Abandoning Evangelicalism?

Shane Rosenthal
Thursday, March 1st 2012
Mar/Apr 2012

Diana Butler Bass opined in The Huffington Post that "one of the most significant trends in American religion is 'switching': people who grew up in one religion and changed to another." (1) I've never really thought of myself as a trendsetter, but I was on board with this whole switching thing as far back as I can remember.

For the first three years of my life, I was raised by a single mother who had abandoned the Methodism of her youth. Irritated by the shallowness, sentimentality, and superficiality of it all, she decided in her twenties that she didn't want anything more to do with religion. But when she remarried in 1970, our entire family ended up adopting the Judaism of my stepfather.

Even as a child, I could see that the form of Judaism in which I was being raised was not a serious faith. We didn't keep kosher, we always had loads of yard work to do on Saturdays, and we never read or discussed Scripture, ever. So by the time I was in the fourth grade, I had essentially become an atheist. I can even recall telling my friends at the time that someone had probably made up all the Bible stories and that religion was basically a waste of time. After my bar mitzvah at age thirteen, our family stopped attending synagogue altogether, which helped to confirm my growing suspicion that religion was merely a tool for childrearing and something we all outgrow. (2)

But I ended up making another switch at age eighteen. For the first time in my life, through discussions at work and issues that came up in various college classes I was taking, I began a serious exploration of religious questions. And in that search, I discovered that Jesus had claimed to be the Jewish Messiah, and that various interesting and compelling Old Testament prophecies appeared to back up that claim. I began to read and study this issue in great detail, and after arguing about the nature and meaning of these prophecies with various family members and some rabbis, I ended up abandoning the Judaism of my youth and became a convert to Christianity.

There I was, brand-new to the faith, yet knowing very little about the contents of the New Testament. So, ready and willing to learn, I started showing up at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California. It was an obvious choice, since a lot of teens and young adults my age went there. In particular, we were attracted by the frequent Christian rock concerts and laid-back attitude. Some years earlier, a high school friend had taken me to one of these concerts, featuring bands like Undercover and The Altar Boys. Though I was a non-Christian at the time, I thought the music (which was in the genre of punk rock) was pretty cool, so much so that I joined in with various individuals who started slam dancing. After the first song, however, representatives from Calvary Chapel made it clear to us "outsiders" that our dancing was inappropriate. Oops, my bad. I was also told that it would be "uncool" to leave when the music was over and they began preaching (an approach not entirely unfamiliar to those who've endured a timeshare seminar in order to receive a free three-day vacation). Nevertheless, after my conversion, I thought Calvary Chapel might be a good place to check out.

At first, I primarily enjoyed going to the Tuesday evening Bible study with Randy Ziegler, who taught us all about Jesus with a cool, surfer-like sensibility. Plus, the bro's were always "stoked" when I showed up (though it didn't take long for me to realize they never seemed to notice or care when I didn't show up). Sunday mornings were a little less cool. There were a lot of blue-haired old ladies, and sometimes all the seats were already filled in the sanctuary so I was forced to sit in the overflow room where we'd all watch Chuck Smith on a big screen TV. This made it really easy for me to stay home on Sundays, since Smith's sermons were broadcast on one of our local television channels. Why bother driving, I reasoned, since I might end up watching him on TV when I get there anyway?

No one ever discipled me. No one ever recommended me for baptism. Some months later, I was told about a large baptism event at the beach and that it would be "a really cool thing to do." So, motivated by what I was reading in the New Testament, I showed up at the event and was baptized by Pastor Chuck Smith himself. I had never met him before and have never met him since. Still, even after this event, no one took me aside to talk with me about my understanding of the faith, or the meaning and significance of baptism. No one so much as signed me up for a class, a discipleship program, or anything. Months went by and I began to realize that I wasn't being fed, but was kind of a self-feeder who was on my own in this megachurch. Even as a brand-new Christian, I instinctively knew something was wrong with this model. I knew that showing up only when I felt like it wasn't good for me, and yet my attendance became more and more infrequent. But no one ever missed me. So I found myself praying for a home church with real community and accountability.

