I’m going to start this post off by saying that I am not an Evangelical Christian. Everything that follows stems from my observations as a curious outsider, listening to tales from family and friends who do belong to Evangelical congregations. If you think this is inaccurate, I would love to hear your perspective.
From what I gather, Evangelicals are starting to sort themselves into two groups: (1) people who are closer to traditional Baptist beliefs and culture, but enjoy modern/casual worship services rather than the liturgy, and (2) people who see religion as a therapeutic adventure, or what I have started calling the “Church of Positive Emotions.” The second group is almost completely detached from church history and most of scripture that is rules-based or otherwise not uplifting (and we all know there’s a lot of that).
I think the second group is mostly responsive to the Millennial generation and is, in many ways, simply a triumph of good corporate marketing strategies.
And I mean that literally. From about the time that I was at a large Baptist university two decades ago until present day, I have watched as Christianity has become more and more commercial and superficial among some groups. (And I was born on the cusp of the Generation X and Millennial divide, so I have had a lot of experience with both demographics.)
Especially if you live in the South, you have seen the retail success of Christian bookstores, even despite the decline of large, secular bookstore chains in the age of Amazon. These stores are loaded with a certain kind of book – Christian self-help books. What Jesus has to say about managing your money. What Jesus has to say about dieting. What Jesus has to say about dating. What Jesus has to say about fitting in at dinner parties. And, of course, there is very little real context for most of that in Scripture, because the New Testament was not primarily about going gluten-free or rushing a sorority.
But among the sort of people who have been raised in congregations that try diligently to appeal to folks’ emotions, this kind of content has really, really, really taken off. So publishers produce more and more of it. Then any newcomer to Christian commentary has to participate in this sort of thing to even have a market.
This almost perfectly mirrors the downward spiral in of the traditional media in the era of social media and clickbait. Shallowness is what is rewarded, so you get more and more shallowness. And it becomes completely entrenched in some social bubbles, to the point that they don’t know any alternative perspectives exist.
These “Christian” authors are marketing juggernauts, so they become pseudo-celebrities among the young on social media. People were shocked when Joshua Harris, the author who made a living promoting chastity, suddenly divorced his wife and denounced Christ altogether. But it really should not have been that surprising. The man was and continues to be a marketing enterprise. He got tired of selling religion, so now he’s going to sell something else that makes him feel good. It was never about faith to begin with. But the people who read his books will continue to throw their money at similar grifters.
These marketing juggernauts have given rise to a new kind of pastor – the feel-good cult of personality, but in person and not merely on the page or on Instagram. Joel Osteen is a good example,. but smaller versions of him can be found in almost every major metropolitan area. They are kind of like Dr. Phil but waving a Bible. Oh boy, does Jesus want you to feel good. You are his super-special person and he is deeply invested in every aspect of your life. And just like with Christian self-help books, the presence and popularity of these pastors provoke other pastors to lower their standards to attract attention.
This sort of thing has created a deeply weird and deeply naive generation of Evangelicals, and it has interesting political implications. They have none of the trappings of the religious movements that gave birth to them decades ago. They don’t believe in the Christian work ethic, but that their life can be improved by talking to God, whom they describe as some kind of cross between a BFF and personal assistant. They carry along a lot of economic and other resentment with them because they think they are entitled to financial security for being so emotionally enlightened. They are more likely to be social justice-y than the more conservative, structured Evangelicals.
I say this has interesting political implications because Trump has come to be so powerfully associated with the first group of Evangelicals. But you could say that a large number of Evangelicals are no longer culturally conservative at all and also be correct. A relative sent me a screenshot of a popular Bible app recently, and one of the Bible studies they offered was “how to be the revolutionary you always dreamed of being.” Jesus the Marxist. Sure, whatever.
This is a period of religious schisms, and I’d think it would be useful to be more specific about what kind of Evangelicals you are talking about, just like you would with Lutherans or Presbyterians. Because Evangelicals are no longer a monolithic group with monolithic beliefs and tastes.