Book Review: The Evangelicals You Don’t Know (part 1)

Tom Krattenmaker has written a new book to introduce us to the next generation of Christians in America entitled The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.  As the title suggest, Tom, a religion columnist for USA Today, is seeking to expand the readers understanding of evangelicals. More to the point, Tom is trying to demonstrate that all evangelicals are not right-wing, conservative, fundamentalists as the common stereotypes suggest.  He does this by profiling evangelical Christians and the work (dare I say ministry) they are doing which often flies under the radar of the mainstream media.

I will review the book over a couple of posts, starting with the first and second chapters.

Chapter One

Tom starts the book off with an amusing story about a large Jesus statue that was struck by lighting and subsequently burst into flames.  It seems the Jesus statue only appeared to be made of solid, flame-resistant, materials.  A television crew on the scene interviewed a young man named Kevin Jones.  The money quote from Jones was “It is a sign from God.  We need to learn something.  As Christians, we’re not doing something right.”

Tom uses the story of styrofoam Jesus (as one blogger named it) as a defining image of how Christianity is going in America these days.  A lot of big stuff with little substance.  Tom then unpacks that with a description of post-Christendom (the slow slide of the Christian church from places of power and influence to the sidelines).  He does a great job of demonstrating that such a move has (is) taking place and how many religious folks have responded.

A key point in Tom’s argument is that, while traditionalists (the old-guard) have mourned the slide of the Christian church from a power position in the culture, younger evangelicals have met the changes with a sense of optimism and opportunity.   He writes

“…history will show…that the new millennium evangelical generation, those advertising their different ethos with their tattoos and soul patches, their denim sneakers, their quieter voices and more attentive ears, were the Christian believers who devised and implemented the correctives needed to keep the two-millennium Jesus Movement alive for another go-round.”

By the end of the chapter I was asking a different question:

Are these new expressions actually new or are they simply a new form of the old – consumer driven, styrofoam Jesus, targeted to the sensibilities of a new generation?

Chapter Two

In chapter two, Tom begins what will occupy the remainder of the book – in-depth explorations of specific leaders and communities and what they are doing on the ground.  He begins in his own home town of Portland, Oregon and Season of Service.

Season of Service is a summer long service project made possible by partnerships between local government and local congregations which are facilitated by the Luis Palau Association.

Season of Service began in 2008 under the leadership of Kevin Palau, Luis Palau’s son.  In many ways it was birthed in the reality of a failing evangelistic strategy. Namely, that stadium evangelism, while still effective in many parts of the world, and among older generations in America, was not effective among younger people.  Something had changed and they needed to change with it.  They tried a new method: festivals that included extreme sports and rock bands as the draw with the same proclamation of the gospel from a stage during the event.  This was a little better, but not quite there yet.

Younger generations were suspicious of the evangelicalism of previous generations.  The word evangelical itself  “has come to be associated with the following labels and descriptors, too: anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-women’s rights, anti-science, anti-liberal, pushy and arrogant, judgmental quick to shout, and disinclined to listen.” (8-9)  Kevin Palau also shared concerns about “the wrongs that have been committed in Jesus’ name by many who position themselves as his most devout followers.” (17)  The sting of past hurts and the weight of public perceptions of evangelicals meant that proclamation alone, even when dressed up in younger clothes, fell on deaf ears – or more to the point, the festivals attracted large crowds of Christians and the preaching was to the choir.  What young people do resonate with are expressions of faith through acts of service.

Krattenmaker describes what emerged this way:

With Kevin Palau playing the role of organizer, matchmaker, bridge-builder, and promoter, the evangelical churches in the greater Portland region – a community that had previously been more inclined to compete than cooperate, and that had virtually no relationship with city government – have joined forces for a constellation of sustained service projects mobilizing thousands of volunteers, all in coordination with, and with access provided by, liberal city hall. (18)

Season of Service is now in six cities.  What has emerged is a mix of sustained service projects along with a festival that includes extreme sports, concerts and a proclamation of the gospel from the stage.  In order to make the partnership with City Hall work, all service givers have to take a no-proselytizing pledge (they would not convert or attempt to convert people to the Christian faith).

Krattenmaker sees this as a success story.  I think there are many good things happening here.  I also think it is better that they do happen than don’t happen.  That said, a few questions popped into my head while reading the chapter.

