One-fourth of U.S. adults – not just Christians, all adults – identify themselves as evangelicals. And evangelical Christians appear to be at a crossroads at the turn of the old and new years.
Evangelicals believe the Bible is a living road map for their lives. Some are members of old-line denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention. Others worship in small, unaffiliated congregations. Still others attend mega-churches whose preachers attract thousands more followers on television.
One of world's biggest evangelical mega-churches is the Crystal Cathedral in California. Pastor Robert Schuller's church has 10,000 members, including many overseas.
But when about 500 evangelicals gathered in Massachusetts in October, they loudly applauded speakers who warned that the movement has lost its way.
Jeffrey MacDonald, a journalist, theologian, and Congregational minister, covered the event. He heard speakers lament that some evangelicals have become so involved in politics, heated social issues like abortion, and doctrinal differences that they have lost touch with their spirituality.
Attendees also feared that Americans are beginning to tar all evangelicals with the brush of hypocrisy, after several famous pastors and Christian politicians have been caught preaching a life of purity and living a life of sin.
G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a Protestant minister and a journalist as well. He's among those who are troubled by the emphasis on flair over substance in some evangelical churches.
MacDonald puts the crisis in context in a provocative new book called Thieves in the Temple. He argues that Christians have cut the heart out of the church experience by demanding entertainment and therapy rather than moral challenge. As churches become what MacDonald calls religious marketplaces, he writes, they lose their power to shape individual character and to impact society for the better.
MacDonald and speakers at the gathering of American evangelicals admit that a little pizzazz helps churches reach people in an age of superstar concerts and high-definition theater screens in the home. But they worry that the emphasis on showmanship and recruitment of new members has pulled some churches far from the deep, personal needs of their flock – and of their communities.
[Thieves in the Temple, by G. Jeffrey MacDonald, will be published in the Spring by Basic Books.]
Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.