Just because I left evangelicalism as a church system and culture several years ago and was willing to hang around in the wilderness rather than go back doesn’t mean I’m an ingrate. People can move on without blowing up the bridge behind them and calling the whole sojourn in one’s former land a total waste. Though I might have chosen a different route from the beginning had I known what I know now, the plain fact is that I did not know it then. The learning only comes through the journey. Finding a good path often requires trying a number of paths that may lead one places he doesn’t want to go.
A lot of our clinicians in home health care use GPS systems to help them find their way around. Many swear by them. I think GPS’s are great too, especially for those who work at night. But I have never wanted one. We get written directions, and usually they suffice. I can read a map. I have a decent sense of direction. But even when all those things fail, I have this old-fashioned notion (some call it a “guy thing”) that I should try to figure it out. That way, even if I make mistakes (which I inevitably do), it is better for me to make them and try the wrong routes, because in the process I will become more familiar with my surroundings and when I do find the right way it will be more ingrained in my mind. I’ll find it much easier to remember the way next time. The journey itself teaches the way.
Most of my spiritual journey as an adult has been on roads paved by American evangelicalism, through the evangelical countryside, towns and cities. I finally decided it was not where I should settle down. That decision should not lead anyone to infer that I didn’t have a lot of great experiences there, meet a lot of wonderful people, and learn many important lessons. It was most definitely not a wasted trip. There is a lot I’m thankful for.
So today, I want to pause for a few moments to reflect on some of those things I’m grateful for in my journey through that land.
1. Evangelicalism is where I found a personal faith.
Evangelicalism is strong on personal conversion, and I am one of the fish its nets caught. As Scot McKnight writes, “The irreducible minimum of evangelicalism is the gospel and the need to respond to the gospel and the work of God in the new birth.” Now, I’ll admit that I have come to interpret my teenage experience of “conversion” differently than this, nevertheless the fact remains: at that point in my life I was headed away from God on a path to destruction, and it was an evangelical message that stopped me in my tracks and turned me around.
My life has never been the same. It was from that point that I began to study the Bible, sing Christ’s praises, serve in the church, and take steps toward vocational ministry. It became personal for me. I owe the people in those evangelical churches who loved me as an insecure and unsettled young man a great debt for befriending me and pointing me to Christ.
The sermon that finally got my attention was from Genesis 3:9, where God calls out, “Adam, where are you?” The preacher said we should think about this: Why did God ask that question? Didn’t he know where Adam was already? Of course he did, but Adam didn’t know he where he was! It was God’s question that made him realize he was lost and hiding from God. Hearing those words to Adam, I thought the preacher was speaking directly to me. Personally. That’s when the wonder returned, when the child who used to sit wide-eyed in the sanctuary was reawakened. That was the very moment the prodigal “came to his senses” and arose.
Years later I spoke to a man who had been in a traditional mainline church — the same church I had attended a couple of years before my spiritual turn-around experience. This man had a similar experience in that congregation. God met him, turned him around, and set him on a path toward a life of ministry. It was not a revivalistic evangelical church like the Baptist church where God got my attention, but nevertheless it happened.
Maybe something like that would have taken place for me had I not gone to that Baptist church. I cannot say what God might have done, though I’m convinced he would have helped me find my way home and make the promise of my baptism real in my life. What I can say is that a group of young people in an evangelical church cared enough about one of their struggling peers to invite him to church, the youth choir and Bible study welcomed and befriended him, and the services of the church pointed him to Jesus as the One who would give grace, forgiveness, and a new start.
For this I give thanks.
2. Evangelicalism is where I learned to love the Bible and studying it.
From the outset of my life in evangelicalism, I was blessed with teachers who conveyed a deep love for the Bible. My first youth pastor emphasized studying books of the Bible. We became connected with a minister in New England who had a tape ministry, and we spent hours listening to his studies. The pastor who became my first mentor in ministry was an outstanding Bible teacher and we sat under his instruction every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and on Wednesday nights. I attended a Bible college that gave me invaluable tools for understanding the Scriptures and was instrumental in preparing me to begin a life of study and teaching. When I got to seminary several years later, it was my privilege to sit under some of the greatest evangelical professors in the world — Walter Kaiser, John Sailhamer, Grant Osborne, Scot McKnight, Walter Liefeld, Doug Moo, and D.A. Carson among them. John Stott visited our school each winter to preach and teach, and in chapel we were exposed to many of the finest evangelical pastors and teachers from other churches and institutions.
