Reflections on “The Future of Evangelicalism”

Yesterday I enjoyed hearing both Rachel Held Evans and Roger Olson hold forth before a full house at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, weighing in with their thoughts on the future of evangelicalism. They add their voices to an ongoing conversation (e.g., see this oft-referenced article; see this challenging book), and one that might be of interest to readers, so I thought I’d share here a few things that came up.

Evans, in her trademark style, maintained her characteristic honesty as a voice for millennials, both in the sense that she had criticisms for evangelicalism as well as hopes. Olson expressed his belief that evangelicalism as a “movement” was dead, but as an ethos it is still very much alive and can be accounted for in many forms. It is represented in at least three flavors: a neo-fundamentalist flavor perhaps represented by  D. A. Carson and the Gospel Coalition, a moderate flavor perhaps represented by Richard Mouw, Timothy George and Christianity Today, and a more progressive form that is emerging represented by the newly formed Missio Alliance (they are hosting a gathering in April in Washington DC to also deal with the same question Olson and Evans handled).

A central theme wove through both talks. Evans a layperson who is passionately in love with evangelicalism and cannot imagine her own identity being woven outside of its grand tapestry, and Olson, an academic who refuses to hand over the identity of evangelical to those who believe they are the rightful owners of it just because he does fit the “typical” bill (who determines what that is?)–both focused on evangelicalism’s entanglement with politics. This is not an unfamiliar story, nor is the critique of the entanglement new. For example, James Davison Hunter offers a clear and powerful critique of the problem of evangelicalism’s relationship to politics in his To Change the World (but he’s an equal opportunity critic, taking on Christian progressives and Neo-Anabaptists too).

Olson’s and Evan’s critique resonated with the audience. After the same time they offered their critique, a hopeful conversation ensued during the remainder of their talks as well as the Q&A about just what they thought the future might look like. Olson’s articulation about an ethos provides room for various possibilities. He promised his lecture would be posted on his blog (it’s there now). Evans was hopeful that evangelicalism would focus on social justice, gender concerns, and sexuality issues. On these points, Olson readily agreed regarding their importance.

This raises a concern. For all of their initial criticism about the entanglement regarding evangelicalism and politics–an issue that they and others have convincingly argued breeds cynicism and hinders the church’s public witness, (see Ross Douthat’s recent Bad Religion)–they seem paradoxically to bring up other political issues. The only real difference, someone might point out, is that the concerns of the Religious Right and the Republican Party, to the extent that they have been identified with evangelicalism, have been politicized. Yet it is arguable these other social concerns have been also…just look to the other party (see Douthat or Hunter). So what real difference are they offering regarding evangelicalism’s future?

An issue I would have liked to hear them address goes deeper than politics however. And I think it’s more important. It affects evangelicalism more deeply it seems, because it goes to its roots. Evangelicalism, as Olson noted, has its roots in the Great Awakenings of the 1800s. D. G. Hart traces its beginnings to the revivalism of Whitefield. It began when religion turned toward practicality, both for public and private life. It is after all, interested in changing the world (Olson described this as a quite legitimate way of understanding the fourth of evangelicalism’s 4 main characteristics).

From this beginning, combined with the fact of disestablishment and the culture of “choice” produced by the privatization of religion, a spiritual marketplace has emerged in our time that has been recognized by sociologists as varied as Wade Clark Roof (Spiritual Marketplace) and Peter Berger (The Sacred Canopy). The character of religious engagement in the present era is one of “use” — our approach is often instrumental. In 1966 a prophetic sociologist named Philip Rieff saw this cultural moment coming. In his aptly named classic, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, he suggested long before it came to pass that religious leaders ought to take up the role of therapist and that religion ought to take up the practical role of helping people cope and making them feel better.

