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."
Some evangelicals say the solution lies in reemphasizing Reformation doctrines. This approach resonates with the growing ranks of "New Calvinists," who profess such teachings as humanity's total depravity, God's complete sovereignty and the predestination of souls to heaven and hell. Some church leaders say the drift away from traditional teachings has led evangelicals to neglect such biblical mandates as ecumenism and to organize around lesser principles, such as political preferences.
"We evangelicals have moved from a church grounded in solid theology to a church grounded in personal relationships," said Neil Gastonguay, pastor of Bath United Methodist Church in Maine. "We don't have a message anymore."
But others say evangelicals have worried too much about doctrinal differences when they should have been joining forces on larger issues.
Richard Alberta, senior pastor of Cornerstone Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brighton, Mich., said preoccupations with doctrinal purity help explain why he struggles to round up other evangelicals to join him at anti-abortion events.
"When you get evangelicals among themselves, instead of addressing the social and moral issues, they get backwatered into some debate about dispensationalism or Calvin or Charismatic Renewal," Alberta said. "There's lots of suspicion, and those worries seem to act as filters that keep evangelicals from getting together."
Similar frustrations were expressed by Travis Hutchinson, pastor of Highlands Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church in America) in Lafayette, Ga. He said he routinely gets a cool response from other evangelicals when he asks them to join his efforts to minister among undocumented immigrants.
The problem, he said, is that the doctrine-obsessed have lost touch with the heart of Jesus.
"The missing ingredient is not the primacy of the mind and doctrine," Hutchinson said. "It's the willingness to suffer."
Although renewal strategies might vary in the years ahead, evangelicals expressed agreement that their inspiration is to be found in their bedrock source: Scripture.
John Jefferson Davis, a Gordon-Conwell theologian, said today's Christians "need a high-intensity experience of God" and should seek it through meditative readings of Scripture. Still, he conceded, even Bible-based worship will need to be "more attractive and more enjoyable than a trip to the shopping mall."
"Unless we can experience God in a way that is as real and as appealing as what we see on a 60-inch, high-definition plasma home theater screen," Davis said, "we are in trouble."
-- Religion News Service