American Evangelicalism

The Last Sermon I Preached

June 3, 2012 was the last time that I ever preached a sermon in a church. At the time, I had no idea that it would be my last. Looking back on that day, however, it seems so fitting that on that last opportunity to speak in the institutional church, I chose as my topic God’s paradigm of leadership in the church. I can see, looking back now, how God was faithfully bringing me even then to see things that have shaped and redirected the path of my life. As I said that day, the paradigm of the kingdom of God in its fullness is often in opposition to the paradigms of leadership and church we carry inside us. Would that God would help more of us to see God’s intent for the one body of prophets and priests under the headship of Jesus and all empowered for service by His Spirit. I hope you enjoy this moment in history for me.

The Intruder in Your House

He crept in some time ago. Don’t know when or how but he’s certainly there now. In fact, he’s been there long enough that you’ve grown comfortable with him. If the truth be told, you kind of like him. He makes you feel good about yourself compared to others. He always seems to see things your way. He is a clear, logical thinker, able to show the superiority of his positions over those of lesser intelligence. His words and thoughts are so familiar, at times, they sound just like yours. His voice even resembles yours. He’s quite an intelligent, winsome man, and you don’t know who, but he reminds you of someone you admire. Yet, this intruder in your house needs to go. He doesn’t just need to move out, he needs to be killed. If he has all these wonderful qualities, “why”, you say, “would I say he needs to die?”

You see, there’s another man in your house — you may have forgotten him! He didn’t creep in, but came through the front door to live with you years ago now. You can remember when he first arrived. You used to enjoy His company so much. He made you feel things you hadn’t felt in a long time. Your felt love, belonging, acceptance, forgiveness, joy.  At the same time, you began to see things in yourself that were inconsistent, things you wanted to change. You used to stay up all night talking to Him about everything, especially the things you couldn’t talk to anybody else about.

But lately, you are intrigued by what this intruder has to say. It’s quite simple at this point. You need to choose between the two of them. To maintain your friendship with your old friend, this intruder and his influences must be killed. I suppose you could just move him to a back room, but you are sure you would be drawn to him there, tempted to visit him again. There’s that something appealing about him. No! He needs to die. “But this seems so severe, so radical!” Why am I so adamant in calling for the death of this intruder? What you may not know is the whole story:

Your friend – you know the one that sits in the corner of your living room waiting for you to visit with him – has some marks on his hands. When you first met him you were amazed by those marks on his hands. You were amazed by a lot of things then. But now, his ideas don’t seem as sophisticated as the intruders. His words just aren’t as deep or profound as the stranger’s. The marks — you haven’t stopped lately to notice them. Where did he get those wounds? They look pretty severe. In one sense, the intruder in your house, he nailed those spikes into his hands. He didn’t like what your friend was saying. It greatly offended him! The things your friend told the intruder were insane. So, you see, it was quite simple, He just had to go. He needed to be gotten rid of!

What you may not recognize is that this intruder constantly speaks contrary to your old friend. He is always challenging his ideas. He cannot stand his presence and is actively seeking to move him out of the house. To make matters worse, you’ve recently started to take this intruder out with you and introduced him to your friends. Sure enough, his ideas were just as appealing to them as they were to you and he is obtaining quite a following, while your old friend and his ways are pushed aside. This intruder must be stopped! He must be dealt with! Why has he become your friend? Don’t you remember what he did to your old friend? He will destroy you if you allow him to remain as he has been in your home.

But killing him? Yes, kill him. It seems so severe! Do you remember now what your old friend told you about this intruder? He warned you about him:

Beware of his leaven, it will fill your life. Don’t be like him. Don’t give like him. Don’t pray like him. Don’t treat others who are less fortunate like he does.  Don’t react to those who suffer like he does. Don’t get caught up in his self-deception and deceit.  Stay away from him and his corrupting influences!

This heart is an intruder that your Lord, your faithful Friend, wants you to recognize and systematically and methodically eliminate from your life! You’ll have to be willing to see him for who he is not just in others but also in you. May God give you eyes to see and ears to hear His word of loving correction as He seeks to protect you from this Christless tendency in your hearts!

Who is this intruder? He is the Pharisee.  This is the religious spirit that substitutes for the Spirit of Christ. He makes you feel superior to others that aren’t as religious. He reminds you of your elite status as an insider. He reminds you that your attendance, giving and service in the church make you better than other people.  He blinds you to your own shortcomings and makes it easy to see the faults in others. He reduces your empathy for those who suffer and promises you that you can avoid suffering yourself. He’s sure that God is lucky to have you in His family.  You bring so much to the table.

Extrinsic v. Intrinsic Christianity

Several years ago now, the psychologist Gordon Allport stumbled upon an idea. He was originally trying to understand how people of faith could also be capable of prejudice. His initial findings showed that religious people were actually more prejudiced than non-religious people. As a person of faith himself, this result troubled Allport.

