Examining Ourselves to Death: Evangelicalism’s Preoccupation with Itself

With apologies to Qoheleth: Of American Evangelical navel-gazing there is no end.

We are a source of both curiosity and consternation to outside academic and journalistic observers, but we are pretty adept at looking under our own hoods quite exhaustively. Consider some quite recent titles by Evangelical publishers:

The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church . . . and How to Prepare

From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism

Hipster Christianity: When Church & Cool Collide

The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good

The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement

Power, Politics and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: From the Scopes Trial to the Obama Administration

This list would expand dramatically were we to include more from the stream of books about Evangelicals and politics.

The scholarly journals are equally full of such analyses. In 2013, the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society published Gerald McDermott’s provocative article, “The Emerging Divide in Evangelical Theology.” The Chronicle of Higher Education gives us, “Among the Evangelicals: Inside a Fractured Movement.” Such publications as Touchstone, First Things, Books and Culture, and The City regularly dissect the sociological, theological and political currents penetrating the Evangelical movement. Numerous blog sites by and about Evangelicals weigh us in the balance on an ongoing basis.

And we can’t forget the various study centers, seminars, and conferences we devote to thinking about ourselves. From the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College to The Barna Group’s polling research, we appraise our beliefs, pronouncements, ministries and actions with respect to all facets of North American culture, academia, social experience, politics, religious engagement and the professions with astonishing exactness.

There is great merit to reflective, candid self-examination. The Bible calls followers of Jesus to consider our ways consistently and frankly. Spirit- and Word-led self-auditing shows we’re serious about measuring ourselves against the standards Scripture gives us for conduct, character and conviction. We need to expose our own “unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11), not to mention displays of immaturity, poor reasoning, parochialism, and anti-intellectualism, with honesty and humility.

This is true on individual and corporate levels. Churches, colleges, missionary societies, publishing houses, Christian leaders and laymen—none of us is above gracious but critical self-review and, as needed, review by perceptive and caring brothers and sisters in Christ. A friend once reminded me that the New Testament is a book of exhortation. If we’re to remain true to its intent, the sometimes painful processes of personal and public accountability are requisite.

Yet a frank assessment of the writings, events and polls we produce about ourselves seems to indicate a troubling degree of self-preoccupation.

There is a lot to examine. Interwoven through Evangelical Christianity are many strains of regional, theological, cultural and liturgical variety. Our people represent every imaginable sphere of American life, and thus present a sociological feast for anyone interested in figuring out who we are and what we believe.

However, such a feast presents the continuous temptation of intellectual gluttony. We appear to be analyzing ourselves into perplexity, even, in some cases, despair. We focus on our failures and limitations. We place one another under a magnifying glass so precise that every flaw is not only seen but quantified and discussed.

Some American Evangelicals are more spiritually mature than others. Some were weaned on the King James Bible, others read The Message as their essential source-text. Some are well educated, others are not. Some speak with the twang of the rural South, others with the flat delivery of the Pacific Northwest. Some are charismatic, some are non-continuationist. Some dress so modestly that they can almost be mistaken as Amish. Others dress flamboyantly (and in some cases, suggestively). And most look like the garden-variety pagan you see strolling along the sidewalk.

Some come from strong, two-parent families, others from terribly broken homes. Want pathologies? Go to any Evangelical church, and you can find them: abuse (substance, sexual, physical, psychological), divorce, homosexuality, heterosexual promiscuity, adultery, addictions from gambling to pornography. Just pick a pew near you and strike up a conversation.

Then there are the odd emphases on obscure or debatable doctrines, excessive preoccupations with everything from prophecy to predestination, the absolutizing of relatives and the relativizing of absolutes, forms of worship (e.g., music with a beat fosters lust; a church without responsive readings is a church without a soul), and what takes place when we partake of the Lord’s Supper.

Let us pluck, adroitly, all the logs and motes from our eyes. The process of doing so, under the joint auspices of grace and truth, is called sanctification. Evangelicals tend to be for that.

