Theological Snobbery And The Question of Decisive Authority: Evangelical Innovation in Doing Church in The Context of 21St Century Realities

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Theological snobbery, for all that it speaks about, I must admit, is a borrowed term. To those who are familiar with C. S. Lewis’ works, this may remind them of what he hated to coin, against the prevailing cultural backdrop of his days, as chronological snobbery. This is characteristic of most modern people who tend to think of themselves to have become superior over those who came before them in almost everything they can conceive of, not only in the field of science and technology but also with that which concerns the humanities including philosophy, religion and theology. By theological snobbery I mean the sudden lack of appreciation on theology owing to the preference of a still growing number of contemporary Christian leaders never to readily identify themselves on the grounds of their theological and doctrinal commitments, if only to give way to what they claim to be a more appropriate Christian response to the present mood of the hour, where people tend to distance themselves from everything dogmatic, religious and traditional.

This, of course, however suspect, in as much as it concerns the basic nature of the Christian faith – that is, in the sense that it cannot be other than theological and doctrinal – is really not without warrant, most especially if taken as but a means or a strategy to get the gospel a fair hearing. By which I mean, if this is but a matter of cultural or generational contextualization so as to reach this hostile audience in their own grounds of aloofness to everything that appears religious and sounds dogmatic, I am more than willing to say that there is simply no reason for anyone of us in the evangelical world to raise any objections at all, except, of course, a little word of caution.

But the way I see it, our response to this particular aloofness of people around us to anything religious and dogmatic is now only matched (or should I say, mismatched) with our own version of aloofness right within our own evangelical fold – that is, our own aloofness to things theological and doctrinal in place of the practical, therapeutic, marketable and fashionable, for which reason this unlikely business of theological snobbery has ordered the day.

That is to say, given all our good intentions never to appear religious so as to maintain our point of contact with the secular world, we have just committed the error of downplaying our very own doctrinal and theological upbringing to the extent that many of our constituents are at present gradually losing their bearing in the Word of God because we have opted to switch so much of our attention on things that would attract the world if only to get an audience with the world. Mainly for this reason, it seems to me that we have somehow reached a rather extreme point that now makes us 21st century evangelicals no longer being most particularly defined by historic Protestantism’s sola scriptura principle that most particularly guided our forebears in their own contexts in history.

Here then is a way of thinking that hails on novelties without due regard to historical precedents and antecedents, a collective attitude that now most especially permeates the minds of many 21st century people.  Its roots can be traced back, in as far as I can see, to 19th century Hegellian-Kierkegaardian preference for synthesis over against the classical antithetical approach to reality.  Its outspoken slogan: The newer the better, the more updatedthe more likely to be relevant.

A Far Better 21st Century World?

That we have indeed improved by leaps and bounds scientifically and technologically cannot be denied. Take for example the progress in human travel. As the veteran pastor, Bible teacher and a seminary chancellor Charles Swindoll notes, until 1800, it has been said that the fastest means of transportation was by horseback at 20 miles per hour. When the train was invented, it rose to 100 miles. By early 1950’s, when the first passenger jet came into scene, the speed of human travel dramatically rose to 300. It was doubled right before the 1980’s by the invention of supersonic jets, not to mention the speed of space flight in the 1960’s, when man landed for the first time in another place outside the earth (i.e., the earth’s moon), clocked at approximately 1,600 miles per hour. Who in the evangelical world would want to travel on horseback to preach the gospel as did John Wesley in England and his circuit preachers across America when we can now practically reach any nation on earth hundreds of times faster?

There is indeed no need to tell that the world in which we live is far better off than the world our predecessors had known in their own time. But not only are we living in a much better world, our potential to live longer than our parents did (thanks to the progress of medical science) has also been significantly increased by an average of two decades, so that we have been given an extended lease on life to either enjoy or endure whatever lies before us in this new century. It is no wonder then that for a great number of people of our time, we are not only living in a far better world with an extended lease on life, but as we are now much more equipped with the high-tech gadgets of this information age, we have also become far better off ourselves than any generation in history. Or has it really been the case?

That may be true purely in terms of tools, gadgets and equipments, but it may not be the case with regards to the life of the mind and of the soul. And if it concerns our mind and soul, where everything else in life begins, it is almost predictable what comes next in the more practical aspects of human existence, including the way we run the ministry. We pride ourselves today as a generation that belongs to the age of information technology. Compared to those who came before us, we now have right within our reach practically all the data needed to run our lives. Swindoll further observes that until 1900 access to knowledge could only be found in books, and there were only approximately 35,000 of them elsewhere around the world. There were virtually none until 1500. But before the end of the 20th century, it was estimated that 400,000 volumes of books were being published every year. And with the world wide web of the cyberspace, we, of all people in history, have been given the privilege for a free access to practically all sorts of information that are not anymore contained only in books but can also be downloaded to whatever high-tech gadgets that we have.

