Likely the outstanding spokesman for this point of view is Stanley Hauerwas, who has an annoying way of seeing things contrary to evangelical convention. He makes us see the weaknesses of what we often perceive as strengths.
For example, Hauerwas says,
I have great admiration for evangelicals for no other reason than they just bring such great energy to the faith and I admire that. But one of the great problems of Evangelical life in America is evangelicals think they have a relationship with God that they go to church to have expressed but church is a secondary phenomenon to their personal relationship and I think that’s to get it exactly backwards: that the Christian faith is [mediated] faith. It only comes through the witness of others as embodied in the church. So I should never trust my presumption that I know what my relationship with God is separate from how that is expressed through words and sacrament in the church. So evangelicals, I’m afraid, often times, with what appears to be very conservative religious convictions, make the church a secondary phenomenon to their assumed faith and I think that’s making it very hard to maintain disciplined congregations.’
He’s right, isn’t he? Don’t we see our personal relationship with God as much more important than our relationship through the church. We shop for congregations, hoping to find one that suits our personal needs. The needs of the church therefore must bend to the needs of the individual. The church is there to support the individual in his personal relationship with God.
And he’s right that the result is a lack of discipline. That is, church leaders have little real authority because the members see themselves as consumers of religious services, and if the leaders make them unhappy, they’ll just buy their religious services from another congregation down the road. There is little real commitment to the congregation, and hence community formation is very often imaginary.
Hauerwas sees evangelicalism as dying as a result of its relentless pursuit of novelty —
I think evangelicalism is destined to die of its own success and it will go the way of mainstream Protestantism because there’s just—it depends far too much on charismatic pastors, and charisma will only take you so far. Evangelicalism is constantly under the burden of re-inventing the wheel and you just get tired. For example, I’m a big advocate of Morning Prayer. I love Morning Prayer. We do the same thing every morning. We don’t have to make it up. We know we’re going to say these prayers. We know we’re going to join in reading of the psalm. We’re going to have these Scripture readings. I mean, there’s much to be said for Christianity as repetition and I think evangelicalism doesn’t have enough repetition in a way that will form Christians to survive in a world that constantly tempts us to always think we have to do something new.
Would you rather be part of a congregation with a brilliant preacher who speaks to your heart but is going to get hired away, or fall into sin, or retire, or die before your walk on earth is over — or a congregation devoted to timeless rituals and readings and prayers?
It’s not that you have to choose, but that we should be getting tired of changing congregations to have the hot new preacher or hot new worship leader. We’re turning churches into retail purveyors of religious goods and services rather than timeless places where we find both community and God and prayer and broken bread. You see, it doesn’t have to be focused on the sermon and the brilliant lesson. It could be focused on people who love each other and love God so much that they find their relationship with God among a certain group of fellow believers.
Hauerwas also argues for group Bible study —
I do think that [Hegel] made the comment at one time, “Christians arose in the morning and said their prayers. Now they read the newspaper.” Of course, that’s changing too. They probably look at their smartphone now. But I think that the fundamental habits of the faith have been in decline and that leaves us with insufficient resources to sustain our lives as Christians in a world in which we find ourselves. I think, again, it has to do with the loss of fundamental practices, such as reading the Bible, but reading the Bible, I don’t trust necessarily to me as an individual. I need to read the Bible with other people. And that has pretty much been lost. Let me say in that regard that one of the other things that worries me about evangelicalism is I’m afraid it’s got the Bible and now, and exactly how it is that you reconnect evangelical life with the great Catholic traditions, I think is part of the challenges for the future because you need to read the [Fathers] reading Scripture as part of our common life if we are to sustain a sense that we don’t get to make Christianity up. We receive it through the lives of those who have gone before and that just becomes crucial for us to be able to survive in which we find ourselves.
In short, Bible study is not an individual discipline. It’s something we do with others, including others long dead. The Fathers are alive in Christ in heaven, and they still speak to us through their writings — as do the great Reformers and the Restoration Movement leaders. We have to get over the notion that we are the first people ever to read their Bibles or that any one of us is competent by himself to interpret the text.
One of the great failings of the most conservative members of the Churches of Christ is to refuse to read anything written outside their narrow fellowship — and so they recycle the same errors and flawed readings without correction. When we open ourselves to read outside of our little circles, we open ourselves not only to correction but to insights we’d never have have found on our own. A little humility would do a lot for our Bible study.
[to be continued]