Jan 22, 2008

Learning to swim: The dangers of evangelical subcultures

by Jen Slothower

I do not know how to swim.  When I was a child, I would kick, scream and cry to keep my mother from sending me to swimming lessons at the town beach.  By the time I was in fourth grade and still a beginner – a very big beginner compared to the rest of the kids – she gave up.  I am still terrified to stick my head under water.

Often, I have heard that the best way to learn how to swim is to get thrown in and have to figure it out yourself.  Sometimes, I wish someone had done this to me.  But most times, I am quite happy far away from any water.

Evangelical Christians often make the same mistake that I did.  Instead of putting themselves in difficult situations and having to learn how to live, they allow themselves to remain in a comfortable place.  Christians do not force themselves into the water, and often they are not considerate enough to force other Christian brothers and sisters in, either.

The effect has been disastrous.  America is now host to a massive evangelical subculture, a pocket of Christians who can live, eat, breathe, learn and work without the pressures of a secular world.  They train their workers for two purposes: one, to remain and strengthen the body; or two, to go out into the secular world and lead it to Christ.  Often, the result is that those within the body never get a grasp on real life and those outside the body find a world that is difficult for them to understand.

Some call it the “bubble effect,” and many rebuke Christians for their subculture.  The idea is not all bad, however.  Christian institutions provide safe havens for maturing Christians until they are ready for the world.  The problem comes when those Christians linger inside for too long, or when they do not receive any training within the body that will help them when they finally step into the world.

In his book “People of Faith: Religious Conviction in American Journalism and Higher Education,” John Schmalzbauer explains that the evangelical subculture in America began after the Scopes trial, when evangelical beliefs were lambasted by the mockery of an evolutionist crowd that declared the creationists intellectually inferior. 

As a result, evangelicals turned inward, distancing themselves from the professional world.  Instead, they used schools, radio shows and independent publications to reach their own type.  Although this attitude began to relax in the 1970s, remnants can be seen everywhere in America today.

The evangelical subculture has two major flaws.  First, by focusing inward and not outward, Christians are less equipped to reach the unsaved world.

 “. . . The isolation of the evangelical subculture prevented its members from fully engaging the academic and cultural mainstream,”

Schmalzbauer said.  “Although the evangelical empire of Christian colleges and universities, campus ministries, publishers and broadcasters was truly vast, it reached an overwhelmingly evangelical audience.”

This problem is apparent to Christians already.  Marvin Olasky, the editor of WORLD magazine (which serves a largely Christian audience) agreed that many evangelicals are “preaching to the choir” by bringing up the same issues and not reaching outside the Christian audience.  “But that’s okay,” he said, “because the choir needs to hear it, too.”

Nevertheless, the choir has a different destiny than the unsaved world, and Christians would do well to remember the mandate of Christ to spread his name and glory to everyone.

While not reaching the unsaved is an obvious flaw of the evangelical subculture, the other key problem is that Christians themselves are often given a partial experience in life – one in which they rarely experience the whole world and spectrum of humanity that their own God created.

By focusing inward, it becomes easier for Christians to focus on themselves or their distinct body of Christ rather than the entire world in which they live.

C.S. Lewis once said, “A man who has lived in many places if not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore to some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”

Whether it is digging into the annals of the past or exploring the current times, Christians must be willing to step outside of their usual structures to see the entire world – a world which God created and still controls.

While a huge evangelical subculture still abides in America, some parts of that system have done much to reach out to the world and to prepare its members to see beyond their comfort zone.  Liberty University, for one, has many ministries that place its students in the world before they graduate so they can get a clear understanding of who they will be ministering to after graduation.  Liberty also does not restrict its enrollment to evangelical Christians.

Many other organizations have made great strides toward pushing the church into the world (without being of it) instead of being a separate entity that occasionally reaches out.

The real responsibility, however, lies in the individual Christians.  They have a choice.  On one side is a comfort zone, a Christian abode which will always be safe.  On the other is a menacing world – where God has already promised them victory.
Now it is their decision whether they will jump in the water and learn how to swim.

Contact Jen Slothower at jrslothower@liberty.edu.

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