Evangelical Activism Turned Workaholism
Bebbington’s book, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, was very interesting and informative. It focused on “the four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.” I also noticed the conflict that was highlighted regarding the defensive posture adopted by late nineteenth-century writers against “High Church doctrine on the priesthood and the sacraments.” Since Evangelicalism is all that I know and am familiar with, it was helpful to understand how it came to be and differed from the High Church in Britain. As someone who has served in full-time church ministry for many years, the part of the book that was most disturbing was the extreme activism encouraged by many evangelicals (which I will address later).
For me, one of the most significant contributions of Evangelicalism is found in the following quote: “Edward Garbett claimed in 1875 that the three cardinal Evangelical principles are the direct contact of the individual soul with God the Father, the freedom and sovereignty of the Holy Ghost and the sole High Priesthood of God the Son. His intent is to repudiate High Church teaching about the role of the priest in mediating the grace of God to the people.” The fact that Evangelicalism eliminated the High Church priest from standing between the believer and God was a gift that I will always be grateful for. I can’t imagine being taught that I need to go to another man in order to mediate my relationship with God. Seeing how this has also been translated by twentieth-century ministers confirms the power of this early Evangelical influence. When asked “What is an Evangelical?, in 1944, Max Warren, General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, gave priority to evangelism over everything else, even worship. The need for conversion, trusting the Holy Spirit to sustain the believer’s new life and the priesthood of all believers were his other three cardinal principles.” Understanding that we are all priests who have full access to the Father made God much more personal and accessible to the ordinary Christian. This also made it possible for Christians to have significant spiritual experiences and influence outside the walls of the formal church building.
Another aspect of Evangelical history highlighted by Bebbington was the extreme obsession with conversions. Ministers had strong convictions about this and preached about the importance of it to the point of feeling the need to be converted themselves. “One clergyman was even converted by his own sermon. Preaching on the Pharisees in his Cornish parish, William Haslam realized that he was no better than they, but then felt light and joy coming into his soul. The cry went up, ‘The parson is converted!’ The experience turned him into an Evangelical.” I had to chuckle at this, especially since many pastors joke about converting each other or having alter calls at pastor’s conferences. Kidding aside, I’m sure as clergy became awakened to the Evangelical movement, their hearts and minds were being transformed as much as their parishioners. What a beautiful example of leading by example as they embraced more fully the work of the Holy Spirit in each person’s life. Although the desire for conversions is noble, the downside of this leads to my disturbing next point.
As Evangelicalism developed, their focus on activism and conversions led them to extreme workaholism. Clergy did whatever they could to create more time for ministry because they felt time was scarce. “A working week of between 90 and 100 hours was expected of men in the nineteenth-century Wesleyan ministry. It is hardly surprising that the connexion maintained a ‘Worn-Out Ministers’ Fund’.” This has been the curse of ministry and the downfall of many pastor’s marriages and families ever since. The idea that we are doing the Lord’s work and therefore it justifies being workaholics is absolutely unhealthy and has done more damage than good to the advancement of the Gospel. When I was in full-time church ministry I was lead to believe that I was on-call 24 hours a day and that the work of the ministry was more important than my own life and family. The same ridiculous hours are expected of pastors today and many still struggle to set healthy boundaries. Due to this lack of healthy balance, many pastors have ended up divorced, estranged from their kids, or destroyed by moral failure. This has been the crime of Evangelicalism on our pastors and churches and needs to be held in check if we are truly wanting to convert the unbeliever. No unbeliever is going to be attracted to a burned out life of broken families and broken bodies.
The last interesting aspect I noticed in the book was the move of many Evangelicals away from higher education in favor of winning souls. “As it was, the quest for souls generally drove Evangelicals out from centers of learning to the parishes and to the foreign mission field.” It is interesting to me that this topic has already been brought to my attention thanks to Kyle in my advisor group focusing on this topic for his area of study. I believe he is wanting to make an impact on Assemblies of God ministers in hopes to create easier opportunities for them to pursue higher education, since his denomination does not emphasize education as much as some others might. It appears this trend away from education in an effort to focus on quickly getting to the ministry of saving lost souls has caused some denominations to be far less educated than others. Although I do believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to equip us for ministry, I think this influence from Evangelicalism has caused some ministers to be ill-equipped for the job at hand. I also believe just because someone is highly educated does not necessarily make them a good minister, but having a balance of training, calling, and the power of the Holy Spirit seems like the best recipe.
