The End of Evangelicalism? Is the decision for Christ meaningless?

Dr. David Fitch has just released a new book entitled The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology from Wipf and Stockpublishers. David is a bi-vocational pastor atLife on the Vineand the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary and blogs at Reclaiming the Mission. In a series of posts, I want to explore Fitch’s argument and discuss his conclusions.

In Chapter four of David Fitch’s book, he looks at the evangelical concept of the decision for Christ through the lens of Zizek’s political theory. In the first post on this chapter, I described the salvation formula as practiced by many evangelicals. In this post I will describe Fitch’s application of Zizek’s theory.

The question we need to contend with regarding the “decision for Christ” is what kind of community has formed as a result of this belief and practice? How has the decision shaped us as a people living and inhabiting Christ?

Fitch contends that the decision for Christ functions as a Zizekian master-signifier. The decision for Christ is “hard to define in terms of what it actually might mean for our practical lives. In terms of its practical effects, it means different things to different people.” He uses an experience in Canada to undergird this thought. Speaking at a conference of evangelicals, he was told by the pastors of research done about Christianity in Canada. The researcher noted that 20% of the respondents described themselves as someone who had made a decision for Christ. However, these same 20% also noted that they did not believe in God. While not able to verify the research, the story had gained a mythical status among Canadian evangelical pastors.

Evangelicals have several great explanations and pamphlets for describing the doctrine of justification by faith. People who make a decision for Christ are instructed as to what happens forensically (or judicially) before God when a person prays the “sinner’s prayer.” But on a practical level it is hard to determine how this affects how we live. Despite the fact that only 25% of people who are “born again” at a Billy Graham crusade are actually “born again” (that, according to Billy Graham himself in a 1990’s interview on PBS) and only 6% of one US evangelical denomination’s “decisions” could be found the next year (out of 384,057), evangelicals keep counting.

The problem is, we all have asked people to intellectually assent to a formula, pray a short prayer, and send them off confident they are in the kingdom of heaven. But are we ever sure? Do we reassure those same that they are, in fact, true Christ-followers because of that event despite seeing little biblical fruit in their lives? The fact is, evangelicals have created a system whereby “adherents can pretty much remain comfortable with whatever status quo they are already in while believing they have more. The empty signifier allows us to believe without really believing.”

Additionally, it not only allows this for the individual but for communities of evangelicals. The decision for Christ “enables the formation of various kinds of churches that can appeal to various status-quo lifestyles, making little to no demands on changing one’s life, all the while claiming allegiance to the gospel. It allows for Christianities to emerge that remain complicit with social systems of self-fulfillment, consumerism, or for that matter excessive sexual desire. It becomes the means for Christians to bypass the malformation of their own desires and instead keep their existing desires under the banner of being a Christian. ‘The decision for Christ,’ in other words, becomes the perfect empty signifier, unifying a body of people around competing desires while requiring nothing of them.”

Consider how the evangelical world reacted in 2009 to the events surrounding the Miss USA pageant. Carrie Prejean, Miss California USA was asked a question about her belief in homosexual marriage. She replied, “I do believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman; no offense to anybody out there. But that’s how I was raised and I believe that is should be between a man and a woman.” She proceeded to lose the pageant. There were two different reactions. From evangelical media this was seen as retribution by a gay activist and blogger Perez Hilton because of her objection to same-sex unions. The wider media presented her as “a woman who pranced before the whole world in a provocative bikini, who had (“sexually enhancing”) cosmetic surgery (we found out), and who had been caught in a revealing photoshoot and pornographic sex-tape of some sort.”

All this demonstrated two things. First, evangelicals are adamantly opposed to homosexuality. Evangelicals know what they are against – homosexuality. But in supporting Miss Prejean, evangelicals also demonstrated that did not know what they are for, especially when it comes to sexual behavior. “Evangelicals can ignore how Muss California sexualizes her body in numerous ways because she is absolutely clear in her rejection of gay/lesbian sexual relations.” Evangelicals are able to ignore the disordered desire in their own lives while feeling good for not being one of the “them,” a gay or lesbian. They then believe they maintain a level of moral superiority. All this is a demonstration of the emptiness at the core of the decision for Christ.

Because this decision is a master-signifier, it shapes the churches into people who live duplicitous lives Fitch notes. “It is belief and practice that distances us from our bodies and everyday lives. Salvation becomes our own personal ‘assurance of heaven,’ not a way of life. The belief and practice of the decision then sets us up over against others who threaten our structures for morality. This tragically leads to a hypocrisy before the world, not just because we will inevitably be saying one thing and doing another – this is common to all people – but because we make demands upon others so that we can ‘enjoy’ feeling better about ourselves.”

Questions for us:
1. Is Fitch correct? Do we care very little for how a person lives after making “the decision”?
2. Is Fitch correct? Does this form us into communities of faith that tolerate little life-change despite “the decision”?
3. Is Fitch correct? Does a meaningless decision create duplicitous and hypocritical evangelicals both individually and communally.
4. If Fitch is correct, how do we reframe salvation?

David has been a systems thinker most of his life. He has started three businesses as well as designed and developed systems and processes in existing organizations. He has a Doctorate in Leadership and has also done additional post-graduate work in communications.

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