If I had a glaring “fault” as an evangelical pastor it was that I placed too much emphasis on learning the Bible and not enough on other aspects of spiritual formation and Christian living. I reckon that I turned more than a few sanctuaries into lecture halls, and many Bible studies into academic sessions rather than letting people wrestle with how God wanted to speak to their lives through Scripture. But I did so out of a good heart. My own life has been so enriched by serious study of the Bible that I want everyone I know to become as enthralled with probing its depths as I am.
Over the years I have come to appreciate the role of tradition and the Church in new ways, and have embraced the historic pattern of worship in which the Word is balanced by the Table and is heard in a variety of ways, not primarily through an analytical, expository teaching message. And as readers of this site know, I am not afraid to point out the limitations of the evangelical approach to Scripture. But I will always be grateful that I was part of a church culture that placed high value on learning, loving, and living the Bible. It has enriched my life and ministry immensely.
For this I give thanks.
3. Evangelicalism is where I found the music.
Jesus and music have always gone hand in glove in my life. I can still remember my first public solo, from the balcony of the Methodist church with the elementary school-age choir. I have loved the hymn “This Is My Father’s World” as long as I can remember — I’m sure I heard it first as a preschooler, snuggled up to my mother in the sanctuary. My spiritual awakening as a senior in high school came partly as a result of singing in the youth choir at our church. Soon after I walked the aisle, I had the opening solo in the church Easter program, in which dozens of people of all ages led our church in praising the living Christ.
Those were days when I strummed a guitar. When Jesus revitalized my life, I started singing and writing songs about him. It was the early days of the Jesus Music movement, and we delighted in simple, Scripture-based choruses. We formed a folk trio that sang for various events, including a memorable outdoor Easter sunrise service in downtown Baltimore, at which we opened for Rez Band. I met the one who became my wife as we made music together in college choir and gospel teams. In all our churches, Gail and I have served as musicians as well as pastors, teachers, and leaders in various ministries. In my life, the only thing I’ve spent more money on than music is books.
As a pastor and music minister, I have always longed that the church appreciate its entire music heritage. We had “blended” worship before anyone ever thought of the term. I sang a solo from “Messiah” in our mountain church of 100 congregants, and Gail played classical piano pieces for preludes and offertories. Then we sang gospel hymns together. We’ve led choirs that have sung music from classics to hymns to traditional anthems to country gospel to black gospel to African chants to Gaither. I used to write and sing children’s songs for AWANA programs and Vacation Bible Schools, and sometimes we sang them with the whole congregation. When we came back from mission trips, we brought back choruses from God’s family in other parts of the world and taught them. I have always loved hymns, and have especially appreciated the evangelical tradition of hymnody from Luther to Watts to Wesley to Fanny Crosby to Margaret Clarkson to Timothy Dudley Smith. Though there is much to lament in CCM, there is still some wheat among the chaff — serious artists such as Bob Bennett, Michael Card, Graham Kendrick, Stuart Townend, and the Gettys, for example. Above all, I love to listen to serious choral music. Where would I be without Bach? Without Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil? Without the delightful Christmas music of John Rutter?
One of the reasons the Lutheran way is so attractive to me is their love for music — right up there next to theology, according to Luther himself. But this impulse in me was nourished in evangelicalism. Jesus set me singing, and my brothers and sisters in evangelicalism have been right there, singing with me. We mourn the degradation of music in evangelicalism a lot here at Internet Monk, but one of the reasons I write such passionate complaints is that I have seen the other side and have tried throughout my ministry to help our congregations sing edifying music with deeper understanding and true feeling. For the most part, it has been a joyful sound of grace and truth.
For this I give thanks.
4. Evangelicalism gave me a heart for service and mission.
The impulse to serve is strong in evangelicalism. So strong, we here at IM sometimes criticize it as out-of-balance activism. Nevertheless, there is an energy and concern for others that moves evangelicals to do a lot of good in the world.
