Why Evangelicalism Fails (169)

The intention of this episode, the fifth episode on the Foundations of Flourishing curriculum 1, was for it to be a “round-up” of the previous four podcasts with a goal of highlighting the most important or perhaps under-exposed aspects of the first half of the curriculum that they present.

However, over the course of producing this series of podcasts and considering the aims and focus areas of the “Foundation of Flourishing” program, I have come to understand that there is a larger issue that needs to be presented as part of presenting this “First Steps” curriculum, which is the initial curriculum of the “Foundations” program.

Let me begin by explaining that the “Foundations of Flourishing” program—and the entire Integration Project of which it is a part—is not primarily an educational effort.  In other words, it is not mainly aimed at providing information or at teaching techniques or strategies.  Instead, it is above all a response to a problem—to what I see as a major and critical problem within evangelical Christianity.

To put it simply, the Integration Project (and the “Foundations of Flourishing” curriculums) are not designed to make what is currently a “good thing” great or even to make an acceptable thing better.  They are instead designed to make an essentially dysfunctional thing functional—to make something that is broken actually work.

Now it may take a moment or two for the full implication of what I am saying here to sink in.  I am actually saying that evangelical Christianity is not simply in need of some improvement “here” or “there.”  I am saying that it is fundamentally broken.  I am of the opinion, in other words, that the evangelical church by and large cannot carry out its role as either imaging Christ or as offering a viable and valuable embodiment of Christianity.

So in key ways the evangelical church is neither able to help those inside become truly “Christ-like” nor is it able effectively to persuade outsiders, at least based on its current presentation of such, that “Christ-likeness” is a valuable or viable way of being.  To use Christian terminology, in my view the evangelical church patently fails at both discipleship and the great commission.

Foundations 4: Communication is Key (168)

This episode features content from module four of the “First Steps” curriculum, entitled: “Dialogue Skills: listening gently, speaking honestly.”

Module four address a key skill for Christians, yet one this is mostly overlooked.  Specifically, as a religion eager to communicate its beliefs to outsiders—many of which are unreceptive and even hostile to these beliefs—it is difficult to overstate the importance of good communication skills for Christians and the Christian church.  So I find it not simply ironic but baffling that Christians pay so so little attention to communication, to the point that I have never heard of a church or Christian organization requiring members to learn communication skills.

This module, then, focuses on “interest-based” communication skills.

Now before I begin I want to be very clear: the purpose of learning such communication skills is not for Christians to debate better, or win more arguments, with non-Christians.  Nor is the point of this module to provide tactics and techniques to help Christians be more persuasive in presenting Christianity to outsiders.  Instead, the point of this module—and the main value of learning interest-based communication skills—is to develop a fuller understanding of a) the other person and her views on a certain topic, b) of myself and my views on the topic, and c) of the actual topic under discussion.

Indeed, the orientation underlying the interest-based communication presented in this module is not an orientation aiming to defeat the other party’s views or necessarily reveal the weaknesses in those views.  That orientation only listens long enough to form a counter-argument, and so it only hears the points that are disagreed with or that seem problematic. By contrast, the orientation promoted here begins with listening openly and fully (but includes speaking gently and, sometimes, critically). This orientation does not aim to undercut or disprove the other position but seeks to understand it and uncover its truth strengths.

To do this, this module introduces the complimentary opposition between affirmation and critique.  In other words, participants learn to affirm others and the value of their views and develop the skills to offer critical responses to those views, yet to do so is a manner that opposes some of the content under discussion rather disparages some individual within the discussion.

This episode close out with a discussion with John Poelstra. More about the different levels of listening John refers to are found in his podcast titled What is Good Listening?

Foundations 3: Inventory-taking (167)

This is the third in a series of eight to ten episodes explaining the first curriculum (called “First Steps”) in the Foundations of Flourishing teaching program.

In this episode Gregg focuses on the double-task of understanding, or “inventorying,” personal beliefs and then assessing how much one values these beliefs (and why).  At first glance “inventory taking” may seem like a simple and straightforward matter for Christians: by definition, a Christian is someone who believe the basic tenets of Christianity.

