Back in the 1990s, when I was a student at a conservative evangelical Bible College, one of my fellow students shocked many in the student body (and alarmed several professors) when he announced that he was becoming Greek Orthodox.
This confused me.
Weren’t Orthodox Christians just Greek-speaking Catholics without a pope? Didn’t they pray to saints and worship Mary? And their worship! Didn’t they kiss icons, sniff incense, sprinkle holy water, and rattle off irrelevant prayers and creeds that had nothing to do with either the Bible or real life? Why in the world would anybody convert to that?
Then I heard about a free church evangelical who became Anglican—still Protestant, of course, but it made me wonder what would motivate a person to make such a drastic change in doctrine, church order, and worship style. Then I heard about a Baptist who converted to Roman Catholicism, leaving Protestantism completely behind. Surely this had to be some kind of sign of the end times!
However, before too long I learned that many Low Church or free church Protestants had left what they regarded as evangelical “wilderness wanderings” to follow the “Roman Road,” the “Way to Constantinople,” or (for those who desired to remain within the Protestant tradition while restoring a liturgical worship) the “Canterbury Trail.” Those who couldn’t take such radical steps into a High Church community sometimes ended up in more traditional conservative Protestant denominations like the Presbyterians or Lutherans. Over and over again I kept running into more examples like these: men and women leaving the open fields of free roaming evangelicalism for the gated gardens of a clearly defined denomination.
Naturally, I was curious about why anybody would go from Southern Baptist to Eastern Orthodox, from Lutheran to Roman Catholicism, or from an Evangelical Free church to an Episcopal church. As a young believer who was perfectly happy in my evangelical subculture, these radical departures seemed inexplicable.
Through the years, though, I discovered that these conversions were not isolated cases. Rather, they represented a widespread movement, especially among younger evangelicals, away from free church and Low Church communities toward more traditional High Church denominations. In order to better understand this trend, I began to discuss these conversions with the converts themselves and to read books and articles on the phenomenon. As I did, I discovered that these converts tended to fall into one of three categories:
1. Aversion-Driven Converts
2. Attraction-Driven Converts
3. Preference-Driven Converts
Let me briefly explain each of these motivations and then explain some basic problems within evangelicalism that need to be addressed. (This essay merely introduces the “what’s” and “why’s” . . . the “what do we do now?” question is answered more fully in the book, RetroChristianity.)
The aversion-driven converts are those who simply have had enough of Low Church, free church, or no-church evangelicalism. Frustrated with the “anything goes” instability of their evangelical megachurches or megachurch wannabes, some just can’t stomach the ever-shifting sands upon which their churches seem to be built. Or they have endured just too many church coups, splits, or hostile takeovers to continue appreciating the “who’s in charge here anyway?” debates within their independent congregations. Or they’ve “had it up to here” with the stifling legalism and heartless dogmatism of their fundamentalist upbringing. In other words, their motivation to convert to a stable, well-defined, traditional denomination has more to do with what they’re running from than what they’re running to.
The problem with this kind of conversion, however, is simply this: reaction against something—even if that something is bad—is no way to make a wise choice for something. It’s no wonder that many of these aversion-driven converts become dissatisfied with their destination tradition and end up reacting even to that! Lesson learned: if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll never find it.
The attraction-driven converts are completely different. They don’t start with any particularly serious problem with their current evangelical churches. Instead, their entrée into the traditional, historical denominations comes more gradually. The attraction-driven converts claim to arrive at “the Historic Christian Faith,” or to discover “the One True Church,” or to happen upon “the Holy Tradition” either by accident or by careful investigation. As they explore these churches more deeply, they become disillusioned with their historically shallow evangelical background while coming to believe that the traditional denomination has a greater continuity with ancient and historical orthodoxy. They conclude, then, that their Protestant evangelical tradition is really a Johnny-come-lately at best or a devilish usurper at worst. These converts then claim that they were compelled to forsake their evangelical tradition because of their study of church history.
