by Phil Johnson
ere are some further thoughts on worldliness and contextualization that occurred to me this weekend as I read the comments under last Friday's post:
Notice (first of all) that the topic of hell was only incidental to the actual point of my post. But the comment-thread was utterly dominated at first by the question of how prominent hell should be in our preaching. Discussion later turned to the question of how seriously we should take the Bible's warnings about hell. Nevertheless, as my title ("James 4:4") somewhat cryptically announced, the post itself was supposed to be about the dangers of friendship with the world, not about hell per se.
I wrote the post to point out that the evangelical movement is worldly in the extremeyet most in the movement seem not to notice or care. (That goes for most self-styled post-evangelicals as well, who like to mock evangelical kitsch, but in their own way are just as worldly as anything they profess to deplore in the evangelical movement.)
In fact, the opinion that utterly dominates the evangelical/post-evangelical universe today (including all the various flavors and styles that were flung out of the erstwhile Emergent[ing] Movement) is that the church urgently needs to become more worldly yeti.e., we need to work harder than ever to adapt our message to the changing tastes, expectations, and likings of Gomorrah. After all, we are supposed to be all things to all men so that we can by all means be "missional." We therefore must adopt the Gomorrahan lifestyle and value-system in order to win the wayward citizens of Gomorrah.
You know: like Lot did.
Evangelicals and their wayward offspring are so busy painting the church like a cheap prostitute that they haven't noticed the effect of what they have done. Our collective testimony to the world has been ruined and our best men have been drained of strong convictions.
In other words, we have altered our messagein a profound and utterly disastrous way. Meanwhile, the average evangelical seems absolutely convinced that more of the same strategy is exactly what we need.
To illustrate my point, I cited some statements from a seven-year-old article that was published in one of the most liberal secular newspapers in the whole world, the Los Angeles Times. That paper's writers noticed as early as 2002 that evangelicals were deliberately and systematically avoiding saying anything about hell. Christians evidently had grown uncomfortable with the subject. "It's just not sexy enough," was one evangelical pastor's assessment of why most men in his position were deliberately avoiding the topic of hell.
In fact, despite some disturbing deficiencies, that Times article gave a surprisingly cogent analysis of why evangelicals have shifted their message and what it means. Even the Times can see that evangelicals' 50-year-old obsession with methodology over theology has radically altered the content of our preaching. Why does that point seem so difficult for hard-core contextualizers and pathologically "relevant" church leaders to grasp?
At the forefront of the evangelical movement today is a phalanx of self-styled experts and pollsters who talk incessantly about connecting with the cultureputting our message to Gomorrah in terms Gomorrahan "culture" can feel comfortable with. They insist there is no conflict whatsoever between the free use of such timely methods and our faithfulness to a timeless message. The medium is not the message, they constantly assure themselves.
Hordes of worldly young evangelicals, post-evangelicals, and post-Emergent[ing] bobble-head droids have dutifully fallen in behind these Gomorrahan Gurus, mindlessly reciting the mantras of relevance and contextualization, slouching along with "the culture" toward the brink of the abyss. Now and then one of them will make a brief pit-stop in our comment-threads. They rarely pause long enough to have a serious thoughtjust long enough to tag us with a condescending graffito about babies and bathwater.
Now, you would think those who most want to stay in step with "the culture" would be the very first to acknowledge something articulated so clearly in a front-page article in the
Not so. Seven years after that article was published, the problem it identified is worse than ever. Most in the broad evangelical movement simply don't want to acknowledge the problem the Times article pointed out. Even less do they want anyone talking about hell in clear and biblical terms within earshot of people whom they are trying to impress with their own coolness and "relevance." In fact, it seems those enthralled with contextualizing the gospel are the very first to criticize anyone who suggests that perhaps hell is not a subject we ought to ignore.
And yet, exceeding even my expectations, the baby/bathwater cliche made it into Friday's meta less than 2 hours after sunrise last Friday.
What is wrong with this picture?
PS: Incidentally, I do quite agree that it's possible to over-emphasize hell or speak of God's wrath in such a callous and insensitive way that we defeat the whole point of the gospel (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:20). But surely that is not the most imminent threat facing the evangelical movement at the moment. Let's not be so concerned about how far the pendulum might swing the other way until we start to see the momentum diminishing as the pendulum swings this way. When a secular newspaper article is pointing out how dramatically evangelicals have toned down the gospel, our kneejerk response certainly shouldn't be panic about the grave dangers of expounding on hell the way Jonathan Edwards did.
It utterly amazes me how predictably (and how eagerly) evangelicals will queue up to take a poke at a straw man like thatand then solemnly assure one another that they have said something profoundly serious.
PPS: This week is the Shepherds' Conference at Grace Church. Don't expect to see a lot of me here on the blog, but if you come to the conference, look me up.