I’ve recently had several key encounters with people who profess faith that have left me scratching my head. It seems like there are two Christianities. These two are very different and cannot be reconciled.

Allport called these two different faiths extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic faith is focused on ROI and what the follower gets out of the deal. It is essentially a self-focused approach to religion as a way to get ahead. This is a religion of comfort and social connections. Intrinsic faith is very different. It is not focused on getting, but giving. One follows sincerely held beliefs because it is an inherently right thing to do. It is essentially a selfless approach to religion as a means of becoming fully human, a meaning-endowing framework.

Notice the contrast between these two types of Christianity in the table below:

Extrinsic Christianity (Churchianity) Intrinsic Christianity
What’s in it for ME? What do I get out of this? Essentially a self-centered approach to religion. What is required of me? What is the right thing to do? What is the meaning of life?
Jesus who gives me personal victory and success The Suffering Servant and Man of Sorrows who models a life of servanthood
Not interesting in dying to self Dying with Jesus, taking up our cross
Does not feel deep empathy for others pain. Invalidates pain with truisms and Christian platitudes. Feels deep empathy for pain of others
Uses religion for personal gain as a MEANS to the end Spirituality is the END in itself, not a means to anything else
Capable of bigotry and prejudice, finds it easy to judge others who are different Sees all people in an accepting way
Lack of self-awareness leading to pride Self-awareness leading to humility
Does enough to get over the line, meet minimum requirement for entry (being “saved”) Does what is right, not just minimum, working out salvation through course of life
Churchgoing is very important. Those who don’t “go to church” should be judged. Christianity is a lifestyle. There are many different ways of connecting to other believers including institutional churches and other just as valid means.
Tends to identify with successful, charismatic “leaders” and other “victorious” Christians Identifies with Jesus and those He ministered to (the broken and hurting)
Not lost, don’t need to find myself Lose yourself to find yourself

It seems clear that a large part of the confusion some may feel is connected to this dichotomy. Both kinds of religion call themselves Christianity. The innate difference between the two, however, could not be greater. By the way, non-Christians who remain disinterested in Christianity are mostly repelled by the extrinsic brand. As Gandhi said, “I don’t have a problem with Jesus, just His followers.” It was likely the extrinsic Christians in Gandhi’s world that he was referring to.

The takeaway should be obvious. Looking at these two different types of Christianity, which are you?

Dear Introverted Pastor

I recently received the following question from an introverted pastor struggling with the extrovert bias inside American evangelicalism. Here’s my response.

As an introvert pastor, I have a hard time fitting in at pastor gatherings, but it also seems important not to isolate myself from them. I do force myself to go because I “should”, but it can be disheartening when I am often exhorted to be more extroverted like them. It would be great if there were a “birds of a feather” gathering of introverted pastors where we can encourage and learn techniques from each other about how to pastor from that perspective. Do you have any advice?

The problem you describe is not unique to pastors, but is an important question to all of us, especially introverts. Because many introverts feel less of a need to constantly be around people, and are quite happy and capable to do what we do alone for the most part, we can tend to feel like there is something deficient about us. As you say, we feel like we “should” want to hang out with others, for two reasons I think. The culture around us tells us that putting ourselves out there is right. Being alone is frowned upon. In addition, the evangelical culture of which you are part also reinforces this bias, using Scripture as a club to make the requirement to be together (this is usually called “fellowship”) even stronger.

I’m not surprised at the disheartening effect getting together with these other pastors has on you. Having other people essentially tell us to be more extroverted is incredibly insensitive, ignorant, and hurtful. Not to mention, this practice is patently unbiblical. You and I and every person are supposed to be and become the person God created us to be, not to try to be someone else. God-given differences originate in the womb as a reflection of God-ordained diversity (e.g. Jacob and Esau).   Sanctification does not or should not refer to the process of turning introverts into extroverts. Rather, sanctification is a process whereby we each shed the baggage that typically connects with either end of the spectrum, becoming the authentic self we were made to be, without the things that detract from our original design. For extroverts, this may be moving toward greater humility and away from pride. For introverts, this may be moving toward greater acceptance and less self-loathing. This is a key biblical concept. Salvation, or sanctification, is not a one-size-fits-all process. You might enjoy a post where I recently bemoaned what I too often hear described by popular radio preachers, extroversion as salvation.

I agree with you that it would be helpful to have a connection with other introverted pastors to normalize your experiences. Realizing that we’re not alone is incredibly validating. Learning how others like us lead can be very helpful. Ultimately however, I think this is second best. The best would be to have a healthy connection with other diverse people in ministry who value the God-given differences between them as part of a deeply held biblical worldview. I often advocate for this idea when I have the opportunity using 1 Corinthians 12 as one of the main anchors. Paul, in that passage, is actually addressing the root problem you are describing, devaluing others. It looks exactly as he describes it, one part of the body saying to another, “We don’t need you.” An extrovert implying to an introvert, “You should be just like me.” In reality, the body of Christ was intentionally designed to be interdependent, all parts needing all other parts to function as it should.

