Conversations with the Saints
A key question for the future of evangelicalism is this: Will our loss of power pull us apart or draw us together? Will churches and denominations insulate themselves, or will we open ourselves to other believers from different traditions and ages? Will we use this as an opportunity to humble ourselves, listen to others, and repent of our thinking that our tradition is the true and perfect expression of the gospel of Jesus? Will we dare to learn from Catholics and Anglicans, from Christians in Africa and South America and Asia, from believers of past centuries and cultures, from Calvinists or Arminians or even, dare-I-say-it, from mainline Protestants?
My hope is that our loss of cultural power will provide an occasion for us to lay down our arms. The world is tired of Christian in-fighting, and so are a lot of us. I am encouraged that some evangelical scholars and writers have begun to emphasize what unites us with other Christian traditions over what divides us. They are doing so by listening to the voices of the past and unearthing the historic creeds that comprise the "Great Tradition" of the church, shared by Christians across all times and places.
To listen to others in our Great Tradition does not mean that we will agree with everything we hear, nor that we will lose our distinctive tradition. But it does mean that evangelicalism will change. I think in many cases we refuse to listen to others because we fear we will be persuaded by their position and will have to surrender our own. In other words, we are human and we fear change. But vast changes have already taken place in our culture, and in order to continue to have a voice, we simply cannot let our fear prevent us from the transformation we so desperately need.
An example of the good that can come from interaction with other traditions is the increasing depth of evangelical spirituality. In the last two decades evangelicals have embraced the spiritual disciplines, means for cultivating our personal lives of faith that have traditionally been practiced by non-evangelicals. We have taken the mystical and sacramental elements of other Christian traditions and incorporated them into our Word-centered spirituality to create a richness that did not exist before. Individual lives and churches are being transformed because a few people with a vague sense of dissatisfaction decided to read the thoughts of forgotten saints.
No one can fully know what will result from a renewed evangelical commitment to listen to and learn from other Christian traditions. What I do know is that as evangelical influence continues to be pushed to the margins of our culture, we can't afford not to listen.
Adam McHugh is a writer, spiritual director, and ordained Presbyterian minister who has served on campus staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, in hospice chaplaincy, and in church ministry. He earned his M.Div. and Th.M. from Princeton Theological Seminary, and authored the widely praised Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture. He lives with his wife Lindsay, who is on staff at World Vision International, in Claremont, CA. He is regular contributor to the Patheos' Evangelical Portal and he blogs at www.introvertedchurch.com.
Also see McHugh's "The Ancient Art of Listening."