A New Era in American Evangelicalism?
The lead article in the December 2013 issue of Christianity Today (hereafter CT) was about the Colorado Springs megachurch called New Life and the years that have followed the scandal surrounding its founding pastor, the Rev. Ted Haggard (see Patton Dodd, “New Life after the Fall,” Christianity Today 57 no. 10 [December 2013]: 36-43; for links to online version, see end of this blog post).
For those who don’t remember the Rev. Ted Haggard, his church was considered the “most powerful megachurch” in America by Harper’s magazine in this century’s first decade. Haggard was himself a political force at the national level. He was also the President of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the most prominent of all Evangelical organizations in the USA. His congregation numbered 14,000 at its peak. In November 2006, Rev. Haggard resigned from his church and the presidency of the NAE due to accusations of drug use and a sexual relationship with a man in Denver.
Many other serious problems plagued New Life in the wake of the scandal, but the article in CT explores how a new team of leadership have worked to rebuild the congregation and restore confidence. The new leaders have seriously questioned previous teachings and practices. They have realized that something was wrong, not just with their pastor, but with many other things in their congregation. To me, as a historian, this case is significant and is perhaps a watershed in American Evangelicalism.
Senior pastor Brady Boyd says that embracing Christianity’s past is key to New Life’s future (ibid., p. 40). New Life now offers communion every Sunday at its main campus. They have adopted the Nicene Creed as the church’s statement of faith. Some of the pastors have worked on graduate courses in theology for the first time in their careers (Lutherans need to keep in mind that a Bible college degree, often an A.A., is all that is expected for most Evangelical ministers). The congregation has started a satellite church in the downtown area that includes the use of the liturgical calendar and many of the practices of liturgical churches.
The biggest and most important change, in my mind, was that New Life has rethought what it means to be a pastor. Eugene Peterson, widely published author and now-retired Evangelical pastor, told the New Life leaders that pastoral ministry is not about making pronouncements, but “it’s all about knowing people, and you can’t possibly know 10,000 people” (ibid., 42). AMEN, BROTHER! Finally, the Evangelicals are waking up to the Achilles heel of “megachurchism,” though Peterson and others have been telling them that for a long time!
Included with the article in CT is an interview by Mark Galli, editor of CT, with Dale Pyne, president of Peacemaking Ministries. Pyne observes about the pastoral ministry that “if we start managing shepherding by the numbers, we’re going to lose shepherding, and we’re going to focus on numbers. That’s where the breakdown [in the pastor’s ethics] often starts” (ibid., 41). I would add that this is also true for church leaders at the district or synodical levels.
The “new-found” insights of the New Life leaders are things that we Lutherans have always known and always taught. Well, at least most of us. There has been a strong contingent of pastors and other leaders in our Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod who have wanted to imitate the American Evangelicals and they have “eaten the Evangelical spirit feathers and all,” to paraphrase Luther. Maybe the New Life case will make them reconsider their erroneous church practices, bad pastoral practice, and wrong-headed priorities. I am hoping and praying that it might.
Will the New Life case help the American Evangelicals reconsider their erroneous church practices, bad pastoral practice, and wrong-headed priorities? I don’t know. A hopeful sign is that the editors of CT approve of the new-found insights at that congregation. It is a not so subtle hint to the rest of the American Evangelicals that they too should reconsider their teachings, practices, and priorities.
There have been attempts at this in the past; most notably the Cambridge Summit and Declaration of April 20, 1996 (see Wikipedia: Cambridge Declaration ). Twelve LCMS scholars and pastors, including myself, attended the Summit and had significant input. The Declaration became the official statement of the “Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals” (hereafter ACE; see Wikipedia: Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and their official website ). The ACE’s original board included Concordia Theological Seminary-Fort Wayne President, Dr. Robert Preus. When he passed to glory, he was replaced by LCMS theologians Gene Veith and J.A.O. Preus III.
In the years that followed, the ACE was rebuffed by the majority of Evangelicalism because it was considered to have an “exclusivist” preference for Reformed theology—never mind the fact that Lutherans were involved! But maybe the ACE was ahead of its time. Maybe it takes something like the Ted Haggard scandal to wake people up. It took the Martin Stephan scandal to wake up the Saxon Lutheran emigrants to the fact that their leader was wrong and that they were, in some ways, hardly Lutheran.
Although I hope for better things in Evangelical churches, I could never in good conscience recommend that anyone attend an Evangelical church, of any type. My biggest complaints? The Pentecostal types are just a little bit crazy and are full of “snake-oil salesmen” preachers. The Arminian types bash their people over the head with the Law constantly; most of their preachers are “Law-bullies.” The Reformed types understand sola fide, but vitiate that doctrine with their doctrines of double predestination and limited atonement. There is very little comfort and consolation of the Gospel (2 Corinthians 1:3-7) for penitent sinners in any of these church-types. Only in Lutheran churches that adhere to the Book of Concord will you find the full comfort of the Gospel that Jesus gives to poor sinners like me. Let us never forget that!