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Articles:
Ethics, Morals, Behavior

The Demise of the Pretend Evangelical Culture
by Ed Vasicek

We all know what it's like to meet a group of new people. We have to feel them out first to determine what is and is not safe to talk about. With some people, we have to withhold our true selves and our true sentiments. With others, we can relax and be ourselves. And that’s the way it should be. Let me digress to illustrate my point.

This has been a banner year for me. In the fall, the church honored me with a gala 20th anniversary celebration. A few months later, I attended my 25th year class reunion at Moody Bible Institute; I’ll never forget it. 

From May 21-24, Luke and I had the privilege of attending the Moody Bible Institute’s Pastor’s conference (the church pays my way and I paid Luke’s). I have attended these conferences off and on since 1980. But there was a gap in my conference attendance: I attended no conference from 1982 until 1997. Since 1997, I have attended most of them. Not only have these conferences refreshed me, they have provided some much needed training through a variety of workshops addressing matters like preaching, counseling, conflict resolution, management, leadership, implementing change, stress prevention, missions, creative evangelism, youth ministry, time management, discipleship methodology—and a host of other subjects.

Back in 1982, the ministers were still wearing coats and ties to the conference, the music centered around the giant pipe organ, and there was an awful lot of “pretending” going on. Here were a bunch of battered men who needed encouragement, but they had smiles on their faces and gave the image of invulnerability. That’s why I decided to call it quits (when it came to pastors’ conferences) in 1982. I had quite enough of image-oriented Christianity.

I do not think I would have ever gone back if WIWC had not awarded me a free ride in 1997. I decided to give it a fresh try, and was I surprised! Conference attendees were given a tee shirt and told to dress casually. A contemporary praise band, complete with drums and weird-looking guitarists, accompanied the choruses, which were projected with media projectors. The workshops and messages were honest: the longstanding tradition of evangelical “pretending” had taken a hit. Speakers could now freely say, “I was worried about that” instead of the pretend version, “I was concerned about that.” They admitted to frustration, aggravation, abuse by members and boards, burn out, and failure. They were real.

One of my favorites speakers of all time is Dr. Howard Hendricks. Hendricks was honest and a non-pretender even when it wasn’t fashionable. As a matter of fact, the 80-year-old Dallas Seminary professor spoke at this year’s conference and pierced our hearts. In one of his books, Hendricks recalls being hired by a church as a consultant. The church was declining and elderly. After evaluating the situation, Hendricks gave this summary: “You have one of the finest church programs I have seen—for 1946!....Why don’t you build a fence around this church and charge admission for people to come in and see what it was like in the previous generation?” (Color Outside the Lines, p. 10)

Since society has changed so much and the stresses are so great, we can no longer expend the energy it requires to pretend. As a result, more and more pastors are adopting a new policy of honesty, telling it like it is, not like it should be in a world that no longer exists. Alistair Begg, definitely one of my top ten speakers, put it this way with his beautiful and witty Scottish brogue: “I know what it does to you when that next person comes along and says, ‘Pastor, we’re leaving because we’re not being fed.’ And you’d like to say, ‘Well open your mouth, I’ve got a bunch of Scriptures I’d love to cram down your throat!’” 

You would have never heard that in 1982. In 1982, all of us (clergy) would have thought a similar (but not as witty) thought; we just would have denied the blow to our self-esteem (because we were impregnable with the Lord) and played the pretend game (taking our frustration out on our wife and kids, no doubt). That key element in the old formula for holy living, “pretend,” has done more harm than we can imagine. The emotions have to come out somewhere.

It was interesting to note my son’s perspective regarding what he heard at the conference: “Wow. I can see that it is really, really tough to be a pastor. I never realized how hard it was.” Although he was surprised as to how beaten down we clergymen can become, he could also see how much we enjoyed the ministry despite the blows. It is truly a privilege to be a pastor.

The conference was a positive time. The speakers empathized with the 1200 pastors in attendance, the workshops taught us new skills, and we were encouraged to love our flock even if and when the sheep bite. 

But what I am illustrating through this article is the positive change within the greater evangelical world: a movement toward honesty and away from mutually agreed upon pretending. We cannot hang onto 1946 because it is 2004. We do not need to pretend that we have all the answers or that we feel completely satisfied with lives or that our marriages are all that we expected them to be. We do not always trust God as we should, and we can even be honest enough to point to specific instances. That’s real honesty!

When the pastors model honesty, vulnerability, and the true nature of being both a Christian AND a human, it spreads to the people. Although we can grieve over many of our current trends, we have an important victory to celebrate: the demise of the “pretend” evangelical culture.

Pastor Ed

Reprinted from the August 2004 Body Builder, a publication of Highland Park Church.

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