s not a religion its a relationship.”

Of course I’m not blaming you or your church.  It might just be the “Gospel” most churches appear to teach.

Think about it.  What happens if an American who knows absolutely nothing about Jesus or the Bible is suddenly provided a banquet of nothing but the “Gospel” – What Trevin Wax calls the story for an individual?

  • All have sinned.
  • Sin deserves death.
  • But Jesus died for our sins.
  • Believe in Jesus and your sins will be forgiven.
  • Now be a good person.

That is the Gospel!  And yet it’s NOT the Gospel. It’s the Gospel without an essential context.   It’s a summary for a people who already know the bigger story.

But without a clear presentation of that larger story, the new believer is left to fill in the gaps in that summary with what our culture values the most – Self!

Now shake self and that summary together and Voila!

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.   Jesus died so we don’t have to feel guilty.

My point is that it just may be our over emphasis on the Gospel as told for the individual which is to blame for the anemic state of the church.  Jesus + nothing does equal everything but in another sense it leads a real state of confusion.  We need to emphasize the Gospel without ignorning this bigger picture.

Here’s how Fred Sanders in His book The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything puts it.

When evangelicalism wanes into an anemic condition, as it sadly has in recent decades, it happens in this way: the point of emphasis are isolated from the main body of Christian truth and handled as if they are the whole story rather than the key points.  Instead of teaching the full counsel of God (incarnation, ministry of healing and teaching, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and second coming), anemic evangelicalism simply shouts its one point of emphasis louder and louder (the cross! the cross! the cross!).  But in isolation from the total matrix of Christian truth, the cross doesn’t make the right kind of sense.  A message about nothing but the cross is not emphatic.  It is reductionist.  The rest of the matrix matters: the death of Jesus is salvation partly because of the new life he lived after it, and above all because of the eternal background in which he is the eternal Son of the eternal Father.  You do not need to say all of those things at all times, but you need to have a felt sense of their force behind the things you do say.  When that felt sense is not present, or is not somehow communicated to the next generation, emphatic evangelicalism becomes reductionist evangelicalism.

Emphatic evangelicalism can be transformed into reductionist evangelicalism in less than a generation and then become self-perpetuating.  People who grow up under the influence of reductionist evangelicalism suffer, understandably, from some pretty perplexing disorientation.  They are raised on “Bible, cross, conversion, and heaven” as the whole Christian message, and they sense that there must be more than that.  They catch a glimpse of this “more” in Scripture but aren’t sure where it belongs. They hear it in the hymns, but it is drowned out by the repetition of the familiar.  They find extended discussions of it in older authors, but those very authors also reinforce what they’ve been surrounded by all along:  that the most important things in the Christian message are Bible, cross, conversion, and heaven.  Inside of reductionist evangelicalism, everything you hear is right, but somehow it comes out all wrong.

What do you think?  Is it an over emphasis on the Gospel told for the individual partly to blame for Evangelicalism’s superficiality?  And if so what other things might be essential to a fuller picture of the Gospel?

Matthew Scott Miller

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