December 16, 2017

Five Good Thoughts About Evangelicals

leland_pulpit_tbnl.JPGSince I’m newly installed in my permanent pew near the back row of my local SBC church, I’ve been trying to think good thoughts about evangelicals. Given the history of this blog and the general tone of my thinking about Christianity, this has taken some discipline. It’s been remarkable, however, how quickly I have remembered the things I love about evangelicals, and how I have been moved to thank God and pray for my evangelical family.

So what are this post-evangelical’s “Good Thoughts” about evangelicalism?

1. Evangelicalism still understands and preaches the Gospel. With notable and growing exceptions, the Gospel of justification by faith alone, by Christ alone and by grace alone is preached in most evangelical churches. Times are hard, and there are dozens of distortions, omissions and dilutions, but if I had to send a lost person to one church for one shot at hearing the Gospel, I’d send them to an evangelical church, and probably a Baptist or Presbyterian one.

Of all the things evangelicals should fight for, this is, and always must be, the top of the list.

2. Evangelicalism pursues missions and evangelism as an unquestioned outgrowth of believing the Gospel
. There’s no question that evangelicals understand the New Testament’s vision for evangelizing the world of unbelievers, starting church planting movements and making missions of all kinds a priority of the people of God. When I go to my church, I will always hear about missions and evangelism, and I will always be reminded to pray, give, support and go, if possible.

A Christianity without a burning passion for evangelizing a lost world and planting churches among unreached peoples is dead. Evangelicalism may be deeply flawed, but this much of the New Testament message survives and thrives today. I have come to believe that it may be theology as missions, not theology as polemic, that holds the greatest potential for renewing and rescuing evangelicalism.

Pray for more missions, more church planting, more missionaries and more focus on completing the task. The deadness of many churches to the cause of missions and evangelism speaks volumes about where the Spirit is at work.

3. Evangelicalism believes in the priority of the Bible as the authority for the Christian, and the teaching of the Bible remains a priority among evangelicalism. Again, this strength is under assault, and all is far from well, but evangelicalism places the teaching and authority of the Bible where it ought to be: in the center of worship and church life. Evangelicals may have problems with unity, confessionalism and “every man and his Bible a pope,” but evangelicals prefer to pay the price to live out the implications of soul competency and the priesthood of the believer.

If you are going to be an evangelical, you will have to sort out the church and the preacher that are faithful to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Sometimes, that process will not be easy. But the fact is that many other churches retain the reading of the Bible, but the authority and preaching/teaching of the Bible are absent.

It is among evangelicals that I still sense the preservation of the true reformation spirit: Christian in heritage, reformation in theology, but always reforming in accordance with the living Word of God.

4. The heritage of hymnody. When we actually get ahold of it and don’t throw it out for the current menu of contemporary “worship” music, evangelicals have an unsurpassed heritage of worship music that expresses the best of Biblical theology and the best of human response to God.

If you think this is a small thing, go to your local Roman Catholic church and see what’s happened to worship music since Vatican II.

Trust me; our hymnody will survive. It’s beautiful and powerful. Ninety-nine percent of the current crop of contemporary music will be gone in five years, but the heritage of hymnody will survive. Do all you can to promote it and preserve it. It is a real treasure.

5. Evangelicals have a diversity that reflects the true nature of the church. Evangelicals fail a hundred ways when it comes to unity. I’ve written a book or two on that topic. But there is a counter-point, and that is diversity. The work of the Holy Spirit isn’t to turn every church into an identical church or every Christian into an identical Christian. When you go to a truly ecumenical gathering of evangelicals, there is a recognition that the diversity present is the work of the Holy Spirit.

I was reading a newspaper from a particular authoritarian, hierarchical denomination, and a crisis had appeared. A church somewhere in the world was serving the Eucharist to people while they were seated, rather than to people who stood and walked forward. The head of that church sent a letter from headquarters: conform to the rules or be disciplined.

Evangelicals are high church, low church; charismatic, reformed; small, large; expressive, reserved; sophisticated, simple. The list goes on. There is a real majesty to evangelical diversity (and all it needs is the right kind of confessional unity.)

I’m glad that evangelicals value diversity, and I pray that we can learn the proper role of unity so that celebration won’t be about chaos and contradiction. We have a long way to go in that process, and some evangelicals have embraced an ugly, hurtful false form of unity and rejected the diversity that God himself allows and creates. I am glad to be an evangelical in a very diverse movement of evangelicals seeking to be formed by the Holy Spirit, the Word and ultimately, Jesus Christ.