Yet in Gregg’s experience generic definitions actually prove to be more of an obstacle than an aid.  In other words, the purpose of inventory-taking is to understand more clearly what one believes, one’s personal view or “slant” on these beliefs, and where one’s beliefs comes from. As such, a crucial factor for inventory-taking is the notion of ownership, or the sense that a given belief or viewpoint is one that corresponds to my “core values.”  We can say that we “own” a belief if it takes no or low outside impetus for us to maintain and promote it.  In other words, beliefs that I own are beliefs that I intrinsically want to act upon (even if I am not consist or always successful in doing so).

Inventory-taking also includes the related notion of understanding that our beliefs have an origin, even if there might be multiple points of origin for any given belief. The point is that understanding more about where our beliefs come from helps us evaluate why we hold and value our beliefs as we do.

In the realm of inventory-taking and beliefs, John shares the process he went through to enumerate his own beliefs and encourages people to do the same. You can find the list he created at johnpoelstra.com/beliefs.

Foundations 2: Understanding Fear (166)

This is the second in a series of eight to ten episodes explaining the first curriculum (called “First Steps”) in the Foundations of Flourishing teaching program.

After last episode’s focus on the three negative elements that typically afflict evangelical churches (Legalism, Fear, Ignorance), here Gregg examines fear as the principal element that links legalism and ignorance.

Foundations 1: Legalism, Fear, Ignorance (165)

Legalism, fear, and ignorance: these three words represent tendencies and orientations that none of us would like to own up to, much less that Christians would want to admit to.  Sadly, however, the members of this trio are all too frequently cited by outsiders as reasons that Christians are phoney and that the Christian church is bankrupt. What is more, my experience is that these three tendencies and orientations are often found together, so that where one is present, the others are likely there also.

Addressing these three opponents to right Christian living and to the full and persuasive presentation of Christianity is an essential “first-step” to a program dedicated to promoting a high level of satisfaction for Christians, relative to their beliefs, and consequently for Christian beliefs to appear more legitimate, and even compelling, to those outside of Christianity.

Legalism fills the void when we have not developed the necessary, productive skills to navigate the complexities of living in our world.  In other words poor assumptions, like the “requirements” of the Christian life being clear and the “process” for living it being obvious, lend themselves to creating a law-based system of behaviours and norms based upon those perceived requirements and processes.  Yet instead of addressing situations or events that require decisions, the main goal of legalism is to keep us safe by identifying who is “like us” or “in our tribe” and what behaviours or ideas are acceptable or match our community’s.  So legalism appeases fear, and fear drives legalism.

Fear—and precisely an unconscious but deep-seated worry that Christians must out-argue opponents and that “good Christians” always defend Christianity (and do it successfully)—can become the guiding disposition that blocks our ability to cultivate the positive dispositions that allow us to engage well with God, others, and especially with ourselves.  Only a posture of openness and vulnerability allows us to adapt to the requirements of opposing dispositions (such humility and confidence, love and truth, trust and suspicion, etc.).  Yet this is impossible when fear reigns, especially when we are unconscious of it.  In this way, fear is linked to ignorance and ignorance can perpetuate fear.

Ignorance exists if Christians have not developed the habit of accumulating knowledge relevant to both Christian faith and human life.  Indeed, where Christians believe that they already have all of the resources needed to live life well and understand the Bible correctly, ignorance can be self-perpetuating because we “settle” for our opinions (and those of our church or our pastor).  This can become a system of minimal information that never challenges us but merely affirms what we already hold to be the case.  Where ignorance is based upon biblical understandings, it automatically includes the further misunderstanding that salvation is more important than—or superior to—creation.

Together legalism, fear, and ignorance create a monoculture where Christians become “boundary-focused,” carefully policing who comes into the fold (and where and how long they stay), and where Christians are unable authentically to connect with outsiders (and instead simply engage in “cross-talk” and dispute).

So what can be done about these three opponents?

First, we recognize that legalism, fear-based living, and ignorance are enemies to a Christian way of being—they prevent Christian maturity and so undermine the potential for Christians to live abundantly (or “to flourish”).

Second, we recognize that legalism, fear-based living, and ignorance in the church are the natural result of some rather common poor assumptions and misunderstandings.  This means that unless we have taken active steps to work against them, I must acknowledge that they are almost certainly present, to some degree, in my life!