  1. Is this new?  To me, the joining of faith with political power is not new.  It is Constantinianism in new clothes.  In post-Christendom the church slid from the center of cultural and political power and influence.  Traditionalist mourn this loss and try to get back to the way it was.  So this move, to me, seems like a move back towards Christendom.  It answers the question, “How can the church rehab its public image and get back inside the halls and power?”
  2. What is the tradeoff?  When faith communities join with political power, there is always a tradeoff.  City Hall is not going to adopt Jesus’ teaching as a strategy for secular government.  And City Hall is not going to let the church set the agenda.  One apparent trade-off is the no-proselytizing pledge.  Are there others?  Does this turn the church into another social service agency? What seems like a partnership could, in effect, be an ailing city using the church for much needed social services in order to preserve finances.
  3. If words are so bad, why do we talk and write so much?  Milan Homola, executive director of Compassion Connect, said “We don’t feel like we need to preach or hand out gospel tracts.  We believe we’re communicating strongly without words.” (19).  Yes, we all communicate without words.  I’m also not fond of preaching at people outside of a church context or handing out gospel tracts.  BUT…try communicating clearly without words.  You are communicating something, but it is pretty hard to know what others are hearing.  This sounds to me like a rationalization for the no-proselytizing pledge and leads to my next question.
  4. Who is the authority in this partnership?  This falls under the tradeoff question, too.  To me, it seems like the final authority rests with City Hall.  They can pull the plug and deny access.  That’s why churches had to take the no-proselytizing pledge.  The church is called to move out in the world under the authority of Jesus, the already King of the entire cosmos.  This is why Anabaptists were always leery of joining church and state.  The state always demands an allegiance that is not theirs to demand and they force others to operate under their authority, not the authority of Jesus, the head of the church.
  5. How does Season of Service address larger systemic issues?  Tom echoes this concern by naming some of the comments of fellow Portlanders.    Things like; “This service to the unfortunate might look nice…but isn’t it complicit in the ongoing shredding of a public safety net for the poor – a shredding that these same Christians have helped carry out through their support of Republican politicians and policies?” and “…the Christian service modeled by Season of Service gives cover to the conservative project to shrink government and leave care of the disadvantaged to churches and charities which are not equal to the task.”   One response to a piece Tom wrote in the Oregonians said, “Haven’t [Christians] done enough damage with their warmongering, money-stealing, and self-righteous behavior?  Apparently not.  Why should they be trusted?” (30-31).    The approach, as defined by the Christians participating is “simple and natural: they see a need, they jump to meet it.”  Perhaps this is the problem?  Without a deeper understanding of what causes the symptoms of poverty (i.e. the problems they are jumping to meet) the underlying issues are never addressed.  This means they are pouring a lot of resources – both time and money – towards things that while good, actually ensure that the problem goes unresolved.  Which leads to my next question.
  6. Does Season of Service reinforce larger systemic issues?  This is an important question that is much larger than the questions that gave birth to Season of Service to begin with.  The questions Kevin Palau seemed to be asking are related to how to move the Luis Palau Association into the future.  His answer to the failing strategy of stadium evangelism and the luke-warm response to festivals was service.  That seems to have solved their problem, but has it helped solve the problems of those they are serving?  This is a much longer discussion than I have time for here, but the question needs to be raised.  Does the whole model, while helpful on the surface, actually create long-term problems.  Does it feed the charity-industrial complex?  A simple question:  Would you rather have a job where you were paid a living wage or welfare? While I’m sure someone out there would say welfare, I think a vast majority of people would rather work and receive a living wage which affords them the dignity of being able to provide for their own needs than be on the receiving end of a Season of Service.  What are we doing about that?
  7. Is this an alternative to church ideology and subculture?  In response to the above two questions, Tom asks: “Isn’t is a positive development to see our evangelical fellow citizens engaging society’s least fortunate, getting to know them and their stories, rather than hunkering behind the walls of ideology and church subculture?”    That is a good question replete with ideology and church subculture.  Where to begin?
    • He assumes that evangelicals are not among the least fortunate.  That’s problematic on many levels.
    • The term “least fortunate” implies that some folks are just unlucky or somehow it is there lot in life to be poor.  It is a huge gloss over the systemic issues that create poverty – mainly greed.  It is also what allows the “fortunate” to believe they have no social responsibility.
    • It is nice that “fortunate” evangelicals get to know and learn the stories of the “least fortunate” not-evangelicals (I guess?), but what does that change really?  It actually reinforces the ideology of “fortune” and denies the systemic issues that lead to poverty.  More often than not it leads to either pity or judgement (Man if that poor person would just stop drinking and buying cigarettes their life would turn around, right?)
    • Actually, it seems to me like the first two sentences ARE the ideology of the church subculture, not an alternative to the ideology and church subculture.  In my view the ideology and subculture that has formed evangelicalism in America has simply expanded and swallowed up Jesus’ call to love your neighbor as yourself and turned it into something other than what Jesus had in mind.

These seven questions were scribbled on the margins of chapter two in my book.  Related back to Tom’s initial premise, I wonder if what Tom is seeing as new and engaging is simply novel expressions of the same ideology and subculture that has driven the church in modernity?   Worse yet, is it actually a hyper-cultural attempt to get back the good ole days of Christendom by  leveraging “service to the least of these” to get back into the center of cultural and socio/political life?  Either way, some service is better than no service, right?  I’m glad for Season of Service, it just leaves me wanting more – more Jesus, more Church being the body of Jesus and more long-term solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

Thoughts?

  [Disclosure: I was given a free copy of this book to read and review here on my blog.  I received no other compensation for this review]

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