November 28, 2014

What Evangelicalism Gets Right

Hands ApplaudingI want to wrap up my month-long harang at evangelicalism—the camp I have made my home for nearly 40 years now—by talking about what evangelicalism gets right. Yes, there are a few things we do manage to do in a good way, at least once in a while. For each of the following I could also list dozens of examples of how it has been and is being done wrong. (And I guarantee I can name more bad examples than you can.) But that’s not what I want to do here. And I ask that in your comments you restrict yourself to other examples of things being done right. (That will ensure our server is not deluged with comments, huh? I may be pitching a shutout here …)

It’s easy to make evangelicalism the punching bag for all that is wrong with Western Christianity. When I was growing up in the 70s it was Catholics who were the embodiment of religion gone wrong. Now it’s evangelicals. But we are not all bad. And even those who are far off-course are still our brothers and sisters, and we are called to carry their burdens for them. I’m the first to admit I’d rather have a latte with an honest atheist than a dishonest Christian. But the dishonest Christian is, after all, a Christian. And as we discussed this morning, Jesus commands us to love our brothers and sisters even as he has loved us. This is the sign to the world that we are his followers, and the world is allowed to judge whether or not we are his followers by how we love one another.

So in a spirit of wanting to help us all get along, let’s look at some things that evangelicals actually do well.

We are a people of the Good News. That is what “evangel” means: Good News. The word actually comes from the Greek euangelos, meaning “good news messenger.” Evangelicals are, at their core, a people who desire to share the Gospel. (Yes, we can all agree that some evangelicals have lost sight of what the Gospel truly is, but that is not the spirit of this post, remember?) Whether it is one-on-one witnessing or hosting a crusade under a tent or in a large stadium, the Good News is something we are really good at sharing. Billy Graham has preached the Gospel to more people than any other human in all of history, and he is the evangelicalist of all evangelicals. I’m glad he is on our team.

We take missions work seriously. Evangelical churches commission missionaries from their midst and send them forth, whether it be domestically or to other nations, with great fervor. These churches also rally behind the missionaries with financial support and much prayer. Then there are short-term missions trips, which allow those who cannot go to a missions field full time the opportunity to experience the missionary life, if even for just a few days. Pounding nails and laying bricks may not sound like a sexy way of sharing the Gospel, but when these short-termers leave behind a house for someone who had been living in a cardboard box, there remains a visible reminder of the love of Christ. And that is not a bad thing at all.

We give money. Ok, some of it is misspent on building bigger “clubhouses” and paying for a large staff to keep the clubhouse going.  Some of it—a very small part, mind you—pays for lavish lifestyles for certain preachers. Yet the overwhelming majority of money given by evangelicals is put to very good use. Evangelical churches build “Dream Centers” to help the homeless. They sponsor regular medical clinics for those without insurance. They put on car care clinics for single moms. Evangelical organizations such as World Vision use donations to feed and clothe the hungry and naked around the world. And the giver gets a benefit as well, as he or she gets to participate in these Gospel acts with a sacrificial offering.

Evangelicals hold Scripture in high regard. Again, let’s not focus on those who try to make the Bible what it is not. Let’s look instead at those who teach the word in a right fashion. (The Word of God is Jesus. The word of God is the written word, what we know as the Bible. Thus I use a lowercase “w” when referring to Scripture.) I came to faith in a Baptist church in Centerville, Ohio, where we were taught from the word of God in every meeting. We read it, studied it, memorized it. There was not a lot of effort put into how to apply it. The pastor left that up to the Holy Spirit. But we knew what the Bible said, or at least where to look for it in Scripture. We knew not to add to or take away from what the Bible said. We learned how to read it for ourselves, even Lecto Divina style (though that would never have been mentioned in our services—way too Catholic). At my church, you might as well come to the service in your nothing-but as to arrive without your Bible. When the pastor said to turn to such-and-such a verse, the pages turning created a cool breeze in the sanctuary. This reverence for Scripture has never left me. And for that I’m thankful.

We are passionate in worship. Yes, you can substitute “emotional” for passionate if you like. But God made us emotional creatures, so why not use them to worship our creator? Evangelicals raise their hands and close their eyes while singing (hopefully not while driving, but then again …) as a way to focus on Jesus. We sing songs that are reflections of personal faith, which often helps to build that faith in the singer. We employ a variety of song styles and musical instruments to help the music “come alive.” This style is not for everyone, but for those who find their home in evangelicalism, it is a way to express their love for God in a passionate, emotionally-charged way that somehow leaves the worshipper feeling closer to the Lord and farther from the cares of this world, if even for just a few minutes.

