October 31, 2008
What We Evangelicals Do Well
Temper fashionable cynicism by focusing on our strengths.
I'm proud to be an evangelical. I think we do many things well.
Some will roll their eyes at those first two statements. Why? Criticizing evangelicalism is fashionable and evangelicals have joined the fashion, sometimes with apocalyptic fervor. I wonder if the relentless critique of (sometimes hardheaded) evangelical pastors, theologians, and authors--not to mention blogs and internet sites--is not the place we ought to urge the beginnings of reform. I'm sure that most critics have their heart in the right place: they want evangelicalism to be more biblical and more robust. (I hope those are my motivations in my own critiques.) But there sure are a lot of critics. This is what I mean:
Some evangelicals think evangelicalism is not Reformed enough because it has lost touch with its Reformed roots. Some think evangelicalism ignores its Wesleyan heritage. Indeed, it would not be hard to find an evangelical survey that omits John Wesley. Some think we have fallen prey to political parties. Others think we need to recover the liturgy and lectionary, while others think we need to re-embrace the lost heritage of the Great Traditions of the classic creeds. Some think evangelicals have forfeited intellectual rigor as a populist movement, while others think evangelicals have become far too theological, creedal, and intellectual. Some think we have failed to preach prophetic texts and have lost enthusiasm for the Second Coming while others disparage every attempt even to suffer such literalism. Some think we'd be much better off if we were all charismatic, while others think charismatics are not real evangelicals. Some think we need to be more socially active while others raise the red flag at the first sign of the social gospel.
Some think evangelicalism is on its deathbed and that the only way forward is the emerging movement, while others think the emerging movement is dancing with the devil. Some think seeker services are the cat's meow, others the end before the end. The worship wars get at least two responses: a hearty, dismissive "Get over it!" and a "Dig in your heels because if we give in here we will slide down the slippery slope!" For some, prohibiting entrance of women into ministry is the litmus test for fidelity, while for others it's so utterly obvious that opposition is Luddite. Some today draw swords to affirm complementarian male-female relationships in the home and the church, while others think of the issue, "Times have changed."
Yes, we can always do better. But I've got a question for you: What do you think (we) evangelicals do well? I will mention a few--more could be listed--but I'm asking you to speak up in the comments section, because this is a post for evangelicalism.
We are good at being properly ecumenical. Evangelicalism is a movement and not a denomination. We align ourselves with others--all others, in fact--who embrace the gospel. Because of this conviction, evangelicals are found working across denominational lines, forming parachurch organizations united around a common gospel theology, and joining hands in public with whoever wants to work with us. A genuine evangelical transcends her or his denomination in the unity only the gospel can bring. Think Christianity Today and John Stott.
We are good at urging everyone to experience the new birth. The irreducible minimum of evangelicalism is the gospel and the need to respond to it and the work of God through the new birth. So, we preach the gospel and we evangelize with that goal in mind. We pray that God will anoint our lives and our words so that others might be born from above. Think Billy Graham and the urgings of youth leaders.
We are good at recognizing the importance of theology. Evangelicals believe the Bible and in the hard-fought conclusions of Christian orthodoxy. And we believe those ideas really do matter. What we believe is more than what we happen to think. We believe the truth of God can be put into living statements for our day. Think Carl Henry and our publishing houses.
We are good at the need for personal transformation. Evangelicals expect Christians to be good and to be holy and to be loving and, if they are not, we know there's something wrong. We stare at the pages of the Bible that call for moral transformation in the power of the Spirit, and we believe it can happen today. Think Dallas Willard and the spiritual formation movement.
Yes, we can do better. I wish a recognizable woman's name would have come to mind for two of those categories. But we are doing well.
What do you think we do well? Here's the test: Can you affirm what we are doing well without saying one critical word? Try it. I think we'd all like to hear what you have to say.