In the town where I grew up, every church is pretty much an evangelical church. The poorly-attended mainline and Catholic churches are usually no exception. The language clergy use is highly individualistic and the “goal” of most congregations is to get more people into heaven (i.e. “accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior”).
I’m not saying all of these churches are bad. I certainly think most local churchgoers have the purest intentions, at least. But I want to share something scary that happened at a service I attended.
Before I cynically criticize this church, allow me to convey that everybody I have met through this church has demonstrated a reasonable about of love toward me and toward others. I have no strong objections to their presence in the world, and my sense is they would not self-righteously claim to be a perfect community. I am not trying to critique this church, but rather show that the broader American Evangelical spiritual worldview is lacking the critical core component to its faith.
One of the church folks opens with a prayer, saying something like, “Father, let us remember that you came to die, and that that was the sole purpose for your coming.”
This is pretty typical of any evangelical worship service: reductionist atonement theology and preferential treatment of the topic of Christ’s death over Christ’s life. But I found it particularly odd at a service themed around the incarnation, which is supposed to talk about the beginning of Jesus’ life, not the end.
The service continued to present Herod as a passive character in the story, not a gruesome, self-infatuated, genocidal trillionaire warlord seeking to impose himself upon all corners of the Earth. Several comments about personal sin and our consequential need for individual repentance were made, of course, but nothing about the political, economic, social, or religious tyranny of the day. To emphasize Jesus’ crucifixion during a worship service about his birth is a huge missed opportunity, because Jesus tells us why He came to this Earth, and it is precisely what the American Evangelical Church is missing: “To proclaim good news to the poor. To proclaim freedom for the prisoners. To give sight to the blind. To set the oppressed free. To proclaim the year of the lord’s favor.”
Notice Jesus rarely spoke of the afterlife (when he did it involved economic justice demands), and he never really spoke of personal relationships (he actually limited his own). American Evangelical language (and therefore its worldview) has been shaped so much by its cultural context, and as it treats that cultural context neutrally, its foundation is rocked. It becomes something almost wholly-other than the Christian faith as established by Christ and the early Church.
In other words, the more we turn our focus to formulaic, accept-Jesus-into-your-heart-as-your-personal-Savior spirituality, the more we distance ourselves from Truth and the fundamentals of Christ’s Gospel. Individualization (or “privatization”) of any faith necessarily affirms the social ills in which that faith resides.
I should also make a note that sin is not easily categorized. The New Testament has a few dozen Greek words for sin, nevermind the pervasive theme of structural/social sin in the Hebrew scriptures. This idea of “sin is sin is sin” is off the mark. It is complicated. Sin, salvation, repentance, etc. cannot be reduced to a soundbite.
I can accept the idea that Jesus’ death held transcendent meaning, but for the most part, gospel writers and historians alike seem to view it more as an inevitable byproduct of the way he lived his life. When you continually undermine Caesar’s empire, and when you continually frustrate the elites of your political and religious institutions in the ways Christ did, you have to expect the kind of backlash Jesus was given. The Christmas narrative is about holy subversion and solidarity, not personal sin or even atonement. Individual spirituality matters in some capacity, but not in the way that my hometown wants it to matter. (It’s much easier not to confront the tension of thinking twice about one’s consumption patterns during the holidays.)