A Show About Nothing


Modern Evangelicals?“It’s a show about nothing.”

In what was probably the most famous self-referential line in the history of television, Seinfeld ‘s Jerry and George attempted to pitch their comedy pilot to NBC. The incredulous execs just stared at each other dumbfounded. How can a TV show be about nothing? Doesn’t something happen? After all, life isn’t about nothing. People actually go out and do things—don’t they?

Last week, some of the most important Christian figures in the 21st century unleashed “An Evangelical Manifesto: A Declaration of Evangelical Indentity and Public Commitment,” a document that attempts to reiterate the values of Evangelicalism for a modern age (though a few of us would claim this was adequately covered by the Lausanne Covenant). The list of signatories on the manifesto includes Os Guinness, Max Lucado, Alvin Plantinga, Leighton Ford, Rebecca Manley Pippert, H. Wayne Huizenga Jr., Stephen Strang, Jack Hayford, Erwin Lutzer, and a former pastor of mine, Stuart Briscoe. That’s a powerful and intriguing mix of backers just in those few names. Many more signed the document.

I would encourage everyone to read the manifesto. I would encourage just as many to consider what might have been.

Beyond the “okay, so we’re apologizing for a lot of stupid stuff we did” tone of “An Evangelical Manifesto,” the one thing a manfesto truly must address is the old question that Francis Schaeffer once used for book title: “How should we then live?”

To be a proper manifesto, a document must not only clarify core foundational truths that the audience of “manifestees” should hold corporately, but it must also reveal its plan. It must give its adherents something to strive for, an inarguable destination outlined by a clear roadmap that will lead true believers forward.

When a real manifesto makes claims, it states them like this:

We believe Truth Statement, therefore we will Intended Consequence by Practical Response.

A case in point:

We believe that Jesus meets the needs of the least of these, therefore we will love the widow and orphan by bringing them into our homes to live with us.

That’s a manifesto statement.

But this is what we get in “An Evangelical Manifesto”:

We call humbly for a restoration of the Evangelical reforming principle, and therefore for deep reformation and renewal in all our Christian ways of life and thought.

Okay, so the Truth Statement there is not immediately obvious, but one can deduce that it might be that Jesus values reformation in all our ways of life and thought.

The Intended Consequence? We call for a restoration of the Evangelical reforming principle. A little high concept, but there it is.

Now does anyone see what’s missing?

Reading “An Evangelical Manifesto” soon reveals to us the problem facing modern day Evangelicalism. Ultimately, for want of any kind of practical response to what is supposedly so dearly believed, Evangelicalism becomes like Seinfeld, ” a show about nothing.”

A real manifesto, especially one devised by some of the most brilliant minds in Christendom today, will not be satisfied with high concepts alone. Yet that is all we read here.

Here’s the $64,000 question: “How does this manifesto alter my daily living?” Answer? It doesn’t. Not at all.

And that’s an enormous loss to us because here Evangelicals have the chance to prove they are more than talk. They have a chance to show that what they believe makes a profound difference in American life. And man, do they drop the ball.

Take the previous statement about reforming principles. In what way does that statement have any impact on the guy who gets up at 5:00 AM, spends almost an hour commuting to work, grinds out ten hours of work while worrying about whether he’ll have that job tomorrow due to a lousy economy, repeats the commute, grabs a fast food dinner, spends about ten minutes of quality time with his kids, five minutes talking with his wife, watches a repeat of Seinfeld or two, checks his e-mail, and goes to bed at 11:00 PM?

It’s not enough to say we believe something and would like to see that something come to fruition. We have to find ways of answering that elusive question of How. How do we practically put this manifesto into play in the way we live from day to day?

As it stands, we can’t. No one tells us how. No one gives us the Practical Response we need to know what to do with what we believe and claim to desire to see in the world around us. And therefore “An Evangelical Manifesto” and the branch of Christianity it claims to represent proves itself, sadly, to be utterly irrelevant in your life and mine.

21 thoughts on “A Show About Nothing

  1. Jon Clayton

    Dan, very good points. I have come to the point where I no longer consider myself an evangelical, but rather orthodox in my Christianity.

    Also, would you please change the link on your sidebar from Pastor Jon’s blog to Growing In God’s Word at http://growingingodsword.net/wordpress/. Thanks!

    Jon Clayton

  2. Diane R

    Perhaps the manifesto was more designed to placate those who have arisen lately with more vocal objections to the evangelicals’ political agendas. I am thinking of the atheistic league which has suddenly come alive and is pretty antagonistic. People like Dawkins, Harris, etc. The evangelical leaders today don’t “get” that when you preach the cross, unbelievers will get very upset. In fact, today, many evangelicals will get upset. They don’t want people to get upset. As for living the Christian life, perhaps the authors of the Manifesto don’t wish to upset the status quo lifestyle of their members.