NOTE: There are a whole crop of Southern Baptists that are annoyed at being called evangelicals or Evangelicals or anything but Baptists. I get it, but I can’t buy it.

Comments

  1. Michael, thanks for the comments. There is so much bashing of the church going on today in the blogosphere, and while much of it is valid we need to keep it in perspective. There are still a lot of good things happening, and you have identified some of those. Thanks for keeping a balanced view and reminding that there is much to still praise in the evangelical world

  2. Amen. This is why I try to resist the temptation myself to do down (non-Lutheran) evangelicals, which can be something of a spectator sport at time among Lutherans, and why I am unembarrassed to use the term “evangelical” to describe myself.

    I haven’t the slightest wish to dissociate myself from the tradition that has given us Whitefield, the Wesleys, Charles Simeon, JC Ryle, John Stott, Don Carson etc. etc. etc., even if I have points of disagreement (and sometimes quite vigorous disagreement, as you know :-)) with them.

  3. “A church somewhere in the world was serving the Eucharist to people while they were seated, rather than to people who stood and walked forward.”

    *gasp* People sit down in church?!

    (Note: yes, I finally made the leap into full communion with the Eastern Orthodox Church; no, you shouldn’t consider anything I say to be normative of EOC views, as I am still a very ignorant man—in fact, even the above comment doesn’t pan out completely: I visited a Greek cathedral a while back with pews, complete with kneelers!)

    Anyway, it’s good to be reminded of what is good in Evangelicalism. It can be hard, sometimes, to not want to just discard Evangelicalism as so much silliness (even with the fact that my family is still all Evangelical).

  4. I’ve been a self-proclaimed “evangelical” for 33 years, even though I wasn’t always sure what that word meant. Even in a conservative seminary, we spent a whole class period trying to define it, only to come down to it’s all about the a personal relationship with Jesus, a commitment to the word of God, and a heart for the world (Word, word, world–it preaches). Personally, I kind of default to John 1:17b, “grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.”

    I don’t know if I’m “post-evangelical” yet or not, but I definitely am not “evangelicultural.” I think that’s the rub–I am confidently evangelical on matters of belief; I am embarassed by many evangelical cultural practices. The problem is that our identity as “evangelicals” is more defined in our media generation by our cultural practices, and less by our beliefs.

    What I want is what is suggested in your “Five Good Points.” Not a credal forumla, but in the same way the TRs have their TULIP, I would like a creative and widely-acceptable statement of core beliefs that could define this movement for all who call themselves “evangelical”. In that spirit, I came up once with the “Seven Essences” of evangelicalism, but it just didn’t rise to the mnemonic power of TULIP. Each of the seven points (seven is a much more biblical and God-pleasing number than five) started with the letter “S” (“ess”ences…get it?), but it was just too awkward.

    Anyway, perhaps your “Five Good Points” reminded me again of my hope for definition. I realized in reading your points something that I had never considered before. Perhaps evangelical distinctiveness is not just about “doctrine,” but needs to embrace some semi-cultural issues, too, such as our rich heritage of hymnody and music, or even the idea of diversity. I don’t know, but I think it would be very nice to be able to say I’m a “Seven Point Evangelical” and receive knowing looks of immediate understanding. Or not, but it still would be nice.

  5. Michael, thanks for this post. I grew up in evangelicalism. After being exposed to a much broader, more ecumenical Christianity in college, and reading lots (including BHT and your blog), I reached a point where I really didn’t care to identify myself as an evangelical anymore, and I would almost say I despised it a bit.

    This post is a great reminder that there is much to be thankful for in my evangelical upbringing. I still have significant issues with many parts of evangelicalism–the lack of appreciation for the church year and the historical liturgy, the almost unquestioned support of the GOP and the lame pop music masquerading as worship these days–but there is also a lot that is right in evangelicalism, and you listed those things in this post.

    This post also reminded me why I’m so grateful for my church back at home in Seattle (I’m living in China at the moment…)–it’s evangelical in the sense of the things you have listed here but not in the sense of the things I find troubling in mainstream evangelicalism.

    Thanks for the writing, as always.

  6. Michael,

    thank you for this post.

    Have a question. I was not familiar with the term “soul competency” so I looked it up in Wikipedia. Here is the paragraph that made me pause:

    Before the Protestant Reformation, the Church was seen as having authority over the interpretation of the Bible. The magisterial Reformers, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, translated the Bible into the common language so as to allow the laity to read it and understand. However, they did not so much attack the authority of the church in interpreting and teaching Scripture as perceived abuses by the church of Rome. Baptists with the doctrine of soul competency went further, denying any church the authority or responsibility to teach people the truth that they need in order to be saved.

