Questions…No Answers?

The demise of Christendom

Christendom: defined by McLeod (in Mark A. Knoll, In the Beginning Was the Word):

A society where there are close ties between leaders of the church and secular elites; where the laws purport to be based on Christian principles; where, apart from certain clearly defined outsider communities, everyone is assumed to be Christian; and where Christianity provides a common language, shared alike by the devout and religiously lukewarm.”

Quoted by Mark A. Noll, In The Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492 – 1783 (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2016), 5-6.

The rise and fall of evangelicalism

Mark Noll, in The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitfield and the Wesleys, Volume 1: A History of Evangelicalism: People, Movements, and Ideas in the English-Speaking World (Downers Grove, ILL.: InterVarsity Press, 2003, quotes David Bebbington’s ingredients of evangelicalism:

  • conversion, or “the belief that lives need to be changed”;
  • the Bible, or the “belief that all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages”;
  • activism, or the dedication of all believers, including laypeople, to lives of service for God, especially as manifested in evangelism (spreading the good news) and mission (taking the gospel to other societies); and
  • crucicentrism, or the conviction that Christ’s death was the crucial matter in providing atonement for sin (i.e. providing reconciliation between a holy God and sinful humans).(p.19)

After 25 years in the same church, the same house, the same community I don’t see significant signs of change. Attendance has peaked and fallen several times during these years. Right now we are in a trough – we are experiencing a deeper decline than previous years. The community around us – indeed the entire county – is aging. The economy in southern Oregon recovers much more slowly than other regions – such as Portland, Bend, and even Medford. Most of the school districts in our region are seeing declining student numbers. There are a few outlying districts where numbers are increasing, but evidence suggest these smaller districts are simply attracting students from the larger districts. There is an affordable housing crunch – higher priced homes are available, as are homes/apartments that are on the low end of the scale. Service sector jobs are growing – but with mandated minimum wage hikes and significant increases in purchasing medical benefits hours are being cut.

Reading Frances FitzGerald, The Evangelicals (The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017]), as well as other books mentioned above is challenging me to ask: are our convictions rooted in God’s Word or merely in the traditions we have been taught about God’s Word. The first few chapters of FitzGerald’s work are a brief historical review of the First and Second Great Awakenings in the US and their influence on the rise of what is called the evangelical movement. In those chapters the author raises several important issues:

To what degree do the philosophical underpinnings determine the resulting convictions?

How significant an impact do influential/prolific writers  have on passing on their convictions? As a corollary, to what degree are pastors and the folks in our pews/chairs simply accepting of received tradition?

Finally, reading these authors challenges me to ask- just how much American Exceptionalism has crept into our theological framework? As Noll observes in American God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) the covenantal theology undergirding the Puritans who settled colonial America – and even the Congregationalists – the idea of covenant became entwined with the growth of a nationalist fervor. Seeing America as God’s ‘chosen’ people, inheritors of the blessing of Abraham, led to an American Exceptionalism that continues to be manifest in the prosperity gospel, in confusion between patriotism and biblical Christianity.