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Saving Evangelicalism

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A new book by Mike Cosper, director of Christianity Today media, takes a hard look at the intersection of modern evangelicalism and politics—particularly of the pro-Trump kind. Is this just a phase, or does it spell doom for a movement that was born out of passion for the Gospel first, last, and always?

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Is the power-seeking now prominent in evangelical circles a fever or a fatal disease? Is the evangelical movement unsinkable, or is it like the Titanic in 1912 after a collision with an iceberg breached five of the ship’s supposedly watertight compartments? Land of My Sojourn: The Landscape of a Faith Lost and Found, a memoir by Mike Cosper published today by Intervarsity Press, offers a personal look at what happens when an ocean liner seems likely to break in two.

Podcaster Cosper was 19 in 1999 when he got married and helped lay the foundation for a new church in Louisville, Kentucky. Its young planters liked Rich Mullins’ song “Land of My Sojourn,” which includes lines of yearning about America: “And the lady in the harbor / She still holds her torch out / To those huddled masses who are / Yearning for a freedom that still eludes them.” Mullins then points to Christ: “And I will sing His song / In the land of my sojourn.”

Cosper explains the song he and his friends chose to sing:

We planted our church largely because our friends who didn’t know Jesus were deeply suspicious of sometimes ham-handed ways churches tried to appear relevant to young people. Because the altar call would sound before any real relationship had been forged. Our gambit was that if we made space for people who loved music and art as much as we did and cultivated community with them, opportunities would come to share the gospel in a much less formed way. It all came back to authenticity.

Amazingly, authenticity worked—for a while. Cosper describes the excitement when the church named Sojourn became a rapidly growing hit among “a gang of punk rock ragamuffins who’d felt out of place at most of the churches we’d attended. We’d found a home.” Cosper couches that tale within a narrative of the trip to Israel he took in 2016 once his joyful time in local church ministry was done. When Cosper visited the site near Nazareth where the transfigured Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah, he understood why Peter wanted to build three shelters there: he hoped the good times would continue to roll.

Cosper’s good times came to a halt in 2015 and 2016 for many reasons. One was pressure to support Donald Trump. A month before the 2016 election, Cosper wrote in a newsletter that Trump “had failed every character test by which other presidents and politicians had been measured.” Then he met with a potential funder for the media nonprofit Cosper was starting. The man, who had been supportive, suddenly “hit the brakes” and said, “It’s time for us all to get behind him—Trump. … Finally, someone is going to stand up for the White man.”

Land of My Sojourn is well worth reading, so I won’t provide spoilers concerning what specifically happens in the next 150 pages. I can say that the book is important for two reasons. First, it tells not only a Louisville story but a national one, with Cosper’s experience paralleling what happened in some other churches and Christian media. In his words, “Highly visible leaders in the large church I’d grown up respecting became bootlicking pundits, contorting both their spines and the Scriptures to provide apologetic to support their naked embrace of power politics. [Christian leaders] who refused to support Trump lost jobs, lost speaking opportunities, and began long seasons in the desert.”

Second, it tells what it feels like to be in a slowly developing professional crash:

The dream of starting a church that stays true to its message and its people became a story. It gave me a sense of hope and I would tell myself the story when whiffs of toxic culture would waft through a staff meeting. You keep plausibility kindled like a flame. It may slowly dim, but there’s always light. Until one day it slowly goes out and you find yourself in darkness.

Those encountering a similar darkening in our polarized churches can learn from Cosper’s experience: “I’d had it in my head for a decade or more that this would be the job I’d have for the rest of my career—making music, serving Christian artists, and pastoring a community that felt spiritually homeless.” It didn’t work out that way, and Cosper’s advice is not to get “all in” with a particular organization, no matter how exciting it is and how worthy it sounds. “My whole identity was wrapped up in a sense of being part of this place, which also left me anxiously wondering if my ministry would matter at all apart from it.”

When we do make the mistake of thinking a human organization is what adopted kids call a “forever family,” Cosper’s confession is important: “In hindsight I see the absurdity of the fear.” As Cosper learned, life goes on and “Jesus awaits us on the other side of grief.” The promise of eternal life also goes on, and in the meantime hard experiences help us learn what we otherwise would not know. Cosper now realizes how “the word ‘evangelical’… has evolved into a sort of catchall for a certain kind of White religious voter. … Maybe the word ‘evangelical’ itself needs to go. I think it does.”

Cosper’s disenchantment led him to produce the podcast series that he’s best known for around the country, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, the story of a Seattle megachurch that for a while was the new new thing. It’s worth a listen for the way Cosper documents “one of many visible leadership collapses and the light it shines on a branch of the church that is image-conscious, charismatic, and contradictory.”

Happily, Cosper’s hard education has not led him to give up on Christianity itself. He knows “the fundamental arc of the Christian story does not ascend from glory to glory. It bends to the cross. [The Gospels] subvert our idea of what triumph is.” He’s right. In J.I. Packer’s three-word summary, the Gospel is the good news that “God saves sinners.” We are helpless without Him.

Much as I like Cosper’s memoir, I need to mention that the halves of each chapter that describe his Israel travel are not as gripping as the halves about his travails in Louisville. I understand how Israel grabbed his heart—a similar excursion grabbed mine—but Cosper’s description of the optimism that gripped his brain is genuinely poignant and part of what makes this part of the book particularly memorable: “This idea that we were always ‘one good conversation away’ from fixing what was broken was a symptom of the disease that had infected the church. In reality we were never one conversation away because we were never having the same conversation. The people gathered around the tables never actually wanted the same things.”

That’s one important takeaway from Land of My Sojourn: We are more than one conversation away from figuring out how to keep the “evangelical” ship from sinking. Folks on the right have reasons to be concerned about drag-queen story hour and other headline-making follies, but Cosper’s reaction is nuanced and correct: “Even if we granted that these threats were real, our response to them is still wrong if, when fears arise, we reject the way of Jesus and cry for Barabbas. The persecution narrative merely justifies the militarization of the faith.”

A second takeaway is that “the leadership model we have in our evangelical world incentivizes grandiosity.” Leaders of a local church feel the urge to create campuses: “The multisite church was the hot idea in the late 2000s,” notes Cosper. “It’s one of the keys to understanding what went wrong at a lot of our churches, [but] multisite ministry created a permission structure for truly grandiose ideas.” Similarly, “bigger” in business is not necessarily better, and Christians particularly have a model of resistance to pleasing the crowd: Jesus could have walked around with hundreds or thousands, but he told the truth and deliberately chose 12.

A third takeaway is implicit in Cosper’s memoir but more explicit in his wrap-up of “The Esther Option,” a 2018 Gospel Coalition website piece:

We resist the temptation to fight power with power, and we resist the temptation to run away. … We pray for awakening and renewal in our hearts, we embrace the vulnerability of our identity as God’s people, we renew our commitment to the formative work and traditions that are both our heritage and our future, and we hope and pray our presence is filled with the aroma of Christ.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky is the chairman of Zenger House, which gives annual awards to journalists who write great articles with street-level reporting; the author of 30 books, including Moral Vision: Leadership from George Washington to Joe Biden; and an Acton Institute affiliate scholar.