We pray believing. Evangelicals will pray for anyone and for anything, and expect—really expect—God to hear us. I remember being at a Catholic monastery on a weekend retreat and asking the guest master, a wonderful man who had been a priest for more than 50 years, if he would pray for me. “Of course I will,” he said. So I sat there and waited. He sat there and waited as well. Finally he said, “Oh, did you mean now?” I just had to laugh. Evangelicals will pray for you right then and there. Our prayers are emotionally-charged like our worship, but they are coming from a heart that truly believes God loves to hear us ask him for things and then expect him to answer us. Are you sick? Get an evangelical to pray for you. In financial difficulty? Evangelicals can pray money down from heaven like no one’s business. Struggling with sin? Evangelicals will pray for God to come alongside you to give you the power to overcome that sin. You can take issue with the theology in our prayers if you want, but you can’t argue with the sincerity with which they are prayed.

Ok, there are a few of the things evangelicals get right. What more can you add?

Comments

  1. We feel comfortable talking about and using the name “Jesus” to the point where it might sound odd to Christians (or to persons of other faiths) who prefer using titles (“the LORD”) or euphemisms (“The Man Upstairs”) or the word “God” in a somewhat generic way. :D

    (But I could be wrong about this.)

    • Gotta agree with you here. Catholics tend to be a bit more formal about Himself, and certainly are not reknown for spontaneous group prayers. Heard this all for the first time when all my neighbors were CCC (in fact, the hospice I worked for took care of their founder in his final days, but I was not the lead nurse). These were the same neighbors we tryed to attend a bible-study with….boy, was THAT eye-opening.

      One question…can any evangelical pray outloud without using the word “JUST”?

      “Lord, we just want to ask you to just send down your Spirit, and just surround us here tonight, Jesus, just let us hear your Word, and just open our hearts……………….”

      • One question…can any evangelical pray out loud without using the word “JUST”?

        I usually do – i.e., pray without the precative or precatory “just” (like an overuse of the Hebrew -na) – because its overuse (and often simply its use) is irritating.

        For the following I made simple transliterations of the Hebrew (note: attah begins with ayin, not aleph):

        34.7 The Particle na

        a The particle na, frequently associated with volitional forms, is generally known as a precative particle and translated into English by ‘please.’34 Thomas O. Lambdin has argued that it is a logical rather than a precative particle and is better left untranslated: “The particle seems…to denote that the command in question is a logical consequence, either of an immediately preceding statement or of the general situation in which it is uttered.”35 He bases his insight on its use with hinneh, which he argues is also often a logical particle in direct speech and as such is used to introduce a fact on which a following statement or command is based. His understanding finds further support in the use of na with the logical particles imand attah, and in its use with the cohortative of resolve in passages where a precative use is unlikely.

        An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor

        Like Lambdin argues for na, “just” is better left unspoken. :D

      • ha! i wonder why that use of JUST is so common all across america? how did that happen? what an interesting sociological phenomenon that would be to investigate.

  2. IMO: very good at finding or forming “niche” ministries to meet specific needs. Maybe to a fault at times, but you can find 12 step programs to meet specific challenges; single mom’s group’s, divorce recovery, ….. you get the idea. these groups are often led by folks who have experienced a very specific touch of the Holy Spirit in precisely those areas. These are efforts to give incarnation to the gospel, and often give church a welcomed practicality.

  3. This is an extension of greg r’s comment, but we expect change to be the result of Christ’s ministry, through the church. We have gone so far as to be addicted to the word “transformation”. We struggle at times on the implementation, but we still expect God’s work to be completed in every Christian.

    • Very much like this, BrianC…….. if I could restate it in my words it would be “God is alive and HE still does stuff”.

  4. amen

  5. This could be a part of the first (Good News) section, but I read it again and don’t think it’s quite articulated enough:

    We believe in personal relationship with Christ and conversion. Evangelicals about daily, personal interactions with God (“God told me to _____” or “God brought this person into my life for ________ reason”) with a confidence that makes other denominations blush or gape. We passionately believe God wants to know us intimately and be involved in the daily details of our lives. That passion, in my mind, is the strongest thing we got.

    It also is the source of a lot of the “crazy” stuff that has been mentioned in this blog. Our passion for God leads us to a lot of strange conclusions that, upon reflection, often leads to some moderating. But it’s that passion that leads us to do a lot of what we are known for.

