Is Evangelical Enough?

Adriane Dorr
Wednesday, January 2nd 2013
Jan/Feb 2013

Label them "Rambo Catholics." Call them "ecclesiastical bullies." Claim they're "hard-nosed." But if you're brave enough to assert they're going unnoticed, do so at your own risk. They know better.

Conservative in all things theological (and social and political), this new league of outspoken Roman Catholics won't be ignored. They're well versed in the church's apologetics and its place at the cultural table, and they're equally eager to dialogue with pretty much anyone who's interested.

They've piqued the interest of Protestants, and young people, in particular, have taken notice. While they aren't abandoning Protestant churches en masse, a slow, steady trickle of Christians have dialogued, discussed and dived headlong into the Tiber, attracted to a theology that appears to have the history, orthodoxy, and reverence they've been missing.

These converts have commonalities. They are mainly evangelical, and they are mostly millennials, the 80 million or so young men and women born from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s. But it's not just the young. Seasoned Protestant pastors and theologians’Richard John Neuhaus and Francis Beckwith among them’felt the pull to Roman Catholicism as well. Their migration leaves the churches of the Reformation with two choices: to pretend it's not happening or to confess the faith even more robustly.

Spitting Up Spiritual Milk

The publication of Colleen Carol Campbell's The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola Press, 2002)’which analyzes this development in depth’points to something bigger still: a substantial demographic suffering from shallow theology. Young, inquisitive Christians find themselves increasingly opposed to a culture that turns men in on themselves rather than pointing them to Christ, asks eternal questions but can't provide meaningful answers, and ultimately replaces the comfort of the gospel with the theoretical gratification of relativity.

As repugnance for the superficial grows among young people, pop Christianity continues to offer little in the way of help, still struggling to discover where it went wrong. And so the young faithful search for something filling, something profound, something to which their faith can lay hold and to which it can cling. But their struggle is bigger than the contemporary culture. Their frustration lies in their lack of a past. Protestant churches that have forfeited the church's ancient creeds and confessions, liturgies and hymnody have become their own downfalls, producing a generation that longs for’but has not been given’a theological foundation, a churchly history.

The youth's response? To reject their "Boomer parents' fascination with novelty and reinvention," says Issues, Etc. radio host Rev. Todd Wilken. He's on to something. Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, affirms that young Protestants are discovering that "evangelicalism is not enough, because it does not absorb the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church into its very bones." (1) They're looking for something else, he believes’something enduring, reverent, disciplined, historic.

So if the recent evangelical push toward coffeehouses and contemporary worship, praise bands, and introspection isn't meeting the theological needs of America's youth, what is? "Ancient worship with a contemporary flair," wrote Robert E. Webber, author of the widely read Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Baker Academic, 1999). They want a church that has an "authentic character," "more use of ritual and symbol," "more frequent celebration of communion," "high participation," and a "recovery of the Christian year as a spiritual discipline." (2)

Catholicism’well known, vocal, and historical’then becomes the natural choice, Wilken says. "For many evangelical millennials, Roman Catholicism is the opposite of everything they have come to know as 'church.' It is low-tech, high-church without a hint of marketing or sales pitch." They're tired of the theological milk, he explained over a decade ago. They're hungry for meat.

What Is Truth?

The Roman Catholic creators of websites like ("where Rome meets Reformation") or Catholic Answers ( recognize this generation's theological discontent. Intertwining robust apologetics and technology, the church now utilizes a unique platform to welcome disgruntled evangelicals "home" to Rome.

Their theological presence on the Internet is formidable. From Facebook groups to blogs, Roman Catholics have been purposeful and persistent in making the case for their church. And they aren't doing it quietly. Notre Dame's Cathleen Kaveny labeled them "Rambo Catholics" during the 2004 Bush/Kerry presidential race, offended at their forceful theological stances in the public square. But rather than shying away from the phrase, Roman Catholics are embracing it.

Thomas Peters, who runs the "American Papist" blog at, wears the title willingly. To be a Rambo Catholic signifies that he's "proudly, joyfully orthodox." That orthodoxy and its accompanying longevity, Peters believes, appeals to a generation channeling Pilate's question: "What is truth?"

People find that truth in the Catholic Church because it "challenges them, and not merely accommodates them," he says. "The Catholic Church has held fast to the moral traditions taught by Christ and…[converts] see a great deal of continuity between the early Church and how the Catholic Church believes and practices today."