    • Diane,


      Still, given the signatories, I’m surprised. Many of them have challenged the status quo in the past. Os Guinness, in particular, has never shied away from prophetic calls for change, and he’s one of the driving forces behind this document.

      So I don’t get it. Such promise, yet so milquetoast and ineffectual in its final form. Once again, it’s all talk and no action.

  3. Brian

    Maybe its part 1 of a 2 part series??- maybe not. Just out of curiosity what would you want to see as the “practical application” of Evangelicalism? Doesnt the name “Evangelical” imply evangelizing?

    • Brian,

      If you read my blog regularly, you will have seen a couple hundred posts on practical applications. 😉

      Evangelical means more along the lines of bearing the Good News. What is the Good News? Too often in the past, Evangelicals have compartmentalized that Good News, preferring one bit of it over another. Problem is, it’s all good, not just this part or that of it.

      And that further feeds into what I wrote above. Good News encompasses truths, intentions, and practical outworkings. We can’t have just bits of those and pretend we’re still ministering the entirety.

  4. …utterly irrelevant…

    But at least it was a nice media event, and I am sure the news reporters got to enjoy some delicious hors d’oeuvres. A good time was had by all. And the main purpose was accomplished, which was to show the Really Important People* that “hey, we’re really very hip after all and want a seat at the Table of Imporant Decision Making, so please don’t confuse with those fundie neanderthals who always vote for the GOP.”

    *That is, all the SLAGs (Secular, Liberal, And Globalist) who run our politics, news media, colleges and universities, and nearly every other major institution in this country.

  5. Ben

    More identity crisis mish-mash that the Church is concerned about. It’s just a freaking label, is evangelical…
    (Is this because the label “Christian” has become/became rather devoid of integrity/substance that an increasingly patterned brand is needed for today’s rhetoric?)


    • Ben,

      I think Evangelicals are so afraid that someone will confuse them with those “bad” Christians out there.

      I seem to recall an old folk song, “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” But then most people don’t believe that, do they?

  6. What it seems you want, Dan, is the evangelical Das Kapital, which was (I guess) the how-to guide to The Communist Manifesto. I read and was inspired by The Communist Manifesto when I was in high school. I tried reading Das Kapital. Millions, billions, have been misled by The Communist Manifesto. Only hard and tragic experience has taught so many that Communism just doesn’t work. You can show the misled from history that Communism is not the answer. Most people are just too thickheaded to be shown with economic mathematics coupled with behaviorial psychology.

    History shows, economically and behaviorally, that Christianity is the way to go. I suppose, as ignorant as I am, the Bible is a how-to guide in just one thing: how to believe. There really are no other how-tos in the Bible that work without faith. Trying to follow a bullet list without faith is going to ruin you, your church, and anyone dumb enough to try.

    • Michael,

      What I want is to dispense with all the talk. Evangelicals can talk a mean streak, but what are they doing anymore? Where’s all the life-changing ideas to meet the crises of our modern age? Why such half-baked responses to deep problems? Begging off these issues with high concepts is not going to help usher in the Kingdom.

  7. i don’t know – are you being too harsh? is your expectation that this EM should have been written a particular way the very reason some folks decided it needed to be written in the first place?…

    i appreciate your comments, and i’m enjoying reading the various opinions here and there around the web. i had some hesitations and misgivings before reading the document, but i’m actually quite impressed and invigorated after taking in the whole of what it addresses.

    one of the things i like is that the authors have chosen not to list creationism and inerrancy as non-negotiables. for the first, there’s very little biblical justification anymore behind whatever the latest flavor of anti-natural-selection dessert is being served up; for the latter, somehow we can admit that we can’t prove the existence of God, but goshdarnit we have a golden egg this unprovable God laid right here. still, some people hold to these positions; so be it. there’s simply too much of a tendency to add items to the ever-increasing laundry list of ideas and doctrines to which we have to pledge allegiance before we’re allowed into the room marked “Christian.”

    nothing’s going to please everybody, and there are a few things i object to. for instance, i don’t agree with this statement: We Evangelicals should be defined theologically, and not politically, socially, or culturally. Jesus’ message uses “action” verbs: teach them to DO as I have commanded you, LOVE God and LOVE your neighbor, by this will all men know … if you LOVE one another. any theology that defines us must have feet.

    i did, however, like these words: We are also troubled by the fact that the advance of globalization and the emergence of a global public square finds no matching vision of how we are to live freely, justly, and peacefully with our deepest differences on the global stage. somehow, we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to peacefully share the same bathroom over the next few decades in our ever-shrinking world.

