Voluntarist Protestantism and the Dangers of Secular Modernity

Voluntarist/Biblicist Churches

During the same period that I referred to yesterday, and especially since the decade of 1960s, churches deeply centered in teaching the Bible have grown numerically. Only recently has this growth begun to significantly slow down, a fact that very few are willing to openly face at this juncture in history. Was the success of these more conservative churches a result of turning against the subjective tendencies of their more liberal brothers and sisters? This seems to me to be the $64,000 question among modern religious sociologists. The early evidence appeared to support such a conclusion but now that conservative churches are also beginning to decline the data, and thus this debate, needs to be revisited. I believe the answer is that this simplistic analysis, namely that liberal churches in the mainline are in decline because they turned away from strong biblical teaching, is only a half truth.

religion-secularismThe compelling idea employed by conservative churches is that each person is directly responsible for their own religious commitment. This is what is meant by voluntarism. This idea has played well in modern democracies. In such churches God seems more congenial to American ideals and independence. Further, the economic systems of our country favor this approach as well. This is why the “health and wealth gospel” developed, expanded and went international from its American origins. The virtues of hard work, honesty, self-help and prosperity work well in a religious context like our own. And in America this kind of gospel directly appeals to our nationalistic sentiment. What evangelicalism has offered to Americans is direct, subjective experience of God and the promise that this would bring stability and enhancement to our inner selves.

The problem with this is that a strange thing happened on the way to building great mega-churches – modernity helped to destroy the family and the media simply expanded our horizons to new global perspectives rooted in our economic consumerism. Broken families, and deeply polarized and divided churches, have impacted a whole generation and the youngest generation (“the millennials”) is now leaving conservative churches in large numbers. (In fairness, they are leaving all churches in large numbers!)

Voluntarist biblicism offered a number of things to people that provided a place of spiritual refuge. These included:

  1. Evangelicalism presented itself as based solely on the teaching of the Bible and thus directed people to the timeless truths of the Word of God.
  2. In so offering this view of the Bible evangelicalism sounded like a direct appeal to pristine, ancient Christian faith and practice.
  3. In a postmodern age, where absolute truth seems to be under attack from every quarter, evangelicalism offered a certainty based upon absolute truth.
  4. Evangelicalism offered a “plan” to everyone; a plan that God has “for your life.” This brings security and comfort.
  5. Finally, evangelicalism offered clear and direct ethical teaching about the proper roles and duties of every man, woman and child. There is little moral complexity in this approach and many have found this quite comforting, preferring to have a religion that leaves little to mystery or serious question.

images-1These biblicist directions were the clearest when it came to the family. It was believed that the roles of men, women and children were all spelled out in the Bible. Our role was to affirm the sanctity of marriage and the biblically defined roles of men and women and then all would be well, or at least much better. Jerry Falwell literally built his appeals on “a strong family” that he believed was under attack from the liberal agenda of the world. His goals, stated in his own words, were to stand against the Equal Rights Amendment, the feminist revolution, and the homosexual revolution. In his book, Listen America! (1980) he said, “Right living must be established as an American way of life . . . The authority of Bible morality must once again be recognized as the legitimate guiding principle of our nation.”

Falwell was addressing moral Americans – people who believe in decency, the home, the family, the free enterprise system and all of the great ideals that are believed to be the cornerstone of this nation. What is important to note is that this defense of the family went hand in hand with America’s values. Subsequent debates have shown how little has really changed in America since he wrote this in 1980. If anything the tide of secularism is much more obvious than ever. The problem then is clear – more than thirty years later large numbers of young adults no longer care about these American goals. And whether we admit it or not this now includes large numbers of Christian young adults who are quite serious about personal faith but not about this kind of biblicist religion. Something quite different is needed if the church is to do mission fruitfully in the years ahead.

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