John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16

by Jared C. Wilson July 25, 2016

"So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth." - Revelation 3:16

I am not old, but I am old enough. I'm old enough to remember when all the progressive Christians stumping for Hillary Clinton (and/or Bernie Sanders before her), citing all the expected biblical prooftexts about caring for the poor and welcoming the stranger were critiquing the Moral Majority's co-opting of biblical teaching for political ideology. I am old enough to remember the same tired fearmongering rampant among conservative Christians in the political arena today getting recycled every four years in the 80's and 90's. There really is nothing new under the sun.

"Our nation is at stake!" goes the fever pitch.

Well, yes. I agree. But the stakes are even higher than typically imagined, I think.

Where does this fear-filled political mania come from? I think it's important to note that the political dysfunctions (on both the right and the left) share the same functional idolatries -- a zeal for power and a conflating of God's kingdom with our nation. And I also think, since both the traditionalist evangelicals and the "progressive evangelicals" emerged from the same evangelical culture, we can trace the fractious idolatry of each side of the spectrum back to the same center -- namely, the evangelical pulpit.

"It's the theology, stupid." The dominant moralism of the fundamentalist/revivalistic evangelicalism of the 60's and 70's gave way to the dominant moralism of the attractional/"contemporary" evangelicalism of the 80's and 90's and we -- the American Church -- discipled our people right into this mess. When we traded in biblical exposition for self-focused how-to's, when we blended up a syrupy syncretism of Americana and "Judeo-Christian values," when we stopped prophetically proclaiming and started handing out trite inspirational slogans, when we started treating congregants like customers and church programs like consumer products, when we moved the gospel to the end of the service and then escorted it out of the sanctuary altogether, we basically asked for this. We set these wheels in motion. But not before we loosened up the lug nuts.

The evangelical voting bloc's willingness to sell its soul for political power is a direct result of American evangelical churches having discipled generations of Christians in pragmatism, superficial religiosity, and therapeutic deism. It's our own fault that our people compartmentalize their lives to keep their religious self cordoned off from the rest of their selves when it's spiritually convenient to do so and then smoosh everything into one crazy schizophrenic stew when it's politically expedient. It's our fault our people are quickly taken in by trite soundbites, Tourette's-level political sloganeering, and fact-allergic boogeyman-chasing. It's our fault so many evangelicals are too busy cordoning off Jesus and his teaching from their "political selves" when they're not making Jesus their own personal Uncle Sam.

It's our fault Keith Urban's "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16" is not just a catchy pop-country song but a trenchant insight into the personality of American Christianity. This is our holy trinity now: pop culture, Americana, and religion (or at least, the parts of it we like).

So what do we do? The problem began at the pulpit, and that's where the solution must begin, as well. Evangelicalism has a discipleship problem, so we need some discipleship solutions. Therefore, a brief and modest proposal, for starters:

1. Churches must reclaim the prophetic mantle of biblical proclamation. Lovingly and gently, but firmly and boldly, we need to like Paul grab Peter by the shirt collar and tell him that his double-mindedness is not in step with the truth of the gospel.

2. Churches must be willing to take whatever hits necessary to maintain a stubborn Christocentrism. We may face empty seats and the loss of cultural credibility and the admiration of our peers, but when push comes to shove, we must claim only to know Christ and him crucified.

3. Churches must recommit to the countercultural manifestation of the kingdom. The kingdom is not of this world and it cannot be contained. No more isolating our "holiness" to Sunday morning cultural ritutals (as heralded in so many other country songs, where the hell-raisin' of Saturday night precedes the goin' to church come Sunday morning). We cannot serve two masters. We aren't to think the way the world thinks or act the way the world acts. And this also means using the world's means for the Church's ends can only take us where we don't want to go. Going around lopping off ears is not kingdom work. 

4. Churches must move beyond simply accumulating conversions and actually making disciples. Many churches aren't even doing the former, but many who make it their weekly aim to tout their decisions are still falling woefully short of the latter. Our discipleship problem is essentially our problem with discipleship -- we aren't doing it. And this entails, at the start, pastors repenting of the professionalization of their vocation, seeing themselves more and more as shepherds and less and less as CEO's, "dynamic visionaries," and catalytic agents of whatever. Christian pastors aren't meant to be chaplains of the American Dream, but shepherds. And shepherds feed the sheep.

We cannot right this ship. Only the Lord can do that, and he will. But we can participate in his work first by stopping the pulling up of planks and then wondering why there's water in the boat.

There will need to be much teasing out of the points above, but I believe this is a start. I believe pastors, preachers, church leaders need to begin a radical reevaluation of where we're pointing our congregations. We need to gently, lovingly put our hands on their chins and lift their gazes up to the throne of Christ. None of this is beyond him.

This has nothing to do with not loving America! But the best way to love our nation is realizing that our nation is not the city on the hill. Christ's church is. Let's focus our hopes first on his kingdom, and everything else will be added.