In 1987, I found such a community at St. Luke's Reformed Episcopal Church in Cypress, California. Kim Riddlebarger was taking his adult Sunday school class through the book of Romans, and a young Michael Horton was preaching semi-regularly. At St. Luke's, I was introduced to the enchanting beauty of the Book of Common Prayer, the mystery of Word and Sacrament, and the assurance of regular confession and absolution. I became a part of a community of like-minded believers who really wanted to learn more about God and his grace in Jesus Christ. I was finally being discipled. Now, with new Reformation categories, I was able to see some of the problems inherent in American evangelicalism as I had experienced it over the past few years. I no longer considered myself an evangelical. It was like a second conversion.

Since that time, I have made the rounds in a number of different conservative Reformed denominations, and my family currently worships at an Orthodox Presbyterian church with a solid liturgy, weekly Communion, and Christ-centered preaching. But my wife and I decided some time ago to regularly introduce our four children to other kinds of churches so they know what's going on outside their own walls. We have visited all kinds of places: Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, and various evangelical megachurches. We do this about once a year, and it always makes for great discussion afterwards. On one occasion I asked, "So, what was the first thing you noticed when you walked into the church?" "Well," replied one of our kids, "it sorta reminded me of a movie theatre." "It was loud," replied another. I still find both of these answers fascinating and provocative.

Last year we visited a church that had three huge mega-screens featuring music videos and advertisements for various things before the service began. Along the right side and back of this expansive worship center people were selling CDs, books, T-shirts, and cappuccino, all in the same room. The pastor was absent and did all of his announcements via video screen. The visiting preacher he introduced told numerous jokes and actually preached a sermon, not on a particular text of the Bible but on the subject of his latest book. And at the end of his message, he actually pleaded with us to "go to the back and take a look at the book!" Yep, it was a book tour.

When the message was over, we were forced to watch a fifteen-minute professionally produced infomercial about the virtues of tithing. "There was one month when we stopped giving to the church for one reason or the other," the woman on screen was saying, "and it was right around that time when the transmission on our truck gave out." She went on to explain that God does not exactly punish us for failing to tithe, but that we do step out of his "circle of protection" when we go against his will. This video was followed up by, you guessed it, the offering basket.

We did recognize the concluding hymn. Though it was set to a contemporary beat that caused many to stand up and sway (in fact, the same rhythmic motion that's the origin of the phrase "rock 'n roll"), we soon realized they were singing "Amazing Grace." Unfortunately, after the first verse, the congregation began repeating the words "Praise God" over and over in a kind of mantra, yet still to the tune of Newton's famous hymn. I guess the original hymn was simply too wordy.

Later that evening our family discussed the trivialization of God that we witnessed there, the lack of depth, the absence of the sacraments, and the commercialization of worship. More importantly, we noticed an alarming chumminess with which these people approached God. Sin wasn't mentioned nor our need for a mediator. Rather, Jesus, if he was presented at all, was there to help us get through life's difficulties and challenges: "He can touch your life right now; all you have to do is ask him and he'll be there for you."

After describing some of my experiences at this particular megachurch on the White Horse Blog, one commenter by the name of Jim posted the following response:


Jim's response is not unusual. Though his theology is evangelical, he has become so frustrated with the loss of the sacred that he has begun looking elsewhere, including the world of Catholicism. I'm a convinced Protestant who is passionate about salvation by grace alone, through faith alone on account of the work of Christ alone. And for various theological reasons, I would not encourage unsatisfied evangelicals to wander into Roman territory. Nevertheless, I will be the first to admit that many Catholic churches are closer to the kingdom than the type of megachurch I described. First of all, in the Catholic Church there is an awareness of God's holiness and our sin. Second, this sin is not primarily something that "knocks a hole in your bucket of joy," as I recently observed on a church marquee; it is a serious offense against this infinitely holy God. Third, Christ is presented as the mediator between God and man. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "The Word became flesh for us in order to save us by reconciling us with God, who 'loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.'" (4) This is a vast improvement from the approach I encountered in my experience at my nearby megachurch.

There is a great deal that divides Protestants from Roman Catholics. In particular, we're divided over the crucial question of justification. Is Christ's merit alone sufficient for my righteousness, or is that a legal fiction? This is an incredibly important question that divides our two communions, especially in light of the fact that Rome's anathemas against the Protestant position are still binding. (5) But official Roman Catholicism and confessional Protestantism are closer to each other than they are to the theology and practice of moralistic therapeutic deism that so pervades contemporary American evangelicalism.

