Evangelicals do some soul-searching

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Saturday, October 24, 2009

SOUTH HAMILTON, MASS. -- Concerned evangelicals gathered last week to search the soul of their movement and find a new way forward.

Among evangelicals, who account for a quarter of the U.S. population, the idea that they must focus their attention on shaping authentic disciples of Jesus has always had broad support. But how to do that in a consumerist society with little appetite for self-denial is fueling internal debate.

About 500 people attended a conference at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on "renewing the evangelical mission." Leading thinkers called fellow believers to repent for a host of sins, from reducing the Gospel to a right-wing political agenda to rendering God as a lenient father who merely wants "cuddle time with his kids."

"We are seeing the very serious weakening of American faith, even among people who profess to be believers," said Os Guinness, senior fellow of the EastWest Institute in New York and author of "The Case for Civility." "Yet an awful lot of people haven't really faced up to the true challenge and still think they can turn it around with things like political action."

Speakers were applauded for asserting that evangelicalism, which began as a Protestant renewal movement, is now in need of renewing. At one point, participants sang a new hymn that's setting the tone for a new era: "We spurned God's way and sought our own," they sang, "and so have become worthless."

"The church in a sense has lost its mission to go out and love the people," said Steven Mayo, pastor of Elm Street Congregational Church in Fitchburg, Mass. "We've become useless in a society that desperately needs us."

How to become useful again, however, is a matter on which there is no consensus. Cornelius Plantinga, president of Calvin Theological Seminary in Michigan, urged pastors to talk less about fulfilling personal potential and offer more from the likes of Old Testament prophet Joel, who warns God's people to wail and repent before the Lord scorches the earth.

But church leaders responded to Plantinga's prescription with a reality check.

"For pastors, it's very easy to lose a job by taking your advice," said Rachel Stahle, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation in Carteret, N.J., after Plantinga's 45-minute lecture. "It's even harder to find another one by taking your advice. So what wisdom do you share with us to take what you've said back to the churches?"

Some evangelicals are taking little comfort these days in successes of the past two decades, which included hundreds of fast-growing megachurches and the advancement of a socially conservative agenda during Republican George W. Bush's presidency.

Too often, they say, Christians came to display un-Christian behavior in the public square and did a disservice to the cause of making disciples.

"Beware the escalation of extremism," Guinness said. "Christian sayings such as, 'Love your enemies' -- they're forgotten. People are attacking their enemies, but they're certainly not on the side of Jesus in this."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company