“What, then, should churchmen do? The answer returns clearly: become, avowedly, therapists, administrating a therapeutic institution—under the justificatory mandate that Jesus himself was the first therapeutic.” (pg. 215, Fortieth Anniversary Edition, ISI Books)

And now here we find ourselves. Indictments of religion as mere therapy are easy to find. L. Gregory Jones called the church “psychological captive” in 1995. Christian Smith’s 2005 study of modern American teenagers (Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers), whose faith he calls “moralistic therapeutic deism,” is now the buzzword of youth workers everywhere, both as a bane of their existence as they wonder how to solve the problem and a sigh of relief since the finally have a name for the elephant they’ve known has been lurking in the room for so long. And a much missed point of his argument is that their faith has simply been handed down from their parents–it’s parasitic on the major faith tradition of Christianity itself.

Has evangelicalism, emerging as it has out of its originary concerns for the practical, been complicit in the emergence of therapeutic religion? Indeed, yes. But, but, but….not just evangelicalism. The problem of therapeutic religion is much bigger than evangelicalism. It has affected all of American religion. It goes even beyond Christianity.

Perhaps then, a better question, since it is a more pressing concern, and was not addressed in the conversation today, is this: how will the future of evangelicalism face the contemporary challenge of therapeutic religion? How will the Gospel be preached faithfully in a world where the hearers’ ears are already tuned to hear things a certain way, who already desire a certain kind of religion? This is as significant an issue as the one about the disentanglement with politics, if not bigger, because it runs deeper in our social imaginary and has been there longer.

Yet, this is not just a question for evangelicals. This is a question for Catholics, confessionalists, and all Christian leaders. This is indeed a question for all of us. As we forge ahead into the postmodern future, we might not end up with religion without religion (whatever that is), but if we don’t face the issue of therapeutic religion, we might end up with “church” without church.

  • Brad Vermurlen

    Great post. Helpful reflection. (and Soul Searching was 2005, not 2009.)

    • Chad Lakies

      Good catch Brad. Didn’t notice that in reading it back over before hitting post. Fixed it.

    • eucharistia

      Perhaps Chad you should re-read my earlier posting and note that although I make reference to this therapy it is the Spirit that is the agent of said therapy. I simply argued that how therapy operates might be spiritually applied as well. That is because apart from proclaiming the gospel, as I said, or the Word of God, if you prefer. I am not inclined to decide beforehand what that still small voice might speak or the work of sanctification has to look like, nor to provide an account of what the Church’s proper role should be.

      The reason for this is provided in a quote you cited in one of the works you suggest I read: “[I]n reality, the Word of God comes, when it comes, in opposition to our thinking and wishing. It does not let our thinking prevail, even in what is most sacred to us, but it destroys and uproots and scatters everything.”48

      Because I’ve taken this to heart I recognize that the Word might address each one differently and thus that our activity in the church should be as particular to the parishioner as the Spirit’s address through the Word might be. For it might disturb where I expect comfort, it might comfort where I want to disturb.

      If there is anything to be learnt from the kind of deistic naturalism that your works criticize. It is that the Church is least faithful when it seeks to pre-determine how that address has to be heard. This can be the therepeutic gospel or preaching you’re concerned with, but it has been most critically revealed in the moralistic tendencies that are a result of pre-determined understandings of what has to occur to be legitimate.

  • Rob Davis

    I’m confused as to what the problem is with “therapeutic religion”?

  • Sean Muldowney

    I echo Rob’s question: the problem must be further outlined before we can begin to resolve it. As an evangelical I do believe there is a serious therapeutic (read: “healing”) element to the Gospel, and as such I don’t cringe like some others at using “therapeutic” as a descriptor. It might be as simple as explaining the difference between the healing that the Gospel makes possible vs. the desire to feel better/self-medicate through religion.

    (Sorry ahead of time for being vague – the issues of healing & the Gospel are nuanced and debated and I didn’t want to rabbit-trail)

  • Jody Rash

    As I understand it, the idea of therapeutic religion is that 1. God’s ultimate goal for me (and everyone else) is to be “happy,” and 2. God is not present in any real and active way in my life unless and until I run into something that causes me to be “unhappy.” I then “call on Him” (pray) to fix the thing that is causing my unhappiness, so that I can once again be happy. The problem with this? At the very least, it reduces God to a thing that I use and control for my own self-centered desires, instead of honoring Him with thanks and praise for even having a life. Does God care about my happiness? Of course – but I believe that what is of upmost importance to Him is that He is a part of my life on a daily basis; that I bring everything to Him: the good, the bad, and the ugly. That I ask Him for clarity on what His desire is for my life, and work toward that goal. After all, it’s not about me, as much as it is about what He is doing in me and through me and do I want to be a part of that? That’s just the tip of the iceberg, really, and this is a really long comment – thanks for letting me share. :)

  • ChadLakies

    @muldoons:disqus @iamstillrobdavis:disqus — Thanks for the comments and the questions regarding clarity on exactly what I mean by therapeutic religion.