  6. David Cornwell says:

    True evangelicalism also provides a needed balance to the church. Or at least it did so at one time. It called the church to examine once again the great truths of our faith and to return home. I think that this was true at least in the middle of the 20th century, when good conservative seminaries began to bloom, and Christian colleges were at their best. “Christianity Today” is an example of this period and provided good sound scholarship for pastors and others who were wary of liberalism.

    But then the movement was differentiated from fundamentalism. Later however evangelicals, fundamentalists, church growth theology, and the culture wars all seemed to somehow join hands, and the result hasn’t been so wonderful.

    Evangelicalism needs to re-form (reform) back to it’s first calling. Except for the 21st century, not the last.

  7. Michael Z says:

    I remember the shock on a middle-aged Episcopalian’s face when I told him that my (evangelical) housemates and I gathered once a week to pray with and for each other for 30 minutes or so. (“And you just pray spontaneously? Out loud? How can you all be comfortable with that?”) Spontaneous prayer was just so natural to me, I’d never realized how hard it is for some non-evangelicals to wrap their heads around…

    And, I’ll second the Bible thing. It always kind of blows me away when I meet otherwise deeply devoted non-evangelicals who haven’t read the Bible cover to cover. Growing up evangelical, I’d read the whole thing before I was done with high school, and have reread it several times since then.

    I find that there are a lot of things in the evangelical and liturgical traditions that complement each other. That’s part of why so many evangelicals switch to liturgical churches and vice versa. Evangelicalism brings the fervor and depth of faith and communion with God through prayer and familiarity with Scripture; liturgical worship brings structure and depth of tradition and sacramental communion with God… and the crazy concept of actually _reading_ large portions of Scripture out loud as a part of worship instead of paring it down to the bare minimum to make time for a longer sermon.

  8. We are a people of the Good News

    Originally, yes. Not only do I sense much of this has been lost, I believe many people are starting to wake up and notice it too. Some will try to repair the damage done. I wasn’t sticking around to wait.

    We take missions work seriously.

    Understatement. Especially for the SBC. It’s missions uber alles with them. The last century of mission work was nothing short of explosive. If you’ll indulge me a Piper quote however (the quota is down anyways), “Missions exist because worship does not.” Ironically, the greatest exporter of missionaries in Christian history is rapidly becoming a priority target of missionaries. I blame theologically anemic worship.

    We give money

    Yes. Evangelicals generally put their money where their mouth is. However, they may be facing a looming donation crisis as their infrastructure of facilities and para-church ministries struggle to compete in the approaching decline.

    Evangelicals hold Scripture in high regard.

    Meh. Higher than Catholics, I suppose. But it’s really hit or miss. And the views on Scripture are widely divergent. Reformation traditions who maintain their confession of faith have a higher view of Scripture, imo.

    We are passionate in worship.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhYuA0Cz8ls
    The passion wasn’t just misguided: it was stubbornly so. Everybody will admit the truth of this clip, but how many will make ANY changes based on its message? It’s a battle that can not be won. Given it’s also my profession, it was just too unbearable to stick around.

    We pray believing.

    And there’s the coupe de gråce for me. I don’t get worked up in prayer. I just don’t. I have little confidence that God is going to give me whatever I want, and aligning with His will just doesn’t seem exciting most of the time. I pray for strength to endure, but I don’t hold out a ton of hope for light at the end of the tunnel in this life. Perhaps I’m just to pessimistic to be an Evangelical.

    • “Evangelicals hold Scripture in high regard.”

      I would think that theologically speaking most (though not all) evangelical churches and denominations hold to inerrancy.

      I have heard on a couple of occasions the saying: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Admittedly this is on the fundamentalist side of evangelicalism, but it does show a high regard for scripture.

      • Most Southern Baptists hold to inerrancy. Most Evangelicals are not Southern Baptists. There are entire denominations which do not accept this doctrine. It is only popular with the more theologically conservative, fundamentalist, or confessional Evangelical groups. Even the Evangelicals who do not hold this doctrine generally hold Scripture in high regard, but they are more prone to loose readings or reading through contemporary lenses than the confessional groups who read through 16th century lenses (which, imo, are much more clear). There is just a large constituency of Evangelicalism who are fed up with the cultural hangups of the conservative camps and are embracing a considerably more progressive approach to the tradition. At least, that’s what I seem to be seeing.

