Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get It Wrong, Part 1: Cultural Christianity is dead

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that for many years I’ve been an outspoken critic of United Methodist mega-church pastor Adam Hamilton. For example, this post remains the most-read post I’ve written on my blog—by far! Rev. Hamilton himself tweeted that he would respond to this series of posts from last year. I’m still waiting, but he’s a busy pastor, and who am I to him? I wouldn’t respond to me, either.

But I haven’t only been critical of Hamilton: Way back on November 22, 2011, I gave him a rave review! Read it for yourself! (A lot of water under the bridge since then, I guess.)

Still, a men’s Bible study group at my church is reading his little book When Christians Get It Wrong. So I thought it would be helpful for me to gather my own thoughts on the book here. You might find it helpful, too.

In the book’s introduction he says that this book “was born out of a conversation” with a disillusioned young war veteran named John, recently returned from Afghanistan and Iraq, who talked to Hamilton about the reasons he rejected Christianity. John’s reasons, Hamilton said, correspond to those cited by Kinnaman and Lyon in their book unChristian (which I’ve also read). Hamilton’s book, he said, is written primarily for John and his fellow young adults who are abandoning Christianity in larger numbers than previous generations, for the same reasons cited by Kinnaman and Lyon.

When Christians Get It Wrong, therefore, serves an apologetic purpose: to win back these young apostates to the Christian faith. Young people have, he says, been “frustrated and turned off by what they have heard from and experienced with Christians.” So the theme of Hamilton’s book is that what they’ve experienced isn’t real Christianity, or they’ve misunderstood it. Hamilton wants to show them what real Christianity looks like, and his vision, he believes, will be so compelling that they’ll change their minds.

A worthy goal, I’m sure.

Still, we pastors, especially, should be reluctant to take at face value the reasons an unbeliever gives for moving from faith to skepticism. We are all sinners, after all—and complicated ones at that. At our best, we hardly know ourselves or the reasons for the things we do. Instead, we know our “cover stories.” Too often, we who see through a glass darkly remain oblivious to many of the underlying impulses that give rise to them.

Also, Hamilton presumes that John and all these young people are (or were) authentically Christian at some point; that they were genuine believers who have now left the faith.

But Hamilton can’t know that. None of us can. We pastors are painfully aware that, despite our best intentions, no catechism or confirmation class, no “walking the aisle” at the end of a sermon, no praying a sinner’s prayer, no baptism, can ensure that a young person who professes Christian faith is born again. Only God knows.

But if, despite appearances, young people were never born again—if the seed of the gospel fell among rocks or thorns and failed to take root—will they themselves know it? Of course not. They will instead grow up to say, “I used to be a Christian, but I’m not anymore.” And since we all like to think of ourselves as rational people, we’ll look for reasons—and any old reason will do (sometimes), especially those that make us appear more intelligent, more enlightened, or more compassionate than we otherwise might seem. (See this post for more on this topic.)

Hamilton writes:

I hope and pray that this book will help some young adults find faith once more and become followers of Jesus Christ. It is also my hope that the book might chart a path for Christians in how we can “get it right.” Churches that “get it wrong” may lose an entire generation of young adults, the future of the church.[1]

By all means, I’m all for correcting Christians who “get it wrong.” Nevertheless, it’s not our job to make the gospel something other than what it is: “folly to those who are perishing… a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23). Did the apostle Paul sometimes “get it wrong”? Since he was “foremost” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), he would agree with me that he did. But he didn’t get his gospel wrong (Galatians 1:8), nor the God-breathed words that the Holy Spirit guided Paul to write.

So Paul was completely right about the gospel, yet of this gospel most of his audience would say, “That’s foolishness!” and of its messenger—the most successful who ever lived—”What an idiot!” or “You’re out of your mind!” (Acts 26:24)

Needless to say, if that was true for Paul as he sought to convert the lost people of his day, it will be true for us!

Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when most “young people”—or anyone else—tell the Church that Christianity is, in so many words, “folly” and a “stumbling block.” What else would we expect them to say? Christendom, that once-powerful cultural force that used to produce nominal Christians but no longer does, is dead. Young people today will less often identify as Christians merely because their parents or grandparents did. Those days are gone, and good riddance! “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14). That’s always been true, no matter what popular opinion polls would say.

Besides, I know plenty of young people, even today, for whom Christ continues to be “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). How does that still happen, if things are as bad as Hamilton fears?

Simple: Ultimately, it’s not up to us to convert people. For as often as Christians “get it wrong,” which is often, the Holy Spirit continues to “get it right,” and to do his good work: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39).

So, as we diagnose problems for which Hamilton’s book purports to be a solution, let’s proceed with caution… The sky may not be falling after all. More soon.

1. Adam Hamilton, When Christians Get It Wrong, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013), 3.

3 thoughts on “Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get It Wrong, Part 1: Cultural Christianity is dead”

  1. You make a good point about who’s being lost from the Church.

    One of the most frightening passages in the New Testament for me, is when Jesus says, “Depart from me, I never knew you”. The implication is that there are folks who believe they are Christians (belong to Christ) who are not (do not).

    So, what’s a good pastor to do? Keep preaching the Truth and challenging believers to live their faith with prayer, some healthy fear, but also a confident assurance of their eternal reward.

    Trust God, trust the Holy Spirit….

  2. The primary problem with making Christianity “easy to accept” is that it is likely to produce those to whom Christ will say, as Grant points out, “I never knew you.” Multitudes of people believe they are saved when they are not. The main reason is, either nobody told them, or they did not pick up on the fact, that God calls people to a “changed life,” a “new direction” of obedience to God’s commands. It is true that we cannot “earn” salvation, but if we really have received that gift, it will necessarily result in “good works,” as you have said a number of times, Brent, and as James makes very clear in Chapter 2. “Even the demons believe, and at least they tremble!” “But will thou know, oh vain man, that faith without works is dead!” As I have said a number of times, salvation calls for “repentance” as well as “belief.”

  3. Goood Evennnnning Rev B

    Wow. I often described myself as a cultural Catholic and even used same words to describe my patriotism. I didn’t become an American until I studied the Civil War in detail, and the issues both before and after it. I didn’t become a real Christian until just a few years ago when I figured out what it meant to have a king, and have that King die for me. I believe I have posted that here before. I have been baptized three times!! Once as 8-day old, once at 38 and again somewhere near 55 or so. The last one was in the Pacific ocean and that one was for me. I wanted it: not my parents, not my (then) pastor. Me. I did. No body or church mandated it. It was in “wild water” like Jesus was, not some chlorinated pool. So GOOD RIDDANCE cultural Christianity!!!

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