The “I” in Evangelicalism, Part 2.

A 2019 Lifeway Research study found that “a majority of Protestant churchgoers believe they can walk with God without other believers”.[i] The church is where Christians put into practice the habits to live Christianly, and encourage each other in godliness and purity. Worship is incarnational – a faith with skin on – where we confess our sins and pray for each other so that we may be healed. Worship is connection, with God and each other. “In reality, we need each other,” the late Jean Vanier wrote. “We need to touch our wounds and keep the vision. I am wounded. I need help from my community. I need help from Jesus, because I cannot do it on my own.”[ii]

The regenerated life is a work of grace within which we bear the tension of the already, but not yet. And it takes time for newborns to mature out of spiritual diapers – and caregivers to change them along the way. Jesus did not say go and make Christians, but disciples who were to be baptized and taught.[iii] A crusade does a great job answering what I need to be saved from; who I am being saved to – not so much. The mission of the church is not simply to troll for transactions, but to produce fruit that abides. Individual decisionism is only half a truth – half a Gospel – when it emphasizes a momentary Just as I am to the exclusion of Just as we are becoming, with a new identity lived out in community. Evangelists may plant the seed, but Word and Table are where God meets those who have died to grow and thrive in the nurturing soil of the body of Christ. What we call “sanctification”, the Orthodox refer to as Mystagogy, which Fr. Stephen Freeman identifies as “the primary form for the transmission of the gospel is the community of the Church. The Christian faith, in its fullness, is properly only seen in an embodied community of believers living in sacramental union with God through Christ by the Holy Spirit.”[iv]

[i] Leah MarieAnn Klett, “Study: Most Churchgoers Say They Can Walk With God Alone”, Christian Post, August 7, 2019.  (accessed August 8, 2019).

[ii] Jean Vanier, We Need Each Other, Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2018,.

[iii] Matthew 28:19-20

[iv] Stephen Freeman, “The Struggle Against The Normal Life”, July 18, 2019, Glory to God for All Things. (accessed July 19, 2019).

The “I” in Evangelicalism, Part 1.

Evangelicalism is religion of the first person singular. I remember years ago being trained to witness using The Four Spiritual Laws. It came with the adviso that the tract must be read verbatim. Like an incantation, any deviation might render the prospect’s salvation ineffectual. I have decided to follow Jesus, so goes a chorus popularized by Billy Graham. Aptly, his eponymous Association’s magazine is entitled Decision. “Accepting Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Savior” is evangelical shorthand for either responding to, or deciding on (depending on which side of the Calvinist/Arminian fence one swings) God in faith. This experience often occurs in an extra-ecclesial setting: one can experience the epiphany of deliverance alone in a hotel room with a Gideon’s Bible, or at home, kneeling as a TV preacher makes his pitch. The problem with an emphasis on this immediate experience of grace lies in its attempt to meet the minimum requirements to be a Christian. Here is a deal too good to turn down, “eternal security at nothing down, no future payments, just simple verbal assent. The deal specified nothing about life change.”[i]

To many an evangelical mind, the purpose of evangelicalism is to convert people to evangelicalism. That is, they mean to say the identity of the Church is determined by its mission. Evangelists use their abilities to get other people to respond to evangelistically-correct questions, like “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Many thousands came to a saving faith through Billy Graham’s ministries, including those like Jerry Falwell, Charles Colson, Steve McQueen, or Louis Zamperini, who heard the Gospel through someone else who had. Graham’s legacy in making converts is unassailable, but his contribution was lessened by the very nature of his parachurch organization, essentially a private corporation functioning separately from the institutional church. Recidivism statistics are hard to come by, but one recent study concluded that only a slight percentage of those who opened the doors of their heart to Jesus ever step through the open doors of a congregation.[ii]

