Ben Gibbard is a brilliant songwriter. He does just about everything in his craft well. But perhaps what he does best is this: taking that vague, undefined emotion you’ve never quite been able to describe, and then describing it for you in a way that leaves you saying, “Yes! That’s it!”
Pull a random Death Cab for Cutie (or Postal Service) song out of the hat, and you’re likely to find an instance of this. He dispenses these lyrical gems almost as liberally as a November tree dispenses its leaves. But one of my favorite examples of this Gibbardian gift comes from DCFC’s Codes and Keys album on the track “You Are a Tourist”:
And if you feel just like a tourist in the city you were born
Then it’s time to go,
And define your destination
With so many different places to call home.
The world is a constantly-changing place. Bend down for a moment to tie your shoe, and when you look up again, an entirely new landscape may well be waiting for you.
In this state of perpetual unrest, it’s all too easy to grow disconnected from the place you once called “home.” This can happen in a physical sense – like when the country road you grew up on gets turned into a suburban thoroughfare lined on both sides with subdivisions of cookie-cutter houses and rows of concrete boxes selling cell phones and fast food. But it can also happen in an ideological sense – like when you realize the religious tradition in which you were raised now seems like a foreign culture to you, forcing you to look around and say, “Do I even belong here anymore?”
Last week, Alan Jacobs wrote an intriguing little piece on his blog addressing the question, “Where are young evangelicals headed?” His answer was straightforward: out of evangelicalism.
Pointing to the recent political maneuverings of conservative Christianity’s mighty culture warriors and preachers of piety, Jacobs argues that nothing less than a betrayal has taken place:
Millions of today’s young evangelicals have been utterly betrayed by a generation of pastors who could pontificate about how essential sexual purity is while simultaneously insisting that every real Christian should vote for Donald Trump, supporting their claims by a random handful of Bible verses wrenched from their context and utterly severed from the great arc of biblical story without which no piece of scriptural teaching can make sense.
Betrayal? Really? One might think Jacobs is overstating his case a bit here. But he circles back around to drive the point home and defend his choices of vocabulary:
And yes: betrayed is precisely the word. A great many evangelical leaders have betrayed their young followers and congregants — and, equally, betrayed the theological and spiritual inheritance they received from their mothers and fathers in the faith. They exchanged a rich and truly evangelical birthright for a cold pottage of vague moral uplift and cultural resentment.
The result of this is as fairly simple: scores of young evangelicals are having an identity crisis. They’re disoriented and disillusioned. They’re looking at the culture in which they’ve been immersed, and they don’t recognize it. As Ben Gibbard might say, they’re finding that they’re now tourists in their own hometowns.
And let me be clear: When I say “they,” I mean “we.” Because I, too, am one of these “young evangelicals.” I look at my extended relatives within the evangelical tribe, and I honestly wonder just how much longer I can keep going to the family reunions.
So what do we make of this? How should we respond to the blossoming sense of unrest among those — like myself — who are starting to wonder if it’s time to move on from evangelicalism?
Let me propose a simple answer to those questions: We should thank God.
I truly believe it’s a good thing that young people (and plenty of old people too!) are starting to peek behind the curtain and discover that the wizards of evangelicalism aren’t what they appear. It’s a sign of life and health. It gives us optimism for a more authentic and Christ-centered future.
Over the weekend, Ross Douthat made the intriguing point in his New York Times column that evangelicals should actually be hoping for an identity crisis to visit their churches. Why? Because the arrival of such a crisis would signify that evangelicalism still has pockets of resistance. It would indicate that the movement has not, in fact, been entirely swept away and reduced to a puppet of certain political agendas. Conversely, the absence of such an identity crisis would reveal the hopeless extent of our corruption. In Douthat’s words, it “would imply that white Christian tribalism and a very American sort of heresy, not a commitment to scripture and tradition, has kept evangelical churches thriving all these years.”
Resistance is a reason for hope. Which means that the disillusionment of young evangelicals is a gift of God to the church. It means that he is at work to refine, refashion, and reform. And if God is at work in the church, then we can stick with the church and get to work ourselves.
Zach Hoag recounts his own journey out of evangelicalism in his book The Light Is Winning, and although I don’t resonate with a few of his assessments and conclusions, I can wholeheartedly get behind this:
The formal church, the structure, the institution, the organization that gives us roots and places us in the great tradition, is continually, throughout history, in need of reformation. And we find ourselves at such a reformation moment. But as we process through our disillusionment, we can see it again as worth working for and bearing with even in its problematic state.
The note sounded here is a needed one. We’re not talking about whether to leave the church or stay. We’re talking about what it means for the church to be true to her mission. To be faithful to her Lord. To be pure and beautiful and life-giving in a world that all too often writes her off. It is precisely because we love the church that we grieve her wanderings.
This is why, when Lecrae disclosed recently that he was distancing himself from “white evangelicalism,” John Piper was able to respond that he felt “more thankful than frustrated, and more hopeful than disheartened” at this news. He went on to say:
I know young men whose disillusionment with “white evangelicalism” was not as painful as Lecrae’s, and yet they threw the brown baby of Bethlehem out with the white bathwater. They’re done with Christianity. Done with the Bible. Done with Jesus — except the one they create to fit their present political mood. That could have been Lecrae. It could be you.
It is possible that his story could have been Damascus Road in reverse. Beloved champion becomes bitter challenger. Poster boy turns into arch opponent. Mascot morphs into muckraker. It didn’t happen. I don’t think it will happen.
In the same way, I think we can be genuinely thankful that the current groundswell of unrest within evangelicalism is an expression of dissatisfaction with a certain religious establishment, not a wholesale rejection of the gospel. I don’t see many people saying, “We’ve been sold out to the political overlords, so we’re leaving Jesus.” Instead, I see people saying, “We’ve been sold out to the political overlords, so we’re looking for different contexts in which we can more honestly and faithfully follow Jesus.” That’s something to celebrate. We’re pursuing Christ, not fleeing from him.
What will this mean for our local churches? For the denominations and networks and organizations that have for so long supported the edifice of evangelicalism? For the Christian culture that has shaped many of us from our earliest days? It’s hard to say. The chapter is still being written. But if you feel like a tourist in the city you were born, fear not. What lies ahead may be scary, but it is good.
I can’t help but think that Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan knew what Ben Gibbard was talking about when they sang these somber lines to open their 2011 song “Milk Carton Kid,” echoing the odd realization of how it feels when the familiar becomes foreign:
This don’t feel like home anymore;
Nothing’s familiar when I walk through my door.
But the song doesn’t end there, and in the end we’re left with a reason to be hopeful about the future. The reality is that the best days are still ahead of us, and the song’s closing lines serve as a fitting reminder to keep our focus in the right direction:
This ain’t no time for regret,
To witness without mercy but neither to forget.
If we keep looking backwards, it’ll break our necks.
This ain’t no time for regret.
American evangelicalism may continue its descent into something few of us recognize. But in the end, the church will be just fine without it. This means that we can step boldly into an uncertain future knowing that Jesus Christ’s great construction project will not be derailed.