The problem with this approach, however, is that those who claim to have found the one true church through the study of the ancient church often have no idea how to study church history. Rather than engaging in a so-called objective exploration of the facts of church history, they are often unwittingly fed a particular version of church history that just so happens to favor a particular tradition.
Finally, the preference-driven converts are motivated not by the ills of evangelicalism or the merits of classic Christian denominations, but by personal preferences regarding worship. I’ve heard numerous friends, colleagues, and students tell me they switched to a High Church or non-Protestant tradition because they “like the liturgy.” They love traditional forms of worship such as lighting candles, offering incense, reciting creeds, partaking of weekly Eucharist, observing the Christian calendar, or some other element of worship completely missing or outright rejected by many evangelical churches. Thus, their decision to convert to a liturgical church was more about adopting a worship style that felt more authentic, appealed to their sense of mystery, engaged their senses, or made them feel connected to a broader and deeper historical faith than their narrow and shallow evangelical churches. In the final analysis, they have nothing against Baptists and Bible churches, but those less formal ways of worship just aren’t for them.
The problem with the preference-driven converts is that they often make their decisions in an extremely me-centered, consumerist fashion. They’re less concerned about content and more concerned with contentment. They’re less interested in fact and more interested in feeling. Though they opt out of the typical external forms of the evangelical subculture, they do so in a very typical evangelical way—through individualistic personal preference!
While I sympathize with many of the concerns shared by those who have chosen to travel the trails toward traditionalism, it seems that many have abandoned their evangelical heritage far too hastily and unwisely, driven by emotion, ignorance, or unquestioned assumptions about Scripture, history, and theology. On the other hand, we need to understand why many evangelicals are driven away from their evangelical heritage or attracted to other traditions. I believe the answer is simple. Despite its strengths, there are severe problems with contemporary evangelicalism that are reaching a point of crisis.
Why does evangelicalism appear to be spinning out of control, losing appeal to younger generations, dwindling in numbers, or selling out to pop culture to muster a crowd? Where is evangelicalism headed? What can we do about it? In my book, RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith and at the companion website, www.retrochristianity.com, my goal has been to challenge evangelicals to begin thinking both critically and constructively about history and how it informs our current beliefs, values, and practices. However, unlike many attempts to change the present by looking to the past, this approach also begins exploring practical ways for both individuals and churches to apply its principles today. Arguing that the way forward is to draw on the wisdom of the whole Christian past, RetroChristianity not only points out the trailhead of the biblical, historical, and theological path, but it supplies provisions for the journey without forsaking the healthy developments that have benefited Christianity along the way.
RetroChristianity doesn’t naively defend evangelicalism as if everything were just fine. As I review the history and survey the current landscape of modern evangelicalism, I conclude that things are in pretty bad shape and are likely to get worse. However, I don’t believe the retreat into traditionalism is the necessary or most beneficial response—though it is certainly the easiest.
RetroChristianity fully acknowledges the frustrating and upsetting elements of evangelicalism. However, we can’t afford to simply whine about the flaws of the evangelical movement. We need to provide directions for addressing these problems, resting firmly on biblical, theological, and historical foundations. This will help us respond appropriately to extremes within evangelicalism and contribute to its improvement rather than its destruction.
RetroChristianity also acknowledges the egocentric nature of many evangelicals’ approaches to church and spirituality. We need to counter the preference-driven mentality rampant among so many churches, replacing it with a more biblical, historical, and theological framework through which we can make informed decisions regarding doctrine, practice, and worship. This will help us wisely balance the vital elements of church, worship, ministry, and spirituality, avoiding excesses, extremes, distractions, and distortions.
In short, I believe that careful biblical, theological, and historical reflection should make us better evangelicals, not former evangelicals.
[Excerpted and adapted from the introduction RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), pp. 17–21. Available now at Amazon, ChristianBook.com, Westerminster Bookstore.]