    one interesting thing: maybe i missed it, but there doesn’t seem to be a great emphasis on evangelism in this Evangelical Manifesto. do you think that was intentional? i didn’t see a single chick tract referenced in the bibliography…

    more than anything, i find myself motivated and energized by the very positive nature of the piece – that it isn’t yet another “here’s everything we’re against” rant but an effort to make the gospel again a message of good news. imagine that – the gospel being good news. American Christianity has lost this defining characteristic that once served it well.

    perhaps one unintended benefit of the proposal is a clear opportunity to take this EM (Evangelical Manifesto) and align it with the other EM (Emergent Manifesto) and finally have all our EM & EMs in a row without demonizing the other side.

    one can only hope…

    mike rucker
    fairburn, georgia, usa

    • Mike,

      An idea that can’t be put into practice is a non-starter. Evangelical leaders, like the ones who signed the manifesto, just don’t get this. And they don’t get this because they are professional clergy or paid academics. They’re not the guy in the cubicle, the real working man. They’re drastically out of touch with how most people live.

      To those clergy and academics, its perfectly well and good to toss out truths. That’s their bread and butter. But the guy in the cublcle doesn’t operate that way, so a massive disconnect exists between high concept and actual practice. And that’s where Evangelicalism is falling off a cliff by being so irrelevant.

  8. i don’t know whether your characterizations of these people are accurate or not; you don’t either. and over-stating how much we know of what is behind another’s positions or statements is one of the reasons the disconnect you describe exists. i find that those in academia that i interface with are more and more interested in the “guy in the cubicle” than you give them credit for – there are no doubt silos of elites interested in writing high-brow volumes for each other, but the seminary i went to, and those in a number of the others i find myself in dialogue with, have the local church and the local pastor – and, in the end, the local believer – squarely in their sights.

    from my view, the primary problem prompting the manifesto is that those speaking the loudest ‘for’ evangelical christians seem to care even less for the “guy in the cubicle,” elevating non-negoitable positions on one or two issues above the broad impact that living like Jesus should accomplish.

    thanks for the dialogue. i hope it helps each of us move beyond unchallenged certainty in any positions we hold.

    mike rucker
    fairburn, georgia, usa

    • Mike,

      In all fairness, I’ve been in the Evangelical ranks for more than thirty years. My degree is in Christian Education, so I’ve looked deeply at all aspects of what we teach in the Church. I’ve actively studied in this area. I’d pit what I’ve learned and noted against anyone out there. Am I overstating? See my post for May 19, 2008.

      Have the seminaries gotten better at ministering the practical? Yes, they have. But many of these guys getting out of seminary are finding it tough to make any impact because of entrenched leadership who are still stuck on models that came out of the 1970s and 80s.

      The problem with Evangelicalism today is that it still wishes it were 1950. Deep down inside of the Evangelical soul, no matter how much new media or Emerging Church contrarianism you mix in, the longing for Leave It to Beaver is still there. Those were the halcyon days, and Evangelicals can’t seem to get a grip on today. There’s still that feeling that the suburban house with the wife and 2.5 kids, respectable job, and some level of agreed-upon conformity and acceptability are all there is to living. That’s what Evangelicalism has sold its adherents and it will be darned slow to give that up, no matter how much that lifestyle conflicts with the ultimate goal of the Kingdom of God.

      You read the writings of the true saints of Evangelicalism Past and the contrast is stark. Yesteryear’s Evangelical went to the far reaches of the globe to reach one lost soul, laboring in prayer till that soul was won. Today’s Evangelical goes to the far reaches of the Internet to find instructions on how to load Casting Crowns’ latest MP3 loaded on their iPod, laboring in that exercise till no time is left for prayer.

      As for the guy in the cubicle, I have to strongly disagree with you. Evangelicalism does not care one iota about the day-to-day issues of that guy’s life. Evangelicalism has almost nothing to say about that guy’s work life, the part that consumes the majority of his day and week. Evangelicalism offers that guy no help when he’s canned from that job, instead beating him up over his poor ability to provide, his lousy parenting skills, and his slap-dash approach to his marriage, even as the guy’s desparately trying to keep his head above water. Evangelicalism speaks remarkable platitudes about the way things should be, but disconnects entirely when it comes to doing anything about those things in the daily lives of the people who sit in the pews.

      I know this, Mike, because I’ve been watching it get worse, not better, for more than thirty years. I say all this not to beat up on Evangelicalism but to ask why this is the best that Evangelicalism has to offer. If that’s the way it is, and I believe it is, then why aren’t Evangelical leaders proposing any real action to address these issues? How many hours went into that manifesto that could’ve gone to solving deeper issues that re afflicting our modern age?

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