 “Many people in our churches are simply missing the life of Christ, and a lot of it has to do with what we’ve sold them as the gospel, i.e. pray this prayer, accept Jesus into your heart, invite Christ into your life,” an SBC official commented.[iii]Given that salvation is a personal matter of the heart, the inward nature of this soteriology diverts one away from the beloved community and into the private self and its attendant experience for reassurance. The transactional nature of revivalism allows for a return to the conversion event for another installment. When someone backslides, there are magic words at the altar to re-ask Jesus into one’s heart again, and hope that this time it will take. For example, Donald Trump, President and baby Christian, has “been saved so many times,” according to Jim Bakker.[iv] Conceivably, this rinse and repeat cycle can take place outside of a nurturing church family. The visible church “ultimately becomes soteriologically irrelevant”.[v]

[i] Ron Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World?,  Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005,  p. 56.

[ii] Stoyan Zaimov, “Being Born Again, Giving Heart to Jesus Doesn’t Greatly Increase Church Attendance: Research”, Christian Post, March 22, 2018. (accessed March 27, 2018).

[iii] Ted Olsen, “Southern Baptists Debate the Sinner’s Prayer,” Christianity Today, June 20, 2012.  (accessed December 7, 2012).

[iv] Kyle Mantyla, “Jim Bakker Says Trump Has Been Spiritually ‘Saved So Many Times’ Since Becoming President”, Right Wing Watch, February 22, 2019. (accessed February 26, 2019).

[v] Stanley Grenz, Renewing The Center: Evangelical Theology In A Post-Theological Era, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006, p. 307.

Evangelicalism: ethos, movement, or both?

At its core, evangelicalism has always been a system of spiritual/theological beliefs. The Bebbington Quadrilateral has been considered the go-to guide to the evangelical ethos. The quartet can be abstracted as: conversionism – the need for sinful man to experience spiritual rebirth; biblicism – to have a high (e.g., inerrant) view of Biblical authority, and to know and follow Scripture; crucicentrism – the centrality of Christ’s sacrificial atonement for sin; and activism – to proclaim salvation and produce its fruits by compassion, mercy and justice.[i] The précis was devised some decades ago by a theologian living in Britain, and grows ever-more remote as American evangelicals continually find themselves redefined. Although Bebbington’s is often called a typology, it is less a taxonomy of evangelicalism than a profile of the lowest doctrinal common-denominators that all evangelicals would be expected to share. The Bebbington baseline reflects a spiritual/theological ethos, but evangelicalism is better expressed in practice than on paper. The definition of evangelical encompasses much more than the gown and mortarboard set give on. To be an evangelical is a way of life connected to, and sometimes confusedly at odds with its faith precepts.

There is a doctrinal base, but also a lived experience loaded with subcultural periphenalia, perhaps best distilled by Kristin Du Mez, who coined the term “Hobby Lobby Evangelicalism”.[ii] She describes  the retailer sells more than just decorative baubles; it aligns them to the hopes, longings, and imaginings of the American Christian consumer, implanting subliminal seeds of homespun sentimentality and churchy wholesomeness. As Du Mez puts it, marketing “products offering the illusion of the country, all the charm with none of the manure.” Evangelicals express themselves not just through what they buy, but in how they converse. A random shopper at Hobby Lobby may likely encounter the tribal idiom, evangelicalese. Evangelical-speak is a religious vernacular infused with biblical allusion, replete with its own esoteric vocabulary.

Evangelicalism is at the same a theological statement and a cultural project. Protestant groups were drawn into its network as a tactical alliance for biblically-based, culturally-relevant evangelistic and social outreach. The blessing and bane of “common ground criss-crossed by many fences” meant throwing a bit of one’s religious identity into a neutral territory.[iii] Despite mis-givings, many traditions had to become tolerant enough to accommodate some measure of cross-denominational inconsistency. For example, Presbyterian ministers had to suffer “asking Jesus to come into your heart”, along with “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” strummed in youth group singalongs. At non-denominational Christian schools, summer camps and youth rallies, Calvinists had a Hobson’s choice to study, play and worship alongside revivalists with their house-on-fire brand of transactional evangelism. And in a Billy Graham Crusade, Southern churches had to tolerate interracial seating.[iv] As a movement, evangelicalism is more than just the aggregate of its constituents. One doesn’t speak of pan-evangelicalism; by nature it is a receptive ecumenism based on a bare-bones theology, formed among those sharing a family resemblance because the gene pool is intermingled with second cousins and shirt-tail relatives. Defining evangelicalism based solely on theology is next to impossible, because most evangelicals can’t define their own theology. It’s like a religious Golden Corral, as Pat Robertson is quoted:

As far as the majesty of worship, I'm an Episcopalian; as far as a belief
in the sovereignty of God, I'm Presbyterian; in terms of holiness, I'm a
Methodist . . . in terms of the priesthood of believers and baptism, I'm a
Baptist; in terms of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, I'm a Pentecostal.[v]

[i] Keith C. Sewell, The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity: Roots, Consequences, and Resolutions, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publ., 2016, P. 5.

[ii] Kristin Du Mez, “Hobby Lobby Evangelicalism”, Patheos, September 6, 2018. (accessed January 10, 2019).

[iii] Carl F. H. Henry, “Somehow, Let’s Get Together”, Christianity Today, June 9, 1957, P. 24.

[iv] Steven P. Miller, Billy Graham And The Rise Of The Republican South, Philadelphia: Univ. Of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, P. 31.

[v] David Edwin Harrell, Pat Robertson: A Personal, Religious, And Political Portrait, New York: Harper & Row, 1987, P. 102.

Who is evangelicalism?

Among the many attempts to describe the evangelical Christian life, my favorite was coined by theologian Scot McKnight as being a “fellowship of differents”.[i] Evangelicalism is not a church; there is no such thing as “The Evangelicalism”. It is less a singular religious movement than an hodge-podge of dissimilar church traditions; a nucleus of religious beliefs supporting a mass of theological contradictions. It’s like saying a square is a rectangle, but not all rectangles are squares. One blogger hit close to the mark when she described evangelicalism as an imagined religious community. “There are, in fact, many evangelicalisms,” Kristin Du Mez noted, “and each is imagined with a different center and different boundaries.”[ii] In many respects, evangelicalism is a shape-shifting blob with both explicit and implicit imperatives, continually moving in cultural flux, and having no one to speak with absolute authority for all. If anyone did, it was that apotheosis of evangelicalism, Billy Graham. “Billy Graham,” wrote one observer in 1957, “is something more than the name of a man. It is the label of a phenomenon.”[iii]

Graham’s revivalism produced alliances between diverse congregations, denominations and schools that had never been brought together, even though underlying differences were largely sponged over without being absorbed. While it has been compared to a big tent, today’s evangelicalism is more like a big business park with lots of busy office cubicles occupied by faith franchises, loads of middle men selling religious goods and services, and more than a few suites leased to freewheeling entrepreneurs aiming to enrich themselves. There is no facility manager on-site to organize the whole thing. And it sometimes feels like there is an absentee landlord.

American evangelicalism has been generous enough to those who hold its common set of core beliefs to allow for a wide range of views on disputable matters, and I draw from a number of evangelical traditions. None of us have all the correct answers. Because evangelicalism has no “officials,” each of us may speak legitimately as its voice, while at the same time it may not entirely be what others deem it to mean. Regardless of the inherent inexactitude of our common adjective and identity – or perhaps more accurately because of it – evangelical Christians all share a certain responsibility to contest each other’s actions or beliefs that diverge from the gospel. For example, when the late R.C. Sproul, Sr. was asked whether Arminians – his evangelical brethren – could be considered Christians, he grudgingly answered, “Yes, barely”.[iv] Evangelicals are scrapping, sparring, and loving siblings. Sometimes unity, other times cafeteria food fights. But like the Bereans, we are taught to receive the sacred text with all readiness of mind, and search the scriptures daily, whether those things are so.[v]

[i] Scot McKnight, A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.

