Falwell and the Decline of Evangelicalism

It is one of the top news stories of the day: Jerry Falwell Jr stepping down as president of Liberty University, one of the country’s largest Christian colleges, following a series of scandals.    While I have major theological differences with Falwell, I do not celebrate his downfall.   I feel sorrow for him, his family and for the church.

 Incidents like these tend to tarnish all of the church. The fall of Falwell speaks to several concerns I have about evangelicalism – a camp I have have traditionally called home.  But I have a growing concern that as a church we need to be careful that our Christianity looks like the Christ.   Evangelicalism loses its power the less it mirrors Jesus.

First, evangelicalism has become partisan.  To many it is almost solely identified with the Republican party.  The problem with this is that the Bible speaks to so many issues that extend beyond the platform of any one political organization.  Issues of poverty, the sanctity of human life, racism, sexuality, marriage, compassion for the oppressed and justice are all mentioned in scripture.  Each of us, in our conscience must choose candidates that we believe best exemplify these Christian priorities.    We need to take direction from scripture and the Spirit of God first, party second.  And we need to push whatever party we identify with to be better.  

There is an old saying that mixing religion and partisan politics is like blending ice cream and manure.  It doesn’t do much to the manure but is sure ruins the ice cream.

Next – evangelicalism has become an organization centered on large personalities, megachurches, and big business.  Liberty and Falwell have exemplified all of this.

Christian author Skye Jethani calls this the Evangelical industrial complex.  

“This market-driven cycle of megachurches, conferences, and publishers results in an echo chamber where the same voices, espousing the same values, create an atmosphere where ministry success becomes equated with audience aggregation.”

In essence, if you can draw a large audience, your voice will be promoted by the business side of the church.  There are several problems with this.   One, it tends to honor the dramatic and hip, to the exclusion of deeper, more serious voices.

But perhaps an even larger problem is – it’s not the model Christ espoused.  He tended to use the unlikely and the least expected.  Marketing didn’t seem high up in his priorities.

Missiologists and researchers are suggesting that the megachurch is in decline and churches under 500 in attendance may be having the biggest impact.  There is some speculation that the COVID lockdown may speed this trend.

Evangelicalism has also been plagued by what I call the “demonization of the other”.  Falwell was a practitioner of this.  It’s one thing to disagree with people.  It is another thing to belittle them on social media.  I am stunned by the number of Christian leaders, liberal and conservative, who are engaging in name calling online.  It is not surprising that their followers echo this behavior all over Twitter and Facebook.  

I tend to be fairly conservative, but during these turbulent times I have worked hard to engage my more progressive brothers and sisters in dialogue about tough issues.  While challenging, this has helped me to see that simplistic assumptions contribute to polarization, while thoughtful dialog drives me back to scripture and a desire to better understand the way of Christ.

As Christians, our disagreements with one another should be a model of love and civility to the world.  The only characters we should demonize? Demons.

Philip Yancey, rightly, says, “The church has allowed itself to get so swept up in political issues that it plays by the rules of adversarial power. In no other arena is the church at greater risk of losing its calling than in the public square. Somehow the paramount command to love—even to love our enemies—gets lost. Seeing this, the watching world often finds itself repelled by outspoken followers of Jesus rather than attracted to them.”

Whenever a Christian leader falls it is tragic, and the damage extends beyond their family or ministry.  But even if we are not well known, we all have a responsibility to the way we portray God’s kingdom to the world.    Our job description is ambassador, not enforcer.
 
 

6 Comments


Chuck Wilkes - August 25th, 2020 at 6:28pm

Exactly!

Sandy - August 25th, 2020 at 6:30pm

A very thoughtful analysis. Thank you.

Randee Cate - August 25th, 2020 at 6:49pm

Awesome.

Stuff like this reminds me of the old DC Talk song "What if I stumble".

"What if I stumble? What if I fall?"

Having been on staff at a church while major "moral failings" have happened, I think the song should have been:

"When I stumble? When I fall?"

Because it happens. At some point, to some degree, we'll mess up.

The song goes on:

"What if I lose my step and I make fools of us all?

Will the love continue when my walk becomes a crawl?"

Millie - August 25th, 2020 at 10:13pm

Such a helpful message. God grant us all the grace to listen and the love to learn together as we follow Christ.

Marie Barber - August 26th, 2020 at 7:41pm

Well said.

Erin Ladd - September 4th, 2020 at 7:03pm

Great thoughts about Church and State, great article