Such a phenomenon that is so unique to our time resulted into what has been dubbed some years ago as information overload. So much so that the 21st century man now thinks of himself to have become much more informed than anyone else in history. But lest we forget, it is not the amount of information we can now contain in our minds that really makes the difference. Our preferences as to what types of information we dearly hold in our hearts and how we apply them in life, these, I believe, are what spell out a great deal of whether we are a people only loaded with information in our heads, or that we are indeed a people of wisdom and of understanding in our heart of hearts.

A Far Better 21st Century Church?

To reduce this discussion down into the smaller world of 21st century evangelicalism, of all the other branches of the Christian religion, we evangelicals are certainly at the very forefront of producing the latest study Bible and the most advanced religious software in the market, some of which containing bunch of works of scholarly standard. It just recently made the painful process of exegetical and hermeneutical studies (which for us evangelicals are meant to maintain our priced faithfulness to the ancient text of Holy Scripture) much easier, including that of doing so-called lower or higher criticism (I prefer the term lower or higher analysis over against this liberal category).

Ironically though, those who have chosen to make use of these tools in Christian ministry are now being dismissed to be somewhat boring, dull and antiquated, however high-tech their gadgets. For as compared to evangelicals of previous generations, the prevailing mood among us today is to prefer new styles of preaching over the ancient message it should contain, to focus more on exploring new methodologies in doing Christian ministry than on the old theological content of our faith.

This, for me, sends a rather clear signal that critical, biblical thinking is now losing its place in the evangelical church to give way to methodological novelties. Innovation has become the word of the day, and the quest for relevance has been for many years the major preoccupation of many evangelical ministers including many theologians and biblical scholars. As it is with the larger world of the 21st century, the rule of the game in an increasing number of today’s gospel churches has just recently become, the way I see it, to prefer what works and “what’s in” over that which is essentially true, spiritually edifying and eternally valuable.

Post-Theological Evangelicalism

Theological debates over doctrinal issues suddenly became a matter of the past. For instance, just a few years ago, different perspectives on charismatic gifts still occupied the discussion table of many evangelical ministers and thinkers in practically all parts of the world. Regardless of the fact that the neo-Pentecostal/charismatic phenomenon has been in many ways more of an experiential rather than a theological movement in the church at large, evangelical responses to the issues it brought to modern day Christianity across denominational lines remained characteristically theological and biblical. And if there is something worthwhile that this great movement has contributed to global Christianity – apart, of course, from that of having challenged all of us to open up our minds more widely to the role of the supernatural and miraculous in Christian life and ministry – it is that of ushering us in to the experiential reality, necessary spontaneity and expressiveness (contra traditional lifeless formality) of worship.

But as we are currently approaching, if not already living in, what I would propose to call here as the post-charismatic, post-theological era of evangelical history (a term I actually borrowed from the late postmodern evangelical theologian Stanley Grenz, in spite of my disagreement with a great deal of what he has to say), this preoccupation with contemporary expressions of worship in many gospel churches, I believe, served as the starting point of the road that has lately led us all to the current evangelical fascination with methodological novelties.

Before the closing of the 20th century, musical preferences probably became the first measuring stick to say whether a local congregation is contemporary or traditional. Whether or not evangelical churches of various denominational roots have accepted the non-cessationist ministerial approach of the charismatic movement, they have nonetheless adapted, and have even somehow improved, the innovations it introduced to the Christian liturgy of worship.

Today, church music of a lively and upbeat quality, combined with well-rehearsed drama and excellent multi-media presentations, plays a major role in attracting targeted audiences of various generational blocks (of so-called baby boomers, baby busters, generations X, Y and Z, etc.), for which the preaching of the Word has been technically pulled down into the sidelines of Christian ministry. In the name of excellence in doing church for the unchurched, the best of what sociology, anthropology, psychology and technology could offer is now being liberally employed with the minimal contributions, if not total absence, of biblical considerations and theological reflections.

The Notion of Philosophical Neutrality

But before I sound overly critical and totally unappreciative of this new movement, let me state here plainly my personal stance of no wholesale criticism – that usual personal response of mine to any other movements within evangelical Christianity that invite debates and controversies. As proponents of this movement have branded themselves as seeker-friendly, purpose-driven and, only more recently, emergent, it has just lately prompted many of us in the evangelical world to reexamine our choice of words for the genuineness of gospel communication with our targeted audiences so as not for us to end up irrelevant at least in all of our evangelistic efforts.

