Two opposite forces pulling evangelicals (and others) apart

Two opposite forces pulling evangelicals (and others) apart September 20, 2010

I see two opposite and equally dangerous trends pulling evangelicals apart and thereby weakening our witness to the world.  One is, for lack of better terms, particularistic tribalism and the other is generic, plain label Christianity.  Please allow me to explain.

I value Christian particularity.  That is, I want Baptists to be Baptist, Pentecostals to be Pentecostal, Wesleyans to be Wesleyan, Presbyterians to be Presbyterian, etc.  While it would be ideal for us all to get together and have one big, nice denomination, that’s not likely given human nature or the nature of a free society.  Our theological and liturgical differences are likely to remain until Christ returns.  (Then, I suspect, in the millennium, there will be only one Christian variety!)  And I think we need many different voices singing different theological parts to balance and correct each other and to give the evangelical community a harmonious witness that covers all the major motifs of the gospel.

I view evangelicalism as like a choir.  Presbyterian Calvinists are the bass part, Pentecostals and charismatics are the soprano part, Baptists and Free churches are the baritone part, Wesleyans are the alto part, etc.  I see Billy Graham as the choir director who strove to make all the parts sing in harmony without silencing any of them.  For a while (e.g., during my youth in organizations like Youth for Christ and the National Association of Evangelicals) it seemed to work.  Evangelical Christians of many different denominations and theological orientations came together in cooperation and declined to drown each other out by, for example, proselytizing each other.  There were enough unreached and unchurched people for all of us. 

For example, I recall one Billy Graham associate evangelist who came to our city when I was in seminary.  I was assigned by the church where I served to be its liaison with the advance team.  The local committee was made up of evangelicals from many different denominations.  There was also an evangelical ministrial fellowship that reflected the whole spectrum of evangelical churches.  (Only liberals and fundamentalists refused to be part of it.)  After the Billy Graham evangelistic crusade (led by an associate evangelist) closed the committee members got together and simply divided up the “inquirer cards” submitted by people at the evening services.  There was no attempt by any church or tradition to dominate everything or steal sheep.

And yet, the evangelical churches knew who they were and valued and preserved their distinct and particular theological and liturgical identities.  The Wesleyans preached entire sanctification.  The Pentecostals preached the Baptism of the Holy Spirit with the initial, physical evidence of speaking in tongues.  The Baptists preached conversion and believer baptism and (usually) eternal security.  The evangelical Presbyterians and Reformed preached unconditional election and irresistible grace.  But these distinctives did not hinder broad and deep cooperation in all kinds of endeavors such as the local Union Gospel Mission, annual evangelistic crusades led by various evangelists, Thanksgiving and Easter services sponsored by the evangelical ministerium, etc. 

During the past two decades I’ve noticed that unity-in-diversity breaking down among evangelicals.  Some (many?) evangelical churches are sacrificing their heritage’s distinctives in favor of what I call “generic Christianity.”  Here’s how that looks.  If you blindfolded me and took me to four different churches of different evangelical traditions on four Sundays I might have trouble discerning which is which based on what I hear.  If you took the blindfold off I might see something like the denomination’s initials printed in tiny letters beneath the church’s otherwise bland and generic name (e.g., Grace Family Fellowship).  But chances are, the theology, preaching and worship would be the same in all four churches in spite of the fact that they belong to four very different traditions.  (E.g., one might be Nazarene, another one Assembly of God, another one Baptist and another one Presbyterian.)  I have attended Lutheran churches that were exactly like Pentecostal churches!

The other force is opposite–tribalistic particularism.  Some evangelical denominations, churches and leaders have reacted to the genericizing of Christianity digging deeply into their own wells of theology and worship and have begun to imply, if not just outrightly say, that they are the only “real” evangelicals or that their flavor of evangelicalism is so much better that it justifies them trying to steal sheep from other evangelical churches.

I see this happening especially on evangelical campuses.  Various evangelical student groups, led by workers paid by denominations, sometimes compete with each other for followers by putting down other evangelical groups and their traditions as somehow defective.  I see this tribalistic particularism in books written about evangelical traditions by theologians.  The “text behind the text” says “My version of this tradition is the only right one; all others are ‘revisionist’.”  A plethora of books published in recent years more than imply this.

For example, right now I’m reading (to review) a new book on Reformed theology published by a major theological publisher.  The author teaches at a very conservative Presbyterian-related seminary.  It seems to me the author, like others I know, wants to narrow down the identity of “Reformed” to one particular strain of that broad tradition.  Many denominations of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (recently merged with another group) would not make the cut (of being truly “Reformed”) if this author’s description became the norm.  Other Reformed theologians have written and told me that ONLY monergists are truly evangelical so that Arminians are not authentically evangelical.  (One Reformed theologian who has said this publicly also told me that Presbyterians aren’t truly Reformed!)

Call that the Balkanization of evangelicalism.  I call it tribalism–taking historical and traditional particularity to an extreme–beyond pride in it to exclusivity about it.

Both opposite forces are wrong, in my opinion.  Evangelical churches should rediscover their particular traditions and hold them up proudly as who they are and let them permeate their preaching and teaching and worshiping without building walls around themselves that keep them from encountering and learning from and even enjoying the particularities of other evangelical churches and denominations.

Last evening my wife and I attended a city-wide (really county-wide) “hymn sing.”  There must have been three thousand people there.  Many churches came together with their choirs and there were several notable recording artists present to lead singing and offer special performances.  It was wonderful.  But it was all Baptist.  I’m glad the many Baptist churches in our county (about 150 of them!) can come together in that way, but wouldn’t it be better if all the evangelicals could come together like that?

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