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.

He has also pastored 3 churches and loves to think about, write about and podcast about scripture, theology, and leadership.

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  • David, thanks for doing this series. I had been interested in Fitch’s book when I saw it and you blogging about it convinced me to pick it up (although I haven’t read it yet). In what you present of his thought I think he is more or less correct on this point. I can’t say I’m terribly excited in how much he uses Zizek, but that’s another matter. I happened to be reading Murray Rae’s new book “Kierkegaard and Theology” last night when I stumbled upon an interesting quote he gives from Kierkegaard:

    “Christ learned obedience from what he suffered… Therefore his life was obedience, obedience unto death, unto death on the cross. He who was the Truth and the Way and the Life, he who needed to learn nothing, he still learned one thing – he learned obedience. Obedience is so closely related to the eternal truth that the one who is Truth learns obedience.” (53)

    Things I’ve read in Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer have initiated more of my spiritual growth in the last five years than any other Christian thinkers. The ways in which they have in part allowed me to read scripture in new ways has also lead me to be very critical of the conservative evangelicalism and baptist fundamentalism that birthed my faith. In the last four years I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to anabaptism and anabaptist-like thinkers for the ways in which they have historically been major defenders and practitioners of costly discipleship. For the last three years I have attended a Mennonite seminary to grow deeper in my understanding of their tradition. My experiences at the seminary have not lead me to convert yet to the Mennonite church in part because they do not much resemble their ancestors anymore. I was shocked in a way to realize that the SBC is more serious about their discipleship in their annoyingly misguided fundamentalism than many other mainline churches. It is strange to agree then with Fitch on all three accounts while recognizing how far the whole Church has fallen in its care to be both doctrinally sound and obedient.

    I’m not sure how one can reframe salvation in a way that it won’t be any better understood than it has before. Jesus was obedient to the truth. This means he grasped the truth and learned the painstaking process to create the habits, will and virtue to be obedient to that truth. What we see in Christ’s life is the model for obedience to truth. The only thing Christians can and should demand is that we grasp the truths that Christ grasped and show this in our fruit by living as He lived. Unfortunately, this is never clear enough. Every side claims to do this, but tends to go on in asserting poor interpretation of scripture as doctrinal truth and living Christlike, ethical lives or having a solid understanding of scripture and living in service to idols.

    I’ll try to wrap up my rambling now. There can be no new way of reframing salvation. We are mostly doomed to repeat history in our struggle to “get it right.” Salvation must begin in love (1 Cor. 13). If we love God we will care for the things He cares about. We will out of love of truth (and of our own self-interest) humbly seek to be always reformed by scripture. We will out of love seek to bring our lives into the lived obedience of Christ towards both the world and our fellow humans. The decision for Christ is one small though momentous part of the life of discipleship all believers undergo. The Church must be about discipleship always in every facet. Focusing too much on this or that moment or part of discipleship is tantamount to encouraging unbelief and damnation. It is the whole package or none of it.

  • Blake…great thoughts.

    I am wondering if this isn’t an unintentional (or maybe it is intentional) aspect of the New Perspective on Paul. There has to be a middle ground here.

    Robert Webber did some writing on ancient future discipleship that I want to go back and look at some. He describe the early church process of evangelism and discipleship and it creates some safeguards that our conventional forms of discipleship do not even attend to.

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