Christian Wisdom Amid the Gurus

Looking for Christian wisdom in the bestsellers.

Dave Ramsey, Jordan Peterson, and Rachel Hollis are, each in their own way, three of our modern gurus. They’re a diverse group that reflects particular personalities of modern culture. Peterson is the philosophical academic, Hollis the Instagram celebrity, and Ramsey the folksy, financial counseling version of Dr. Phil. Their books don’t just sell; they live atop the bestsellers lists for years at a time. Hollis’s last two books are both currently in Amazon’s top 5. Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life has sold 10 million copies since late 2017. You have scroll a bit further to find Ramsey’s manifesto The Total Money Makeover (and its various spin-offs), but then again, Ramsey’s radio show has been reaching millions of listeners since the George W. Bush administration. Continue reading “Christian Wisdom Amid the Gurus”

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When Re-Conversion Is Easier Than Repentance

Many evangelical church cultures make it safer to deny last year’s Christianity than to admit you are a struggling believer.

Let me tell you a familiar story from my days in evangelical youth ministry.

A teenager with roots in the church would make semi-regular appearances throughout the year, be respectful during Bible study/church, but otherwise seem non-cognizant of Christianity the rest of the year. Then one year, the teenager goes with the youth group on a week-long “mission trip” to a Christian camp. At one point during the week, the teenager has an emotional (possibly tearful) experience and tells their youth leader they need to be truly saved. This joyous announcement follows the teenager home where she stands in front of the whole congregation a couple Sundays later and shares her story of “realizing for the first time” that she “actually needed Jesus in her life.”

Fast forward 12 months or so. Around winter the teenager had largely dropped out of the Bible studies and fellowship nights she had been regularly attending. Everyone knows this teen is a Christian—they were there at the camp—but nobody really knows where she’s been for the past few months.

Now the youth group is taking another week-long summer trip, and she’s coming too. And just like last year, at some point in the week, she gets emotional about Jesus. Also like last year, she asks to talk to her youth minister, and yet again like last year, she comes to realize that she wasn’t “really” a Christian after all. Through tears and hugs she announces her newfound authentic faith, and again brings her testimony home to the church. But like last time, summer doesn’t last forever. By February people are asking where she’s been, and some are already becoming cynical: “Just wait til she gets saved this summer.”

***

In my evangelical church experience, “re-conversions” were as common as conversions, and sometimes more so. Emotionally charged church events, such as youth camps, revivals, etc, would almost always be the occasion for a re-conversion. Sometimes the re-conversion seemed less than authentic, but sometimes it stuck, too. At one point in my life these occasions became so common that we looked forward to the annual church camp trip simply because the trip represented a high point for the youth group that we knew wasn’t going to be repeated or even sustained throughout the year.

No matter who it was that “re-converted” at a given summer, those of us in the group generally knew what had been going on for this person. They liked church, liked their Christian friends, and enjoyed studying the Bible, but for whatever reason the person they were at youth group was not the same person they were at school, work, or online. In a lot of cases we even knew the sins our friend was confessing to the youth minister in the corner. We didn’t know why last year’s trip didn’t stick. We only knew to pray that this one would.

Looking back, youth camp trips were the practical expression of our muddled Southern Baptist ideas about “once saved, always saved.” We believed that. We also believed each tear that fell from the usual suspects each summer. If we sensed a tension between our group’s annual ritual of “really getting saved” and what we said we believed about not losing one’s salvation, we didn’t lose sleep over it. After all, one can be genuinely mistaken about their own soul, and that more than once. Right?

But here’s what has bothered me for a while now. I’m beginning to think that the summer re-conversion ritual said more about our church culture than it said about the tearful teens. I’m beginning to think that the church camp re-conversions were really about how insecure, ashamed teenagers felt safer in the group denying last year’s Christianity than admitting that they were believers who were struggling. Confessing you were a bad Christian last year was a significant social risk that could be met with suspicion and shaming. Confessing that you weren’t actually a Christian at all, but you are now, was just good news.

I’m not saying that these friends were definitely Christians or were definitely not. I don’t know that and I’m glad I don’t know. But as I’ve encountered more evangelical culture as an adult, I’ve seen and heard enough to convince me that many church-going evangelicals have a far more vibrant theology of “getting saved” than they have of ongoing repentance in the life of a believer. Evangelicalism’s mentality seems to be that “repentance” is what non-Christians do when the Holy Spirit tells them they’ve been living a phony life. What do Christians do when they’re convicted of sin? Well, we’re not really sure, because we’re not really sure what to think of Christians and sin.

Re-conversion offers many evangelicals the emotional catharsis of acknowledging sin without the social shaming or awkwardness that comes when people who claim to be Christians acknowledge sin. If you weren’t really a Christian but you are now, wonderful! Enter into our joy. But if you actually are a Christian and you have to talk about sin that you’re not entirely sure how to address, well, how close should we stand next to you? How contagious is it?

Perhaps what was happening every summer is that teens who really did have a sensitive heart toward Christ and the church were just utterly confused as to what being a Christian meant for people like them…people who wanted to be liked by the coolest kids in school, people who wanted to be invited to the best things, people who actually had a life beyond Bible studies. They knew intuitively something was off between the Sunday morning testimony in July and the missed gatherings and neglected devotions in February, but they didn’t know why it was off. They just knew they felt differently during those church trips. What was it they felt? The Holy Spirit, which is what they’ve been told shows up when we’re about to repen…erm, get saved.