This is to say nothing of the loss of the sacred in contemporary church music and worship, or of an overall aesthetic sensibility close to that of Wal-Mart. It was this point that forced Jim to look outside of evangelicalism. As he said, his theology remained unchanged but he "felt more reverence" elsewhere. Lendol Cader once observed in the pages of Touchstone magazine that he knew "a dozen or so people who have made the pilgrimage from evangelicalism to Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, or Anglicanism. All are thoughtful people, and theology is important to them. But in each case their initial decision to migrate had little to do with a rejection of evangelical theology. Rather, they left evangelical churches out of despair over evangelical culture." (6)

I once talked with a representative of a Southern California megachurch who admitted that his church was losing people who felt that the regular worship services were too upbeat and happy-clappy. This was especially uncomfortable for people who were going through times of difficulty or loss, so his church had decided to build a new chapel on their campus to address this need. It's now advertised on their website as a quiet place "to sit, reflect, pray, cry, think." And in this new space, these megachurch parishioners can write out their prayers to God, light a candle, or just be still.

But will this really solve the problem for those despairing over evangelical culture? Is adding a new chapel to the food court of various worship options really the answer? It may help some, but I doubt it will prevent many from continuing to abandon ship. Julia Duin, author of Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do About It, told us in a White Horse Inn interview that the biggest reason people leave evangelical churches is because they're not getting meaningful answers to their questions and are not connecting with a pastor. She also observed that if they were ever absent, "no one noticed." (7)

There are many reasons why people leave evangelical churches. Sometimes it has to do with lack of transcendence, mystery, or beauty. Others find a lack of seriousness and depth. Failing to receive any shepherding or discipleship with individual attention and care, they realize their experience at church is sort of like watching TV. This was the primary reason for my own abandonment of an evangelical megachurch. And, unfortunately, many who give up on their church eventually end up abandoning Christianity altogether, as was the case of my own mother many decades ago.

But I remain convinced that the most important thing to keep in mind is the truth. If the New Testament claim about Jesus is true, then this man, this God-man, deserves my worship, my allegiance, my faith, and my lifelong service to the church he purchased with his blood. And since I remain convinced of this truth, my frustration with the tacky architecture of my church building is just one of the things I have to deal with "east of Eden." The early church met in catacombs and faced torture for being named among the followers of Christ, so by comparison the difficulty I experience is fairly tame.

In my own thinking, some put too much weight on the way they feel in worship. As for me and my family, we look for Christ and his story of redemption. We look for this story in both Word and Sacrament. We arrive each Sunday not to immerse ourselves in a transcendent experience here and now, but we long to be transported to an amazing event that happened then. There, at the cross, we're confronted with our own sin and God's astonishing rescue. Here we worship our Savior in a community of saints with mutual accountability, shepherded by a pastor who knows our names, prays for us, and delivers Christ to us week after week, month after month, year after year.

1 [ Back ] Diana Butler Bass, "Ex-Catholics and Ex-Evangelicals: Why Did You Leave?" The Huffington Post (16 July 2010),
2 [ Back ] According to a recent opinion piece, the idea that religion is something that a person outgrows appears to be gaining traction among today's young evangelicals. The article claims that there has been a 43 percent drop in church attendance for evangelicals between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine. Laura Sessions Stepp, "Why Young Evangelicals Are Leaving Church," CNN Opinion (16 Dec. 2011),
3 [ Back ] Jim's comment is associated with a post titled "Doritos, PepsiMax & The Loss of the Sacred" by Shane Rosenthal, Out of the Horse's Mouth (4 Jan. 2011),
4 [ Back ] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori, MO: Ligouri Publications, 1994), 115.
5 [ Back ] See the Canons & Decrees of the Council of Trent, The Sixth Session, Canons 1'33.
6 [ Back ] Lendol Calder, "Christian Karaoke," Touchstone 11 (March/April 1998).
7 [ Back ] Julia Duin, White Horse Inn interview (9 Nov. 2008); printed in Modern Reformation (September/October 2009).
Thursday, March 1st 2012

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology