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At the Splintering End of Institutional Evangelicalism: Christian Nationalism and Theological Progressivism

By Wes Watkins

As I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of the rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here. – Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry

Last year my family and I moved “home” to America after living in the Middle East for 16 wonderful years. I miss the pleasant weather, the tawouk sandwiches, and of course the kind, generous people, especially at ABTS.

One of my highest priorities was finding a church home, so my family and I started “church shopping” upon arrival. We found many excellent churches proclaiming the gospel while catering to our needs: profound sermons, beautiful stages and media, inspiring music, godly ordained leaders, fun youth programs, and meaningful membership classes.

While they were all excellent churches, they vary from each other about as much as my kids’ predictable groans to my “dad jokes.” In other words, the churches we found were nearly identical, cast in the same mold.

But what I found most striking was this: apart from the language difference, my church experience among Arab evangelicals in the Middle East was practically indistinguishable, in both form and function, from American churches.

How did this happen?

At present, Evangelicalism in the United States has plateaued and is beginning to experience both decline and fragmentation, offering a pertinent case study for reexamining our understanding and practice of church, even in the Arab context. Due to distinct reasons, yet similar to the current state of the American Church, Arab Evangelicals are also grappling with decline (there are exceptions). The structure and rituals of evangelical churches in the Middle East largely stem from American Evangelicalism, which itself derived from European Christendom.

In general, our institutionalized ecclesiology is a far cry from the “unorganized” networks of house churches we see in the New Testament. Originally, the church of Jesus was a multiplying community of his followers, created by the Holy Spirit, who existed in and beyond the gathered expression. It was adaptive and reproducible enough to follow His Spirit’s unpredictable, ever-expanding movement.

Yet, as all movements eventually do, the Jesus movement gradually institutionalized. When this happened, the multiplicative vitality inherent in the Church became buried beneath traditions, institutions, and professional leaders. To be clear, traditions, institutions, leaders, in and of themselves, are not wrong! An institutional church has much to offer the mission of God. But when church movements must serve church institutions, and not vice versa, then institutionalism has set in. The institutionalization of the Church leads to rigid structures, impeding their ability to adapt to changing contexts and inhibiting the movement’s original dynamism and missional effectiveness.

But institutionalized Christianity also gets missionally confused, and the Church in America serves as an instructive example. When successful evangelical movements come to the end of their life cycle, two contrasting pitfalls may emerge: Christian nationalism and theological progressivism.

In the United States, Christian nationalism is the belief that the modern American nation-state is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Theological progressivism, alternatively, rejects traditional orthodox beliefs in favor of more revisionist interpretations or views.

Let’s take a closer look at these two expressions of Christianity and how they manifest.

Christian nationalism (of which there are many shades) can be seen in events such as the January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington, DC, where many supporters of former President Donald Trump sported Christian signs, slogans, or symbols. Advocates of Christian nationalism consider their view of Christianity to be an integral part of their country’s identity and want the government to promote—or even enforce—the religion’s position within it.

Among the government policies a Christian nationalist might desire are the display of Christian symbols on public property, government funding for Christian institutions, restrictions on non-Christian immigration, and prioritizing political power to police what certain Christians consider to be immoral behavior.

On the other hand, theological progressivism (of which there also many shades) tends to reduce the conflict between the gospel and culture by discarding biblical teachings that might be culturally offensive. It negates orthodox Christian beliefs, such as the concept of God’s wrath and the need for redemption. In addition to affirming same-sex marriage, certain streams of theological progressivism may also diminish the uniqueness of Jesus and view the Bible simply as a human historical record rather than divinely inspired, authoritative revelation.

Interestingly, both of these ideologies are interdependent, relying on each other for survival, thus forming a parasitic relationship: entire cottage industries of nationalists and progressives make their careers or hobbies attacking each other while making little or no contribution to the redemptive movement of Jesus in the world. Both claim to be “prophetic,” but both suffer from missional confusion.

Note this observation by movement theorist Alan Hirsch:

Theological liberalism always comes later in the history of a movement, and it is normally associated with its decline. It is therefore a highly institutional manifestation of Christendom. As such it is deadly to apostolic forms of missional movement (The Forgotten Ways, pg. 283).

In other words, both Christian nationalism and theological progressivism are based on Christendom assumptions of Church and are contradictory to the movemental forms we see in the New Testament.

The longer a church multiplication movement lasts in a context, and the more successful it becomes, the more internal challenges it will face to remain faithful to Christ. Multiple -isms will threaten the movement, especially “institutionalism” which can manifest as Christian nationalism or theological progressivism. While we have already witnessed the missional demise of European Christendom, it is tragically ironic that the institutional form of Church which Evangelicals commonly presuppose is still trapped in its Christendom form, what has been called “Protestant micro-Christendom.”

We must rethink these ecclesiological assumptions, and I believe church multiplication movements offer an important conversation partner. As a professor at ABTS and a missiological researcher, I have been privileged to study the dynamics of movements occurring in the Majority World. One key discovery has been that biblical faith can be thought of as a movement of God (in Latin, motus Dei). On ABTS’s blog, I have published on movemental ecclesiology and movemental disciple-making to distinguish church-as-movement from static, institutionalized understandings of church and discipleship.

