"Pragmatic Evangelicalism" Has Peaked

by Orrel Steinkamp

The Plumbline, Volume 13, No. 1, January/February, 2008


"Something ... just happened in the evangelical community. For most of a generation evangelicals have been romanced by the 'seeker-sensitive' movement spawned by Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. The guru of this movement is Bill Hybels. He and others have been telling us for decades to throw out everything we have previously thought and been taught about church growth and replace it with a new paradigm, a new way to do ministry... The size of the crowd rather than the depth of heart determined success. If the crowd was large then surely God was blessing the ministry. Churches were built by demographic studies, professional strategists, marketing research, meeting 'felt needs' and sermons with these techniques. We were told that preaching was out, relevance was in. Doctrine didn't matter nearly as much as innovation. If it wasn't 'cutting edge' and consumer friendly it was doomed. The mention of sin, salvation and sanctification were taboo and replaced by Starbucks, strategy and sensitivity.


Thousands of pastors hung on every word that emanated from the lips of the church growth experts. Satellite seminars were packed with hungry church leaders learning the latest way to ‘do church.’ The promise was clear: Thousands of people and millions of dollars couldn't be wrong... How can you argue with the numbers? If you dared to challenge the 'experts' you were immediately labeled as a traditionalist, a throwback to the 50's, a stubborn dinosaur unwilling to change with the times. All that has now changed... Willow Creek has released the result of a multi-year study on the effectiveness of their programs and philosophy of ministry. The study's findings are in a new book titled 'Reveal: Where Are You,? co-authored by Cally Parkinson and Greg Hawkins, executive pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. Hybels, himself, called the finding groundbreaking, 'earth shaking' and 'mind blowing.' And no wonder: It seems that the 'experts' were wrong. The report reveals that most of what they have been doing for these many years and what they have taught millions of others to do is not producing solid disciples of Jesus Christ... Hybels laments: Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back it wasn't helping that much... We made a mistake... Our dream is that we fundamentally change the way we do church. That we take out a clean sheet of paper and we rethink our old assumptions. Replace it with new insights. Insights that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture. Our dream is really to discover what God is doing and how he's asking us to transform this planet.' Isn't that what we were told when this whole seeker-sensitive thing started?.. Please note that 'rooted in scripture' still follows 'rethink' and informed research." Adapted from Bob Burney, Salem Communications award winning host


Pragmatic evangelicalism has had about a 30-year run. During this (seeker-sensitive period since the early 80's) the culture was absorbed by the self. Pragmatic

evangelicalism appeared to be enormously successful appealing to the "self." "Responding to a society coming apart at  the seams, Pragmatic Evangelicals

created corporate churches, entertainment worship, need-driven programs and a therapeutic faith.. But a Christianity shaped by personal needs and private interest misses the point of a biblical and historic Christianity." (Webber). Webber also coined the term "Walmart churches" delivering a full range of Christian consumer goods. Webber sees especially evangelical youths as tired of all this. Webber calls the 'younger evangelicals" the millennials, who are yearning for hymnology and liturgy. He tells of a staff member of a well-known contemporary singer and writer, who asked him to send a chaplin. "Even though we write contemporary stuff, we hate it. When you do chapel for us, no contemporary songs please. We don't know what you are going to do, but no contemporary stuff." (Webber). It appears like the youth are yearning for more traditional worship conversely most evangelical leaders have already adopted the "new stuff" which now appears to have. had a relatively short self life. Many people may cheer Willow Creek's remarkable honesty. Nevertheless, their statement leaves many with a very cautious feeling. The Willow Creek repentance is troubling. In their text it appears they are looking for a clean piece of paper, which still betrays their continued reliance on research. Also recent new ministries at Willow Creek show an acceptance of contemplative mysticism and emergent teachers. The new paradigm of Willow Creek seems to lean toward the new fad on the scene, namely ancient mystical prayer practices of pre-reformation Catholicism. The contemplative mystical practices of the past are being joined to the postmodern emergent teachers who disparage the concept of "absolute" propositional truth and promote mystical experience.


Recently, headlines about Willow Creek have filled the pages of news outlets. But talk of taking a new sheet and starting all over seem to be overstated In the most

current issue of (Fall of 2007), Willow Creek's magazine gives a clear indication of the their new  spiritual emphasis. The issue entitled 'ministry shifts' has a subtitle that says 'the landscape of our ministries is shifting, brace yourself for the after-shocks.' In the first article to follow the 'seismic shifts' article, Ken Wyatt Kent, a meditation promoter, in an article entitled 'Recovering Spiritual Formation' writes positively about 'monastic communities' and the emergent church. Quoting or favorably referring to one mystic after the next (Richard Foster, Ruth Haley Barton, David Brenner, John Ortberg, etc), Kent paints a picture showing mysticism's role in the seismic shift... She brings into her article Catholic Priest Richard Rohr who is spiritually similar to Matthew Fox who endorses pantheism and panentheism. She correctly states that while there are some conservative Christians (that's us!) who are suspect of spiritual formation (code name for the contemplative) but by and large the term and practices have [already] become mainstream. These practices, of course, are the mystical practices that are the energy behind the spiritual formation movement." (www.lighthousetrailsresearchproject.com)


It is apparent that the so-called blank sheet is already inscribed with the "contemplative/emergent" which is everywhere these days. Willow Creek, it seems to me, is now packing away the 30-year promotion of seeker-sensitive for what they recognize is the new "seismic shift." The tide is rising and the contemplative/emergent is everywhere.


The Contemplative is Everywhere.


Spiritual Formation, ala the Contemplative, is found in the most surprising places. The website Lighthouse Trails. Coni is a site dedicated to tracking the contemplative. If the contemplative is new to you, at this site you will see just how all pervasive it has become. I suggest you visit this sight. But I will now simply list some the evangelical ministries that are now practicing or endorsing contemplative:


Awana, Beth Moore, Max Lucado, *Richard Foster/Renovare, Dallas Willard, Calvin Miller, Rick Warren, Willow Creek, Peter Kreft, Leonard Sweet, Baker Books, Zondervan, Nav Press, IVF Press, Eugene Peterson, Tony Compolo, Discipleship Journal, Biola, Brennan Manning J.P. Moreland...Biola/Focus on the Family/Gary Thomas's writings. Many more too numerous to mention..


Contemplative Prayer Movement and Its Origin

Compiled by S.E Ray


There is a prayer practice that is becoming popular within the evangelical church. It is primarily known as contemplative prayer. It is also known as centering prayer,

listening prayer, breath prayer and prayer of the heart. The practice is now widely embraced and taught in secular and professed Christian seminaries, colleges, universities, organizations, ministries and seminars throughout the United States. Academic promoters have introduced these practices in the fields of medicine; business and law, while countless secular and Christian books, magazines, seminars, and retreats are teaching '~y people how to incorporate these techniques into their daily lives. Promoters promise physical, mental and spiritual benefits...The essential function of contemplative prayer is to enter an altered state of consciousness in order to find one's true self, thus striving to find God. Proponents of contemplative prayer teach that all human beings have a divine center and that all, not just born-again believers, should practice contemplative prayer. To achieve the state of emptiness, they employ a "mantra," a word repeated over and over to focus the mind while striving to go deep within oneself. The effects are a hypnotic like state: concentration upon one thing, disengagement from other stimuli, a high degree of openness to suggestion, a psychological and physiological state that externally resembles sleep, but in which consciousness is interiorized and the mind

subject to suggestion.


In the early Middle Ages during the 4th through the 6th centuries, there lived a group of hermits in the wilderness areas of the Middle East. They are known to history as the Desert Fathers. They dwelt in small isolated communities for the purpose of devoting their lives to God without distraction. The contemplative

movement is traced to these monks. They were the first to promote the mantra as a prayer tool. [These desert fathers reasoned that as long as the desire for God was sincere anything could be utilized to reach God. If a method worked for the Hindus to reach their gods, then Christian mantras could be used to reach

Jesus] (Ray Yungen, A Time of Departing).  Some of the most influential writers who have popularized contemplative prayer in the evangelical church are Richard Foster and Brennan Manning. Both these men have written popular Christian books about contemplative prayer. And both quote the Catholic mystics such as Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating. Through the late 1960s and early 1970s, Father Keating and Father Bennington met together with an effort to understand the

mass defection of young Catholics at the time these people were drawn in part to the East's meditation practices. Their research led Keating then an abbot at a Massachusetts monastery, to begin unearthing a similar meditative method based on a Christian tradition [the Desert Fathers]. The East was mixed with

Catholicism to yield new appeal to the defecting younger generation of the time.


Contemplative prayer differs from Christian prayer in that the intent of the technique is to bring the practitioner to the center of his own being. There he is, supposedly, to experience the presence of God who [already] dwells in him. Christian prayer, on the contrary, centers on God in a relational way, as an independent power apart from oneself but realized intimately through the Holy Spirit. The confusion of this technique with Christian prayer arises from a misunderstanding of the indwelling of God. The fact that God indwells us does not mean that we can capture His presence by mental techniques. Nor does it mean that we are identical with Him in our deepest self...


