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Friday, December 13, 2013

"The Vanishing Evangelical" (Calvin Miller)

TITLE: Vanishing Evangelical, The: Saving the Church from Its Own Success by Restoring What Really Matters
AUTHOR: Calvin Miller
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013, (242 pages).

The problem with modern evangelicalism is that it has adapted too readily with the culture and for some, they have adopted the culture, lock, stock, and barrel. Instead of evangelicals shaping the world, the culture is shaping the evangelical world. Making eight distinct observations of what exactly is happening to the evangelical world, the late Professor at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham Alabama, has written a plea for evangelicals to wake up and do something before the evangelical landscape vanishes forever. Miller asks two broad questions:
  1. Who are Evangelicals?
  2. Who are the sources?

Of the many definitions of evangelicalism (note: NOT 'evangelism'), Miller opts for one from "Got Questions Ministries" which stresses the point about "personal relationship," rebirth, and beliefs associated with these. He makes observations of other definitions such as one that is being "bound up in conservative theology," and one that exists at two levels: "mystique" and "activistic." He also cites other evangelical definitions from Carl F.H Henry and George Marsden. It is evident that Miller tries to be as all-encompassing as possible. On sources, Miler credits three major influences: Jacques Barzun's take on how culture has influenced the West; and Philip Jenkins's rather gloomy prediction of Christianity's dying days; and Thomas Friedman's take on how the world is changing. From here, Miller lets off an entire barrage of bad news for evangelicalism of today, before pointing out some glimmer of hope.

Eight Harsh Observations for the Modern Evangelical Movement

Beginning with a quote from Larry Crabb's observation of a Christmas Eve service, Miller fires away at eight problems affecting the evangelical movement. First, he targets the "relevance" movement that is tailoring religion according to human needs. In doing so, it has unwittingly allowed the pure gospel to be corrupted by a culture that compromises everything. One example of such corruption is the ease of how churches have bought into the bigness, the rise of "hyper scholarship," and the liberal slant. As churches hunger for growth in numbers, they invariably declines. Second, he targets the superficiality of faith where many believers are content simply to "believe just enough" in order to get to heaven. Everything else seems unimportant as long as one gets the heaven ticket. Naturally, this leads to a loss of vitality in worship and a decline in discipleship. In doing so, evangelicals have "snuggled" so much with culture that they have the tendency to dilute the gospel for it is way too uncomfortable for daily living. Third, he targets the way evangelicals have shrunk their vision for mission to a "short-term missions and the small commission" box of goodies to be dished out and to satisfy our obligations. At the same time, he criticizes the way evangelicals have been influenced by worldly narcissism. This is evident through observations of churches trying to grow big themselves and prioritizing that over one's evangelistic mandate. An interesting observation is made where the mission is no longer between east and west, but north and south. Before anyone can participate in healing others, they need to be healthy first, and the current state of the modern evangelical movement is that of a sick man. Fourth, Miller targets the technological influence that has dulled natural creativity through excessive use of images. Such computer driven lifestyles are creeping into our lives so much that our reactions against the ills of technology are vanishing. Worse, the recognition of biblical authority is also declining. Fifth, he targets at the way culture has dumbed down Christianity and how evangelicals are unconsciously buying into that. Quoting Mark Noll's observations on the "Scandal of the Evangelical Mind," Miller agrees that the Christian mind is thinking less, and for some, very anti-intellectual. One example is the increasing shift from literacy to arts. Miller is not against arts in any way, but the "one-dimension" train of thought that accepts either all-literacy, or all-artistic only. Sixth, he targets the influence of secularism which has deChristianized Christianity through rising materialism where everyone including Christians are chasing after the almighty dollar. Secularism also gives rise to syncretism where evangelicals allowed their faith to be shaped by material desires and sexual connotations. Worse, many evangelicals are thinking that in order to reach the secular world, they need to be secularists! Seventh, he targets the way denominations have been downplayed and even despised. In contrast to many decades of being a respected institution, today, the Church and its denominational persuasions have gone down a few notches, and declining still! This is further made evident by the huge decline in numbers in ALL denominations in the West. Eighth, the last but not the least, Miller targets hope in terms of recovery and discipline. Dispense with the big Church syndrome and bring back spiritual disciplines. More importantly, tie in spiritual passion with the practice of the disciplines. This also includes the re-introduction of the teachings and learnings from the mystics and the martyrs of old.

So What?

Reading this book makes my heart cringe. I keep asking myself how valid are these very piercing observations. Is the evangelical movement that bad? Are there any redemptive elements in the many sharp critiques? Where is the encouragement for the modern Church to latch on and to make a difference? In the words of leadership guru, Max dePree, the first task of leadership is to define reality. For Miller, the reality is that the evangelicalism in the early days of Carl Henry in the 40s has declined so much that the evangelicalism of today is fast being replaced by a culture of materialism. Worse, evangelicals are increasingly accepting the worldly and rejecting the biblical ways. Tradition and fundamental beliefs are jettisoned in favour of the hippiest, the glossiest, and the more "relevant" ideas and activities. At first, I feel that Miller may have become too harsh and too liberal in his critique of the modern evangelical movement. As I observe the many different examples and writings of many wise persons in the book, I tend to have to agree. For example, the focus on bodies, buildings, and budgets, have turned the Church inward to itself. The desire to make the Church more attractive and relevant to the world has rendered the Church toothless and failed to distinguish the Church as a holy Church. The decline in worship and discipleship is not just in numbers but in terms of spiritual vitality. In this aspect, I feel that Miller has taken upon an important leadership role to define the reality before it is too late.

Paraphrasing Marshall McLuhan's words, Gutenberg had made everyone a reader, Xerox had made everyone a publisher. I add that the Internet had made everyone a consumer, and the Church has unwittingly allied herself with the world to bring in a new age of Mammon. This kind of idolatry sickens God and ought to make evangelicals puke. Once again, let me close with the words of the late Dr John Stott about the need for dual listening.

"We stand between the Word and the world with consequent obligation to listen to both. We listen to the Word to discover even more of the riches of Christ. We listen to the world in order to discern which of Christ’s riches are needed most and how to present them in their best light.” (The Contemporary Christian)"

I thank God for Miller who has practiced "dual listening" of observing the ills of the Church on the one hand, and supplying a vision of hope for the evangelical movement on the other.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Baker Books and Graf-Martin Communications in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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