For better or worse, America is still a leader in global Evangelicalism, and Evangelicals in other parts of the world often mimic what they see in the American scene. My concern is that many Evangelicals worldwide believe they are engaging in contextualization, but instead, they are adopting an ecclesiology from the United States which is only a slight revision of the Christendom model. And as we witness the fraying end of America’s evangelical movement, it is important to be discerning of various ideologies lest they be imported into other contexts. If we fail to investigate our own theological assumptions, then we surrender the biblical narrative to various interests and agendas that do not put Jesus at the head of the Church.

So, has my family found a church to call home yet?

We have joined a micro-church network that mostly meets in homes. It is far from perfect, but we are attempting to faithfully follow Jesus in his mission to heal a broken world. Maybe we will never get to “movement,” but in light of what Jesus started, which is still sweeping through many parts of the globe today, it seems wrong not to try. In Christ, the DNA of the motus Dei is already within us.

 

Wes Watkins is a professor of missiology at ABTS and a facilitator of the network that produced Motus Dei: The Movement of God to Disciple the Nations

3 Comments

  1. RossHeckmann says:

    Very interesting article, thanks. After reading stuff by Ryan Burge, it appears that more and more people are losing confidence in ecclesiastical denominiations and institutions, which, alas, like all other institutions, have a marked tendency to become corrupted and to put their own institutional self-interest first, above their true mission, to the (inevitable) extent of significantly harming people. People are instead moving to non-denominational local churches. I see this everywhere. I converted from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy seven years ago. It is my imperfect, layman’s, non-expert impression that at least the two most important Patriarchs of Orthodoxy, those of Constaninople and Russia, are more concerned about building their own empires than building God’s kingdom. The way the Antiochian Orthodox church handled the situation with Metropolitan Joseph, shutting down an independent investigation, doesn’t inspire any confidence either, to put it mildly, and I received an unconfirmed report that this was not the first time the church had failed, either. I can easily see how the Partriarchy of Rome became so corrupt.

    The Scriptures set forth the office a bishop who ruled over only one church, the church he belonged to and went to. Not a bishop (or other organization) who ruled over dozens of churches. Every office above that of the local bishop situated in one church is post-Biblical and post-apostolic. The Ecumenical Councils had to authority to make higher offices, and a subsequent Ecumenical Council has the authority to unmake them. The next one should do just that. Here in the US, the Amish and Old Order Mennonite groups, unlike almost all others, are flourishing, doubling every 20-25 years. Their bishops generally rule over no more than two nearby churches. They eschew institutions and institutionalization. They strongly emphasize and practice non-conformity to the World, and, to the best of my knowledge, they have been more successful at it than any other Christian group that I am aware of. There is much to learn here. We should have the humility to learn from other Christian groups, even when we can’t agree with important parts of their theology.

  2. Mike Kuhn says:

    Thanks for that Wes. It stirs a lot of thoughts. I appreciate that you and your family are integrating into a micro church network. That’s putting your money where your mouth is. You also inspire me to consider doing the same.
    I also want to ask if the “institutional” church can be revived, redeemed…play a vital role in Jesus’ kingdom? I want to say, it can because I think I’ve seen it. At the same time, I agree with the tone of your article that the institutional church grows out of a Christendom model and mindset inherited through centuries of church development in Western Europe and beyond. I wonder if the movements that are figuring so large in our understanding of mission are a sovereign move of God to revive a form of church that does not need state protection and institutional hierarchy to multiply and bear fruit. I see movements as a phenomenon of hope in an era of decline of evangelical institutions.
    Thanks for writing this thoughtful piece!

  3. Wissam Nasrallah says:

    Thank you Wes for this thoughtful and challenging article! Thank you for your service and heart for the Kingdom of God in our part of the world.
    I would like to push back a little on some of the elements of movemental theology.
    We all agree that the historical evangelical church needs reformation to recover the heart of the Christian faith and move away from being a religious identity.
    However I agree with Mike, the approach to “ditch it” following a Schumpeterian model of creative destruction that is advocated by DMM proponents does not seem to be best way forward for the church. If there is something wrong with how the body of Christ is living out the Christian faith, we need to address these issues by “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” 2 Timothy 3:16. The yeast needs to be catalyzed. In other terms, it should not be an “either/or” approach.
    Furthermore, having things work in an orderly manner is a biblical virtue rather than a plague to avoid at all costs. Paul asked Titus to put things into order for the church in Crete: “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint[a] elders in every town, as I directed you”. Titus 1:5.
    Finally, the real measure of DMM movements is how they persevere over a long period of time rather than a simple focus on short term multiplication. It would be interesting to conduct a real statistical analysis on the churn rate.
    May the Lord have mercy on us and grant us wisdom to navigate these difficult times for the Church.
    Blessings,
    Wissam

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