To be an evangelical is to profess that one’s highest allegiance is to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is to confess that salvation is in Christ alone and that we do not save ourselves, no matter how good we may be. It is to recognize that God’s grace is freely given and that we can do nothing, not even deciding to follow Jesus, to merit it. That is evangelicalism at its best.
All the same, there are many elements of the North American evangelical movement with which I find it difficult to identify. I am not keen on some of the subcultural distinctives, including the celebrity culture associated with the television preachers and Christian contemporary music. If the gospel becomes a marketable commodity, Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him, and even to suffer the consequences of so doing, loses its urgency and may be ignored altogether. No longer does the gospel shape our lives from the ground up and in their totality; it becomes a mere add-on to whatever lifestyle choices happen to appeal to us at the moment.
Many evangelical leaders are bemoaning what they see as the loss of Christian commitment in the millennial generation. But what if millennials are slackening in their church attendance and other markers of observance because they simply are not being challenged to take up their cross? Rod Dreher has posted something worth reading for those concerned for the future of the church. Dreher believes emotivism is at fault:
This dumbed-down emotivism is the way many, many churches — not just Evangelical churches — present the faith to its young people. It’s that “Jesus is my best friend” stuff that adults think will make the faith more palatable to young people, but which just sets them up for collapse when they step outside the bubble of church culture and find pushback. Specifically . . . if emotions are the foundation on which you build your faith, what happens when your emotions don’t line up with the teachings of your church? We Orthodox, Catholics, and Reformed Christians can look down our noses all we like at charismatics and Evangelicals for not having a strong and systematic theology, but what good does our theological depth do us if we don’t teach our young people how to think as Christians, and how to discipline their feelings with reason?
Dreher is quick to emphasize that he is not advocating a rationalism incapable of speaking to the heart. Nevertheless, an evangelicalism detached from solid confessional moorings and incapable of teaching its young people to think christianly about larger cultural trends will not survive over the long term. In short, it’s a matter of teaching truth, not just eliciting feelings.
To be sure, feelings cannot be ignored. I rather like Corey’s comment on Dreher’s post: “Yes, deeper theological and historical teaching might slow the Millennial egress, but, to speak like Augustine, the truth must be loved if the truth will be believed.” If love is not reducible to mere emotion, there is nevertheless a substantial emotional component to it. Where the emotional side is missing, love becomes pro forma, incapable of eliciting anything deeper than intellectual agreement. Similarly, if truth is a matter of head knowledge only, it will not carry the day, no matter how many reasons are adduced in its favour.
I think G. K. Chesterton is on to something in speaking of the romance of orthodoxy. Romance is something winsome, attractive and capable of drawing people into a narrative in which they come to see themselves playing a part. If sound teaching is viewed only as so many discrete dogmas to be imposed on the otherwise critical mind, it will fall flat. If, on the other hand, we affirm, with Lesslie Newbigin, that, as Christians, we indwell the biblical story, recognizing that the truths it conveys are really a single Truth, our highest love, demanding, not just intellectual assent, but heartfelt commitment, we might just be able to pass on something of inestimable worth to the next generation. If so, this will amount to evangelicalism at its very best.