 David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, (London: Routledge, 1988) Kindle Locations 127-131.
8 responses to “Evangelical Activism Turned Workaholism”
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Hey Jake- Great post. I appreciate your writing style – organized, clear, insightful and accessible. I think you extrapolated some of the best of Evangelicalism, particularly in the late 19th century quote in the second paragraph. It’s interesting, as Evangelicals in some regard ourselves, it seems we have this love-hate relationship with our heritage. You pointed out some of the consequences of workaholism as a consequence of activism + conversionism. I’m curious about your thoughts on at least one thing. And if you don’t reply that’s okay too. 🙂 1- How does Bebbington’s articulation of “activism” essentially being one of our core values as Evangelicals (at least historically) provide pathway or a theological precedent for helping Evangelicals embrace women’s equality in today’s context?
I guess I would say it will definitely take some bold activism on the part of influential men to make a positive impact on women’s equality.
I was drawn to your discussion on workaholism. Thanks for focusing on that. I believe it is a huge problem today, especially with Pastors. In fact, it causes many to forsake the commandment to take a Sabbath. Funny how God took a rest, but Pastors think they are above it.
I bet in your counseling ministry you see burnout and overworking issues? Wonder how this could be remedied simply by remembering the Sabbath and keeping it Holy.
Thanks again for your writing. It is good to be at this again together…
Hi Jake! Great, thought-provoking post. Your section on workaholism is spot-on. Even in a Christian University, there’s a sense of “mission” over realistic employment expectations. I like to say pastors have an entire congregation of bosses rather than just one. Self-care is such a faith issue in that Christians can be made to feel guilty for saying no or not doing enough. When in fact each person needs to find their balance. I struggle with that – wanting to serve/feeling called to serve in each area of my life – but then feeling overwhelmed and tired. I find myself circling back to prayer and discernment for how much/what to do. Have you found your balance between home/church/counseling at this point?
Balance is a challenge for me as well, but my wife has been a good example to me to take rest and do things that are nurturing to my soul.
I found many of the points you highlighted both interesting a curious. I recognize as you do that Jesus is the only mediator we require and that Evangelicalism helped clarify that understanding. However, it seems that one of the results has been an individualism that is not evident in the New Testament. How do we feel about passages where the centurion comes to faith “and his whole household with him”? Is the father not an intermediary for his family in that instance? What of Philippians 3:17 where Paul suggests that in order to follow Christ the Philippians would do well to follow him? While we may have gained a more direct connection with God we might also have lost a great deal by becoming authorities unto ourselves.
I was also amused by your reference to alter calls at pastor’s conferences. I have been at a conference where this happened and the speaker was not going to give up until he had a good number of people coming forward. In the end I think he had to resort to calling all those who needed oxygen to survive to come forward. (I still refused!) This to me is another weakness of Evangelicalism. The work accomplished by the Holy Spirit becomes a badge of sorts reflecting how spiritual or Christlike those in leadership are. Then when they fall the damage is that much greater.
Lastly, your point about overworked pastors is well taken. I come from a broken family where my father essentially worked himself out of a marriage and my life. I see many of the same tendencies in myself. The desire to be seen to be effective and hard working. One of the issues is the need to justify one’s existence to those that are contributing to a salary. Pastors only really work on Sundays right? Doing more, attending more meetings, running more programs, being available at all hours of the night and day all tap into the need many of us have to be needed.
As I mentioned in my own post Evangelicalism has offered us much. But, there is also much harm that has occurred as a result. We all need to look carefully at how we can create healthier communities without losing the good brought about by the movement.
Thanks so much for your thoughtful response.
Jake, I remember reading about the crazy Wesleyan ministry hours from Bebbington and thinking, “Yep, that about sums up the life of John Wesley and many that followed.” I have worked with pastors who will not preach about sabbath because they don’t take one. I also notice in myself the pressures of needing to work hard and achieve much as a pastor. It’s not a healthy place and I think we have to be reminded often of the need to rest and let God be God.
However, I do think our workaholism in the church today has changed. We are rarely working hard to get souls to know Jesus. It seems our activism is more directed to the inside of the church as a whole. What do you think? Have you experienced this in your context? I wonder if there is a whole different way of doing things that is God ordained and still focuses on the message of the good news…what might that look like?