Brad has been living with his fiancé, Amy, for the last two years. As for his high school days, Brad was not particularly bad, but did drink his share and had sex with his girlfriend. Brad also claims to be a Christian and attends a large evangelical church with his girlfriend and other family members. His church attendance is, for the most part, on his terms. Should church infringe upon a trip to the zoo, a weekend campout or other activities with his fiancé’s family, then he does not attend. After all, life is busy, and the weekend is reserved primarily for unwinding.
Complementing a fairly lackluster commitment to Sunday worship are Brad’s beliefs. He believes in the Rapture, going to Heaven, but “I am not sure what else,” he says. Continuing, Brad confesses, “I believe that there is a God and if we’re saved by him, that sort of stuff.” Aside from these initial commitments, Brad seems to pick and choose much of his belief system.
Brad represents just one of the many emerging adults (18-29 year olds) studied in Christian Smith’s latest, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. This same generation was investigated earlier in a previous book by Smith titled Soul Searching.
In Soul Searching, Smith found that most teens adhere to “ Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD). MTD affirms that there is a God who has created things and continues to sustain that creation. This God wants people to be good and nice to others. For MTD, the primary goal is happiness and a rock-solid self-esteem. Aside from assisting the individual through difficult times, God is fairly removed from human affairs. And finally, MTD believes that good people will eventually end up in Heaven.
MTD is, Smith says, a “parasitic faith,” meaning that MTD cannot sustain itself, but must attach to other more established faiths. And this parasite appears to have latched on to evangelicalism. Smith notes that many (not all) evangelical teens have embraced MTD, a belief system with obvious divergences from a classical Christian worldview.
The Source of the Problem
The problem here is a theological one. Beginning in the 1940s and 50s there was a concerted, transatlantic effort to amend the defensive posture of conservative Protestantism, or fundamentalism, in American culture. Under the leadership of figures like Carl Henry, Billy Graham, John Stott and Harold Ockenga, fundamentalists re-engaged society and did so under a new name, neo-evangelicalism. Their strategy was primarily intellectual, centering on the creation and cultivation of institutions (like Fuller Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Seminary) and publications (like Christianity Today).
The movement enjoyed a surprising amount of success. Fundamentalists went from being perceived as rural, country bumpkins irrelevant to public life to gaining some measure of prominence and seen as, at the very least, a substantial political force. Indicative of this newfound success was the Newsweek issue that hailed 1976 as “the year of the evangelical.” As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s and 90s, evangelicalism appears to have conceded in many ways to culture.
Being relevant became the overreaching goal. And with a less than astute understanding of culture and cultural change, many evangelicals began to accommodate to contemporary culture. Such accommodation, while producing impressive numbers, has produced little depth as suggested by the comments of Brad and the theologies of many evangelical youth. Even worse, evangelicals have filled the theological vacuum inherited from many churches with assumptions about God derived from contemporary culture.
Southern Baptists and Evangelicalism
Southern Baptists, thanks to their size, have remained somewhat insulated from many evangelical organizations, agencies and other institutions. And many Southern Baptists would like to refute any hint that the denomination is evangelical. This sentiment was captured by Foy D. Valentine, former executive secretary of the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Valentine said sharply, evangelicalism is “a Yankee word.” To be sure, Southern Baptists, because of their size and resources, are uniquely situated in the Christian landscape, nonetheless they share many features with evangelicalism at large. And cross pollination between the two bodies seems to be increasing.
It may be that these problems within evangelicalism exist in Southern Baptist life as well. There has been much discussion this past year regarding the state of the denomination and proposals to solve its problems. Perhaps our problems are less about saving souls (measured by declining baptisms) and more about sanctifying saved souls. Maybe a large portion of Southern Baptists are like Brad and can only articulate a few fragmented ideas about Christianity, and are living out of step with the Gospel.
The antidote to this problem would be better gospel preaching to Southern Baptists themselves. By allowing the Gospel to be preached in all its sanctifying power, churches would solve the evangelism problem thanks to a new longing to spread that Gospel. This is because the Gospel becomes the congregant’s lifeline and craving. Week by week, individuals feel as though they desperately crawl into the sanctuary for a revitalizing dose of the Gospel. As believers are nurtured by the Gospel, they grow in Christ and cannot help but share him.
Moreover, the Church becomes the radical, alternative community that it is intended to be. And people are drawn, not because the church experience is like their everyday experience (which is often the strategy of churches seeking to draw in non-believers), but precisely because it is unlike it.
Casey Shutt is a senior writer
for the Baptist Messenger.