A uniquely American disaster

September 23, 2011

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business , and to work with your hands as we instructed you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

1 Thessalonians 4.11-12

This has always been something of a favorite verse of mine. There’s something profoundly comforting about it–a challenge to live peaceably and without drama in the midst of a world marked by controversy and hype. There’s a steadiness that marks a life lived in a healthy rhythm of prayer, work, and rest; a steadiness that stands in marked contrast with the fits and starts of our contemporary culture. To be sure, there’s something of the contemplative about me and if I had been born a Catholic, I might wonder whether I had a vocation in the cloister.

I suppose all of the foregoing conspire to make me perpetually disappointed with the state of evangelical Christianity in North America. There is something of a fascination with the new, the loud, and the vainglorious. Nothing illustrates this disaster like the news that two “bad boys of evangelicalism” will be wife swapping on an upcoming episode of the show by that name. 

ABC News has the story here. Ted Haggard, former megachurch pastor and fan of gay liaisons with his masseuse, as well as the just plain weird Gary Busey, who apparently is a “minister” with Promise Keepers, will do the honors.  

Both men have become something of perennial train wrecks. Each of their lives has been marked by trouble of different kinds. To be sure, I feel for both men. Unfortunately, both of them have something of an insatiable appetite to be the center of attention. They appear to be nothing, to have no meaning, unless the camera and the microphone are pointed in their direction. That’s a profoundly tragic place to be because it has led both men to parade their suffering, their troubles, and their sin before the American viewing public. Ironically, this is profoundly dehumanizing.

Both men are something of a parable about evangelicalism in the United States. We have become a shadow of our former selves. We have baptized American consumer culture and claimed that it is the way of Christ. There is rot at our center. This rot will produce what the late Michael Spencer called, “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.” Spencer predicted that evangelicalism going to decline quickly to a smaller, more chastened, more diverse, less influential form. I find that statement to be hopeful–the church must experience a continuing conversion. It must experience a perpetual, deepening dependence upon God that produces change.

There is a certain mythology among evangelicals–they myth that we are growing in numbers and influence. Conservative pastors often cite this as a vindication of our orthodox and evangelical theology. It is largely untrue. Both evangelical churches and non-evangelical churches are stagnating or declining. Evangelical belief cannot be justified exclusively or even primarily on the growth myth any longer–the numbers don’t bear it out. We’re being forced to admit once more that we don’t have the answers–our methodology, our pragmatism, our programs, our personas, none of these will save us. It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ alone that will save us and preserve us and send us into the world in mission. That’s a good thing to be reminded of.