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On salvaging evangelicalism

2 March 2011

It’s sort of timely that this whole Rob Bell controversy is stirring up right now. If you haven’t heard about it, Bell posted a pretty powerful YouTube video advertising his new book, where he questions the doctrine of Hell. This may not seem like a big deal (disproofs of Hell have existed ever since the doctrine was conceived of in the first place), but Bell is not any ordinary person. He is the founder and preacher at Mars Hill Bible Church, a non-denominational megachurch in Grand Rapids, MI, and has been likened to Billy Graham for his innovative preaching style and quasi-figurehead status for the new face of evangelicalism as it strives to be more relevant to the Millennial generation. And now, Bell is finding himself in the middle of a fight that has been raging for over a century, since Charles Augustus Briggs gave the inaugural address at Union Theological Seminary in 1891: is the Bible inerrant, infallible, both, or neither?

N.B. when I say “evangelicalism” over the rest of this post, you should read “conservative evangelicalism”. There is a lot of diversity within the movement, but here I exclude the likes of Jim Wallis, John Perkins, and Tony Campolo.

There are lots of things that have kept me away from evangelicalism over the past five years, this sort of doctrinal squabbling standing large amongst them. Others include, but are not limited to: the place of women, the treatment of LGBTIQ people, the overt connection with neoconservatism, the tendency towards Prosperity Gospel, anti-intellectualism, the complacency towards racism, etc.

But the thing I cannot deny is that evangelicalism is the tradition that formed me as a Christian. Certainly many of its doctrines have been deeply painful for me, some being using expressly against me. But an ad hominem argument that because some things they do are wrong, that everything they do is wrong–well, that’s not a tenable argument for me anymore. My past is my past, and I can’t go around pretending like it didn’t shape me.

And it seems rather close-minded to assume that there is nothing good that evangelicalism can offer me. Surely, surely, there has to be something salvageable from evangelicalism, things forgotten from that time, things that facilitated my earliest connection with God, be it practices or theologies that are lacking from my current stream of Christianity. All of my ideas about what these might be are inchoate, but I offer a few points here:

  1. The doctrine of sin. Liberal branches of Christianity tend to minimize the notion of sin and tend to cling to a more “happy-clappy” idea, that we’re all sort of alright, that there may be things wrong in the world but they aren’t personal wrongdoing. The focus is on grace, and sin is left aside. Evangelicalism decries this practice, and rightly so. Sin exists and its effects are evident. Yes, in my opinion, evangelicalism focuses too much on sin and not enough on grace. Both liberals and evangelicals have a lot to learn from each other on this issue.
  2. Small groups. Because of the size of evangelical churches, small groups within them became vital for establishing community within the church. By getting someone plugged into a small group, they weren’t isolated members sort of floating in and out of the congregation as is apt to happen in any large group. Many liberals have begun to see the value of this practice and embrace it, including myself, as a way to deepen connection, even within small churches.
  3. Biblical literacy. The vast majority of liberal laypeople I know are devastatingly illiterate about the Bible. Most probably own one, but most also have never used it. Most preachers are now faced with Biblical education primarily, and less on actual interpretation and application of it. You have to explain what the Bible is before you can say why it matters. Evangelicals, on the other hand, are fanatical about the Bible. I learned a lot about the Bible from my upbringing. This does not imply, however, that Evangelicals take the Bible seriously, because many attack scholarly investigation of the text itself.
  4. Testimony/storytelling. I shy away from “evangelism” here because its meaning has been reduced to one very new definition of an attempt at conversion, rather than simply telling our stories. Perhaps the most frustrating part of liberal Christianity for me is that many are too concerned with offending people that they shy away from speaking openly about their faith, why it matters to them, and how they got where they are. It comes from a place of being shameful of their faith, and that is cowardice of the worst sort, to put it nicely. Some liberals have rediscovered the practice of “sharing testimony” (as I grew up calling it) with teachings of Marshall Ganz and his public narrative format. Though I have my own misgivings about the way these public narratives are used, liberal Christians must be educated on how to share their stories. If they do not, they risk seeing their traditions disappear in a generation (see my post On proselytism).

I don’t know where I’m going with this, but I do know that the only path is forward. I will never be an evangelical again, but I have to recognize that I was one. In order to move forward, I have to work for reconciliation between who I was then and who I am now. But that is the Way, isn’t it? Rebirth.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 4 March 2011 09:50

    Patrick,

    This must be why I enjoy your blog – we have very similar histories and unfolding pathways. I also enjoy hearing something of what “the next generation” has to say.

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