I want to say something in praise of evangelicalism today. Evangelicalism has played an important role in my spiritual formation, and I know from experience that it has done the same in the lives of many others.
The graph of my spiritual history is simple: from mainline Christianity to adolescent rebellion to spiritual awakening through evangelicalism to gradual dissatisfaction with the world of evangelicalism and back home to mainline Christianity.
I have met others who have followed a similar path. Just the other day my pastor told me about a young man who had grown up in the Lutheran church, left the church as a teenager, was “converted” in an evangelical church, then became “burned out” in that church environment, and one day stumbled back into a Lutheran congregation, where he is now settling in as an adult.
Evangelicalism is at its best when it gets the attention of prodigals, gets them moving, and points them toward home. Evangelicalism provides a way station where people weary of the world can stop in, find rest and refreshment, get some guidance, and then find their way home. Evangelicalism has a missional mentality and focus. It is good at attracting people, waking them up, and getting them back in touch with God. It is spiritual CPR. It’s a voice in the wilderness that gets people into the waters of Jordan to repent and believe.
But what happens then? In my opinion, evangelicalism, for reasons often discussed on this blog, works best as a mission but not as a church tradition. In general, it does not have the theological depth, historical heritage, ecclesiological and liturgical traditions, or institutional ballast to provide a stable home where people may be formed into communities with the ability to pass the faith on for generations and centuries.
To be sure, mainline traditions have not always grasped the importance of being that home, nor have they always been keen to support missional efforts to “seek and save the lost,” preferring rather to maintain their traditions and institutions rather than do what was necessary to reach people. Nor have the historic traditions been immune to chasing silly fads or getting distracted by political agendas — though they were certainly different ones than the revivalists, church growth practitioners, and Christian Right of evangelicalism have been running after.
Nevertheless, where liturgy has been faithfully practiced, tradition honored, and historical memory maintained, there is hope of a good foundation and solid structure in which one may leave the pilgrim life for a more permanent home.
Back in 2007, Michael Spencer wrote that this may be the very moment when the mainlines and historic traditions have just what disaffected evangelicals are longing for:
It’s a moment that — believe it or not — some people actually want to go to something that looks like church as they remember it, see a recognizable pastor, hear a recognizable sermon, participate in the Lord’s Supper, experience some reverence and decorum, and leave feeling that, in some ways, it WAS a lot like their mom and dad’s church. It’s a moment when reinventing everything may not be as sweet an idea as we were told it was.
Perhaps it is time for evangelicals and mainline Christians to recognize what each has to offer the other and to work on creatively forging new understandings and partnerships that will allow each to do what it does best.
As for me, I am thankful for both. But only in a historic mainline tradition have I found a home.