[ii] Kristin Du Mez, “Evangelicalism is an Imagined Religious Community”, The Anxious Bench, August 9, 2018. (accessed August 24, 2018).

[iii] Gustave Weigel, S.J., “What to Think of Billy Graham”, America: A Catholic Review of the Week, (1957), Volume 97:161

[iv] R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002, p. 25.

[v] Acts 17:11

The evangelical life, then and now… Part 6

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. This song, so familiar to generations of Sunday school children, distills the true heart of evangelical Christianity. The truths expressed – a personal relationship with God and confidence in God’s word are so central to evangelicalism, that all of us kids sang it in the church basement, even as the pastor of our Presbyterian church was preaching upstairs on double predestination. I am so glad that Jesus loves me, Jesus loves even me is another familiar refrain that captures the evangelical ethos – that wonderful assurance of a loving Savior. I could go on, but limit myself to a cherished hymn sung as our own kids were baptized:

Children of the heavenly Father safely in his bosom gather; 
nestling bird nor star in heaven such a refuge e'er was given.[i]

An indelible strain of pietism – in its best sense – resides in the evangelical DNA; this sparrow-like trust, being cupped in the loving hands of Christ. The synoptic Gospels are univocal in recording the words of Jesus that one must enter the Kingdom of God as a little child, as if to emphasize its importance. Evangelicalism is not just about knowing God, it is knowing God as one’s closest friend and constant companion – and passing that love outwards. This is the beauty of the evangelicalism that surrounded me as I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s. But if infant is to infancy, is adult as to adultery? In many respects, as evangelicalism has matured over the decades, it has become so. As the movement has corporatized itself, a child-like faith has often come to be seen merely as childish. We are no longer the Children of God; rather we act like grown-up adolescents.

There is much to be admired within evangelicalism; much vibrant faith carried forward from its Reformation roots. There is much dross and lost direction. In that sense, this blog is a jeremiad; a lament which echoes Francis Schaeffer from his earlier years. “What is the use of evangelicalism seeming to get larger and larger if significant numbers of those under the name of evangelical no longer hold to that which makes evangelicalism evangelical,” he asked.[ii] His voice was one of many who saw that the term had become so nebulous, that many who profess to be evangelical contradict not only themselves, but the faith itself.

[i] Carolina Sandell, “Tryggare kan ingen vara” (“Children of the Heavenly Father”), trans. Ernst W Olson, Covenant Hymnal , Chicago: Covenant Publications, 1996,  #87.

[ii] Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian View Of The Bible As Truth, Wheaton: Crossway, 1994,  p. 147.

The evangelical life, then and now… Part 3

I am not advocating the repristination of by-gone days, where we pine for an imagined era, in which we reclined by the pots of meat and ate bread to the full. There are things I miss, but many more that I still squirm over. More often than not, our sermons were like lectures; didactic monologs drawing precepts from Pauline epistles and directed at the intellect. Another was that obligatory time in worship known as the “pastoral prayer” – typically a sermon recap more for the congregation’s hearing than for God’s. Sunday School sought to ground and grow worshippers in biblical truths, although the curriculum could be a bit stodgy. The relevance of an hour learning the dynasty of the Northern Kingdom – with their unpronounceable names – was pretty much lost on a squirmy 10 year-old like me. We knew John 3:16 by heart, which imbued within us a genuine concern for sharing the Good News – although at times it assumed a sort of awkward “plan of salvation” sales pitch. Then again, neither did we knock on doors hawking Republican voter guides.

         The church is ever in need of reforming, and the attempt to recapture some Golden Age of evangelical piety would be a disillusioning fantasy. Ours was a faith suffering its own fair share of morbidity, and we can offer thanks for windows opened by the Spirit to let in some fresh breeze. But we strove to be holy – a practice one rarely hears about today. We were a “dry” church; at least formally. Whatever “moistness” that went on at home was best kept private. We may not have been better Christians then – perhaps only more self-consciously parochial – with what Barth called the “odor of sanctity” thrown in.[i] We live with the tension between what we claim and who we are. Paradoxically, evangelicalism is both an expression of faith and a human project. As such, its adherents in each generation strive to do God’s will, but often fail miserably along the way.

