As a movement, we treasure the individual getting right with God, the religious born-again experience, the innovative way to do mission. Sounds good, but when individual trumps communal, experience trumps received teaching, and innovation trumps the Great Tradition, you get exactly what we’ve all just lived through. It can go no other way.
It now takes real discipline to recall how bright that moment felt 10 years ago.
In 2003, the book Blue Like Jazz, by little-known author Donald Miller, appeared in the sky like a blazing comet. Hundreds of thousands of evangelicals shared a moment: Finally, someone’s saying what I’ve been thinking, giving voice to my frustrations and longings about faith, God, and the church. No wonder Paste magazine named Blue Like Jazz one of the “20 Best Books of the Decade.”
Shortly after reading Jazz, I attended a pastors’ conference, where a breakout session with Brian McLaren had to be moved to the largest room available, and still people leaned against the walls, sat on the floor, and sardined outside the door, hoping to catch a few words from the voice behind A New Kind of Christian andMore Ready Than You Realize. McLaren was quickly crowned “One of the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America” by Time.
And from where I live outside Chicago, vans were regularly packing in people to drive to Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, to hear the young phenom Rob Bell, whose Nooma videos had gone viral. Before long, Bell was named one of “The 50 Most Influential Christians in America.”
You could feel hope lifting, see the horizon lighting with a rosy dawn for the evangelical movement. And it was being led by a triumvirate of fresh artists: Brian, Rob, and Don.
That was so 2003.
Now, a single decade later, a pattern emerges.
Rob Bell’s 2011 book Love Wins argued that Christians should leave room for uncertainty about universalism. Bell denies he is a universalist, but given the book’s leading questions, you can hardly blame readers for thinking so. The book’s backlash led him to a “search for a more forgiving faith.” Apparently, about the time he left the pastorate, he found that. This year, at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, he said, “I am for love, whether it’s a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man.”
McLaren also flirted with universalism in A Generous Orthodoxy: “I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu or Jewish contexts.” He also left the pastorate. And last year he explained that though he “inherited a theology that told me exactly what you said: homosexuality is a sin” he “re-opened the issue, read a lot of books, re-studied the Scriptures, and eventually came to believe that just as the Western church had been wrong on slavery, wrong on colonialism, wrong on environmental plunder, wrong on subordinating women, wrong on segregation and apartheid (all of which it justified biblically) … we had been wrong on this issue.”
Finally, Don Miller lit up the blogosphere with posts titled, “I Don’t Worship God by Singing. I Connect with Him Elsewhere” and “Why I Don’t Go to Church Very Often.” Miller pointed out that many worship services don’t engage people, including him and other leaders, so he’s stopped going: “I worship God every day through my work. It’s a blast.” When people reacted, he admitted, “Reading the comments from Monday’s blog let me know how far my personal spiritual journey has taken me from modern evangelicalism. Theologically, I find myself in the evangelical camp in many ways, but as for the ‘one way to do life and church’ I’ve gone a different path.”