the legacy of the evangelical conscience
Reading Time: 9 minutes (Denny Müller.)


Ronald Sider laid out some devastating criticisms of evangelical culture in his 2005 book. But since then, nothing has changed—at least, for the better. Lots has changed for the worse.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been examining a 2005 book by Ronald J. Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. As he saw it, the ‘scandal’ involved widespread evangelical hypocrisy. To solve that scandal, he suggested a whole bunch of authoritarian measures that church leaders needed to implement. Now, fifteen years later, let’s see how well Ronald J. Sider’s suggestions went. How many leaders took his suggestions? How’d that go? Has his corner of the Christianity sandbox improved since then — or not? Today, let’s check out the legacy of The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.

(For the most part, the posts in this series apply to Christians who believe in Hell. Quotes from the book come from its 2005 hardback edition.)

(Previous “Scandal” posts: Overview of the BookMeasuring Evangelical HypocrisyThe Myth of Original Christianity Underlying the BookSolving Exactly the Wrong Problems in EvangelicalismHow Hell-Belief Leads to HypocrisyBiff and the MormonsFixing Broken Authoritarianism (Requires More Authoritarianism)One Denomination to Rule Them All Won’t Happen; The Real Scandal.)

Endorsements galore for The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience

When The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience came out, many evangelicals embraced it wholeheartedly. In fact, I found a list of big-name Christians and groups endorsing Sider’s work. Here’s a taste of what they said about it:

  • “An impressive critique of this scandal. [. . .] This book is a call to repentance and renewal.” (Myron S. Augsburger, president emeritus of Eastern Mennonite University)
  • “For the good of society–and perhaps even for the sake of our souls–we had better take notice.” (Randall Balmer, Christian author)
  • “If you’ve ever wondered why today’s evangelicals lack the societal influence their numbers would seem to bestow, Ron Sider offers an answer. [. . .]” (Duane Litfin, president of Wheaton College)
  • “Urge [your church leaders] to take up these serious challenges.” (David Neff, editor & VP of Christianity Today)
  • “This book is strong medicine–a diagnosis that will take your breath away, but also a prescription that could make the difference between life and death for biblical faith in America.” (Andrew Crouch, former editor of Re:generation Quarterly)

There’s lots more in the list, but hopefully I made my point. At the time this book came out, a whole lot of evangelical leaders at least sounded like they agreed completely with what Sider had to say. Overall, reviews clearly indicated that Sider had single-handedly saved evangelicalism.

And how had he saved it, one asks?

The solutions Sider called for in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience

In Chapter 4 of his book, Ronald J. Sider suggests the following “Practical Steps” for churches.

  • Increase the number of small groups
  • Vastly increase the power of these groups over members
  • Return to church discipline, old-school style
  • Make it harder to join a church (f.e., require classes, Catholic-style)
  • Every nondenominational church needs to join a formal denomination
  • Parachurch organizations need to appoint a sorta-kinda “evangelical Pope” to oversee them
  • Christians need to start giving way more money to their churches
  • Poverty tourism — er, sorry, short-term mission trips to very disadvantaged areas

To seal the deal, he all but guarantees personally that churches that take these steps will experience massive growth. Repeatedly, he tells his readers: Do what I say, and your churches will grow! Grow grow grow! Totally, you’ll be amazed!

In fact, I’d excuse any Christian readers of The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience who came away thinking that unless they took his suggestions, their churches would wither away and die. Really, he’s that emphatic.

Given how popular this book was when it was published, and the vocal praise it earned from big-name Christian leaders, one would think that it has tangibly effected evangelical leadership and church culture, right?

Yeah, about that…

Small groups recommended in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience

Nowadays, small group operation and management remains a cottage industry in post-decline evangelicalism. Outreach Magazine maintains a tag for the topic. On that tag, I see some very familiar names dotting its bylines. In fact, I notice a lot of businesses catering to the small-group trend (like this one). So it sounds like the people who make money from selling resources relating to small group operation and management are doing all right, at least!

Balancing that perception, we have occasional opinion pieces like “Why Churches Should Euthanize Small Groups” by Brian Jones. Written in 2011, this post of his outlines the problems we’ve already seen in this social dynamic. In the end, he still comes out in favor of small groups — he simply renames them and rejiggers their composition somewhat. That’s not an uncommon tactic.

From what I can see, small groups continue to be a thing in evangelicalism.

Overall, it sounds like most churches have small groups for the same reason they have a youth ministry: their members just think churches should have these features. It doesn’t sound like most of them ever became the Big Brother juggernauts that Sider envisioned — thank goodness.

That said, the pandemic might lead to a resurgence in small groups. At least, that’s what Chris Surratt, who works as LifeWay’s discipleship and small groups specialist, thinks. I’m sure he’s completely unbiased.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience demanded increase church discipline

On the topic of church discipline, it seems like evangelical pastors are grabbing for more than ever before. A few years ago, we examined the topic of church discipline and found it very seriously lacking. Instead of leading to increased Jesus-osity, church discipline led invariably to abuse, overreach, and shocking hypocrisy. The more power Christian leaders claimed, the worse it went for their followers.

That’s still going on, of course. This suggestion of Sider’s went over very well with evangelicals. Since their peak, they’ve only slammed down harder on the idea of policing and punishing each other in the name of their ever-forgiving, ever-meek, ever-loving godling. Thousands and thousands of pastoral posts exist online rationalizing the practice and giving instructions for how to do it. Most evangelical churches seem to have a church discipline policy, though they don’t use it very often.

They’ve developed some truly impressive hand-waving to explain why the very worst scandals seem to hit churches that go in for this sickening practice, much of it involving an invisible boogeyman who hates them extra for Jesus-ing so splendidly well.

Evangelicalism, as a movement, is simply a series of control-grabs made by men who absolutely do not deserve that kind of power. So I’m not sure I want to award Sider a point here. It’s not hard to guess that evangelical leaders will love and embrace anything giving them permission to clamp down harder on their flocks.

Calls for nondenominational and parachurch unity

In The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Sider wanted nondenominational churches to join denominations. He also wanted all parachurch organizations (like campus evangelism groups) to join a big umbrella group that would rule them all.

LOL nope. Didn’t happen.

Christians are still a howling mess of different voices and different hands pulling different ropes in wholly different directions. They are still a hotbed of bickering, infighting, and squabbling.

Nothing whatsoever changed there, probably for the reasons I’ve named before.

(See also: This Gallup poll.)

How The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience describes co-housing

Sider wanted Christian families to “co-house” so they could spend more money on tithing.

Yeah, that absolutely positively did not happen — except in a really culty, creepy way.

Xenos Christian Fellowship very famously has young Christians living in communal homes that the church very coincidentally owns and rents out to these young adults.

But Xenos doesn’t seem to be putting all that rent money toward charity, and the tenants don’t have any extra money to tithe more as a result of their co-housing.

Some other culty evangelicals have gone in for the so-called “Benedict option,” which involves them withdrawing from society to form Amish-style communities. These don’t typically go well for members, but it’s not truly communal living as Sider envisions it anyway. Whatever profits these communities’ leaders enjoy, they don’t put it toward charity either (as far as I’ve been able to tell).

Poorism ahoy!

Sider thought that if more evangelicals went on short-term mission trips to disadvantaged areas, that’d help them become more compassionate and charitable at home.

Since then, short-term missions have become another cottage industry in post-decline evangelicalism. Millions of teens and college students have attended these programs over the years. A Baylor University writeup tells us that the number of people engaging in these trips has skyrocketed from 540 in 1965 to 1.5M a year as of 2011 — and it only went up from there. All these short-term missionaries spend billions of dollars a year on these trips.

And none of it seems to have led to better retention of young adults, more charitable giving, or even more conversions in those countries. Despite millions of young Christians going on these trips, they’re not an appreciably better bunch of people, nor do they seem like they follow the Jesus lifestyle better for having gone.

Gosh, y’all! Who’d’a thunk that someone who can’t figure out compassion and charity at home wouldn’t magically figure it out after a two-week-long, carefully-curated tourist trip?

The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience wants to make it even harder to sell Christians’ only product

Sider spoke lovingly of the practices of much earlier Christians. In his description, the earliest churches put new converts through very long classes about How to Jesus. After a long period of instruction, churches finally baptized new members on Easter Sunday.

So, Sider thinks that if evangelical churches offered more of a barrier to joining, then recruits would value evangelists’ product more than they currently do.

Let’s just ask the Catholics about that, shall we? Has their practice of super-long classes and rites and declarations led to overwhelming bunches of new converts? Does this barrier to entry reduce churn in Catholicism?

Seems not.

I know some evangelical churches are starting to do group baptisms like every month instead of a piecemeal one-at-a-time baptisms on any given Sunday. Others have instituted new-convert classes that they hope will fast-track a new member into becoming a consistent tither and pew-warmer.

They hope.

But it doesn’t seem like any of this stuff is working either.

Their numbers just keep declining.

Enthusiasm minus knowledge equals failure

A long, long time ago (late 1990s), I worked at a call center. One day, my boss told me to sit in on a conference meeting with the manufacturers of the product I supported. (Its name appears somewhere on this link. Your hint: its target market couldn’t actually remember or pronounce its name despite it being plastered on every visible component.) This meeting represented a big honor, one I’d earned by being very knowledgeable.

These engineers wanted to hear support technicians’ input concerning their goojie. How could they improve it?

Halfway through the meeting, I held up a hand. “Wait,” I said to the engineer describing the creation process of this goojie’s many models. “Can you please elaborate on that last bit? Did you just say that nobody tests each model first to make sure everything works together before shipping it out? Does anybody even make sure each model can boot?” (One recent model couldn’t.)

My superpower might be creating awkward pauses in conversation.

After a long quiet moment, the engineer coughed a bit and replied that no, they never tested anything. They just put various components into the goojie and shipped it out to big-box stores to sell to consumers who hopefully had no idea how to use goojies at all.

I promptly suggested that maybe testing each model for parts compatibility might be a really good idea. A few months later, our call volume spiked higher than ever with the company’s holiday offerings. That’s when I knew they hadn’t taken my idea on board.

Untested ideas tend not to work well

The same exact thing happens in Christianity, except the leaders don’t ever want any input from their front-line drones.

Leaders like Ronald J. Sider don’t actually test their suggestions. They just go for whatever sounds the most Jesus-y, which translates to whatever option sounds the most authoritarian and controlling.

All these leaders just keep churning out these ideas, but none of them care if the ideas work or not. If the idea works, great! They take credit. If it doesn’t work, also great! They made their money, and now their marks are even more desperate to buy something to fix the problem.

When I began hearing evangelicals grumble about public education, I heard them slam it as a “vast social experiment.” They complained about bureaucrats “pushing untested ideas on kids.” Those are phrases I remember hearing from them years and years ago.

If only evangelicals had the same problem with their hucksters’ promises about reversing evangelical churn.

The ultimate legacy of The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience

Overall, I don’t think Scandal changed much at all about evangelicalism. It tilted them further into authoritarianism, perhaps. Maybe it gave evangelical leaders more permission to become even more controlling toward their flocks. Otherwise, it seems like Scandal attracted great interest, then lost it.

That’s all that happens with every one of these totally-for-realsies game-changing books, though, isn’t it?

Every time I see some new Christian book out promising up and down to change readers’ lives, I just laugh. They won’t. They never do. Everyone gets all ruffled up about it, maybe some new internet keyboard warriors adopt the book’s catchphrases, but nothing ever really changes.

Gee, it’s too bad that “Jesus” can’t inspire any evangelicals to write a book that actually does change everything.

NEXT UP: How evangelicals try to gatekeep the title of evangelical itself to make their numbers look better. See you tomorrow!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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