Furthermore, if we are to check on the theological and doctrinal persuasion of those who subscribe to almost everything this movement has to offer, they are in many ways still fundamentally more conservative than many of us may have been inclined to think. Even their basic goals, says Os Guinness, are “laudable, ambitious, and significant for the church of Christ around the world.” I therefore see no need to voice any objections at all as to their passions, dreams and objectives to advance God’s Kingdom on earth. In fact, they have just also awakened us to the reality that we are now living in a radically different 21st century world, and so have also challenged us to be as contemporary as we can if we are to reach out to the people of our days.

I for myself also take an open-but-cautious stance in this regard. By all means, we must welcome all the changes and challenges in this world, however radical, as a gift from God and open up ourselves to the necessity of altering our courses of action, if need be, in our engagement with the world. This, of course, consequently requires us to develop whatever appropriate methods and means that we can think of in doing Christian ministry in this new century, which necessarily also calls for us to constantly innovate, given the fast-paced makeup of our time.

But contrary to popular opinion, most especially by those who uncritically endorse everything this movement has to say, it is of great importance to always remind ourselves that no methodology, whether up-to-date or antiquated, is philosophically neutral. It is therefore imperative for us to be extra-careful if we will ever employ whatever devices or schemes we have so far developed and are yet to develop for our ministerial pursuits. Flexibility must be given its due place in the ministry, but it is wise and most particularly Christian to always maintain boundaries against possible compromises with the world, be it moral, philosophical or methodological. This, as I here insist, is a function of theological inquiry.

The Fundamental Question of Decisive Authority

As Guinness has already asked more than a decade ago: Is the church of Christ primarily guided and shaped by its own character and calling – or by considerations and circumstances alien to itself? Or as he puts it differently: Is the church a social reality truly shaped by a theological cause, namely the Word and Spirit of God? In short, what – in practice – is the church’s decisive authority?

Where we place our faith in real life is what really matters here. There now seems to be too much reliance on modern and/or postmodern programs, methods and techniques that have proved themselves to have indeed performed so magnificently in the evangelical world. Though they are yet to rival the contributions of the charismatic movement to the sudden global expansion of evangelical Christianity during the late 20th century, these ministry approaches were nonetheless primarily responsible for the birth of most recent contemporary mega- and meta-churches that are now composed mainly of younger generations. But as my personal ministry experience proves it, having been a practitioner of some sort myself, the means by which these young people are now being drawn to so-called contemporary expressions of the faith practically leaves too narrow a room for absolute trust in God and in His promises. That is to say, one can employ the innovative approaches we have so far devised for our ministerial pursuits without having to depend on God and still find success in ministry. So much so that a great deal of what is being accomplished in this regard may be attributed to a purely human activity without the role of the supernatural intervention of God.

I am afraid that it introduces a new configuration that carries with it a strong tendency for us to easily lose our bearing in the divinely instituted means of the ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6:4). The way I see it, confidence in the gospel itself seems to have almost already waned in the evangelical world. It has just recently surfaced on the fact that ministerial methodology has taken precedence in many evangelical churches and para-church organizations over theology. One who is well informed about modern church history would find it typical of Charles Finney’s innovation in 19th century revivalism, built on the notion that revival can be mechanically prepared for by man. Since then, a major segment of evangelicalism has embarked into developing improvised (honestly, I’m actually tempted to say “impoverished”) versions in varying degrees of Finney’s approach, as most recently exemplified by this neo-church growth movement that has so far successfully yielded an arguably great harvest to the evangelical fold.

While I am personally grateful for the fact that many people have been successfully drawn to the faith by employing these means, to properly begin with, I still find it of supreme importance to first and foremost ask what really dictates our choices as to what approaches we are to adapt to fulfill the Great Commission in this new century. In short, it is very critical to always pose the question: What practically serves as that voice of authority that, almost without question, commands what we are to do?

Without leaving our passion aside to reach out to the lost at any cost and by any means, we cannot nonetheless afford never to ask whether the means we employ are compatible with the spiritual character of the Church and of her calling. Keep in mind that the Church, as the Bible is careful to paint for us, is best taken as a living organism that finds the reason of her existence in the redemptive work of God in history sufficiently revealed in Holy Scripture and is meant to operate according to the movements of the Holy Spirit. Though it is indeed customary for God to use earthly instruments to accomplish His heavenly purposes (as Holy Scripture and history clearly demonstrate), it is still important to determine His own choice of means (which can also be dissected from the pages of Holy Scripture and history) according to the pleasure of His will and for His own glory. So it behooves us to be biblically informed enough and calls for us to always seek the face of God and maintain spiritual sensitivity. This alone, I believe, is in keeping with the Church’s spiritual character and calling.

References:

  • Guinness, Os. Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1993.

  • Smith, J. E., “The Theology of Charles Finney: A System of Self-Reformation” in Trinity Journal 13NS (1992), 61-93.

  • Swindoll, Charles R. Come Before Winter and Share My Hope. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985.

Note: This article was first published online on August 4, 2009 at AssociatedContent.com, with some modifications.

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