If blame were to be assigned, much would fall upon the shoulders of pastors, other church leaders and teachers, and evangelical schools and seminaries.
However, in the often febrile atmosphere of evangelicalism on the ground, many of the ideas that circulate do so entirely independent of actual church leadership. There is a sort of evangelical folk religion, much of which is completely unauthorized by pastors or elders, a folk religion driven by such things as TV preachers, purity movements, uninformed theological speculations in democratic Bible studies, Chick tracts, that teenage kid who led the dorm prayer meeting on summer camp, Christian kitsch, Kirk Cameron movies, Left Behind books, VeggieTales, Focus on the Family literature, blogs, CCM, Answers in Genesis, sappy mass-produced devotional literature, study Bible notes, etc., etc. As people often fail mentally to footnote their beliefs, many attribute the bulk of the weird and wacky things that swam in the rich theological soup of their evangelical upbringing to their church, presuming that it all received the imprimatur of Evangelical Central Headquarters. Parents are probably the persons with the most to answer for here. Most of the pedagogy of young evangelicals is received from sources other than their pastors.
Where those who leave evangelical Christianity can be to blame is in making blanket judgments upon evangelicalism on the basis of their limited experience of it, in presuming that their experience is the measure of the movement, or that their experience is universal. It is quite possible to leave one theological tradition for another in which one’s faith can find a deeper root without making unfair judgments about what one left beyond.
. . . All of the weirdness, goofiness, craziness, kitschiness, ignorance, reactivity, and even the abuse: it’s all evangelicalism. However, it is by no means all of evangelicalism. And that is the point.
Also, while it can be tempting to look back upon the evangelicalism of our upbringing with a jaundiced vision, I think that it is important to recognize its goodness too. There is a poisonous cynicism and bitterness in many who have left evangelicalism, which blinds them to the devoted godliness of many within it, to many evangelicals’ desire to be whole-heartedly committed to God’s truth, to their radical and self-sacrificial Christian service.
I saw plenty of weirdness in my evangelical upbringing. However, every morning when I got up, I also saw my mother on her knees praying for our family. I saw my father devoting himself to continual and intense study of Scripture and theology (amassing almost 10,000 books from a range of theological positions in the process), to rigorous questioning of himself and God’s truth and to developing his understanding. I saw my father dedicate his time to getting Christians reading widely and thinking deeply, engaging with different and opposing positions first hand and at their best in order to sharpen their minds. I saw my parents welcoming homeless people off the streets into our home, for months at a time. I saw them working with drug addicts and prostitutes, providing a refuge to families facing vendettas. I saw an intense love of Jesus reflected in the lives and behaviour of the people in my church. I saw commitment to trust and obey him at any personal cost. I saw astounding acts of forgiveness and remarkable transformations in families. I saw the reality of holy lives that still humbles me as I think of them. I saw a depth of biblical knowledge that I have seldom encountered elsewhere. I saw the passion of preachers who lived what they preached. All of this is evangelicalism too.
I can quite understand why people would leave evangelicalism. I’m more Anglican than evangelical now myself and have moved some distance away from the baptistic evangelicalism of my upbringing. I am relatively ambivalent about identifying as an evangelical (save perhaps as the term modifies ‘Anglican’ and, even then, my approach to the sacraments and liturgy is relatively high church) and have written extensively and fairly critically about the nature of the movement. All of this said, I find much of the wholesale dismissal and bad-mouthing of evangelicals (and fundamentalists) quite shameful and will speak up for evangelicalism and against its critics on such occasions. I have no problem with more carefully targeted criticisms.
. . . In recognizing the failures of our own and other movements, rather than settling for mere tu quoque rejections of criticism, I think that we can appreciate the fact that most problems of ideological and discursive form and dynamics tend to replicate themselves fairly predictably in the contexts of many sharply varying belief systems and institutions. With the recognition that these are shared problems, I think that we can start to get somewhere. The most important result of this recognition is that it enables us to draw a measure of a distinction between an ideology’s principles and beliefs and their discursive and institutional expressions. This distinction can reveal unrealized potential and strength in an ideology’s principles, absolve them of much of the blame for the dysfunctional dynamics of the discourses and institutions within which they are currently vested, and imagine ways in which they could rise to a fuller stature. All of this frees us to believe better of opposing points of view.