  9. Christiane says:

    I have always seen in the evangelical need to believe in ‘once-saved, always saved’
    a touching child-like desire to be reassured that God really, really loves them in spite of everything.
    I think this need is a beautiful thing in them, especially for the ones who don’t know about the Divine Mercy.

    • Just for clarification – “once saved always saved” is not a particularly evangelical distinctive, although some/many evangelicals may believe it, many do not.

      • Christiane says:

        thank you for that information, Michael

        I blog on SBCvoices and on some other SB blogs where it does seem to be part of their teaching consistently, so I did not know that there were other evangelical Christians who did not hold to that particular teaching.

        I suppose that need for reassurance is also much a part of the Calvinist tradition of predestination . . . being ‘specially chosen’ . . .
        I can understand a need for reassurance, but I much prefer to hold on to the knowledge of God’s Divine Mercy than to believe in a God who would ‘predestined’ some for hell, a teaching which seems so alien to me.

        • I was having a “free will/predestination” discussion with a friend a couple years ago. I tend to believe one of God’s greatest gifts to us is free will; my friend thinks otherwise.

          This friend has two children. I said, “Are you telling me that you would predestine one of your children to hell, a child you love to the point you would die for them, just to prove some sort of point to each of them about your ultimate power and justice?”

          I know a lot of bright people and great theologians believe predestination/predetermination, but frankly it makes little sense to me, even when folks quote scripture that tends to support the notion. (There’s also plenty of scripture to support the “free will” notion.)

  10. “When the pastor said to turn to such-and-such a verse, the pages turning created a cool breeze in the sanctuary.”

    I love that, Jeff!

  11. For better or for worse the Evangelical church was my spiritual mother, warts, wrinkles, and all… It was an Evangelical college outreach group that God used to bring face to face with the Gospel and the person of Jesus Christ. At times I really get exasperated with some of the wacky things she does and I’d like to put her in a rest home, but she is still, and always will be my mother Kirk,,,

  12. Danny Klopovic says:

    I think those claims about Evangelicals are mostly false – I’d concur that they do give money in terms of charitable endeavours but there is nothing “Good News” about Evangelicalism or its followers, nor is their mission work truly gospel-centred but rather is a form of deviant proselytising. Least of all do they hold Scripture in high regard – it serves as a mouthpiece for their corrupt ideologies more than anything else. I do think the Evangelicals are Christians – but essentially dishonest.

    • Painting with a broad brush ensures that no one within Evangelicalism will give second thought to your criticism. Saying that all Evangelical Christians is analogous to me saying that all Catholics are child molesters.

      • Danny Klopovic says:

        There isn’t really any interest though in hearing from Evangelicals as to what they might think of any such criticism. There is already an abundance of thoughtful, informed criticism out there – which is routinely ignored by Evangelicals as it is. So using extreme commentary seems to be the best way to go – much like how Jesus decried the Pharisees perhaps … ahem

  13. This piece hits on many of the things that keep me from leaving Evangelicalism. I’ve gone to some mainline and traditional churches, and the feeling I get is that there really is not expectation that God is going to do anything in the services. It’s not that I expect that one has to have an emotional experience at every service or that it always has to look the same, but I do find it odd when it seems that churches uniformly rule it out.

    If I would add another thing to the list, it would be that Evangelicals tend to take the concept of the priesthood of all believers seriously. There is of course a fair share of celebrity worship, but beyond that, I think many churches realize that the Holy Spirit is the ultimate democratizer and that God will use whomever He choose to use.

    • If I would add another thing to the list, it would be that Evangelicals tend to take the concept of the priesthood of all believers seriously. There is of course a fair share of celebrity worship, but beyond that, I think many churches realize that the Holy Spirit is the ultimate democratizer and that God will use whomever He choose to use.

      Unless He chooses to use a woman to be the (head) pastor or to be an elder or to teach the assembly or to preach from the pulpit.

      (This is not true of all Evangelical churches, but it is certainly true of many.)

      • True… I tend to forget about this point because I actually grew up in a denomination that has been ordaining women for a long time. Actually, it wasn’t until I was in college that I learned some people had a problem with this, and I remember being absolutely shocked that there were still people fighting that battle.

  14. Has anyone noticed how many more rags on evangelicalism were registered versus how many comments supporting it have been sent? Is there a message here?

    • Yes. And Yes. But this site is for those wandering the post-evangelical wildernes, after all….LOL.