I don't think any temptation more sweetly seduces young evangelicals. It seems every new wave of church leaders seeks to rebrand Christianity over and against its previous generations or misguided contemporaries. As the Religious Right has lost influence, traditional evangelicals have become a big target. As Timothy Dalrymple wrote last year “if you are selling scorn of conservative evangelical Christians, the market is hot.”
But I'm not necessarily sure the problem is so one-sided. I find in my own heart the constant temptation to brand myself as “not one of those Christians,” and the targets can be anywhere on the liberal/conservative spectrum.
Every generation tends to think of itself as the one that will finally “get it right.” So we're not going to be like those legalistic fundamentalists. We're not going to be like our fathers who were too closely aligned with conservative politics. We're going to have better answers on the homosexual question. We'll “do church” a lot clearer and cleaner than those stodgy models of the past few decades. We tell ourselves that our generation represents a new kind of Christianity.
But there is a subtle danger in seeing ourselves as the last best hope for the church. Like Peter on the night of Jesus' crucifixion, what we give up to warm our hands by the fire of acceptance will leave us burned. Seeking to evade the scorn that comes from standing with Christ, we can deny Jesus altogether.
As I survey my own heart, I see three motivations that drive this tendency to constantly reframe and rebrand our faith.
1. We make an idol of cultural acceptance.
As missionaries to an increasingly hostile West, it's wise to adapt our strategies to communicate the gospel to those who most desperately need to hear. Yet there is a tendency to make cultural acceptance the core value of ministry.
Christians should speak with grace (Colossians 4:6). We should seek the favor of our community (1 Peter 3:15-18). And yet even the most Spirit-filled, silver-tongued representatives of Christ will, at some level, clash with the world (James 4:4).
This is the part of the gospel call that makes us young evangelicals a bit queasy. Jesus told us true disciples would suffer persecution (John 15:18). We shouldn't strive to be hated, and we shouldn't intentionally be incendiary. But when being liked is prized, we're not far from denying Christ. True disciples embrace Jesus' costly call to come and die.
2. We think we can do ministry better than our fathers.
It's good to learn, both good and bad, from older models of ministry. We don't honor our forebears in the faith by repeating their mistakes. And yet we must fight the arrogance that says our generation will be judged more favorably by God than previous incarnations of the church. In his book The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis reminds that every generation has blind spots. That's why it's useful to learn from, not discard, the work of those who have gone before us. Lewis says “the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”
We can press for innovation and embrace technology even as we appreciate tradition and preserve faithful methods. And we must be humble enough to recognize that one day our work will be considered out of date, fueling a new generation's reactionaries.
3. We put too much weight on our own abilities.
In seeking to be a “different kind of Christian,” we're tempted to think we can accomplish more for Jesus if we could just be less offensive, more innovative, more missional/gospel-centered/seeker-friendly. Yes, our ministry can and must grow with every generation. But we must not succumb to the Satanic idea that we can build the church through strictly human means. The church is a Spirit-powered endeavor so often built by those respectable society overlooks (1 Corinthians 1:26).
Now and forever, the church hopes in the promise Christ made to build his body in this world (Matthew 16:18). He accomplishes this work through human, sinful, weak means. God does not sit in heaven with white knuckles hoping for one more young pastor to create the most acceptable expression of the gospel. So in seeking to spread the gospel, let's resist the temptation to fashion a faith warmed by the fires of cultural acceptance but burned by denying Christ.