The evangelical life, then and now… Part 2

Back in the day, our church wasn’t in the entertainment business, so our altar hadn’t yet been gutted into a rock concert stage. We weren’t in competition to capture the upwardly-mobile demographic. Warts and all, our congregation and our neighborhood were side-by-side. We did not choose our companions; they were chosen for us. We looked to Christ’s saving work on the Cross and took the Lord’s Supper regularly and seriously. The bread and cup weren’t a power bar and energy drink for the already healthy; they were medicine for our wounded souls and healing for our journey of faith. We gathered around the Table not because we were strong, but because we weren’t. Today, the strong moment signifying our union with Christ may fade to a glib afterthought in a buffet line as you dismiss. “I was amazed at the blandly efficient nature of this activity,” writes one visitor encountering a contemporary worship experience. “We could have been passing pretzels and soda pop.”[i] Communion has itself become consumption. It’s almost as if no one would mind terribly if you helped yourself to seconds.

“Over the past thirty years,” notes Dean Curry, “American evangelicalism has witnessed the homogenization of its theology and the convergence of worship content and style as denominational identities have been strategically de-emphasized. Almost all evangelical churches have the same look and feel on a given Sunday.”[ii] The look and feel of our church drew on a faith heritage going back centuries. We were no free-floating faith brand that just appeared out of thin air. We were examined for membership, after classes to at least to become familiar with our Creeds and Confessions. It was less indoctrination than imparting a sense of belonging in a sustained narrative of community and grounding in an enduring faith tradition. We never thought to hide our denominational affiliation, honoring community and custom over consumer choice. Communal memory and continuity were valued above autonomy and evanescence. Ours was not an anti-ecclesiology, serving up story ex nihilo for ourselves. We had a deep sense of belonging to a story made from whole cloth, handed down to us from generation to generation.

Nor did we have a self-invented pastor. A process of discernment preceded ordination of our clergy, who then sat under the discipline of denominational authorities. All pastors had completed seminary degrees which required them to exegete in the original languages. By the way, they didn’t preach in T-shirts and skinny  jeans. We found our identity and purpose in proclaiming, explicating and applying the Word of God, and sermons were more than empty calories that pose as the Gospel. In the days before “teaching moments” and low-content slides, we were scripture-literate and followed the text for the day in our Bibles. We took notes on the sermons as kids, and eagerly memorized scripture to win Bible verse-inscribed pencils as prizes. By force of habit, I still stumble through our congregational readings, subconsciously reverting to KJV as I had learned the verses.

The story continues…

[i] D. H. Williams, “Contemporary Music: The Cultural Medium and the Christian Message”, Christianity Today, June 24, 2011.  (accessed March 25, 2015).

[ii] Dean C. Curry, “Evangelical Amnesia”, First Things, October 1, 2007. (accessed May 12, 2017).

The evangelical life, then and now… Part 1

I grew up in a conservative evangelical home, where my father led me to the Lord; his dog-eared Bible in hand. Typical among evangelicals, I have a ‘time and date stamp’ for my own cathartic experience, akin to St. Paul’s bolt-out-of-the-blue conversion. “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”[i] Soon, I became active in youth groups, summer camps and rallies, and was an eager badge-winner in our gospelized equivalent to the Boy Scouts. Baptized as an infant, as a teen I publically “rededicated” my life to Christ. By the time college came around, I’d read through the Bible several times. I went to Wheaton College – where else? I studied for a time at Fuller Seminary. I’ve served the local church in every lay office imaginable. I’ve worked for several overseas missions and parachurch organizations. I could boast my evangelical pedigree as Paul did of his own tradition, “a Hebrew of Hebrews”.[ii] As such, I am the product of mixed parentage: Puritan Calvinists – who “started” church history for us, the transformed fundamentalists who first styled themselves neo-evangelicals, together with pietistic revivalists who all seemed to finish each other’s sentences. I am also a Boomer, and have fallen prey, to one degree or another, to the temptations and idolatries characteristic of my generation of American Christians. I interpret being evangelical through my own locatedness in that experience.

Before the halcyon days of the Moral Majority, Fox News, or Rush Limbaugh, we evangelicals were patriotic, but didn’t draft Jesus into wars of cultural identity. Admittedly, we supported America’s wars, whether right (those we won) or wrong (those we didn’t). Political persuasions didn’t determine who we’d sit with at potluck dinners. We used to avoid something called sin, and we were more concerned about the wages of death than the wages of success. Now, many bypass the Good Friday cross of obedience and death en route to their exurban megachurch of Easter entitlement here and now. Growing up evangelical, our awe (and dread) of God’s mysterium tremendum meant avoiding practices that encouraged contamination by “worldly” values. Today there is anodyne rapport with consumerist society, and we glibly hang out with a good-humored god whose only wish is that we unlock the latent happiness in our lives.

To be continued….

[i] Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be”, Psalms and Hymns, 1738.

[ii] Philippians 3:5 (NET Bible).

Who is a theologizer?

Whether by professional vocation or spiritual calling, we are all theologians. As a newly-minted Christian, I was blessed to have an older man in our congregation take me under his wing. He avidly read new books by prominent evangelical theologians as they came along . He’d then pass them along to me, and we’d share our thoughts. George was not a Theologian by vocation; he was a layperson with an avocation like mine. Theologizer comes to mind as a handy description.

I am a lay theologizer, encouraging others to think critically about evangelical tendencies leading people away from Jesus, rather than towards him. Theology is how we think about our faith. It belongs to the church, and it should be an in-house responsibility.

In our conversations with the Bible, we all do “small – t” theology; it is a work of God’s people. “Theology,” writes  Anthony Robinson, “is a way of seeing life, a way of seeing ourselves, our neighbors, and our world. It is the lens through which we view life and according to which we live life.”[i] Ours is a human-lived hermeneutic, comprising the depth and intentionality of conversations and interactions “ordinary” believers use to work out answers to the down-to-earth questions our faith encounters.

Evangelicalism for many has become an unthinking faith. We have taken for granted that theology is the exclusive domain of professionals called to an academic vocation. This in no measure downplays theology as an academic calling; it is more important than ever. But it must likewise be diligently practiced, both intellectually and spiritually, by its true owner, the local assembly. For over a thousand years, theology was done “in-house,” with the church assuming primary responsibility for in-depth teaching on the Bible, theology, and the Christian traditions.[ii]

We must think through what a Christ-like faith means, and be transformed by Holy Spirit, so that we can act as fuller partakers in the life and mission of the church. Sadly, the rigor of self-reflection has become rare in the life of the local church. For that reason, theology desperately needs to be repatriated back into the midst of the congregation, where many have become “children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine”.[iii]

[i] Anthony B. Robinson, Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ., 2008, p. 77.

[ii] Ryan P. Bonfiglio ,“It’s Time To Rethink Our Assumptions About Where Theological Education Happens”, Christian Century, January 31, 2019. (accessed January 15, 2019).

[iii] Ephesians 4:14 (KJV).