Define 'mainstream,' give three examples: Joshua Harris kisses nondenominational evangelicalism good-bye?


If you have never heard of the book "I Kissed Dating Goodbye," by Joshua Harris, then you probably didn't know any homeschooling parents during the past generation or so. Whether you agreed with this 2003 bestseller or not, it would be hard to imagine a more counter-cultural book being jammed into the backpacks of legions of American teen-agers.

This was especially true if you had friends who attended one of those nondenominational, often "seeker friendly," generic or community churches that had vaguely biblical names on the signs out in their vast suburban front lawns.

The essence of nondenominational evangelicalism is its tendency to be defined by inspirational celebrities and the media products that they produce. If that is the cast, then Joshua Harris -- the man behind the book with the classy hat on the front -- had his share of years in that niche-marketing spotlight.

Thus, I genuinely appreciated the recent Washington Post piece that dug into the decision by Harris to step away from his nondenominational life and reboot his approach to ministry. However, before we look at this story, we do need to take a look at a rather strange word in that headline:

Pastor Joshua Harris, an evangelical outlier, heads to mainstream seminary

Now, anyone who has followed my "On Religion" column through the years, or here at GetReligion, knows that I am deeply skeptical that there is any one by-the-book definition out there of the term "evangelical." Click here for a discussion of that with the Rev. Billy Graham and here for an update, based on talks with the Rev. Rick Warren.

Thus, if it is almost impossible to define "evangelical" these days, it's safe to say that it's hard to know, precisely, who is or who is not an "outlier." And what about his decision to attend a "mainstream" seminary? What, precisely, is the opposite of a "mainstream" seminary? A nondenominational one, perhaps?

The seminary in question shows up in this passage from the Post report:

His family, like home schooling, has moved to the mainstream. Two of his brothers — twins Alex and Brett -- wrote a best-selling self-help book for parents called “Do Hard Things.” Alex is now at Harvard Law School. Joshua Harris said that when he moves his family to Vancouver, B.C., for seminary school, his children will probably go to public school.
Harris said he expects that studying at Regent College, a graduate school of theology, will broaden his perspective, including on accountability.

I suspect that the goal here was to draw a line between Regent College and Regent University. The latter, from the mainstream press perspective, is part of the Pat Robertson educational and media empire. That's evangelicalism, in other words, and it's strange and not mainstream.

Thus, Regent College is not that, so it's a "mainstream" seminary. In a way, that is accurate and the decision by Harris to go to Regent College is an interesting one. However, I am not sure that "mainstream" -- which sounds kind of like "mainline" -- was the right word to capture what has happened here.

You see, Regent College is -- wait for it -- a nondenominational, evangelical seminary.

What? Yes, it is famous among evangelicals for several reasons (other than being in Canada), such as the fact that it is a graduate school in theology defined by its focus on the work of the laity, not people who are ordained. It is also been thought of as a center for deep digging into Reformed -- think Calvinist -- theology, especially of the low-church Anglican brand (think J.I. Packer, a globally known conservative evangelical intellectual).

In other words, Harris has gone from one corner of the world of nondenominational evangelical Protestantism to another different corner of nondenominational evangelical Protestantism. It is an important and symbolic change, but the headline suggests (I've head emails about this) that this is kind of a right to left (that "mainstream" reference again) move in kinds of doctrine.

That may be true -- kind of, maybe -- but it's a rather subtle change, rather than a drastic one affecting the big issues of Christian doctrine and moral theology. Once again, Regent College is an evangelical seminary and very few people would doubt that.

However, there are people who question the need for Christian "institutions" at all, and that's where the Post story begins. Let me stress that this is a totally valid point. The growth of nondenominational and, yes, almost completely unsupervised Protestantism is one of the major news stories of our time and this article offers some crucial insights into the background of Harris and many other evangelical celebrities.

Thus, the opening:

For most of his career, Joshua Harris was the kind of evangelical pastor who chuckled at the joke that “seminary” should really be called “cemetery.”
The son of a national home-schooling leader -- home-schooled himself -- Harris by his mid-20s had become a prominent pastor as well as a best-selling author on religion and sex, despite having no formal theological training. He immediately became a darling of a movement that took off in the 1990s called nondenominationalism, largely made up of conservative evangelicals who view religious institutions and denominations as often lifeless and unopen to God’s spirit.
And for 17 years, Harris preached the power of outsiderdom as pastor of Covenant Life, a 3,000-member church in Gaithersburg that is well-known -- and sometimes controversial -- on the national nondenominational scene.
That is, until Sunday, when the 40-year-old announced that he is leaving to go to seminary, saying he needs formal education and training and more exposure and connection to other parts of Christianity.

Like I said, that is a valid angle for this story. However, would anyone claim that nondenominational evangelicalism "took off" in the 1990s? Most historians would put the birth and first explosion of this nondenominational and parachurch phenomenon decades earlier. For many, everything begins with Youth For Christ International and the hiring of its first staffer -- a young man named Billy Graham.

But where there changes and new moments within this world in the 1990s? Yes, of course. Was Harris a symbolic figure? Yes, of course. Is much of the content of this Post piece on target? Yes, of course. Note, for example, that the piece mentions -- as it should -- the Vineyard Fellowship movement and also Willow Creek Community Church, examples of these trends that clearly predate the 1990s.

But there are other off-key notes.  Consider the use of the word "cult" in this passage:

Covenant Life was the flagship congregation of Sovereign Grace, a cluster of churches founded in the 1980s by a former hard-core partier named C.J. Mahaney. The church’s theology is charismatic and imagines God as disciplinarian and man as needing oversight. Followers called Mahaney “apostle,” and critics said he behaved like a cult leader.
Building criticism from other evangelicals over Mahaney’s leadership style and the sex abuse allegations brought national controversy to Sovereign Grace, which in 2011, Harris preached, was “being publicly spanked . . . humiliated and being brought low.” He removed the Gaithersburg church from Sovereign Grace the next year, but the sex abuse allegations and criticism about the way pastors had treated victims continued at Covenant Life.

The word "cult" really needs some context, when writing a story that hints at a man changing the orientation of his life and ministry. Is this a doctrinal cult or, much more likely, claims of an independent congregation evolving into a "personality" or even "sociological" cult? These kinds of defining words matter, in this kind of story.

But the story does end strong. Read to the end, which tells readers:

There are ... theological issues to be worked out, he said. For example, the Old and New Testament call for believers to be “special, distinct” from society, he said, so how does that meld with adopting corporate America-like­ management practices? And if their focus is on a radical God capable of transforming and changing anyone, how important in that picture are nonreligious experts, such as social workers or police?
Ed Stetzer, executive director of Lifeway Research and an adviser to evangelical churches, said Harris and the cluster of Sovereign Grace have been on an evolutionary journey -- one that other nondenominational congregations might learn from.
“There has been a move from what’s been a historically unhealthy and insular Christian movement to kind of engaging in a broader evangelical world with some more healthy preparation. Josh said he did these things in reverse, and I think he’s right,” said Stetzer. “You have this explosion of nondenominational movements, and the question is: How do we educate ourselves? How do we evangelize? Some are answering well, some badly. Josh just announced to the world what he thinks the answer should be.”

So, what we have here is a very interesting and important piece.

Evangelicalism is a complicated world, with a long and complex history. This piece got most of the details right. That's an encouraging development (especially, I might add, since the Post has just hired a religion-beat pro who speaks fluent evangelical).

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