    I take the “problem” of therapeutic religion to be widely acknowledged by theologians, philosophers, and sociologists alike, stemming from the around 50 years ago to the present. Sean, you noted it in the sense of religion being used to “make me feel better.” That’s a good description. But we have to go further.

    Therapeutic religion is meant to help us cope, make us happy, help us get along amiably, and resolve the tension between the stresses of our lives in the managerial world of efficiency and the private world where we’re supposed to be able to find personal solace and achieve some sort of psychological equilibrium (this is the vision to which our imaginations are captive at least — NOTE this is not the biblical vision; Christians are promised no such thing).

    Thus, religion is viewed as the kind of thing which will meet these needs. And so we have just this sort of language that is quite pervasive in the church. And many of us feel quite obligated to use it, even looking to Scripture and Jesus himself to justify it (like Rieff in my post above), saying we must “meet people’s needs” and we seek to understand their “felt needs” and meet them in our “ministries.”

    So, when I hear you use terms like “healing” and say that’s what the Gospel does, I get concerned about equivocation. Don’t get me wrong. I certainly think the Gospel does something amazing. But I don’t think it “heals” us in a therapeutic sense. Therapy just makes us “better.” But the Gospel doesn’t actually improve us. And this is where therapeutic religion truly goes off in a different direction from faithful Christianity.

    The Gospel does something radical. In order to do its work, it confronts us, it hurts us, it wounds us, it causes us to suffer, it forces us to deny ourselves, it makes us bear a cross–in fact it kills us. And then it raises us to new life again. The Gospel does not perform therapy, it works redemption. We are not progressively made better, healed, improved. We’re killed, and then made anew.

    Therapeutic religion has no space for that kind of confrontation. It has no room a Jesus who might offend. It has no place for a God who doesn’t care if you’re happy or not. It tends not to acknowledge sin as a problem, just mistakes that can be papered over with platitudes like “Jesus loves you.” It lacks an eschatology. Here might be the only place where talk of “healing” can come into play, because if we recover talk of sin and a sense of brokenness, then we can talk about “healing” but only in the sense of it never being finished in this life and thus we constantly live in the present tension that such a faithfulness to the biblical narrative produces.

    I hope this brief “comment” helps point up a bit of the “problem.” Otherwise, I’ll have to refer you back to the books I highlighted in the post, and I can indeed refer you to other excellent resources for further reading.

    • Sean Muldowney

      Yep, you went with the nuance that I didn’t get into :) I agree that the Gospel does all of those things to us (confronts, hurts, wounds, etc). I would push back and argue positively for “healing” as a benefit of the Gospel precisely in terms of our brokenness. I do see where you are coming from though and the caution against equivocation is a good one — so long as we don’t end up losing out on all that Gospel offers because we’re too afraid of such equivocation. Healing is in terms of: Jesus did come to heal the brokenhearted — heal our relationship with God — heal our relationship with others.

    • eucharistia

      It seems to me you are working with a rather superficial understanding of healing in you posting. Grief properly considered is a therapeutic healing that can last years, involve periods of deep depression and anxiety. Is that not akin to the kind of suffering your speaking of no-longer being attributable to a therapeutic Gospel even grace? Therapy is nothing more than a mode of care employed to promote processes that occur naturally. Analogously the gospel is grace applied to promote a spiritual healing that would not occur without the Spirits agency. What the Church is called to perform is the announcement to a world wrought with spiritual disease that the still small voice that they hear calling from within is the source of their recovery, if only they’d listen. Redemption is the goal of their recovery made possible through the reconciliation wrought in Christ. Yet it requires a life-long process of sanctification often involving much personal loss even pain in ceding control over one’s life to a spiritual other not fully known even recognized. Unfortunately for much of the last two milleniae the Church has understood its part to be that of the Spirit’s which it is not. What is needed today is a Church that properly recognizes its role as that of witness and partner in suffering to a lost and dying world. A Church which proclaims the healing for the existential angst that plagues the world and gives comfort even some direction during the process of sanctification. Not a Church that tries to control the outcome before it’s begun!

