Generally speaking, we don’t want to hear from the soul. We want it to just do its job. Unfortunately, in a broken world, it also is broken, and we’re going to hear from it because many of the ordinary miseries and extraordinary glories of human life are expressions of the state of the soul.
— Dallas Willard
AN INDICTMENT OF EVANGELICALISM
American political analyst Yuval Levin identified a particular assumption in what is now popularly called “Evangelicalism”:
“And yet, because the very bulk of social conservatives in America are practicing Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox Christians, and because their social conservativism—their attachment to traditional views about morality—is often an inseparable extension of their religious convictions and commitments, it is reasonable to tie a discussion of the state of American social conservatism to a discussion of the state of traditionalist American Christianity.” (1)
Levin continues by noting that “[these] Americans were attached to a vague cultural conservatism mostly because of the seemingly broad consensus around it, rather than by a deep personal commitment. As that consensus, like most forms of consensus in our national life, has frayed, their attachment has weakened.” What is then born out of the fray is arguably what Charles Taylor would consider as symptomatic of a secular age. Taylors writes,
“…in our ‘secular’ societies, you can engage fully in politics without ever encountering God, that is, coming to a point where the crucial importance of the God of Abraham for this whole enterprise is brought home forcefully and unmistakably. The few moments of vestigial ritual or prayer barely constitute such an encounter today, but this would have been inescapable in earlier centuries in Christendom.” (2)
While such a distinction may seem and sound like liberation for many, Mark Sayers suggests otherwise:
“In the democratic, egalitarian spirit of our day, we hold in suspicion positions of social authority, yet we submit to the power of peers… We have moved from a culture based upon hierarchy to a peerarchy. Ironically, we flee from relational distinctions and boundaries, yet without these traditions and boundaries we become mired in codependency.” (3)
Sayers says elsewhere that the resulting secular world has become a “construction site where walls—physical, cultural, and spiritual—are being simultaneously erected and torn down. All in an effort to keep the chaos at bay, to reach for the purity of a utopia, to find a sense of home, and security.” As if to dethrone one tyranny only to erect another, secularism—and it’s particular impact on the local church—seems to be creating and successfully captaining a new kind of Christian culture, reminiscent of Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous indictment of despotism. Called “cancel culture” in some spaces or, in its inverted form, an interwoven “fear of missing out” (FOMO), it seems that this now secular age has indicted the American Church in its inability to conform and, in response, whether with intention or without, the Church has crippled in compliance in order to remain a part of the age.
In his climactic work, Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah provides the following insights regarding the self in a modern, secular age:
“Clearly, the meaning of one’s life for most Americans is to become one’s own person, almost to give birth to oneself. Much of this process, as we have seen, is negative. It involves breaking free from family, community, and inherited ideas. Our culture does not give us much guidance as to how to fill the contours of this autonomous, self-responsible self, but it does point to two important areas. One of these is work, the realm, par excellence, of utilitarian individualism… The other area is the lifestyle enclave, the realm, par excellence, of expressive individualism.” (4)
In ages passed, utility and expression did not equate to identity but, as Charles Taylor identifies in A Secular Age, family and heritage rooted one’s sense of self. The role of the local church, therein, was to curate families and cultivate a profound sense of community—the very thing Sayers argues the modern soul seeks, even in its attempt to disenfranchise the church out of distaste for its political affiliations. Rodney Stark provides a glimpse of the church’s former role in the age:
“[Christianity] revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.” (5)
The clear pivot in the modern church is to now emphasize expressive individualism at the expense of Her historically radical collectivism. An audit of one year’s worth of sermons given at the largest 100 churches in America reveals a stunningly similar pattern, reflective not only of the priorities of the modern American Church but a culture in modern American Christendom, emphatic of a kind of individualism that borders isolationism in a jarring attempt to placate the despot of secularism.
A NEW SPIRITUAL PROLETARIAT
Perhaps the greatest cost of the Church’s pivot toward secularism is Her renegotiation of who occupies the pews and who commands the pulpit. Where once there was no distinction, as the Apostle Paul would write, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him”—now there seems to be a great distance and unbridged chasm. With the rise of the “digital platform,” perfected by social media and a globalized world connected by the internet, it has arguably never been easier to become more than an under-shepherd to God’s sheep but an altogether different class of Kingdom Citizen: an influencer. As pastors now command platforms instead of pulpits, the pews seem to be no longer filled with people but a new kind of proletariat: a monochrome workforce necessary to build the pastor’s popularity and to contribute to his or her multi-thousand dollar wardrobe from head to toe. This proletariat remains entirely replaceable and perpetually unknown, hidden under the dim lights of an auditorium and muted beneath a thundering sound system. Cycling through personal problems and pains, these people are often called upon only when it befits and benefits the platform—a platform that is often too preoccupied with itself to enter into the messy myriad of the many who place their trust in the power provided to their pastor.
