A Conversation about the Failure of Evangelicals to Represent God Well in Western Society
The observations in two New York Times editorials (August 8, August 24) and an August 13, 2017 article from The Atlantic show that evangelical Christians in the U.S. as a whole have failed to represent God’s character to our society. Ralph Winter prophetically foresaw this decline of faith in the West based on his studies of the history of Christianity and spoke about the consequences.
Here’s how I’ve organized this blog:
1. Excerpts from an August 8, 2017 New York Times editorial,
with an update from August 24, 2017.
2. Excerpts from an article by Ralph Winter written in 1999, showing how he foresaw the seemingly inevitable decline of biblical faith in America in the 21st century
3. A response from Dr. Mike Soderling, M.D.
4. My reflections, some from as early as 2008
1. Excerpts from an August 8, 2017 New York Times Editorial
“For most of American history mainline Protestants set the dominant cultural tone. Most of the big social movements, like abolitionism, the suffragist movement, and the civil rights movement, came out of the mainline churches … [They] created a kind of unifying culture that bound people … to a similar mainline standard for what is decent in public life and what is beyond the pale.
“Over the last several decades mainline Protestantism has withered. The country became more diverse. The mainline denominations lost their vitality. … For a time, we lived off the moral capital of the past. But the election of Trump shows just how desiccated the mainline code has become. A nation guided by that ethic would not have elected a guy who is a daily affront to it. … Donald Trump has smashed through the behavior standards that once governed public life. His election demonstrates that as the unifying glue of the mainline culture receded, the country divided into at least three blocks: white evangelical Protestantism that at least in its public face seems to care more about eros than caritas;
secular progressivism that is spiritually formed by feminism, environmentalism, and the quest for individual rights; and realist nationalism that gets its manners from reality TV and its spiritual succor from in-group/out-group solidarity.
“If Trump falls in disgrace or defeat, and people’s partisan pride is no longer at stake, I hope that even his supporters [including 80% of EVANGELICALS!] will have enough moral memory to acknowledge that character really does matter. A guy can promise change, but if he is dishonest, disloyal, and selfish, the change he delivers is not going to be effective or good.
“But where are people going to go for a new standard of decency? They’re not going to go back to the old [Protestant] ideal. That’s dead. Trump revealed the vacuum, but who is going to fill it and with what?”
August 24, 2017 UPDATE: Another NY Times editorial, "All the President's Preachers," asks, "Trump’s business advisers took a moral stand. Why won’t his evangelical advisers do the same?" The editorial continues, "Evangelical advisers to the president who have not condemned his remarks on Charlottesville [a violent white supremicists event] overestimate their ability to shape the president’s thinking and underappreciate the impact that taking a stand against his comments would have. Most of them have remained silent. And that silence speaks volumes."
The president of the National Council of Churches concludes, "We refuse to countenance a president who gives quarter to those who sow hate and injustice among the American public. Our congregations will continue to witness to a God who loves everyone regardless of race or creed. We need our evangelical sisters and brothers to join us."
2. Ralph Winter was a prophetic voice
“Beyond the agony of Rome was the winning of the Barbarians. Beyond the agony of the Barbarians was the winning of the Vikings. Beyond the agony of the Western world we can only pray that there will be the defeat of Satan’s power holding millions of people hostage in thousands of peoples—peoples which have too long “sat in darkness” and who “shall see a great light” (Matt. 4:16). And we can know that there is no basis in the past or in the present for assuming that things are out of the control of the Living God.
“If we in the West insist on keeping our blessing instead of sharing it, then we will, like other nations before us, have to lose our blessing for the remaining nations to receive it. God has not changed His plan in the last 4,000 years. But how much better not to focus on how to retain but to strive intentionally to extend that marvelous ‘blessing’! That way ‘in you and in your descendants all of the peoples of the world will be blessed.’ This is the only way we can continue in God’s blessing. The expanding Kingdom is not going to stop with us (although it may leave us behind). ‘This Gospel of the Kingdom must be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all peoples, and then shall the end come’ (Matt 24:14). God can raise up others if we falter. Indeed, the rest of this [Perspectives] book indicates that is already happening.”
3. A response from Dr. Mike Soderling
What the U.S. culture embraces—consumerism, nihilism, hyper-individualism, the need for instant gratification, the need to be entertained, short-termism/etc.—is what the Western church has also embraced. Who would want to join that when the church also tries to tell them they need to deny themselves, take up their cross, suffer, and follow Jesus (assuming a local church is indeed willing to preach faithfully from God’s word).
We evangelicals are no longer at the forefront of advocating for positive social change. Take global health issues as an example. Yes, the church is still involved and is probably taking care of more people than any other institution, including MSF [Medecins Sans Frontieres / Doctors without Borders].
But church health efforts are a fractured movement with little cross-collaboration and the model of health they are promoting is a western one. But the vast majority of strategic thinking, and I would say investment, is coming from entities such as USAID and the Gates Foundation. These entities are the ones most actively researching new ways of meeting the health needs of the world’s poorest peoples.
And they spend a lot more on disease eradication than the church. That’s not to say that the Lord isn’t using these non-Christian organizations for His own purposes. It’s just that the church is light years behind in its thinking and actions.
Another example would be the environment. Why have we not been at the forefront of getting the world to care for God’s creation in a way that honors Him and brings Him glory?
We are starting to make the effort but again, but WHY ARE WE ALWAYS BEHIND THE TIMES!!!! No one, or very few, see the church as the leader in dealing with social injustices as it once was! Why did people in the mainline churches have this zeal and we mostly don’t? Our voice is fractured in the “evangelical” church and I think in part it is because the culture of our churches is like that of the world. Very individualistic and suspicious.
4. More Reflections from Beth
In response to Mike’s observations, I would say the evangelical church as a whole has failed dismally in its responsibility to honor God's name and demonstrate his will “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Here’s another relevant excerpt from Ralph Winter’s article, “The Kingdom Strikes Back”:
“Preventing the nations from declaring His glory are lack of evidences of God’s ability to cope with evil. If the Son of God appeared to destroy the works of the devil, what are His followers and joint heirs supposed to be doing to bring honor to his name?”
Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, points out the importance of biblical virtues in a world of conflict in his book, The Next Christendom: “New Testament warnings about humility and discretion are not just laudable Christian virtues; they can make the difference between life and death.”
In Medieval times, war and societal chaos caused the not only the loss of life but also of culture and learning. Based on analyses by historians like Winter and Jenkins, as early as 2008 I was showing a powerpoint speculating about the possibility of a small non-Western country rescuing Western culture and learning, just as Ireland did during the “Dark Ages” of Medieval Europe (about 500–800 CE). (See the free pdf of Thomas Cahill’s book, How the Irish Saved Civilization.)
What current problems of our planet have the potential to cause the loss of culture and civilization, including in the United States?
What small countries today have the potential for being another Ireland which:
- Was a small “insignificant” country in the times of European wars and social chaos.
-Was overlooked for a long time by the Vandals and Vikings who were destroying Western Europe.
-Sent missionaries to mainland Europe to take biblical faith back to the people who had lost their faith and culture.
Because of their exploding missions movement and high priority on education, I originally voted for South Korea being one of the potential countries for keeping biblical faith and learning alive. But with the nuclear stand-off in the summer of 2017, between the presidents of North Korea and the U.S., I have changed my mind. Now my vote is for South Africa, where there are several major online universities, including departments of missiology and biblical studies in my alma mater, the University of South Africa (UNISA).