Mason Beecroft is proof. Raised as a nondenominational evangelical, Beecroft joined the Lutheran Church’Missouri Synod (LCMS)’a creedal, liturgical, and sacramental church body of more than two million members’as an adult, awed by the confession and absolution found in the liturgy. To "hear that my sins were forgiven for the sake of Christ was an incredible comfort," he recalls.

He attended an LCMS seminary and pastored his own parishes, but the lack of doctrinal consistency within the church-at-large was hard to overlook. Like a handful of former LCMS pastors (most of whom converted to Eastern Orthodoxy), he's since left the ministry and has settled into Roman Catholicism, "drawn by the Mass, mystery, and tradition." "Rome is consistent on its theological and moral teachings," he says simply. "Even with all of the scandal, the Church is solid."

The Reformation Continues

But not all roads lead to Rome. Many people, such as Benjamin Bosch, have discovered the theology of the Reformation after wrestling with difficult theological questions. Bosch began to delve more deeply into the confessional writings of the LCMS after one of his friends, a pastor, converted to Catholicism. He was later confirmed into the Lutheran church as an adult. His reasons? The church was devoted to Scripture, used the historic liturgy, engaged the Lectionary, and confessed the bodily presence in the Lord's Supper’the same things evangelicals are longing to find.

So why Lutheranism and not Catholicism? Why Bosch but not others? Terence Maher, who was raised in the Roman Catholic Church but ended up taking a circuitous path to confessional Lutheranism by way of Orthodox Judaism, thinks it's rather simple. He found in Lutheranism "no new doctrine or no new church, but the same one, the only one, that has been there all along." Converting to Lutheranism "was to accept and preserve the constant liturgy of the Church, right along with the faith it expresses," he says, but, unlike Roman Catholicism, "pruned of excesses and accretions."

A Singular Truth

While young Christians may be attracted to Rome's presumed longevity and so-called authenticity, there's one fact Catholics can't ignore: "Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the process of religious change….One-in-ten American adults is a former Catholic." (3) It's a more telling trend: Rome can attract new members, but she has a hard time keeping them.

Reformation theologians asking Luther's standard question’"What does this mean?"’can conclude that Rome doesn't have a hold on proclaiming the gospel to a wandering generation after all. Instead, the historic, faithful churches of the Reformation actually have a profound opportunity to speak biblical truth to this confused culture, to point out what sets Wittenberg apart from Rome.

One group in particular stands ready to face the challenge: a theologically astute clergy. And one of the most critical aspects of their ability to carry the church's enduring, faithful response to the world, explains Dr. Lawrence Rast, president of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is their formation. "Theological education," he says, "forms students who have the ability to articulate, carefully and clearly, the biblical witness as rightly confessed in the Lutheran Confessions and maintained in the historic church."

These pastors, alongside their catechized laity, have an "ecumenical task," explains LCMS president Matthew C. Harrison, "to hold forth worldwide for orthodox, biblical Christianity’for the singular authority of Holy Scripture; for the singular truth that salvation is completely by grace on account of Christ's meritorious life, death and resurrection for us; for the singular truth that this gift is grabbed hold of solely by faith, which is itself worked completely by God through His Word."

It is that task that holds up the exact things millennials long for: Scripture, creeds, worship. It is that confession that is kept safe in the churches born from Luther's Reformation. It is that truth that confronts the culture. It is that gift that sets faithful theology apart. It is that mercy, given by Christ, that sees it through to fulfillment. And so the theologians of the Reformation must remain tenacious and bold in their confession, despite a generation's flirtations with Rome and without fear of confronting the culture. "Be watchful, stand firm in the faith," St. Paul encourages. "Act like men. Be strong. Let all that you do be done in love" (1 Cor. 16:13’14). And, by God's grace, they do.

1 [ Back ] Scot McKnight, "From Wheaton to Rome: Why Evangelicals Become Roman Catholic," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, vol. 45, no. 3 (September 2002).
2 [ Back ] Robert Webber, "How Will the Millennials Worship? A Snapshot of the Very Near Future," Reformed Worship (March 2001).
3 [ Back ] "Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.," Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (April 2009; rev. February 2011).
Wednesday, January 2nd 2013

“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
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