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There are two schools of thought concerning Christian denominational structure.
One is that denominational boundaries are necessary in order to ensure solid orthodoxy. In other words, outside influences can bring in the biblical concept of leaven, thus eventually spoiling the whole batch.
The other view is that we can all learn from each other, and that we can maintain doctrinal purity even when considering “non-essentials.”
Until recent years – and one can postulate that the ’90s phenomenon Promise Keepers was the catalyst for “walls coming down” – Christian denominations and their leaders rigidly clung to denominational boundaries. In particular, the Southern Baptist Convention staunchly opposed any sort of collaboration with Catholics, the mainline and even other Protestant denominations. Further, “associations” like Calvary Chapel maintained certain “distinctives” that prevented close cooperation with more centrist-oriented individuals and ministries.
That wall-building mentality is passing from the scene. Instead we see increasing numbers of evangelical leaders favorably quote Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, TED presenters, or hold hands with Word-of-Faith juggernauts like T.D. Jakes.
So it was stunning to the denominational purists more common not that long ago to see recently the participants of yet another church leadership conference (the religious landscape is flooded with them), “Synergize 4.” The conference speaker lineup features such SBC heavyweights as Ed Stetzer, Johnny Hunt and Fred Luter; along with Assemblies of God General Superintendent George O. Wood; Mark Williams of Church of God International; Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent of the Wesleyan Church; Stan Toler, General Superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene; and many others, including Leonard Sweet.
That’s right. A gathering of visible evangelical leaders is not only tearing down those walls of denominational Jericho; they are also hobnobbing with folks who have New Age foundations.
Of course, this would be denied – vigorously – yet the proof is in the leavened pudding. As author Warren Smith outlines quite convincingly in “A Wonderful Deception,” Sweet is a leading change agent operating within evangelicalism. One would think the organizers and participants of “Synergize 4” would have known that.
A quick aside: The tagline for “Synergize 4” is “Where Pastors and Leaders Meet to Network With the Greatest Christian Thinkers in the World!” Boy, that’s a real snorter. I’m holding my sides. There are more great Christian thinkers in Antelope County, Neb., than at “Synergize 4,” I can assure you.
Sweet, the E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Drew University (and a visiting professor at George Fox University) is widely accepted within the Church Growth movement. Yet there is cause for concern.
As Smith writes: “Leonard Sweet, though professing to be an Evangelical Christian, has embraced many influential New Age figures to the point of absorbing the essence of their teachings into his quantum spirituality.”
Sweet’s book, “Quantum Spirituality,” is a good place to start as one deciphers what he is about.
Hear Smith again: “In the ‘Acknowledgments’ section of ‘Quantum Spirituality,’ Sweet expresses his deep gratitude and admiration to various ‘New Light leaders’ that he openly praises as ‘the most creative religious leaders in America today.’ Included in this group are a number of New Age leaders I am very familiar with [Smith is a former member of the New Age movement] – most particularly Willis Harman, Matthew Fox, and M. Scott Peck.”
Harman, for example, is listed in the classic New Age book, “The Aquarian Conspiracy,” as one of the movement’s key leaders. Sweet considers Harman a “personal role model” and one of his “heroes.” This is but the beginning of the case against Sweet as a true evangelical.
What would the “Synergize 4” speakers and organizers think about this – that is, if one of the little people could get to them and explain what they are part of? This is strictly my opinion, but one based on conversations with a few of the speakers over the years: You would very politely be told to drop dead.
You see, the newly phrased “Evangelical Industrial Complex,” very much in keeping with the ideology behind it – that is, Purpose-Driven, Church Growth consensus-building – does not allow “fundies” to rain on the parade. If someone points out, for example, that this whole vast complex does not, by and large, really emphasize the gospel (with its call to confront sin and repent, in order to be truly regenerated), well, said whistle-blower is run over by the infamous bus driven by Mark Driscoll and his mentors like Rick Warren, Andy Stanley and Leonard Sweet.
The speed with which the traditional American church is being transformed into a global spirituality entity is astonishing. For example, the “Synergize 4” conference not only knocks down denominational walls, it now brings the camel of New Age spirituality into the tent.
Here’s how I think a conversation between a now-alerted (and hopefully concerned) participant in “Synergize 4” and Rick Warren might go:
Concerned Guy: Rick, what is this about Leonard Sweet? I thought he was mainstream evangelical?
Rick Warren: He is, friend. He is. Listen: The twits that I am forced to unfollow on Twitter, those old-school fundamentalists … they just have fear. It’s just fear. It’s understandable; they are seeing their old power structures crumble and we know that can be traumatic. But I assure you that Leonard is helping lead us into a new frontier. Don’t worry, brother.
Problem solved. Rick explains it away. Which is a bit like a parasitic government claiming that it actually helps the citizens that elected it.
As has been written about elsewhere, the Leadership Network was one of the catalysts in the early days of transforming Evangelicalism in America. The goal was to undermine and finally destroy the last vestiges of biblical thought, Sola Scriptura. It is being replaced with the ideas of men.
Take the example of Andy Stanley. The Church Growth guru elegantly displays his contempt for the old ways by reinventing what the church should be about: “The foundation of our faith is not the Scripture. The foundation of our faith is not the infallibility of the Bible. … The Scripture is simply a collection of ancient documents that tells us that (Jesus) story.”
Although Stanley isn’t slated to speak at “Synergize 4,” he is “in the club” and his views are representative of the current evangelical leadership in America.
One of the hallmarks of this Evangelical Industrial Complex is a strange tendency to view the world from a center-left perspective. In other words, why would Christian leaders want to sound like Chris Matthews?
Witness a recent comment from LifeWay’s Ed Stetzer: “Everybody wants diversity, but many don’t want to be around people who are different.”
Really? “Many”? Who are these “many”? And how does Stetzer know?
The answer of course is that he doesn’t. It isn’t possible, even through the comically inexact science of polling, and Stetzer should know this. Perhaps he does. Yet he wants to leave the reader with the feeling that racism is a horrible problem in 2014 Evangelical America. It’s just another example of the inane things our evangelical leaders say, and expect us to lap-up unquestioningly.
How does Ed Stetzer know that “everybody” wants diversity? Maybe everybody does, and maybe everybody doesn’t. Or maybe some do. We can’t know.
What we can know is that in 2014 America, racism is nothing like it was a couple generations back. Are there reasons besides Bull Connor-type hate that keep some congregations less “diverse”? Could it be that a church in a tony suburb of Boston might have less blacks or Hispanics than, say, Nashville? Could that be it? Why does it have to be because too many fundies don’t like minorities?
But I digress. Trying to wrap one’s mind around the gains made by the Evangelical Industrial Complex tend to do that to those of us who give pause when we see mainstream evangelical leaders slumming with New Age icons.
Maybe the rest of us – the remnant rabble-rousers – should organize conferences and create a cottage-industry where biblical books, sermons and podcasts could be distributed for the edification of a world in a world of hurt.
Now that would be some real synergy.