One practical solution to this problem would be to do a book study together with the group of pastors to open up some healthy dialog about this issue. For this reason specifically, I included reflection questions in Introvert Revolution thinking that extroverts could use these to open up good discussion with the introverts around them. What your extroverted friends need to realize is that the impact they are having on you, they are having on at least half of their congregants. In the same way that you come away from meeting with them feeling beaten up, misunderstood or marginalized, their congregants, either knowingly or unknowingly, are probably walking out of their church services feeling similarly.

Ironically, this whole problem is culturally driven. This is a Western, especially U. S., problem related to the way we promote extroversion as the goal. When you look at the culture of Judaism, an Eastern culture, into which the Bible was written, it seems to value the opposite idea. The wisdom literature, for example, promotes the connection between wise living and things like holding one’s temper, not acting impulsively, having self-restraint, holding one’s tongue – all introverted traits. Do I therefore think that sanctification is about becoming introverted? No. I sincerely believe that the process from either side of the spectrum actually looks different and that we need to understand that fundamental reality if we’re going to truly help people from either side become who they were meant to be.

For further reading on this topic, I would strongly suggest Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture By Adam McHugh and Quiet Faith: An Introvert’s Guide to Spiritual Survival by Judson Edwards. Another book that has helped me is David Benner’s The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery.

The struggle you describe is not trivial. People or pastors feeling as if their introversion means that there is something inherently wrong with them is the root of deep and painful shame, the very thing that we should be seeking to heal. I would challenge you to take up this struggle, not just for yourself, but for many other introverts in these circles in which you find yourself that are suffering in similar ways. We have a lot of work to do. I wholeheartedly disagree with the bias reflected in the regrettable quote from Richard Halverson, the former chaplain of the U.S. Senate, “The extrovert God of John 3:16 does not beget an introvert people.” I think Rev. Halverson and some of your friends are sorely mistaken. Hope this helps.

Andy Johnson is a former pastor, organizational consultant, and the author of three books. His most recent book, Introvert Revolution: Leading Authentically in a World That Says You Can’t was written to help leaders work through and overcome the cultural bias that invalidates their authentically introverted leadership.

Screwtape on Churchgoing

Just received the latest version of the newsletter from the C. S. Lewis Institute.  The feature article highlights the thinking of Screwtape as he explains to his nephew Wormwood that he is almost glad to hear that the man is still a churchgoer since “(a)s long as he retains externally the habits of a Christian he can still be made to think of himself as one who has adopted a few new friends and amusements but whose spiritual state is much the same as it was [before].  I think this remains the fundamental problem.  Many people are erroneously thinking that churchgoing means change when it doesn’t.  Going to church doesn’t make you vitally connected to Christ any more than hanging out in your garage makes you a car.

Hebrews 10:24-25 in Context

Because of the large numbers of people who are struggling with the “requirement” to attend the “worship services,” be involved and actively support (if not become members) of an institutional church, Hebrews 10:25 is becoming one of the most frequently cited verses in the Bible.  You’ll hear believers discussing it at the local Starbucks.  “But we have to go to church.  Hebrews 10 says, ‘don’t forsake assembling yourselves together as is the manner of some.”  They usually add something like, “It’s not a question of if you have to attend church, it’s where.  I know that no church is perfect and I can’t find one that really seems to function like the New Testament describes, but opting out is not an option.'”  Because of this perceived “requirement,” institutional churches have a captive market – all believers are required to go somewhere.  Those that do church better will naturally gain a larger market share (more people will fulfill their “requirement” there).  Maybe we’re missing the point.

Because this verse is central to this discussion happening in coffeeshops all around the country, we would do well to look at the actual text within its context and attempt to interpret it in light of our current question.  Here’s the passage under discussion:

24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. [Heb. 10:24,25 ESV]

Before we dive in to the interpretation of this particular sentence, let’s remind ourselves of the bigger picture.

The letter to the Hebrews was written by an unknown author to the Jewish believers in and around Jerusalem who were being tempted to return to Judaism under the pressure exerted from their families and the extended Jewish community.  The whole argument of the letter is centered on the main point: Jesus is better.  The main application follows: Don’t leave what you have (Jesus), to go back to the old system which is inferior (Judaism).

The writer organizes the letter around comparisons between Jesus and the Old Covenant, piling up evidence along the way to persuade the readers not to turn back.  Turning back to the Old System is discouraged through the use of various warnings.  The most famous warnings occur in chapters 6 and 10, both of which speak of the redemptive danger of turning away from Jesus, Who is the only One that makes us right with God through His perfect sacrifice and continuing priesthood.  Jesus is the central figure of the book of Hebrews.  He is the unique Prophet, Priest and King the writer points the Hebrews toward.

Chapter 10 opens with an argument about the superiority of Jesus’ sacrifice as compared to the Old Testament system.  His is better in every way [Heb. 10:1-10].  Then Jesus’ superior priesthood is compared to the inferior Levitical system [Heb. 10:11-18].  Jesus offered once-for-all a perfect offering that make us acceptable to God and He continues to live as our perfect High Priest to apply the benefits of that once-for-all sacrifice to us.  He’s the point.  He’s the unique Leader (and in fact, the only Head of the church).

In light of that, the author begins to make application to the Jewish readers:

19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near [Heb. 10:19-25 ESV].

This is the immediate context of the often quoted verses.  The argument is basically: since we have this superior sacrifice that makes us right with God and a perfect High Priest, we can and should draw near to God rather than turning away (the main temptation of the Hebrews).  In verse 23, the writer tells them to hold fast to the faith they have confessed in light of God’s character trait of faithfulness.  Then, the writer gives them a practical means of staying connected and not drawing back: meeting together [v. 25].

Why are they meeting in the first place?  What kind of meeting together is going to help them not pull back from Jesus in light of the community pressure to do so?  What is the main thing their meeting is to focus on?  Notice the purposes of their gathering.   The writer answers these questions as follows, saying essentially:

Don’t fail to get together and do these three things: stir each other up to love, stir each other up to good works, encourage each other.

The writer added that these things become even more relevant and important as the Day draws near.  What day?  The Day of the Lord, the Day of judgment, when our lives are assessed by our continuing in relationship with Christ (knowing Him [Matt. 7], abiding in Him [Jn. 15]), not turning away from him because of adversity.  Let’s look at these three main things their meetings are to focus on:

Stir each other up to love.

How do you stir each other up to love if love is a feeling?  Love for who?  Love for God?  Love for others?  I think it’s love for both.  The two great commandments are to love God and love others.  In times of testing and adversity, like the Hebrews were going through, the real Christian community can help us avoid the common pitfalls of forgetting to love God or others (enemies?) in the midst of our own pain.

Stir each other up to good works.

Good works?  I thought we were against works and for grace.  Aren’t grace and works opposites?  Absolutely not!  In fact, we demonstrate the reality of our love for God and others by our works.  This only sounds radical or heretical to our anti-law (antinomian) American evangelical ears.  It’s hard to keep doing the “right thing,” when you’re going through persecution.  The Christian community, if it functions like it’s supposed to, can help each other do this very difficult thing.

Encourage each other.

They need mutual encouragement.  They are experiencing the rejection of family and the entire Jewish community for their profession of Jesus as Messiah.  Without this encouragement from each other, it will be far easier for them to give in to the pressure and go back.  Sadly, most confessing American Christians are woefully inadequate at giving helpful encouragement.  Instead, they, like Job’s famous “comforters” frequently dispense all kinds of unhelpful and uncompassionate platitudes, half-truths and truisms.

The Point: Mutual Ministry to One Another

All three of these things are about mutual ministry to one another.  There is no mention of someone in authority stirring them up to love and good works or of one person attempting to encourage every one at the meeting.  It is a description of the “body edifying (building up) itself in love” [Eph. 4:16].  Each part of the body does its part in the meeting.  The result is that no one is lost in the process.  No one fades away or disappears from the Christian community.  They stay together and help each other so that they get to the finish line together.  What a challenging thought to the rugged individualism of American evangelicals!

These verses are too often lifted from their context and made to mean something entirely different than their original intent.  I frankly don’t see the direct correlation between this biblical exhortation and the requirement to “go to church.”  In fact, that phrase would have made no sense to them in the first century.  What the writer is saying is that it’s unwise and likely to lead toward danger to try to go it alone.  As many have rightly said, “There are no lone ranger Christians.”  This lines up with Gen. 2:18.  It’s not good for us to be alone.  We need each other and we need the “one anothering” that helps us keep going in the midst of difficult times.

A relevant question for the modern American church would be, “How much one anothering is actually going on in the context of the Sunday morning meeting, anyway?”  I think it’s pretty common for people to come in, get a bulletin, sit in a seat, greet a neighbor for thirty seconds, pick up the kids from Sunday school, get in the car and leave.  If we go to church and do it like this, have we really taken to heart the intent of this passage?  So, if you go to church, you haven’t necessarily fulfilled this “requirement.”  Now that you know, if you go to church, that would be a good place to put this into practice (there are a lot of other discouraged Christians there) but even if you don’t do church, you should still practice this as an integral part of being a Christ-follower.

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