Evangelical Distinctives in the 21st Century

The first in a series on the meaning and place of a historic movement.

The evangelical faith is going through another of its spasms of critical self-reflection. Every week, it seems another prominent person claims that “evangelicalism is in crisis” or that they no longer want to be identified with the word evangelical.

This sort of thing happens when some evangelicals do something scandalous in the eyes of another part of the movement. In the recent past, many were disturbed by the televangelist scandals of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and others. Over the last year, many American evangelicals have been aghast at other evangelicals’ support for Donald Trump and their general political conservatism. Meanwhile, the movement has seen increased division over racial reconciliation and sexual ethics.

There is nothing new under the sun. I remember my days at evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary in the mid-1970s, deciding that evangelical had no real meaning other than a code word for some that meant “real Christian.” After 50 years in the movement, I’ve come to believe it really does mean something. But like many realities we can’t define with absolute precision (gender differences, happiness, time, consciousness), the reality exists.

This series of essays will try to describe the hard-to-pin-down reality that is evangelical faith as it has expressed itself throughout history and today across the globe. It has been and continues to be an extraordinary phenomenon of God, changing not only individual lives but the trajectory of nations. Like all great movements, it is subject to misunderstanding and mischaracterization. Because of the way the media covers it, the larger public today tends to think of it as primarily a political movement with a religious veneer. …

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What John Wesley Would Say to Bernie Sanders and Diane Feinstein

The post-Reformation theologian has suggestions for post-Christian America.

The United States is currently in uncharted waters, both political and religious. As Harvard comparative religion professor Diana L. Eck noted, “Historians tells us that America has always been a land of many religions, and that is true. … The immigrants of the last three decades, however, have expanded the diversity of our religious life dramatically, exponentially.” Eck connects the dramatic increase in religious diversity since the 1970s with the conscious removal of explicitly racist immigration policies from US law during the Johnson administration. The failure to assist Jews attempting to flee the horrors of Nazi Germany and the success of the civil rights movement both caused calls for less racially discriminating immigration laws, and subsequently, the United States saw the massive surge in religious diversity that Eck speaks of.

Religious diversity has always been an American value, but this idea has moved from diversity amongst different primarily Christian groups to a much broader and more visible diversity in the last few decades, due both to fairer immigration policies and the lessening of explicitly Christian influences over national power structures. In the midst of these changes, Americans have had to re-affirm our commitment to religious diversity in a society that is becoming religiously diverse in increasingly tangible ways. And, I would argue, we haven’t done this particularly well at the political level.

We saw this on display at the confirmation hearing for recently confirmed 7th circuit Court of Appeals judge Amy Coney Barrett, when she was asked by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) if she were an “orthodox Catholic,” and objecting that she did not have enough experience …

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The ‘Religious Affections’ of Billy Graham’s Evangelism

On the evangelist’s 99th birthday, we look at the role desire played in so many decisions for Christ.

Deciding for Christ

In the fall of 1958, Billy Graham returned to his hometown, Charlotte, North Carolina, for a five-week crusade. He was just thirty-nine years old, but he already had ten years’ experience preaching around the world to the largest crowds ever to hear an evangelist. By the time of the Charlotte crusade, he knew exactly what to do at the end of his half-hour sermon. With the organ softly playing the hymn “Just As I Am,” he closed with these words:

I’m going to ask all of you in this building to get up out of your seat right now. … And say tonight, “I want Christ. … I want him to fill my life. I want him to help solve my problems and forgive my sins and lift my burdens. I want him to come in and be closer than a brother. I want him to come in and help me and forgive me and cleanse me. …” I’m going to ask you to come right now. … Now you come, quickly.

Nearly a half-century later, an eighty-seven-year-old Graham was in Baltimore where he gave one of his last public sermons. With the piano softly playing “Just As I Am,” he ended by saying,

I’m going to ask you to do something that we’ve seen thousands of people do in different parts of the world. I’m going to ask you to say, “I do want my life to change. I want to be certain that if I die I’ll go to heaven.” I’m going to ask you to come and make this decision. Make certain that you know Christ as your Lord and Savior. You may want to rededicate your life. You come.

Thus, Billy Graham concluded his sermons with more or less the same words for more than sixty years. He invited his listeners to get out of their seats and come forward to show that …

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A Small Rural Church Is Hard to Kill

A Texas Baptist pastor on the risk and resilience of America’s smallest congregations.

By any measure, Sunday’s mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, breaks records we’d rather not see broken. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott characterized it as the worst mass shooting in the history of our state and among the worst in the country’s recent history. It is the deadliest church shooting on record.

Superlatives abound as our society scrambles to understand what these things mean. Framed in an overarching narrative of the decline of American civility or debates over gun-politics or increasing hostility toward people of faith, the shooting serves as a data point for the more cerebral and an exclamation point for the more passionate.

When you remove the framework and look at the story of a small church in a rural town, this event defies ranking or evaluation.