      • ChadLakies

        Perhaps it would be helpful if you took a look at two other things I’ve written to see where I’m coming from on the issue of therapy and the therapeutic as it relates to the Gospel. I simply don’t want to hang on to this language–as much as you believe you are making a strong argument, I think you’re really just captive to the problem I’m trying to bring up. The authors I referenced above, and in the other material I’ll link below have legitimate points that we should pay attention to. You should read them, and not just respond to me as if I don’t have enough room in my theology for a healing Gospel. Trust me, that’s not the problem. And furthermore, I don’t think the church can solve the problem of existential angst or even proclaim it’s healing. If the church proclaims anything, it proclaims hope; but the angst will always be with us, just like the suffering we must endure, along with evil, pain, tragedy, heartache, and death. Christ said that in this life we would have all these things. But he also said we should take heart because he has overcome them. So the church proclaims hope and embodies a life that waits in hope for his promised return to finish what he started–to redeem all things fully.

        See a recent article I’ve published on millennials and their tenuous relationship with the church entitled, “Candy Machine God, or, Going to Church without Going to Church: Millennials and the Future of the Christian Faith,” in Missio Apostolica 21.1 (May 2013):

        Furthermore, see a follow-up post on my blog regarding preaching that is NOT therapeutic and why the Gospel should not be called therapeutic:

        I hope these are helpful. Remember, this is a blog; it’s for short commentary, not the depth and breadth that might be covered in an article or a book. I really encourage you to go further than even reading my stuff and to press into the material I reference. I developed my own understanding from those great thinkers. I think you’ll find them to be sources of wisdom.

  • Samson Mengsteab

    Yes ! your critique is incisive. i like where you’re going. isnt that exactly Zizek’s heterodox (secular) reading ? that what dies on the cross is, in a sense, the therapeutic God? not trying to push back just pointing out the similarities.

  • Herb Hoefer

    I’ve been working and living with evangelicals in Asia and Africa for the last 40 years. “Therapeutic” takes on a whole different meaning among the oppressed and downtrodden. The gospel does indeed give them therapeutic hope and dignity, but it’s also recognized as a given that following Christ will not make life easier. It often brings on new issues of rejection and alienation, but these experiences are channeled into Spirit-driven lives of service to the downtrodden and evangelism. The gospel is therapeutic, but it’s not self-serving.

    • ChadLakies

      Herb, thanks for pointing out the expansive difference of how the Gospel is experienced in those parts of the Global South where you have spent so much of your life. My research on this topic, especially concerning the critique of therapeutic religion (and it’s important to note, therapeutic Christianity is merely one form of it) regards this problem as one located only in the North Atlantic world. I’m not finding references which note the problem exists elsewhere. It emerged as a consequence of western cultural logic. So I’m not surprised that you are not bumping up against it where you are serving.

      • Rob Davis

        I’ve wondered for a long time how much of the “persecution” in non-Western Christian communities is actually necessary. In my understanding, the “suffering” that is inherent in “following Christ” is because actually loving people can be difficult. Of course, I’m sure there are situations where even using Christian language results in persecution. But, if the core of Christianity is embodying love for self and others, then I don’t think Christian language is always helpful (and may be unnecessary). Also, much of what we think is essential to Christianity actually isn’t. So, from my perspective, it sucks that people are put into more difficult situations because of their association with Christianity. But, maybe the bigger problem is that we aren’t being creative enough with how we approach it and are bringing unnecessary persecution upon ourselves. I don’t think Jesus wanted his followers to be persecuted because they were required to gather in certain ways, and had to have Bibles, and had to interject Christian language into every conversation.