The missionary force that grew out of the Student Volunteer Movement and the rise of faith missions in the late 1800′s was formidable. In the 20th century, leadership given by InterVarsity and the Lausanne Movement, the establishment of parachurch ministries like Youth for Christ, Campus Crusade, and Navigators, Bible translation ministries like Wycliffe, and mercy ministries like World Vision have flourished. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is synonymous with mass evangelism efforts. The “culture war” efforts of the Christian Right were not something new in America; in many ways, culture warriors have merely replicated the kind of moral concern and political activism practiced by 19th century social movements for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and prohibition.
Many evangelicals go by the slogan that Christians are “saved to serve.” We once attended a church where every person who joined the church was introduced as someone who had stepped forward to “roll up his/her sleeves to help us win our community for Christ.” Another church I pastored was instrumental in founding and supporting a Crisis Pregnancy Center. I know a church that, at least at one point, was giving 60% of her income to missions.
We have friends all over the world because of their obedience to the Great Commission, and because of them I’ve had opportunities to serve in places I never dreamed of seeing. I have had opportunities to preach Christ in suburban churches, on inner city front porches and downtown missions, in the hills of Applachia, and to crowds of youth at camps in Brazil and at schools in India. I once sat in a small house in a central Indian village and talked about preparing for baptism to the first group of Christians that ancient village had ever known. Even in my youngest days as a minister, I was blessed to give words of encouragement to pastors in Haiti, some of whom had walked for three days to get to the conference, and who slept on hard wooden benches or on the ground when they got there just to hear the Word of God.
Some of our closest friends have made choices through the years that made my jaw drop. Damaris and her family went to Kyrgyzstan, of all places, and reached out to their neighbors with both spiritual and practical concern. Another friend received a degree in international business, and then was challenged by a missionary to consider what God might have in store for him. A few months later, he and his wife and four young children got off a plane and moved into a home in Shanghai. While his company paid the bill for a few years, they helped start a Christian school. This is the same couple who once served their neighbors in the infamous Cabrini-Green housing development in inner city Chicago. I once played music for morning devotions while a friend preached to a group of carnies in south Florida. This was made possible because a group of loving Christian folks in RV’s follows the carnival workers for months to all the county fairs and sets up ministry stations where they can come for a hot meal, medical and dental care, haircuts, and a clothing tent — and a word of Gospel encouragement. I met a lady once who started a ministry to unfortunate folks who are deaf, blind, and mute.
On a mission trip to Brazil once, I found myself weeping as I stood and surveyed the sanctuary of a small village church. This congregation lived in the poorest village in that part of Brazil. The members brought their offerings and put them in a big basket in the front of the sanctuary each Sunday, and little of it was money. It was usually food from their gardens or clothes their children had outgrown, all to be distributed to “the poor.” On the side wall, there was a bulletin board with at least a half a dozen pictures on it. These were the missionaries this church supported!
Some of the people I admire most are friends who are workers for India Youth for Christ. These lovely people, in the midst of growing economic opportunity and prosperity in that land, have signed up to live on about $100 a month to reach young people with the Gospel. Traveling to India over the years changed our lives. Few things have meant more to my formation as a human being and follower of Christ than developing friendships with fellow ministers in India and serving alongside them as we preached, sang, did medical work, and reached out in various ways to give Christ to others. One of those friends brought a tear to my eye when I met him a few years ago. He reached into his wallet and pulled out a small square of cloth that had been cut from a terrycloth towel. I had given it to him and a group of ministers many years before, after I had preached on John 13 and then we knelt and washed the feet of our Indian brothers. We wanted to let them know that we had come to serve them. I challenged them to carry that scrap of towel with them always, to remind them of Christ washing our feet and calling us to do the same for one another. Years later, my friend still carried it. He still remembered. I was humbled. I knew he had been faithful. Had I?
I am grateful for my evangelical heritage that stresses service in the name of Christ for a lost and hurting world. Frankly, on the congregational level at least, I don’t think there is another tradition that comes close to evangelicalism in encouraging people to serve, especially with regard to sharing the Gospel, planting churches, and pursuing distinctively Christian vocations. Of course, there are a myriad of problems associated with all this activity, and we here at IM are not shy about pointing those problems out. But don’t let that disguise the fact that I am forever grateful for those who have taught and exemplified for me the way of Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve.
For this I give thanks.