[i] Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man, New York: Harper and Row, 1957, p. 229.

The evangelical life, then and now… Part 5.

My concern is about telling changes in us as practicing Christians rather than in the practices themselves. Mine is not a call to some form of evangelical museum mentality. Mine is, in the words of Wilmer MacNair, “more than the last whimper of a lost understanding of religion in the face of the emerging God-industry.”[i] MacNair calls out two sobering departures from the evangelical prototype. “First”, he laments, “the mega-church does not conceive of God as awesome and holy.”[ii] What now passes for spirituality would once have been inconceivable. Transcendence and mystery are no longer our experience; holiness no longer our objective.

We live in a post-whatever-that-was evangelicalism, where hearing musty old words like “holy”, “sacred”, or “sanctification” is a thing of the past. It’s not just abandoning some archaic “Christianese”. We’ve moved on from good and evil to the pursuit of happiness. And when you no longer have a sense of awe and wonderment in God’s presence, it’s a good bet he probably is no longer there. We are the master of our own destiny and have settled on “a less mighty, increasingly inconsequential version of God.” [iii] A god who is much less demanding of us, and of whom we expect very little. We needn’t have worried about secularists claiming God is dead. In making him irrelevant, we’ve done their work for them.

Second of MacNair’s laments is the sense that God’s righteousness has been usurped by a cult of individual supremacy. We look to Jesus the Life Coach for our personal success – his response to us – not as the object of loving obedience to him. Today we assent to the concept of sin as good people occasionally making bad choices, in a flippant sense that complements a conscience-salving message. One can sit through an entire sermon series without hearing of sin as an offense against God’s righteousness, and the need for repentance and obedience. The assumption, it seems, is that a half-Christ is better than none. This is no longer Christ’s atonement for sins, but religion without the sin part. Where Jesus is for people who like, but don’t necessarily need him, it is not Christianity. The normative tradition of faith is now radioactive, seen as inviting people to walk out of churches, not seekers to fill them. What sort of faith these distortions are creating, and reflections on where evangelicalism should be going instead, form the heart of this blog.

[i] Wilmer E. MacNair, Unraveling the Mega-Church: True Faith or False Promises? Westport CT: Praeger, 2009, p. vii.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Mitchell Stephens, “The Rise Of The Diminished, Ordinary God”, Religion News Service, February 19, 2014. (accessed March 3, 2019).

The evangelical life, then and now… Part 4

Evangelicals are suckers for retro-topia. Many fondly recall the way things were during the Billy Graham heyday. But while there is much to be honored, basking in the past pushes historical realities aside. I’m not set on returning to a 1960’s neo-evangelical primal age any more than I want wind-up clocks, rotary phones, or typewriters. And like yesterday’s manna, we can’t attend yesterday’s church, nor should we want to. Our parents’ church was no more real nor authentic nor “better” than ours today. There was plenty of baggage then as well, replete with tacky church basement movies like The Gospel Blimp and Thief in the Night, “I Found It” bumper stickers, and 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. And, in our house, it was the saccharine music – either the Melody Four Quartet or the Chuck Wagon Gang playing on my dad’s hi-fi. Nor is it about vestigial practices gone off their sell-by date, because the church is a living being, not an artifact buried within a past culture. The charge of the church is to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, not be embalmers of the past.