      • Rob Davis

        For example, sometimes people protest something and get arrested, and nothing changes. I applaud the energy and desire to bring about change – of which I have sympathy for the “persecuted.” But, many times it seems the persecution could be avoided if the protesters had a better strategy. Likewise, I obviously have sympathy for people being ostracized from their friends and families, or being arrested or even killed for “becoming Christians,” maybe the bigger problem is that much of that isn’t actually necessary. Maybe, in those situations, those who desire to bring the Kingdom to earth by following Jesus need a better strategy.

  • Ryan Fouts

    I think you hit the nail on the head. It seems that the therapeutic brand of Christianity that the millennials have inherited is a popular topic to lament, but few have offered solutions. I have tried to do a bit of this in an article on the upcoming edition of Missio Apostolica by attempting to set a foundation for recovering the concept of tentatio/struggle for Christian discipleship and living. For Luther, struggle (tentatio/Anfechtungen) was an essential component of spiritual/theological maturity. Today, however, it runs entirely counter to the therapeutic approach to the faith many embrace. Genuine struggle isn’t fostered in our churches largely because it doesn’t “feel good.” Fear that such struggle will undermine the foundation of faith (symptomatic of unbelief, or at least distrust in the ability of the Spirit to work through struggle) is a part of it, and also explains the obsession with refutatio in popular theology today. We also tend to rob people of the struggle by explaining it away, or acting as if others who have dealt with the struggle in the past have done so vicariously so now young people no longer need to.

  • Grant Gardiner

    Interesting discussion.

    Therapeutic Christianity is something I’ve always been interested in as a force for watering down the Church’s message in the face of pressure to provide a service to a service-seeking community. We live in a Western world where people can sit in the pews and use the mythos of Christianity to explain their universe and placate the anxieties that fill their lives, all without having a personal relationship with the God who brought them this mythos. People dip in when they need a fix and then wander off to do their own thing when they don’t have too many problems on their plate.

    My thinking was that Job in many ways is the argument against such a ‘therapeutic’ attitude. Job was confronted by the complete absence of everything that could make him ‘feel’ happy which led him to demand an explanation, based largely around the idea that it was not ‘fair’ based on his righteousness. God was pleased with Job’s righteousness – something Job rightfully held to in the face of his ‘friends’ advice that the treatment must in some way be linked to his own agency which he must have used for sin – but He still rebuked Job for daring to question his creator and the ‘justice’ of what was happening to him. Job’s devotion to God was not to rest on blessing that made him feel good about his life, it was to simply be devotion. There was no promise of ‘fairness’ or ‘happiness’, which are things that humans seek. God doesn’t promise these things.

    In a perhaps related observation, you don’t hear too many sermons on Job.

    If we’re using the Gospel (or some version of it) to serve the aspirations and motivations we had before we were saved, using it as a bolt-on added extra to our already established, and quite small, human perspective, then we are just using the mythology of Christianity to serve our own purposes.

    If instead we break our old lives, completely dying to our old life and its aspirations and motivations, and then are set on following Jesus and his externally other-focused aspiration (Love God, love others) then our lives should no longer be contingent on emotional ‘happiness’ but on the peace of God. A peace which “transcends all understanding” simply because it’s not reliant on the usual emotional triggers associated with ‘unbroken’ humans (Christian or non).

    Perhaps the solution for the ‘millennial problem’ you mentioned is for the Church to have a clearer understanding of what aspects of the Gospel and the Word are ‘fringe benefits’ that MAY manifest based on God’s mercy but that these things are all subservient to the priorities of the other-focused nature of the Gospel and Word. We WILL serve God regardless, but He MAY bless us.

    Another aspect may be the initial contact with the Gospel for many people. If people are accepting God based on a promise their lives will be happier then we should not be surprised if this becomes the foundation of their belief in Him. Perhaps the Church needs to readdress how we call others to accept the Gospel. More often than not this is in church services that address people in a particular manner within a particular environment. Maybe these two things are enabling a feeble belief system that can only exist on the ‘milk’ of self-focused therapy rather than the ‘meat’ of other-focused service as an actioning of our faith.

    Just my thoughts. Thank you for the interesting discussion. I’ll have to stick around and see what other interesting things people are talking about :)