Silence, appropriate body posture and above all, emptying the mind through repetition prayer -have been the practices of mystics in all the great world religions.  And they form the basis on which most modem spiritual directors guide those who want to draw near to God... Silence is the language that God speaks.. says Thomas Keating who taught “centering prayer” to more than 31,000 last year. Keating suggests that those who pray repeat some ‘sacred word’ like God or Jesus.” (Newsweek, January 6, 1992, article called, “Talking to God" p.44.)

The God Who is [Already] There


Francis Schaeffer once wrote a book entitled The God Who IS There. Now, conversely, the Contemplative mystics teach that God is already there, namely He indwells every human in his inner and “higher self.” But furthermore they teach that God not only indwells every human but He indwells all his creation. This is not exactly pantheism, but a variant called panentheism. Pantheism teaches that God is all things. But Pantheism has now been combined with Theism (God is a personality) and this produces panentheism, which attempts to retain God’s personality but adds that He also indwells every created thing. Contemplatives fully schooled in the Contemplative paradigm embrace panentheism. Fr. Ken Kaisch, a prominent teacher of the contemplative, has written in his book, Finding God: “The first and important result [of this prayer] is an increasing sense of God’s presence in all things.” William Johnson also states in his book The Mystkal Way, that: God is the core if my being and the core of all things.” (compiled from Ray Yungen). But this teaching undermines the biblical teaching of the sinfulness of all men and makes the atonement at the cross unnecessary. Furthermore if God is in every human and all things then he is in all religions. Tony Compolo and others see that this is a necessary corollary and Compolo has stated: ‘Mysticism provides hope for common ground between Christianity and Islam.” (Speaking My Mind).

The lure of mysticism of all varieties belies a huge hollowed out vacuum in current evangelical spirituality, coui~esy of the Seeker - Sensitive. What else can account for the seeming insatiable hunger for all things mystical and particularly physical techniques leading to some kind of mystical and altered state of ecstasy.  Across the evangelical spectrum people are signing on to various expressions of the contemplative. Below are a series of examples that defy understanding:


·        Earl Creps AOG Seminary Prof attempts to Link Pentecostal Spirituality to the Emergent/Contemplative Earl Creps, until recently a Prof at AGTS, blogs about his attempt to link Pentecostals to the Emergent/Contemplative hoping to establish common ground.


·        Brennen Manning in his book “The Signature of Jesus” which explicitly gives training for centering techniques has his book endorsed by Max Lucado and Amy Grant.


·        Youth Specialties has gone aggressively for contemplative spirituality being supported by Zondervan. The president of Youth Specialties, M. Oestreicher, is quoted as saying that ‘Christianity is an eastern religion.” He dismisses criticism in the following quotes: ‘If a Buddhist is using a breathing exercise to bring some peace to her life - Bless her. But that shouldn’t have any bearing on whether I chose to focus on my god-given breath.” But, Mike Perschon an Edmonton associate pastor of a Mennonite church describes in a magazine “YouthWorker” his contemplative experience: “I built myself a room - a tiny sanctuary in a basement closet filled with books on spiritual disciplines, contemplative prayer and Christian mysticism. In that space, I lit candles, burned incense, hung rosaries and listened to tapes of Benedictine monks. I mediated for hours on word, images, and sounds. I reached the point of being able to achieve alpha brain patterns."


This appears much more than focusing on my god-given breath.  Though some may pursue contemplative as a way to be silent etc, the origin of all this is ancient Catholic mysticism borrowed from Eastern mysticism in the 4th century and mixed with a Catholic tradition of monasticism.

The Contemplative Paradigm

·        God lives deeply inside every human.

·        Man’ Problem: All mans problems are from not being in contact with God inside.

·        By ancient prayer techniques man can restore union with God within.

·        Sin is neglecting to establish union with God within.

The Gospel Paradigm

·        God requires righteousness

·        Man’s Problem: Since Adam all have sinned and stand condemned before a holy God.

·        Christ died to pay the debt of man’s sin.

·        Christ’s righteousness is credited to the believing sinner’s record.

·        God regenerates sinners who believe the Gospel and gives them the indwelling Holy Spirit.

·        Man is thus accepted in God’s sight.

·        Believers now focus on God and what He has done for them.


74425 Co. Rd. 21, Renville, MN. 56284, orrelsteinkamp@hotmaiI.com