In response to this now widespread, commonly found culture in churches across America, Rosaria Butterfield notes, “I think that churches would be places of greater intimacy and growth in Christ if people stopped lying about what we need, what we fear, where we fail, and how we sin.” (6) As a result of its co-opting of secularism and the supremacy of individualism, the modern American Church seems to be housing many who are suffering from an inability to be known, despite the increasing popularity of their pastors. Similarly, Stanley Hauerwas makes the following reflection: “I fear that much of the Christianity that surrounds us assumes our task is to save appearances by protecting God from Job-like anguish. But if God is the God of Jesus Christ, then God does not need our protection. What God demands is not protection, but truth.” (7)
For this reason, it has never been more necessary for another pivot in American Christendom, well envisioned by Howard Thurman:
Some say, “Do this, do that,” / Or, “Give up your goods. Hold nothing back / And free yourself to find your way.” / Again, “Commit your way to something good / That makes upon your life the great demand. / Place upon the altar all hopes and dreams / Leaving no thing untouched, no thing unclaimed.” / And yet, no peace… / “what more?” I ask with troubled mind. / The answer… moving stillness. / And then / The burning stare of the eyes of God / Pierces my inmost core / Beyond my strength, beyond my weakness, / Beyond what I am, / Beyond what I would be, / Until my refuge is in [God] alone. / “This… This above all else I claim,” God says. (8)
If the American Church could follow Thurman into a necessary spiritual biopsy, diagnosing the detriment of secularism’s expressive individualism and returning to its ancient expressions of beautifully fractured fidelity, perhaps a resurgence not unlike those of the Great Awakenings can return saltiness and light to the people and pews, even at the cost of a popular pulpit or prestigious platform. In a recent interview with Christianity Today, Matt Chandler, president of the global church-planting organization Acts29, summarized this opportunity as so:
“I see an opportunity around expressive individualism. I think that we’re seeing right in front of us the breakdown of the promises the world makes. We have a real opportunity to step in and answer the questions the world is asking. The whole idea that you can define yourself and solve yourself, I think people are starting to realize that’s not true. I think that the churches can step into this space if you’re willing, but I think we’re going to have to be smart about it and we’re going to have to be kind about it.” (9)
RECOVERING THE SOUL
In Matthew 13:1-9 (cf. Luke 8:4-15), Jesus presents a now popular parable of a seed finding growth in four kinds of soil. In Matthew 13:18-23, Jesus explains that three times more often than not, the seed of God’s Word, fully and intrinsically capable of producing powerful and duplicative growth, fails to take root. It is arguably unmistakable then, that Jesus intends to teach His followers about the importance of tilling the soul, represented by the soil, so that the seed, ripe with a reality that best benefits the soil, can flourish. John Calvin exposits, “The general truth conveyed [here, is that] the doctrine of the Gospel, when it is scattered like seed, is not everywhere fruitful; because it does not always meet with a fertile and well cultivated soil.” In other words, Jesus provides in this parable a solution to the problem of the platform found in too many popular churches: while many personality-driven churches attempt to peddle a Gospel that needs no peddling for the purpose of somehow making it more palpable, Jesus teaches that the problem in flourishing exists with the soul, not the seed; therefore, what good is it to invest so much in making the seed more appealing when the lack of flourishing—beyond numbers, dollars, buildings, and followers—is here attributed to unplowed, unmet, untilled souls?
As a response to this parable’s innate commission, the church’s growing secularization, and the desperate need amongst many for redemptive transformation, the following supplemental discipleship tool has been carefully and prayerfully crafted to aid preexisting discipleship and spiritual formation contexts (small groups, men’s and women’s groups, youth groups, recovery groups, etc.) to find their souls tilled by the hands of the Spirit, the truths of God’s Word, and the love of a local church. In light of the central role the parable of the seed and sower plays, this tool is appropriately called SOIL and is fueled and founded on the following mission:
SOIL is a supplemental discipleship tool designed to study and till the soil of the soul by excavating sin, expositing the self, and exegeting salvation.
- Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic (New York: Basic Books, 2016), 157-158.
- Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 1.
- Mark Sayers, Facing Leviathan (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014).
- Mark Sayers, Strange Days (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2017), 45.
- Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), 161.
- Rosaria Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 2014).
- Stanley, Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Cambridge: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012).
- Gregory Ellison, Anchored in the Current (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020), 29.
- Daniel Silliman, “Wanted: Church Planters. Reward: $50,000,” 11 January 2022, 14 March 2022, https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2022/january/acts29-50k-matt-chandler-interview-driscoll-timmis-abuse.html
Additional resources include the following data and articles: