Evangelicalism: A Diagnostic Exam

There is a submerged bronze statue of Jesus Christ seventeen meters deep in the Mediterranean Sea. Unbeknownst to its creator, Guido Galletti, the statue, Christ of the Abyss, is an allegory for the present-day church, which too is submerged differently, under a sea of historical ignorance bred by theological indifference. When it comes to church members, they know very little, if anything at all, about the history and theology of the church. This is often not their fault. They eat what is put before them. The very things they haven’t been taught are the very things needed to create a faithful and healthy church.

Generally speaking, the modern-day church has never really understood what the church is about. They read little of the Bible, uncomfortably claiming it is divinely inspired while giving preference to Netflix. And they have certainly read little of the Christian classics: Augustine’s Confessions, Athanasius’s The Incarnation of the Word, Calvin’s Institutes, Luther’s Bondage of the Will, Edward’s Freedom of the Will, Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Jesus Christ, not to mention Hodge, Warfield, Machen, Chesterton, or Lewis. They do not know its history: the two hundred plus years of persecution at the hands of Roman Emperors, Constantine, the rise of the Roman Catholic Church, Scholasticism, the Reformation, Puritanism, The First Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening, and the profound difference between the two.

The average member of the average evangelical church in the average town is simply unable to enter into an intelligent conversation about what Christianity is and what a Christian is.

A corollary to this is often a profound misunderstanding of what the Christian Worldview should think about justice, law, war, welfare, history, economics, or stem cell research. To fill this void, church members often superimpose their political preferences as a placeholder (or worse, a substitute) for a Christian Worldview. They have lost the whole idea of being the church in the first place, of thinking and feeling Christianly.

Another corollary: If the Christians of the twentieth century were too buttoned-up, formulaic and governed by traditions of their own making, the Christians of the twenty-first century have overreacted and become too casual, governed by pugnacity toward tradition and holding firm on one law, namely, their life will follow no laws. As such, the modern-day church has little clue of the worshipful-instructional value that something like liturgy provides. Quoting the Apostles Creed doesn’t go well with the kick drum. And so the urgent question becomes, do twenty-first-century Christians possess enough Christian truth to form a worldview that can self-correct when it overreacts?

We wish to have a church that stands on the authority of Scripture, respects the history of the church, and thereby isn’t tossed by every wind of doctrine or the latest whim of cultural opinion.

First Corinthians 14:8 says “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” A bugle is used to call troops into battle position. But the signal will not be understood unless the bugle gives a distinct sound. Paul’s narrow point is that whatever takes place in public worship should be clear and intelligible. The broader point of the trumpet call in Scripture (Num. 10:9; Job 39:25; Judges 7:16-18) is that the Christian church is in danger when its trumpets give off the same sound as the enemy. Could it be that the Christian church is overrun with secularism because they aren’t ready for battle? And could it be that they aren’t ready for battle because the Christian trumpets give off an indistinct sound from the sounds of the world?

In response, we say, as does Nehemiah 4:20, “In the place where you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.”

Jason Cherry is a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.

Reflections on the Great Commission

In the summer of 1989, the American magazine National Interest published an essay with the provocative title “The End of History?”. Its author, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, announced that the great ideological struggles were over, particularly the battles between east and west, democracy and totalitarianism. Liberal democracy had triumphed. All the nations of the world would bend toward democratic ideals. Politics aside, Fukuyama’s broader point was wrong for another reason. Ideological struggles are hardly over. He wrote as if the clash between competing worldviews would be treated like the contents hidden in the back of the junk drawer, happily forgotten and tossed when no one is looking.

Competing ideologies and worldviews will never be left behind. Jesus said we could not serve more than one master (Mt. 6:24), meaning people will always serve at least one master. Everybody grows up to love something, to serve something, to profess something. It combines to form a worldview.

One of the enduring facts of church history is that the overwhelming majority of people baptized into the church are children coming out of Christian families. Even as the amount of money and missionaries sent out to preach the gospel around the world is at an all-time high, Jesus’ Great Commission is being lost today. The young and the restless of the church wish to be radical, live in a foreign country, and leave their legacy for Christ. And while foreign missions are good and right, Christians must realize that the way the church nurtures the souls of the children in the covenant community curves the future.

The operative word for how the church hands down “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) is generational. The church’s primary means in fulfilling The Great Commission is to have successive generations of Christians become the parents to successive generations of Christians. Without this, there will never be a base from which to launch radical missionaries to the unreached people groups. If we radically go to the nations but neglect the children of the covenant community, The Great Commission has no future. It isn’t a choice between maintenance and mission. But without maintenance, there is no mission. Peter made it clear in his sermon at Pentecost, “For the promise is for you, and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls” (Acts 2:39).

This is why the church must understand the vital work of nurturing the soul of children. The biblical mandate is clear. The church must preach the saving grace of Jesus Christ to all who are far off and to all who are near. The power of God for salvation can overcome the most hardened sinner living in the most unlikely of places. Yet one constant remains, namely, the overwhelming majority of professing Christians make such a profession at a young age, coming out of a Christian home. If those children don’t embrace the Christian worldview, they will embrace another. Seeing that the faith is handed down to the next generation is necessary for the Great Commission to continue.

Jason Cherry is a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.

Thick or Thin?

The baseline definition of an “evangelical” comes from Historian David Bebbington’s famous “quadrilateral” of evangelical traits: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. Each point, when carried along by the richest of biblical understanding, provides a reliable (though admittedly abridged) framework for understanding Christianity.

But what happens when those things become poor and nominal? Is a nominal foundation of biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism going to be thick enough to survive the current cultural assault?

Statistically, the answer is no. By any measure, as evangelicalism has reduced itself to the thinnest expression of each trait, the retention rate of those raised within the church has precipitously dropped. One thing that must be done to reverse this trend is for evangelical churches to thicken upon each point of Bebbington’s quadrilateral.

  1. Thin biblicism gives lip service to God’s Word. Thick biblicism is unashamed of God’s Word.
  2. Thin crucicentrism proclaims that Christ is mighty to justify but not mighty to sanctify. Thick crucicentrism proclaims that Christ saves from sin and to righteousness.
  3. Thin conversionism assumes that dramatic crisis conversions are the norm for children raised in the covenant community. A thick doctrine of conversion assumes that covenant children come to saving faith through the divine preparations of the church: catechisms, covenant renewal worship, and praying parents that faithfully nurture their children’s soul.
  4. Thin activism defines justice in the way the culture does. Thick activism defines justice as God does.

These are only a few of the things needed to reverse the trend. Thin Christianity is a powerless thing. It is those who have the thickened gospel of Jesus Christ as presented in the Bible who will make the deepest mark on their families, friends, co-workers, and neighborhoods.

D.W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992).

Jason Cherry is a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.