For the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, it is an extinction-level event. The church’s lay leadership have all been murdered. The preponderance of the church’s surviving membership lies in the hospital. Eight of the slain come from a single family.

The worship center lies smothered in the carnage and riddled with bullet holes. Who’s going to clean it? Who’s going to pay to have it cleaned? The people who have taken care of those needs in the past were carried out of the meeting house on stretchers and gurneys.

The death of 26 members would traumatize any church, but for a church this size, it threatens the church’s very existence. It threatens that small church; it frightens every small church. Most of the pastors of small churches across the nation know someone whom they could imagine committing a similar crime.

The definition of the family and the nature of childhood in America is …

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Shooting at Southern Baptist Texas Church Kills 26 Worshipers

Tragedy at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs is deadliest US church attack since 1963.

During its 11 a.m. worship service, a Southern Baptist church in rural Texas suffered not only America’s latest mass shooting but the deadliest at a US church in more than 50 years.

At least 26 worshipers, ranging in ages from 5 to 72, have died from First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, according to Texas authorities. YouTube videos of the church’s weekly service indicate that recent Sundays have drawn about 50 to 75 attendees.

Among the victims, 23 died inside the rural church’s small sanctuary, 2 outside the church, and one later while receiving treatment. Another 20 worshipers were injured. The shooter was identified as Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, of New Braunsfels, Texas, about 35 miles away.

The Texas tragedy is only the 14th mass murder at an American house of worship since 1963, according to statistics compiled by church security expert Carl Chinn. It is also the deadliest shooting in the Lone Star State, taking place on the anniversary of the Fort Hood shooting that killed 13 people on an Army base in 2009.

Texas governor Greg Abbott said, “The tragedy of course is worsened by the fact that it occurred in a church, a place of worship, where these people were innocently gunned down.”

“The death toll will mark this as the worst [church shooting] in US history,” Chinn told CT. Fewer than 40 percent of church attacks happen during Sunday worship or other official church events; however, Chinn said the ones that occur during services tend to be worse.

Kelley entered the church shortly after the service began. According to reports, he wore black ballistic gear and carried a Ruger military-style rifle.

A pastor of a neighboring church told TV reporters that he knows most of the church’s …

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The Martyr’s Oath, an Interview with Johnnie Moore on the Persecuted Church

The persecuted church calls the free church to live for the Jesus they are willing to die for

Ed: What is The Martyr’s Oath, and why did you write it?

Johnnie Moore: I’ll never forget meeting a nun on a visit to Iraq just after Mosul fell to ISIS. She said to me, “I love America. Such beautiful people. Such a wonderful place. I have a PhD from an American university. You care for your pets so well. So, when will you care for us? Why are you so silent in the face of our genocide? We feel forgotten.”

Since that moment, I have felt a call to be a voice for the persecuted church, and to call the church to care more, pray more, and do more. I’ve come to realize this is actually my primary call. I’m committed to telling the stories of the suffering church to the free church. This is my latest and most comprehensive effort to do so.

The Martyr’s Oath is the result of months of travel documenting the actual experiences of persecuted Christians. It’s a book of firsthand accounts from more than a dozen different countries. Some of the stories we found are very powerful.

We met one newly-converted Syrian family who welcomed a threat of martyrdom from a family member but refused a threat of crucifixion because they said, “We felt so unworthy to die the same death as our Jesus.”

We found supernatural stories like one of a judge awakening in the middle of the night from a dream where he was told not to touch the Christian pastor he was planning on ruling against the next morning. We found another pastor whose ministry led him to a spy for Osama Bin Laden who became a believer and is now a Christian pastor himself.

We met one woman who told us that after her family got out of prison in China they became so courageous that they stopped meeting in a basement but instead chose …

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Screen Time Is Changing the Way We Think, Focus, and Memorize

What old wisdom brings to the smartphone era.

The first time I heard a pastor say, “Take out your Bible or phone or iPad and turn to …” was in 2016. It seems like a fairly harmless statement, but given recent evidence that screen time is changing the way we think, perhaps not.

Approximately 2 billion people use a smartphone every day. Many of these use the device for work, scheduling, and organizing their busy lives. With punctual reminders and helpful apps, smart devices easily override our fickle attention span. Sometimes it is difficult to tell how much time one is spending on a device. In fact, one recent study showed that participants underestimated their usage by almost half.

For many, it’s believable that our attention is shorter than it used to be. In 2015, several major news sources reported that humans now have an attention span less than that of a goldfish. The study, however, wasn’t peer reviewed or a properly controlled experiment. In fact, there isn’t any solid evidence that the attention span is shrinking (or that goldfish even have an attention span).

In a recent survey, evangelical pastors and leaders claimed that the average church service should be 75 minutes. After asking preachers about their sermon length, LifeWay president Thom Rainer found that the typical evangelical sermon lasts 20-28 minutes. Should pastors worry about whether church members need even shorter sermons?

