A friend recently asked me, “Do you think evangelicalism has a future?” Like me, he was the father of adult children who were raised in the church but for whom it is an open question whether they will be there in ten years. I had been at a branch of Willow Creek Community Church the Sunday last spring when Bill Hybels and their elders’ chairwoman first defended Bill from the charges by nine women that he acted inappropriately with them. My daughter was visiting that Sunday. Great, I thought, just what she needs to hear.
As it turned out, my daughter was not at all interested in those revelations. She shrugged.
A couple weeks ago my friend and I were again at Willow Creek for their Global Leadership Summit, which happened to be scheduled the week the New York Times ran a front-page, Sunday-edition story claiming that Bill Hybels had groomed his executive assistant during the eighties and eventually coerced her into giving him oral sex. By the time the summit began, Willow Creek’s entire board and two lead pastors had already resigned.
While sitting comfortably in my theater-like seat, I received emails and texts from friends wondering what people were saying at the summit. As far as I could tell, attendees were talking about the controversy, but few seemed overly concerned or preoccupied by it. They were more interested in that day’s talks.
Of course, recent reports of scandals are not limited to evangelicals. I think all Christians are reeling from the reopened wound of the investigation into clergy sexual abuse in Catholic churches in Pennsylvania—with reports of over a thousand victims by three hundred priests. I have always contended that the scandal was not merely the abuses themselves (since people have done evil things under the cover of the church since its beginning); the more troubling violation was the church leaders’ decision to protect the institution, and so the abusive clergy, rather than care for the victims or prevent future victims.
As of this writing, the latest salvo was the letter sent by Cardinal Carlo Maria Viganò claiming that Pope Francis himself knew of a case of a cardinal abusing seminarians and overlooked it. Still, Viganò’s case was weakened when he claimed that a homosexual lobby within the Catholic hierarchy was behind both the abuses and the cover up and were now controlling Pope Francis. Viganò proposed removing anyone with a homosexual orientation, whether celibate or not, as the solution—despite all the science and evidence proving that there is no correlation between sexual orientation and those who commit sexual abuse among minors or otherwise. (A tip for the Cardinal: You should always be suspicious of any answer to a family problem that points to “everyone not like me” as the culprit.)
All of this was behind my friend’s question about the future of the faith. As someone who likes to pontificate, I of course gave him an answer, but that is not worth recording. What has haunted me more was the realization that so few are scandalized by these scandals.
These stories still garner headlines, but we are no longer shocked that Christian leaders and institutions can fail so profoundly in embodying what they teach. If people are unsurprised by our moral failures, how persuaded are they by what we see as our victories? We live in an age when people have grown profoundly distrustful about public institutions—government, corporations, schools, not-for-profits—perhaps we should now add “the body of Christ” to the list.
Someone once asked management guru Peter Drucker what it would take for Christians to pull together and create a united, national, and compelling “brand” for the church? Drucker answered, “Never.” He explained that the church is, essentially, a high-touch, local enterprise that deals with people at a deep level. Something like that cannot be abstracted and “branded.”
I think Drucker was right. What comforts me during seasons of bad news and discouragement are the deep souls I have shared part of my life with. In their words, actions, and counsel, I see that my hope is not in vain, that it makes sense, that the path I am trying to walk down is a good and noble one, that God is alive and walking with me and is in me. One of my pet sayings is that any time spent with a mature, authentic, and wise soul heals the wounds inflicted by a thousand phonies.
Still, even at a thousand to one, the odds of staying positive are not great. (Bad Christians get much better publicity; look at all the stories about Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr.) But there is a remedy, one that has a long and noble tradition. God has provided us the medium of books for us to multiply the number of mature souls we encounter. It is still incumbent on us to choose the wise ones (warning: bad Christians also have good book publicists). For me, that means going back to the authors that shaped, guided, and even formed me—such as C. S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Barbara Brown Taylor, N. T. Wright, Henri Nouwen, Dallas Willard, and many others—as well as being on the lookout for those who follow in their footsteps.
Does the church have a future? I suspect the answer starts with me, which is a little daunting. But I also know what helps. The necessary discipline that keeps me hopeful and moving forward is spending time with wise souls and reading wise books, thus growing my cloud of witnesses who accompany me as I walk down the path God has called me to. That is how I say yes to the future, and it is incumbent on all of us to find ways in which we can keep saying yes.
Michael G. Maudlin
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor