November 20, 2018

Monday with Michael Spencer: How to Talk (and Not to Talk) to Evangelicals on a Journey

Morning Path from Gethsemani (2017)

Monday with Michael Spencer
How to Talk (and Not to Talk) to Evangelicals on a Journey
From 2009

Dear Well-Meaning Non-Evangelical Friend,

Please sit down, have a cup of tea or coffee…and listen.

I see that you’ve responded to some of us who are pilgrims in the evangelical community and who are on a journey within and perhaps beyond evangelicalism. You’ve offered up some “help” in the form of advice, comments, explanations and so forth.

If possible, I’d like to encourage you to consider a few matters that could prove useful to our shared ultimate goal of knowing the Trinitarian God and following Jesus.

1. It’s possible you may be able to claim a few of us for your particular church by arguing with us over the specifics of doctrine. There are some among us who are in the mood to be convinced. But you are making a mistake, in my view, in regard to most of us with this approach. Your assumption that we need to be battered with the clubs of better logic and more knowledge is not the pleasant experience you apparently remember it to be. Let us have a process that operates under our terms and with our perception of the leadership of the Holy Spirit. If this is an episode of Bounty Hunter, tell us.

2. If you are delighted to have laid down all your doubts and questions at the feed of the LCMS, the RCC or EO, that’s wonderful. Again, don’t assume that’s our journey or will be. There are many ways for persons like ourselves to appropriate and experience your tradition without joining. There is considerable evidence that a continual trail of “joining,” is not what many of us are looking for at all, as we have seen that in more than a few of our number, with less than impressive results.

3. Many of us share a suspicion that the submission of mind and curiosity to a specific authority or tradition may not be as easy for us as it has been for you. It is not a characteristic we all share when it comes to human traditions and institutions. Many of us can safely say we will never pray to Mary, believe in purgatory or practice closed communion. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t still on this journey. Louder announcements of circular authority claims have a similar problem. Your (or our) decisions to accept claims of a “pure Gospel” or an “infallible authority” don’t qualify as “pure” or “infallible” for many of us.

4. Our heroes in this journey are not always converts. They are often evangelicals who remained evangelicals or pilgrims who kept moving and never settled. We may find a “half-way house” in Anglicanism or the ELCA and stay there. We are not as interested in being the trophies of a tradition as we are in seeing some aspect of Christ that we can only see through something your tradition has preserved for us.

5. We are not fools when it comes to the Eucharist (or baptism.) We’re not looking at the obvious and refusing to see. Explain us as you wish, but we see what we see (and vice versa) for reasons that are a mixture of influence, environment, authority, education, exposure and consideration. There is nothing quite so frustrating as to be read, for the 500th time for many of us, the plain statements of scripture that have divided Christians for centuries, and to do so as if we’ve just never actually paid attention to what Jesus says in John 6. It’s a habit that should never appear in a discussion among friends. Take it for granted that we have examined the scriptures many, many times and will continue to do so.

6. Answer our questions as real questions, not as invitations to evangelize us.

7. Should we be wrong about your tradition in some statement we make, correct us with grace and a recognition that we are understandably at a disadvantage.

8. What was the answer to your journey is not going to be the answer to our own. If you send us a collection of convert essays to create conversion envy, or if you take a small move on our part as a sign that we are ready to sign up, you’ve misjudged.

9. What we value as good in our tradition- evangelism, missions, church-planting, preaching, singing, etc.- we are not likely to abandon for your version of the same thing without some lamentation and complaint. Whatever we take from you, realize that those of us who value where we’ve been and what God has done in our life in the past respect what formed us.

10. I learned long ago that two people may fight one another, but attack one of them and both will turn on you. We may be severe on our own evangelical tradition, but don’t assume that means we are ready to join you in your criticism of the same. That may be unfair, but it’s very human.

Thanks for listening,

Michael

Comments

  1. Richard Hershberger says:

    Very interesting. I had forgotten this essay. Michael, like the rest of us, had his blind spots. Many of these items are complaints about being evangelized. This is understandable. The vast majority of encounters of being evangelized are uncomfortable at best and frequently downright offensive. Yet there in paragraph 9, he lists being on the evangelizer side of the interaction as something he is unwilling to give up. There is a connection to be made there, but not in this essay.

    This brings us to paragraphs 6 and 7. Starting with 7, Evangelicals have happily told me my entire life about the perceived deficiencies of my church. The monologue (I refuse to characterize this as a “discussion”) starts with “spiritually dead,” moves on to “apostate church,” and then really goes down hill. If you want to have an honest discussion in good faith, you have some heavy lifting to establish bona fides. And paragraph 6? I would assume going into this discussion that it was a set-up for evangelism. This is why I start backing toward the nearest exit. This too is why you have trouble with paragraph 7. The paragraph 6 complaint that the roles might be reversed? Who says Americans don’t do irony?

  2. I wonder how many of us here at iMonk were, at one time, one of the people Michael was addressing, before becoming a person who then agreed with his points. I hate to admit it, but I was once like this. So unhealthy.

  3. seneca griggs says:

    That’s why I do NOT attack people – even though with whom I enthusiastically disagree. But I do not agree with the pigeon holing of Evangelicals by those on the liberal left who seem to feel they are the only ones being wrongly pigeon-holed.
    ___________

    A brief example; if you trumpet that conservative Evangelicals are all ardent Trump supporters, you are remarkably ill-informed.

    • –> “A brief example; if you trumpet that conservative Evangelicals are all ardent Trump supporters, you are remarkably ill-informed.”

      An excellent point, Seneca. And as a point of personal reference, I’d say my circle of church friends is probably a mix of: 33% Trump haters, 33% voted Trump but not sure they like all he’s doing, 20% love Trump and all he’s doing, and the rest I’m not sure…LOL.

      My breakdown just made me realize: I don’t know of a single person – NOT ONE – who voted against Trump and now like him as president. (While I know of several who DID vote for him and now kinda lament that decision.)

    • I don’t see that anything in Spencer’s post has anything remotely to do with partisan politics. You brought up politics, and Trump, seneca. Don’t complain if the discussion gets even more political in response. What started with pigeon holes may end up in a political rabbit hole, as a result of your leading.

    • Ronald Avra says:

      Jimmy, it’s rather disingenuous to assert that you don’t attack people. It is very similar to bulldozing the neighborhood and talking about property development and increasing rent revenue, while pretending the displaced population doesn’t exist. No you don’t attack persons; you’re too accomplished a thug for that.

  4. Heather Angus says:

    “Your assumption that we need to be battered with the clubs of better logic and more knowledge is not the pleasant experience you apparently remember it to be. Let us have a process that operates under our terms and with our perception of the leadership of the Holy Spirit. If this is an episode of Bounty Hunter, tell us.”

    I loved Michael’s dry humor.

    My experiences with people trying to convert me (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Hare Krishnas, and fundamentalist Christians) have been interesting to me, and I generally learned a good deal. But sometimes my interest gave them the idea they were succeeding in converting me, and I regretted I’d listened so long.

    • Heather,

      We always invite the Jehovah’s witnesses and Mormons in when they come. The Mormons are usually young adults so I usually guide the conversation to Idaho/Utah or wherever they are from and sometimes we talk about the whole sealing process (as this is what they are doing when they baptize the dead – those activities leading up to that have helped me immensely in my genealogy research).

      The Jehovah Witnesses are usually older so they are more fun… respectfully we usually turn the conversation to Eucharist (Catholic) and that usually gets them a bit off kilter.

      I have great discussions with mainlines because they (especially the Presbyterians) know their Church history. I don’t do non-denoms unless I want to get shouted at.

      My most favorite though are discussions with knowledgeable EOs since my mystical Christianity bent tends to line up with that theology….

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > I don’t do non-denoms unless I want to get shouted at.

        True that.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          “Non-denom” as in Fundamental Baptist with the labels filed off or as in Calvary Chapel with the labels painted over?

    • Christiane says:

      “9. What we value as good in our tradition- evangelism, missions, church-planting, preaching, singing, etc.- we are not likely to abandon for your version of the same thing without some lamentation and complaint. Whatever we take from you, realize that those of us who value where we’ve been and what God has done in our life in the past respect what formed us.”

      so someone comes out of their cozy room into the Great Hall and you encounter them in conversation, not knowing much about their own faith tradition as a ‘whole’

      Always did have trouble ‘understanding’ because I needed to comprehend the ‘Whole’ before I could see how the “Parts” inter-related and this has led to a lot of inquiry of those for whom I felt I needed to hear from directly rather than to just ‘read about’ or worse, ‘assume’ from what I already ‘knew’.

      On the whole (pardon the pun), is always better to ponder what a person has told you themselves that they find meaningful. It’s the trying to connect what they have told you up with their bigger picture (context) that sometimes give trouble

      pieces of a puzzle . . . saved and held . . . and someday comes another piece that ‘fits’ and then the picture very, very slowly takes form over time if one is patient and this ONLY WORKS in the realm of the RESPECTFUL. Why? Because what IS meaningful to another must be valued not for itself but because the person has found in it something to hold on to for a time. And for them, that is important. And for THEIR sake, it becomes important also to you.

      ‘Understanding’ has a lot more of “love” to it than of ‘being right’.
      So it is said: it is BETTER to understand than to be understood. 🙂

  5. Steve Newell says:

    One thing that you get when you start this journey is a sense of history. Americanized Christianity has no place for history. When is the last time one of the three ecumenical creeds where recited? When was the last time a study was on done based on the early church fathers?

    Not understanding Christian history, thought, and teachings from the early Church to the 20th century is like claiming t understand world history by you only studied American history from 1776 on.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      “No place for history” results in NO History; without a historical trace, the Holy Book becomes just another mythological past, a book of fairy tales “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away”, completely detached from current reality. And with no history comes no institutional memory — and constantly going back to Year Zero and reinventing the wheel.