It appears, no. Thankfully, from the evidence we currently have, electronic devices (everything from smartphones to iPods) do not seem to be shrinking our attention span. Like a puppy dog in a pet supply store, we are just easily distracted.

What does seem clear is that electronic devices (especially smartphones) are addictive and can easily distract …

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What Arab Leaders Think of USAID Funding Persecuted Christians

Middle East believers pray more American money won’t mean more problems.

Ashty Bahro was one of the first to the scene in al-Qosh, traveling 25 miles over mountainous roads from his base in Iraqi Kurdistan to the town where 850 Iraqi Christian families had been newly displaced.

Only weeks earlier, the families had relocated to Teleskof in the Nineveh Plain, following its liberation from ISIS. But the Kurdish independence referendum sparked a new crisis in the region. The Iraqi government moved quickly to reclaim lands controlled by the Kurdish peshmerga fighters. Shia militias linked with Iran also threatened the Christian areas, forcing families to flee once more.

“They are very tired. They just rebuilt their homes,” said Bahro, head of Zalal Life Civil Society Foundation and former director of the Evangelical Alliance of Kurdistan. “Now they are scared to remain in government-held cities.”

Zalal Life distributed 300 food baskets and bottles of water. The government of Hungary donated $2 million in aid for reconstruction. The United Nations wasn’t there.

“People are not happy with the UN; they are using money for administration,” said Bahro. “The help is coming from churches and Christian organizations.”

The Iraqi Christian leader praised charities like Voice of the Martyrs, Tear Fund, Operation Mercy, and World Vision. And he welcomed American vice president Mike Pence’s statement that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) will start to fund Christian groups in the region directly.

“They are here in the area, they know what’s happening, and they go immediately to help,” Bahro said.

Maan Bitar, pastor of the Presbyterian church in Hama, Syria, confirmed concerns that UN aid was not reaching Christians in the …

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The Faith of the ‘Killable People’

Why “prison Pentecostalism” is flourishing among criminals, gang members, and others on society’s margins.

Whatever doctrine might be preached, when there is Christian worship within the walls of prisons—among the world’s damned—an ancient theology of hell is being recovered, incarnated on earth. It is Christ’s descent to the dead, his triumphant ekklesia conquering the gates of Hades.

We don’t recognize our lived theologies that quickly, though, because we don’t use those words—the damned, the dead—when talking about the human beings we lock away in prisons or dispose of through legal violence. We say “criminals,” “offenders,” “convicts,” “felons.”

But up-and-coming religious studies scholar Andrew Johnson, in his dynamic first book, If I Give My Soul: Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro, discovers in the poorest Brazilian favelas, or hillside shantytowns, a fresh and direct term for the souls a society deems worthy of torment: the “killable people.”

To kick off his more general investigation of religion in Brazil’s prisons, Johnson spent two weeks living inside two different lockdown facilities. He slept in crowded cells with the inmates. He ate, played soccer, and conducted interviews, while observing and attending religious activities. And he quickly narrowed his study to the primary faith expression that was pouring into the grim prisons from the outside community: Pentecostalism. It is flourishing within the hardest gang-populated units.

For the next several years, Johnson tracked the shape, history, and power of Pentecostalism as “the faith of the killable people.” In Rio, these are the urban poor, those with black and brown skin, those living in the swelling, improvised slum mazes known as favelas, …

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500 Years After Luther, We Still Feel the Pressure to Be Justified

Luther’s law/gospel insight is as brilliant as ever—especially in 21st century America.

Playmobil, the German toy company, made unexpected headlines in 2015 when it released a limited edition Martin Luther figurine. Outside of how smiley it cast the cantankerous theologian, the toy itself wasn’t especially newsworthy. What got everyone’s attention was how quickly it flew off the shelves. Overnight little Luther became the fastest-selling item in the company’s 40-year history. While factories scrambled to catch up with demand, consumers descended on eBay in search of what they knew was the perfect gift for the pastor in their lives. At least, the ones with a sense of humor.

In retrospect, irony might have been the better word. It was not the first time Luther had been at the center of a collision between demand, expectation, and gift. Thankfully, the stakes were quite a bit lower this time around. The same cannot be said for those raised by his theology.

A few years ago, in response to a spate of suicides on its campus, the University of Pennsylvania put together a task force to explore the mental health of its students. What they found was tragic, but sadly unsurprising. “The pressures engendered by the perception that one has to be perfect in every academic, co-curricular, and social endeavor can lead to stress and in some cases distress,” the task force’s report said. “[I]n turn, [distress] can manifest as demoralization, alienation, or conditions like anxiety or depression. For some students, mental illness can lead to suicide.”

The mercilessness described here hints at a tragic escalation of a phenomenon experienced not just by college students, but by everyone today—the pressure to perform, to make something of oneself, to become acceptable, to make a …

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