6 Problems with the Evangelical Church

Can we save the modern church from its theological bankruptcy?

The wider evangelical church is suffering terribly from theological bankruptcy. A recent Barna survey is particularly revealing. Their report reads in part:

Overall, the current research revealed that only nine percent of all American adults have a biblical worldview. Among the 60 subgroups of respondents that the survey explored was one defined by those who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is important in their life today and that they are certain that they will go to Heaven after they die only because they confessed their sins and accepted Christ as their savior. Labeled “born again Christians,” the study discovered that they were twice as likely as the average adult to possess a biblical worldview. However, that meant that even among born again Christians, less than one out of every five (19 percent) had such an outlook on life

The Barna Group’s research goes on to reveal that 79 percent of those identifying as “born again Christians” firmly believe the Bible is accurate in all its teachings — which is pretty good, I guess — but it also reveals that only 46 percent of these “born agains” believe in absolute moral truth, only 40 percent believe Satan is real, and only 47 percent strongly reject the idea that you can earn your way to heaven. Further, only 62 percent of the born-again Christians surveyed strongly believe that Jesus was sinless.

This data is very sobering. It indicts evangelicals, yes, but surely it also indicts the information centers they are learning from. It demonstrates that over the last generation, not only has America become less Christian, but professing Christians have become less Christian.

I think this is the direct result of evangelicalism’s relentless prioritization of what seems useful over what is true. We have tended to favor the practical half-truth rather than the (allegedly) impractical whole truth.

Brothers and sisters, we ought to recover the roots of real Christianity before those who care are too few to do anything useful about it. Part of that recovery will involve identifying some of the factors that contribute to the problem. Some of these will be difficult to consider, but we ought to consider them anyway.

Here are six of the problems in the church we need to address:

1. Pastors are increasingly hired for their management skills or rhetorical ability over and above their biblical wisdom or their meeting of the biblical qualifications for eldership.

Our shepherds are increasingly hired for their dynamic speaking or catalytic leadership rather than their commitment to and exposition of the Scriptures, and for their laboring in the increase in attendance rather than the increase of gospel proclamation.

Now, of course, none of those contrasted qualities are mutually exclusive. Pastors can be both skillful managers and biblically wise; they can be both great speakers and great students of Scripture; and they can both attract crowds and proclaim the gospel. The problem is that, while they are not mutually exclusive, the latter qualities in each contrast have lost priority and consequently have lost favor. We have not prospered theologically or spiritually when we emphasize the professionalization of the pastorate.

2. The equating of “worship” with just one creative portion of the weekly worship service.

The dilution of the understanding of worship is a direct result of the dilution of theology in the church. The applicational, topical approach to Bible understanding has the consequence of making us think (and live) in segmented ways. The music leader takes the stage to say, “We’re gonna start with a time of worship.” Is the whole service not a time of worship? Isn’t the sermon an act of worship?

Isn’t all of life meant to be an act of worship?
 One reason we have struggled to develop fully devoted followers of Jesus is that we incorrectly assign our terminology (equating worship with music only) and thereby train our people to think in truncated, reductionistic ways.

3. The prevalent eisegesis in Bible study classes and small groups.

“Eisegesis” basically means “reading into the Bible.” It is the opposite of “exegesis,” the process of examining the text and “drawing out” its true meaning. Many leaders today either don’t have the spiritual gift of teaching or haven’t received adequate training, and the unfortunate result is that most of our Bible studies are rife with phrases like, “What does this text mean to you?” as opposed to, “What does this text mean?”

Application supplants interpretation in the work of Bible study, so it has become less important to see what the Bible means and more important to make sure the Bible is meaningful to us.

4. The vast gulf between the work of theology and the life of the church.

We have this notion that theology is something that takes place somewhere “out there” in the seminaries or libraries while we here at home are doing the real work of the Christian faith with our church programs. In many churches, theology is seen as purely academic, the lifeless intellectual work for the nerds in the church — or, worse, the Pharisees.

5. Biblical illiteracy.

Our people don’t know their Bible very well, and this is in large part the fault of a generation of wispy preaching and teaching (in the church and in the home). Connected to this factor is the church’s accommodation and assimilation of the culture’s rapid shifting from text-based knowledge to image-based knowledge.

When it comes to the text itself, I suspect that a lot of the superficial faith out there results from teaching that treats the Bible like Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Fortune-cookie preaching will make brittle, hollow, syrupy Christians.

6. A theologically lazy and methodologically consumeristic/sensationalistic approach to the sacraments.

The rise of the “scoreboard” approach to attendance reporting, some of the extreme examples of spontaneous baptism services, the neglect of the Lord’s Supper or the abuse of it through fancifulness with the elements or lack of clear directives in presenting it — these are all the result of evangelicalism’s theological bankruptcy.

We don’t think biblically about these matters, because we’re thinking largely along the lines of “what works?” and consequently we might make a big splash with our productions but not produce much faith.

Don’t treat the Bible as an instruction manual. Treat it as a life preserver.

Image courtesy of Idibri.

Content taken from The Prodigal Church by Jared Wilson, ©2015. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.

Jared C. Wilson
Written by
  • bakabomb

    I appreciate the points Wilson makes in the body of his essay, and share a good many of his concerns about what makes a church and its congregation fruitful as opposed to merely successful.

    But the litmus tests in that Barna survey he cites leave me unsettled, and feeling glad that this brand of prescriptive, dogma-point based Christianity — the brand he terms evangelical Christianity — is not the only choice available to us Christians.

  • Kevin Harris

    Help me with a problem I’m trying to identify. Back in the 70’s, I and my fellow Christians fought hard for the kind of church depicted in the picture above! As part of the “Jesus Movement”,big active youth groups with a passion for Jesus were springing up everywhere. We thought church services should be more relevant, contemporary, and creative. Contemporary Christian Music was born and more casual worship services developed. We wanted our friends to be attracted to Christ and our local churches, but we also wanted to express our faith in creative ways. We never wanted shallow theology. We never wanted watered-down Christianity. We just wanted more powerful, relevant church services where all the gifts and talents of members could be expressed. Musicians, artists, dancers, light and sound techs, writers, actors, could contribute. Church was boring we thought (and it probably was)!

    But we are so fickle as humans, I now hear the opposite! The cry of my generation was “Make church more relevant and creative if you want to attract people”. Now it’s, “Strip away all these lights and sound and hip preachers if you want to attract people!”

    So what’s the problem? First, I think we can have all the high-tech and creativity and still be authentic, community-oriented, and theologically/biblically sound. The problem is I don’t think we should get our entire social life, interests, and activities from the church! We want our entertainment and recreation but we want to be isolated from the world! And since the world usually does a better job and “secular” outlets have better production values, we try to compete with them in our churches! We gotta do better! We can have what the world has without being tainted by it! So the pressure is on the church staff to get more strobe lights and lazers than the “world”!

    Bottom line: this can form a ghetto where we are no longer salt and light. Maybe we should get out more often! There’s nothing wrong with excellence and good production values in the church, but there’s plenty wrong with being isolated and alienated from the people and culture we are called to love and reach!