Nevertheless, nostalgia has an evil twin: cultural amnesia. Nostalgia impounds the past; memory transmits its fruitful gifts into the present. Our formation as Christians takes root in spiritual soils enriched over centuries. And whether we realize or not, we contain both the fruits of what has gone before, and seeds of what is to come. The Church is the living tradition of a historic community, and the participation we play in it, as the beloved hymn Faith Of Our Fathers, Living Still, reminds. Memory (anamnesis) is at the core of the profession and practice of our faith. In fact, we are to be communities of recall and renactment: “Do this in remembrance of me”.[i] We can, however, consciously choose to disassociate from it, in what has been called “rhetorically consequential forgetting” – losing our sacred narrative through willful ignorance.

Today, many evangelical congregations are bound together in a unity of forgetting as much by what they remember in common. We live as story-less people in story-less times, the effects of which, notes Danièle Hervieu-Léger, are “structurally linked to the collapse of the framework of collective memory which provided every individual with the possibility of a link between what comes before and his or her own actual experience.”[ii] The longevity of a religious group depends on how successful it is in retaining its collective memory as a “lineage of belief.” We don’t need to go backwards, but we can’t know where we are headed unless we understand where we have been. And if they are wise, most drivers check the rear view mirror while their car is in motion. “The road to the future,” Robert Webber observed, “runs through the past.”[iii]

[i] Luke 22:19, ‎1 Corinthians 11:23.

[ii] Daniele Hervieu-Leger, The Collective Memory Reader, edited by Jeffrey K. Olick, et. al., New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981, p. 387.

[iii] Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999, p. 7.

The evangelical life, then and now… Intro

Having passed the 6-5 mark causes a “cradle” evangelical like me to reflect on personal memories of “legacy” evangelicalism.

Advanced age affords me some license to look with one eye back, and the other fixed on my concern over the spiritual rot in today’s new normal that is rapidly heading us along the wrong paths. Theologian Roger Olson of Baylor resembles my age and experience, and likewise finds disturbing how evangelicalism has trended spiritually. “I have no doubt something drastic happened to change it such that I barely recognize anything called ‘evangelical’ as continuous with what I knew of that spiritual form of life as a child and youth,” he laments.[i] Christ breathed the life of the Holy Spirit into the Church. It is alive and relevant in every age and in each particular culture – and for better or worse, is constantly being contextualized.

Having lived long enough to remember what evangelicalism set out to be, and what it by and large has become, I lament so much good that is now gone. I knew what evangelicalism once stood for; what it has now become is more comparison than resemblance. “Leaders like Franklin Graham and James Dobson, with their unwavering Trump support, have risked any sort of connection with millennials going forward,” notes Stephen Mansfield.[iii] Half of unaffiliated millennials (nones) polled by the Pew Research Center in 2018 cited political partisanship as turning them off to organized religion.[iv] An article of that same year in The State observed that churches were shedding thousands of members – no less in South Carolina, the buckle on the Bible Belt.[v] While their elders were voting for Donald Trump, younger Christians were voting with their feet – right out the church door.

That evangelicalism has skewed itself towards the “55-to-dead” demographic might seem to portend disaster, but for a new generation zealous for a deeper relationship with God, who are neither dismissing the orthodox faith nor battling with the Bible. Many are exercising a new-found freedom to seek answers, after decades of being told it was sinful to ask awkward questions from which their elders sought to shield God.

[i] Roger E. Olson, “Growing Up ‘Evangelical’ in the 1950s/1960s: ‘Look What They’ve Done to My Religion’, Patheos, December 28, 2014. (accessed January 10, 2015).

[ii] “Is Evangelical Theology Changing?”, Christian Life, March 1956,  p. 20.

[iii] Samuel D. James, “Stephen Mansfield: Why So Many Conservative Christians Wanted a ‘Pagan Brawler’ in the White House”, Christianity Today, October 20, 2017. (accessed November 23, 2017).

[iv] Becka A. Alper, “Why America’s ‘Nones’ Don’t Identify With A Religion”, Pew Research Center, August 8, 2018. (accessed August 19, 2018).

[v] Sarah Ellis, “Losing Faith: Why South Carolina Is Abandoning Its Churches”, The State, August 8, 2018. (accessed August 20, 2018).

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).