    It’s this last sentence which startled me. No church has the authority or responsibility to teach the truth?

    Surely that is overstating it. No church has the authority to compel the conscience, but certainly the church, any church, has the authority to preach and teach the gospel and the truth about salvation?

    Of course, Wikipedia is not exactly THE authority on theology, but if that statement is inaccurate it needs to be corrected.

  7. Soul competency is one of the most misunderstood of historic Baptist distinctives. I’m not qualified to give a full answer. It does not mean that churches should not seek confessional unity, but it does recognize the limits of any form of external unity upon individuals.

    The Wikipedia description is deficient.

    The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message revision contained these sentences: “”Baptists cherish and defend religious liberty, and deny the right of any secular or religious authority to impose a confession of faith upon a church or body of churches. We honor the principles of soul competency and the priesthood of believers, affirming together both our liberty in Christ and our accountability to each other under the Word of God.”

    To me, it simply stands against the Catholic view that the church is necessary for a believer to have sufficient truth. IOWs it is an expression of sola scriptura and religious liberty.

  8. “Evangelicalism still understands and preaches the Gospel.”

    As someone who lives thousands of Kilometres away from the USA and on the other side of the world, allow me to question you on this.

    * If this is true, then surely the mounds of popular Christian literature that are consumed by the American church should, in fact, not just contain the Gospel, but be driven by it?

    * What of the churches, movements and preachers that are considered to be the most influential in the US? Are they being driven by the Gospel? (Joel Osteen obviously comes to mind here)

    * When unbelievers are queried about evangelicalism, what would they say are the most salient points of evangelical belief as communicated to them? Is it the Gospel? Or is it Homosexuality / Abortion / Evolution?

    * Why is there a major disparity between the amount of “Born Again Christians” in America (35-40%) and the amount of “Evangelical Christians” (7%)? see: http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=Topic&TopicID=8 and http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=186

  9. For 7 years I’ve been chronicling what’s wrong with evangelicalism. There are many problems and things are not improving. That said, evangelicalism is more represented by men like Warren, Swindoll, Macarthur, and Driscoll than by Osteen. If you want to hear the Gospel, your best bet is a church that would be evangelical in some way. But you are correct that the situation is declining.

    I have no idea what unbelievers would say. That totally depends on whether they have a personal experience or are just exposed to information in the media. The media see evangelicals as primarily culture warriors and political activists. Those who are part of some exposure to evangelical churches would see a lot more than that, but too much of that.

    I wouldn’t pay any attention to Barna. All that research shows is that many people aren’t familar with the term evangelical, which is no surprise.

  10. Michael,

    Check out the Barna links and examine the methodology. I’m no fan of Barna, but the questions asked in the survey are quite good. For starters they don’t ask whether a person is “born again” or “evangelical”, but whether they adhere to a certain set of beliefs. I find it quite compelling. 7% of Americans seem to be Evangelicals – a number that has not risen since 1994.

  11. “For 7 years I’ve been chronicling what’s wrong with evangelicalism. There are many problems and things are not improving.”

    That’s your trademark Michael!

  12. Mike, I’m not an Evangelical anymore, but I was raised among them, and I’ve spent much of my time as a Catholic praising them for exactly the sort of things you just mentioned. Often I wish we were more like Evangelicals in those same areas.

  13. Thanks for these good thoughts on evangelicalism. Despite the generally woeful state of much evangelicalism, lamentable indeed, you highlight some helpful reminders that give cause for serious reflection.

  14. Almost thou persuadest me to be an (enthusiastic) evangelical.

  15. Don Hendricks says:

    I can’t believe you would be able to find a back pew empty after returning. Those pews are historically precious. Did you push someone out that is angry with you? Great post, and you describe why I am still in this Evangelical Church.

    Don

  16. “When we actually get ahold of it and don’t throw it out for the current menu of contemporary “worship” music, evangelicals have an unsurpassed heritage of worship music that expresses the best of Biblical theology and the best of human response to God.

    “If you think this is a small thing, go to your local Roman Catholic church and see what’s happened to worship music since Vatican II.”

    That’s really not fair.

    Your comparing the best of the Evangelical music (as you admit when you say “When we actually…”) with the average Sunday at a Roman Catholic Church.