Power Evangelicals: Growing Trend or Passing Fancy?

25 Jan

[I’ve been working on some sections of my dissertation that call upon me to connect my evangelicals (spiritual warriors doing strategic-level spiritual warfare against territorial demons) with the broader currents of evangelicalism during the same era. These are just some thoughts about it–definitely unfinished thoughts about it. Feel free to disagree, suggest problems, and so on! Just sharing in a continued effort to bring more of the scholarly process to light.]

Donald Miller argued, in his controversial Reinventing American Protestantism (1997), that mainline denominations were the losers in the religious economy of the late 20th century. The winners, on the other hand, were churches like Willow Creek Community Church and Saddleback Community Church, but also Calvary Chapel, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, and Hope Chapel. Together these churches represented a new “seeker-friendly” church model that shared many of a dozen characteristics Miller outlined: 1) started after mid-1960s; 2) most members born after 1945; 3) seminary training optional for clergy; 4) contemporary worship style; 5) elevation of lay leadership; 6) extensive small group ministries; 7) informal dress of laity and clergy; 8) pluralism of personal styles valued; 9) humble, self-revealing pastors; 10) bodily worship favored over cognitive worship; 11) affirmation of spiritual gifts; 12) avoids topical sermonizing in favor of verse-centered teaching.

For church historians, students of religious studies, or historians of American religion, Miller’s “new paradigm” churches and their features pose a number of problems. Without rehearsing the many complaints of his work (especially his ethnography’s aging Jesus Freak, California-bias), one of the major features of my own work has been a growing fascinating with the broadness of conservative evangelicalism after 1980. Miller’s work helpfully frames the transition of liberal (or progressive) themes, such as anti-establishment sentiments and religion as therapy and religion in service for individual aspiration, into the conservative evangelical movement. In other words, Miller’s churches marry typically conservative elements with progressive stye. How that happened is one of the great stories of the long 1960s or the Vietnam era or the Pre-Reagan evangelical world. 

For me–as I study movements that arose in the late 1970s and share many features with Miller’s churches, including the major figure of John Wimber–the most essential problem is one of emphasis. Which one of Miller’s 12 characteristics is most essential for these churches. That question fractures Miller’s arbitrary paradigm, forcing it to acknowledge that many of the features of these churches are secondary to the ways they theologically marry the Jesus Movement with northern California’s personality. That these churches have been less successful maintaing the full breadth of Miller’s characteristics outside of the West is no surprise.

When I look back on my spiritual warrior evangelicals in the broad context of the last 30 years, the primary and most essential characteristic is nearly missed by Miller’s list because it falls halfway between “bodily worship” and “affirmation of spiritual gifts.” Deliverance ministers, prayerwalkers, spiritual mappers, and other prayer warriors don’t simply affirm spiritual gifts or emphasize bodily worship–they radically and substantially expand our understanding of the body in religious practice and force us to acknowledge the new ways spiritual gifts are being used. That the participants may not be dressing up on Sundays (or several other days of the week) is entirely secondary. Why? These Christians care about renewing the power of Christianity.

For Miller, the cause of new paradigm churches is a larger cultural shift. Using social theory from Max Weber (on routinization and bureaucratization), the contention here is that somehow the seekers looked to the “spiritual” as restorative and the “religious” as primitive. This is, to a a great degree, similar to the arguments of Wade Clark Roof in Spiritual Marketplace or Robert Wuthnow’s After Heaven. It’s something about those darned baby boomers. Sorry, dad, your generation is to blame.

What’s problematic about this, though, is that it doesn’t help explain the conservatism that emerges from folks out of Fuller Theological Seminary like John Wimber and C. Peter Wagner and their emphasis on power evangelism. At the end of the day, these folks argue, the only thing that matters is true commitment to the Great Commission. It is their extensive involvement with global missionary work that provokes a return to Christianity as imbued with power. Part of that power must emerge to participate in a cosmic spiritual war between God and Satan. The contours of this perspective shares much more–and don’t get too bent out of shape–with the religious terrorists described by Mark Jurgensmeyer in Terror in the Mind of God. Power is a conduit for better evangelism because it removes Satan’s roadblocks. It’s a grand strategy for Christianity for the whole world.

In that sense, to see these Christians as caring about the religious economy or spiritual marketplace scholars describe (using the secular sphere as a container for these exchanges and interactions) is to entirely miss the reclamation of power exercised by these Christians. Why don’t they train their leaders at seminaries? Because the power of the Holy Spirit anoints them. Why do they elevate lay leaders? Because they have a religious duty to wield the power Jesus granted them. Why do they dress casually? Because being sanctimonious about dress doesn’t show the power of the Kingdom of God. Why do they worship bodily? Because rationalizing the supernatural world is not a means to exercise the power of Jesus over it. And so on.

In short, Miller and other sociologists have been too willing to look at the socio-cultural context of these movements without really grappling with some of the essential theological issues that emergent. What we don’t know because of this emphasis is whether the renewal of a power-based Christian mode of practice and theology is growing or declining. As I’ve suggested before, when using Google’s N-gram viewer to look at spiritual warfare, this is an area of contemporary Christian that may be in decline. We simply don’t know. But finding a more appropriate home for these evangelicals will be essential if we want to find answers to the question of their growth/decline. Miller made them visible (for many folks for whom they had not been), but he didn’t successfully explain where they came from or why they were becoming popular or even what made they unique. That’s a project scholars are still working.

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5 Responses to “Power Evangelicals: Growing Trend or Passing Fancy?”

  1. John Weaver December 2, 2013 at 6:22 pm #

    Dear David,
    If this is the Miller I think it is, I’d be careful with his research David. There’s a lot of b.s. religious research promoting Pentecostalism nowadays and Miller is at the forefront of that research. On the actual issue at stake here, I think SLSW became mainstreamed because of Christian sociology and anthropology, specifically the theories of Charles Kraft and of course Wagner. The whole idea of “transculturation” and contextualization within Kraft’s theorizing was applied on a massive scale by Fuller seminarians. While I agree that the theological ideas that motivate the religious right are important, both spiritual mapping and the NAR were explictly designed based on social science models; this is also true of many other evangelical movements that are related to these models, though not exactly identical (for instance, the Insider movement and BAM missions methodology).

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. It’s SLSW or Bust « A Lively Experiment - January 30, 2013

    […] Power Evangelicals: Growing Trend or Passing Fancy? (mcconeghy.wordpress.com) […]

  2. Are all evangelicals charismatics now? « A Lively Experiment - February 1, 2013

    […] I commented in a previous post about the way that Donald Miller has attempted to frame the emergent features of this post-baby boomer religious marketplace. Apart from my earlier criticisms, one of the major hurdles of a metanarrative of “new paradigm” churches is that it desaturates the dynamic range of Christian activities that we see in America today. There’s much more going on in the, forgive me, Culture Wars than can be captured if we look solely to evangelicals as the counterparts to mainline denominations (or to metaphysicals). This doesn’t even begin to address the challenges of fracturing evangelicalism into liberal and conservative branches (as recent posts over at The Immanent Frame have addressed). […]

  3. Hurting and searching « Ian Teh - March 3, 2013

    […] Power Evangelicals: Growing Trend or Passing Fancy? (mcconeghy.wordpress.com) […]

  4. Happy Academic Writing Month! | A Lively Experiment - November 4, 2013

    […] of that topic require significant fieldwork that I cannot undertake at the moment. As I found, prayerwalking was also even more diverse than I had initially given it credit for. That was surprising to me […]

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