But to what extent are we putting our self-obsessive ponderings ahead of Jesus, ahead of the Gospel’s proclamation, ahead of serving those all around us whose souls remain unredeemed and whose needs far outweigh yet another seminar on the role of Evangelicals involved in literature departments in state universities, Evangelical perspectives on contemporary fashion, or similar interesting but basically dilatory things?

The luxury of endless self-examination is animated, in part, by the very ease of our lives. American Evangelicals have a fair amount of disposable time, are quite prosperous, and increasingly well educated. Additionally, the church’s foibles are real and noticeable. To ignore them would be like ignoring a metastasizing cancer on one’s forearm. We have to deal with them. But dealing with them is not synonymous with focusing endlessly and sometimes almost exclusively on them.

Some of the motivation for relentless evaluation by Evangelicals of Evangelicals and Evangelicalism comes from shame. When we say and do stupid or simply un-Christian things, the whole Body of Christ suffers substantively and in the perception of the public. The scandals of various national ministries in recent years are only the most vivid and easily recognizable of this pattern; dig a little deeper—perhaps in your own church or Bible study—and you’ll find people who are tactless, coarse, incurious, trauma-prone, melodramatic, etc. They embarrass us, and we dislike association with them (especially given our obvious social and moral superiority to them, right?).

Yet Paul encourages believers to “associate with the lowly” and to “accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God” (Romans 12:16, 15:7).  He reminds the Corinthians:

There were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God (1:26-29).

Can any of us see himself or herself in this description?

As to our public testimony, let’s be honest: Are we more concerned with the secular and unbelieving public’s perception of us than fidelity to our Lord? Do we forget, in all our gymnastic musing, the good news about Jesus—even Jesus himself?

Jesus Christ was and is controversial, counter-cultural, and confusing to those who have not met him. It is a sad commentary on the condition of our hearts when we try to conform him to an image we believe will be socially acceptable. We can’t, anyway; he is and will be who he is, our best efforts to make him culturally respectable notwithstanding.

Yes: We want to be consistent, credible witnesses for the God of the Bible in every sphere of life. Yes: We want our scholarship to be rigorous, our behavior pure, our theology sound, our ministries compassionate and relevant, our writing compelling and useful, and our social credibility respectable. Or something like that. But does our relentless combing-through of ourselves not border on, and sometimes plunge into, pettiness, narcissism, and forgetfulness of the main things—and the main person?

We need to examine ourselves, individually and collectively, admit our errors and failings and take those lumps we deserve. But not to the point where microscopic and generally negative reviews of who we are and what we do spew forth as what Greg Thornbury has called “a cottage industry of books (that) consumes itself with various screeds about the current state of affairs within evangelical churches on both matters theoretical and practical” (Recovering Classic Evangelicalism, 43).

We’re redeemed sinners, but the “old man” clings to us, individually and corporately, tenaciously. This will remain true until we meet our Lord face to face. No excuse for sin or stupidity, this, but nor should it serve as an undue impediment to talking about the greatest news the world will ever know to all who need the Jesus we preach.

About the Author

Rob Schwarzwalder has served as chief-of-staff to two members of Congress and is a long-time member of the Evangelical Theological Society. He currently serves as senior vice-president for Family Research Council.

5 Comments

  1. Interesting, but it is hard to understand what to do with this. You implied (“…seems to indicate a troubling degree of self-preoccupation”) that Evangelicals are naval gazing too much, what is a bench mark(s)? self introspection seems like eating. Some is essential, too much is gluttony. I was looking forward to a suggestion, or even a draft theorem, for discerning how much is too much.

  2. Beyond noting how this article on how self-examining we are is ironically self-examining, i’d like to observe that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”, and in the same way that the numerous Old Testament prophets failed to produce any turnaround in ISrael, the modern reformers don’t seem to be having much of an effect on our tradition-bound evangelical churches, either. I don’t believe we should think that there needed to be fewer of those Old Testament prophets – even though, in their day, they had plenty of detractors who wanted them to shut up and go along.

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