One of biggest tragedies of evangelical spirituality is that we’ve neglected the Bible’s tender, compassionate words to Christians. We’ve reduced Christian practice to avoiding the non-respectable sins and presenting the gospel to sinful unbelievers, trying to get them to convert and leave all that sin behind. But we’ve missed so much of the immense patience, lovingkindness, mercy, and encouragement in the Bible toward real believers who are struggling against the sin that so easily entangles. Maybe it’s because we don’t know our Bibles. Or maybe it’s because our vision of God is too much like ourselves: We think of him not as a Father who picks up our falls but as the gatekeeper to an exclusive club that demands that old, imperfect members buy a whole new membership to keep the club tidy.

I wish my church experience had seen more repentance and fewer re-conversions. Jesus promises, after all, to forgive and cleanse the unrighteousness we confess to him. Better to be who we really are in front of our loving Father than to just find a new mask to wear. That’s the gospel. Is it evangelicalism?

Is There a Place in Evangelicalism For Non-Ministers?

A few months before I started there, I took part in a preview weekend for the Bible college that I eventually attended. At one point I had the opportunity to ask the then-dean of the college what the vision of the school was for people (like me) who did not intend to go into vocational ministry. His answer was one I quickly became accustomed to hearing: Every Christian is a “minister” in the realest sense of the word, no matter his or her vocation. Therefore, there would always be a reason for Christians to get a theological education. Wherever we are—the church, business, or the arts—we are ministers.

I think this is true. But I also think it didn’t really answer my question. It seems to me that the question this dean actually answered was, “Why should I give a Bible college money if I don’t have intentions of pastoral ministry?” But that’s a different question. What I wanted to know that evening was whether there was a space to belong for people like me at an institution that is explicitly commissioned to train pastors. I wanted to know whether this college had a category for me (and whether I could have a category for it). To this day, I’m not sure  I completely understand the relationship between evangelicalism’s most important institutions and her non-pastor members. I don’t think I’m alone.

Asking whether there is space for non-ministers in evangelicalism can feel a bit like asking whether there is space for non-members in the local church. On one hand, of course there is! The church is always open like that. After all, if only existing members ever darkened the doors, the church would die. But to say there is space for non-members in this sense is not to say that the church commits to, listens to, or cedes any kind of authority to those attenders. A healthy congregational polity, after all, doesn’t let its non-member attenders cast crucial votes or wield spiritual authority. I often wonder if this is the kind of posture evangelicalism is liable to assume toward its non-ministerial members.

Conservative evangelicalism’s most important, most formative institutions are its churches and its seminaries. One might assume the seminaries exist to serve the churches, but the reality is far more complicated than that. Add in the parachurch ministries and affinity networks to the mix, and you start to get a sense how overlapping the leadership cultures of evangelical institutions really are. The overwhelming majority of influence and institutional capital in my quadrant of evangelicalism is owned by pastors and seminarians. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” The question for me is not whether this is a good or bad thing. Rather, the question for me, as a non-pastor, non-seminarian evangelical who is nonetheless invested in the life and doctrine of evangelicalism: How then shall I live?

Here’s an example of the issues this dynamic can create. Jen Michel is right, I think, to ask whether there is a “gender gap” when it comes to Christian nonfiction. Rather than framing the issue as a case of men refusing to read women, though, I believe I would frame it as a problem of institutional identities. When Jen says “men” here, she of course means Reformed, complementarian men. Who dictates what Reformed, complementarian men read? Well, to a certain extent, Christian publishing does. But what dictates Christian publishing? Aye, there’s the rub. The most doctrinally sound, most ecclesiologically minded publishing houses in evangelicalism tend to invest a large amount of their attention and resources toward pastors and seminaries. Why? Because that’s where the heartbeat of our particular theological culture lies. Again, this isn’t a bad thing. There is something healthy about not totally divorcing the teaching authority of the church and the teaching authority of trade nonfiction (though I think they’re not the same). But it does create, as Jen points out, practical consequences for those of us who don’t live at that heartbeat.

What do Christian writers and speakers do when they’re not ministers? How should they think about their calling? In case you think these are relatively insignificant questions, perhaps put the question a little more bluntly. “Who’s in charge” of, say, the evangelicals who think and writer and speak, but not from the seminarian nexus of evangelical authority? It’s tempting here to appeal to people like C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Elisabeth Eliot, and Nancy Pearcey: all of them hugely influential evangelicals and none of them pastors, seminary presidents, or church network founders. But these are exceptional examples, both in talents and context. The question is not whether we have any more Lewises or Schaeffers or Eliots or Pearceys among us. The question is whether there is a visible path, in the era of Patheos Progressive and narrative-as-authority sub-evangelicalism, for lay writers to become genuine leaders.

Part of the challenge is, I suspect, that for much of conservative evangelicalism, a truly trustworthy leader is one who prioritizes evangelism over intellectualism. That’s at least one reason why the death of someone like Billy Graham looms so large over the evangelical movement, and inspires a meaningful introspection into our identity and future. Make no mistake; Graham is, humanly speaking, the most important American evangelical in history. But such a judgment also implies that evangelicals think of preaching in a way they don’t necessarily think of other things. To borrow some philosophical terms, we might say that in the worldview of evangelicalism, intellectualism and cultural engagement are accidental, but preaching is essence.

It bears saying an umpteenth time: This isn’t bad! It does, however, necessitate evangelical conscientiousness about our movement and its culture. It might also invite some uncomfortable questions about whether pastoral ministry has been inappropriately incentivized, pitched as the only serious vocational option people who want to make a difference for the kingdom. And, as Jen Michel and others have pointed out, it creates a need to articulate more about gender and evangelical authority.

I love both the pastorate and the seminary, but I know (at least as well as one can know these things) they are not in God’s sovereign design for my life. And yet I also know that I want to talk to Christians, have skin in the game, and use whatever resources and time I am given to help both believers and unbelievers see and feel glory. Whether there’s room for me to do this seriously without being a minister, I’m not sure yet. I hope so. Not just for my sake, I hope so.