Gordon Lynch, in his analytical and easy-to-read study, Losing My Religion? Moving on from Evangelical Faith, makes an observation that I wish to address briefly in this post.
First, a brief introduction. Lynch is a former British Evangelical, now professor of practical theology at the University of Birmingham (not Alabama) and author of at least two other books, and After Religion and Understanding Theology and Popular Culture. Losing My Religion? is written in a matter-of-fact tone with fair and sometimes incisive observations; it is anecdotal. The book is worth reading for those who are ministering to some who are struggling with Evangelicalism or orthodox faith in light of postmodernity. Those who are on their own path “post” Evangelicalism probably already know about this book. The book also includes two interviews, one with Jo Ind and one with Dave Tomlinson (author of The Post Evangelical).
Lynch states his theory as follows:
people start raising questions about their Evangelical beliefs, and their particular Evangelical church, when they have some kind of encounter with someone or some kind of experience that challenges their previous Evangelical assumptions.
He finds two sorts of experiences that precipitate (what conversion theory would call) a “crisis.” First, an experience that raises questions about God’s goodness to us and, second, an experience about the true nature of the Christian lifestyle. I would have included here also a point about losing confidence in either the authority of Scripture or inerrancy.
Conversion theory explains all this quite nicely, and the reason we use it is because conversion theory studies and explains why and how people move from one kind of faith to another (or from faith to no faith). In essence, the move for many from Evangelicalism to Post-Evangelicalism is a “conversion.” (I could get more technical on this, but if you want to see what I’ve written on this you can find it all in Turning to Jesus.)
Conversion theory will point out that such crises will be connected to an “advocate.” The advocate is a person or book or TV show, but usually a person or a community, that presents to the potential convert an alternative reality that is credible. Those who leave Evangelicalism for Post-Evangelicalism find in this Advocate someone who performs an alternative Christian faith.
Examples: a person discovers someone who is gay or lesbian but who is, in their reckoning, a committed Christian: leading to a questioning of the Evangelical moral teaching; a person discovers a pious theologian who does not believe the Bible is anything but history: leading to a questioning of the need to believe in biblical authority; a person who is a committed Christian, a family person, but who contracts cancer and dies or who meets some tragic end: leading to a questioning of God’s inherent goodness. These are the sorts of crises that precipitate, according to Gordon Lynch, the post-Evangelical crisis.
Involved in this post-Evangelical crisis is the growing confidence that the person may fell (so Lynch) to trust her or his own experience as a reliable indicator of truth. This is big to Lynch; not so big to all but it is part of the mix. The shift to a trusting of one’s experience is central to the shift to post-Evangelicalism for many.
Well, what to do? I don’t have “answers” for such questions but I am confident enough to say that Evangelicalism needs to listen to this voice and to adjust its confidence level, its certainty level, and to recognize that some of the “pat” answers that are often heard (only Christians, Evangelical at that, are happy people or have good marriages etc etc) are superficial. I am also aware that some who make this move are disaffected for more than rational reasons, and all that. But, let’s be fair: if we believe that the Christian faith provides the gospel that God has designed for all humans, then we need to be more circumspect on how we present it and on what we are presenting.
What also struck me in reading Lynch was this: the advocacy power of a local community cannot be denied. If we wish to be advocates for our faith, we have a much better chance of being such if we find ourselves in a story that emerges from a community where the gospel is performed and lived out in such a way that questions are asked and welcomed and responded to with integrity and humility.