Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Will We Wake Up? Speak Up?

It was all in good fun. And then things got a little strange. We were wrestling in the living room, and in the carousing, my clothes were stripped off. And then, for just a moment, he was on top.

I was 19, too naïve to recognize that this was more than harmless play. It was sexual. Gradually, this prominent man’s perversive lifestyle would be exposed to others.  It turned out he had two lives, one of them a popular, national youth speaker, and the other a person who frequented gay bars. Eventually, he would die of AIDS, though he never acknowledged any wrongdoing. Besides, it would be covered up. The newspaper’s account linked his death to an infected blood transfusion.

Beyond his passing, what especially grieved me was that he was my spiritual godfather. He not only led me to Christ; God used him to call me into the ministry. For a brief season, he was my spiritual hero.

I seldom think about this part of my past. But then I read a book like Tim Alberta’s, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory, with all of its testimonies of misbehavior and betrayal, and I can’t help but recall it. This is what I know for sure–my faith is too solid to ever forsake it; my love for the church is too deep to ever leave it; and my hope in God is too steadfast to ever drop it. But I am not so sure of my confidence in Christian leadership—especially in our day. How is it that there is so much manipulation and misconduct? This is a question Alberta seems to be asking.

His book comes on the heels of an earlier read, The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism. Both works have left me troubled. As I wrote in a previous post, my earliest theology was shaped by dispensationalism and premillennialism. Professors like Charles Ryrie, institutions like Dallas Seminary, and pastors like Tim LaHaye were formidable influences early on. But I have come to a place where their conclusions seem forced , less convincing, and in some cases, absurd.

Alberta’s book, subtitled, American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism, is especially disillusioning for me, for I have known and followed several of its subjects.

From the beginning of my ministry, I have identified myself as an evangelical Christian. Summoned to serve the church, I have sought to keep politics out of the pulpit (even though I was a political theology major). Preaching Christ and the gospel have been my essential, holy obligations. For 35 years as a lead pastor, I have had only one ultimate agenda—to see God glorified and his kingdom flourish.  Though far from perfect, I have viewed myself as God’s emissary summoned to preach his word to a world where nations rise and fall, and leaders pass on. The church has no other purpose but to pursue truth, respond in worship, love one another, and reach lost people—and this has been my mission.

Alberta seems to have similar convictions. An award-winning journalist, he builds a convincing argument that the evangelicalism I once embraced looks vastly different today. In his research of numerous, high-profile ministries, these are some of his findings—

-a significant majority of Christians have shifted from worshipping God to worshipping America, holding on to the nostalgia of an idyllic past, seeing our nation as a kind of biblical Israel rather than a biblical Babylon

-more and more evangelicals are driven by fear, resentment, and hateful rhetoric, suffering a persecution complex that has become radicalized largely by the media

-pastors are measured less by their pastoral care and expository skills and more by their political affiliation. Those who refuse to get caught up in the bombast and decline to make partisan endorsements are accused of being gutless, even godless

-an overwhelming number of parishioners care more about power than principle. What matters is the ends—not the means

-much of our present misdirection is a reflection of a church no longer focused on spiritual formation. Most American Christians are woefully under-discipled and under-disciplined

-many of the persuasive voices on stage have minimal theological education–looking to the internet to find their voice, giving themselves to unfounded conspiracy theories, and claiming to be prophets with extra-biblical revelation

-today’s evangelicalism preaches bitterness toward unbelievers and bottomless grace towards those in the church who disagree.

-we seem more motivated to change the world rather than be a world changed by Christ

One might doubt Alberta’s findings, but I can’t. What’s becoming clear to me is that somewhere, somehow, we have become this evangelical-industrial complex—“making millions, getting famous, building some ‘brand,’ and restoring wolves to prey on more sheep.” It has little to do with Jesus, the gospel, and the Word of God—and much to do with a church that has lost its moral compass.

So much of this explains why evangelicals may be “the most polarizing and least understood people in America.” As a religious group, we are becoming the most hated—not for our righteousness, but for our unrighteousness. These are what provoked me to write this post.

Is it not reasonable to ask, “Are the forces of political identity and nationalistic idolatry severely weakening the church?” No one with any integrity can say we are increasingly relevant. Will we wake up? Speak up?

I’m not sure. Perhaps I have been silent too long. Nonetheless, I am heartened by Alberta’s conclusion. His research also finds that an increasing number are coming back to God’s kingdom purposes, and this gives me hope.

Leave a Reply