Category Archives: evangelical

Smart Minds & Big Words

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2016_annual_logoI spent a recent weekend with a 350 really smart people who use really big words. Most, it seems, are PhDs or in the process of earning a PhD. They come from and have ministered on every continent of the world, with the possible exception of Antarctica. They are pastors and missionaries and university professors; anthropologists, sociologists, linguists.

I felt … not out of place, but out of my league—like a weekend soccer player taking the field with  the likes of Lionel Messi, Rolandinho, Neymar, and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Evangelical Missiological Society gathers these academicians and missiologists each year to share research and practice around a central theme. This year’s theme was Missions and the Local Church — a matter close to my heart as a pastor, a missionary kid, and a missions practitioner and advocate.

Truth be told, I went for my own fifteen minutes of fame: I was invited to present a paper I had written about how a church I pastored sought to shift how and what we did in missions. But I have to confess: I also went with low expectations of the weekend; academic researchers are not always known to be dynamic presenters, and their papers are not always compelling subjects for guys like me who just want to lead a church to make disciples at home and somewhere around the world.

My low expectations were vastly exceeded. So much so, in fact, that I needed to take a break from the presentations that have greatly encouraged and challenged me in order to put some thoughts down on paper. (Or a computer.) A sampling:

In The Burden of Healing: How Pentecostal Believers Experience and Make Sense of Chronic Illness, Shelly Isaacs shared the stories of men and women suffering from chronic illnesses, whose burdens were made heavier by the unfulfilled promise and expectation of divine healing. The stories hit close to home, as I could relate each one to my own friends who also hoped, prayed, and had faith to be healed … yet never received the expected and desired answer.

Steven Weathers, a PhD student, shared research about ideologies that inform evangelical perceptions around Black Lives Matter. His words were often hard, and challenged me (as a white evangelical man) to again confront my own implicit biases—that is, those that I am not even aware of lurking sometimes deep in my heart and sometimes just under the surface. A couple statements worthy of noting:

Evangelicals are not countercultural, but call for personal change that leaves systemic cultural norms in place. [from Emerson & Smith; source unknown]

Black Lives Matter won’t matter to white evangelicals if we think individually; we need to think systemically. [Weathers]

These are particularly damning statements. They suggest we are willing to change ourselves just enough to be comfortable, but we won’t fight against the cultural realities that lie at the root of Black Lives Matter (or the civil rights fight of fifty years ago).

Some final thoughts from Ed Stetzer’s keynote address on Priorities for Churches in Missions: the decline of denominationalism and the rise of non-denominational churches has not been a neutral influence on cross-cultural missions. Historically, missions had a voice at the table with denominational leadership, and there was a clear and intentional pathway to missions through denominations. With the growth of non-denominational churches (400% since the 1980s—and now the largest evangelical bloc), “innovation is now a higher priority than missions awareness and engagement.”

Within evangelicalism, “missional” has grown while “missions” has declined; gospel demonstration has increased (a good thing), but gospel proclamation has taken a back seat (not so good).

We must no longer merely give lip service to balancing demonstration and proclamation; we must actively practice both.

In my own paper about engaging the local church in global missions, I included this statement from a book by three missiologists: “the center of gravity in missions has moved from the agency to the local church.” I think that’s a good thing; but Stetzer brought a tempering perspective: Churches are vexed about the nations, but don’t have the connections, training, or constructs to engage well and effectively.

The great charge to the Church is to make disciples of all peoples, everywhere. One of my great burdens is to help local churches do that well and effectively … whether it means engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement, offering hope and healing to the chronically ill, serving refugees, rescuing victims of human trafficking, or preaching Jesus where His name has not yet been heard.

Black & White Living in a Color World

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I’m working on a book. Writing one, that is. Okay, maybe it’s a bit presumptuous of me to suggest that. But I have an idea for one, and I’ve written a number of pages in my journal on the topic, and if I don’t run out of ideas or motivation or time or energy, then maybe…just maybe…I’ll write enough to eventually qualify it as book length. And…well, let’s not even mention publishers at this point.

I don’t really have a thesis yet, but the basic train of thought is the impact that growing up in an evangelical environment has had on my life as an adult. In fact, the working title for my book is “Growing Up Evangelical”…so don’t even think about beating me to that title! And no, I am not copying Stacia Brown, who wrote an article with that title in Sojourners magazine in June 2005. I just did a Google search for the title, and her article was the first hit, so I’ll be reading that sometime and may refer to it to see if my experience is at all similar to that of the people interviewed for the article…but I was thinking about the title before I came across her article. But enough of the disclaimers.

First let me say that I think growing up evangelical wasn’t all bad. I think it gave me a pretty solid theological foundation, even if I’ve had to go back as an adult to explore and test that foundation at several points. There are very few doctrinal points that I would say I’ve actually changed in adulthood, and where I have is all in what I would consider “non-essentials.” Some of my evangelical brothers and sisters would disagree with my analysis of what is essential, but alas, that is a part of the yin side of the evangelical yin-yang: we can’t even agree on what we ought to agree on! Hence the title of this post.

Perhaps one of the most significant impacts of growing up evangelical has been the propensity to view the world in black and white. That has a whole host of corollaries: right and wrong, us and them, liberal and conservative, saved and lost, evangelical and mainline, Republican and Democrat, Protestant and Catholic, heaven and hell…. Oops, maybe I shouldn’t have thrown in that last couplet; after all, I do believe – in fact, I’m quite convinced – that the Bible teaches a very literal heaven and hell. But I’m not so sure that the world can be so easily divided, whether theologically or spiritually or religiously or even politically.

Let me cut evangelicalism a little slack here and acknowledge that my personality is well-suited to these dichotomies. I like the whole A or B kind of distinctions; it makes things so easy to categorize, and if I know what category to put you in, then I know what to do with you. The problem is, life isn’t black and white. In fact, it’s quite colorful. And I’ve been learning over the past few years that people can’t be shunted off into one of two categories quite as easily as I’d like to do so. Oh yes, I know that Jesus will do just that at the final judgment, when he “separates the sheep from the goats” – see Matthew 25 – but I think he’s probably a far better judge than I am, so I’ll try to leave that to him and just focus on seeing a bit more color in the world.

A Recovering Evangelical

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(Originally posted on Jan 20, 2007 at randehle.com) I have at times described myself as a “recovering evangelical”. Recently I was asked what I meant by that, so I will take some space here to answer that question. First, however, I need to give credit where it is due. Roger Hedgecock, a conservative radio talk show host and former mayor of San Diego, describes himself as a “recovering politician”; I adapted the term for my own use.

So just what is a “recovering evangelical”? It is a person seeking to recover what is good in evangelicalism – primarily its essential doctrines – and recover from those aspects where evangelicalism has perhaps gone astray.

Recovering What Is Good – Doctrine
There is much that is good in evangelical doctrine, yet it is being called into question by some in the church today. Specifically, significant voices in the emerging church “conversation” are reevaluating their own roots and delving deeply into scripture in their search. This is certainly not a bad thing, but can become dangerous when these voices are taking with them less-well-rooted followers – or when they steer away from orthodox beliefs for fear of possibly “being wrong”.

I find three evangelical strengths in particular that need to be recovered:

  • Evangelicals have generally placed an appropriate emphasis on the rightness of scripture – a perhaps-less-divisive term than either inerrancy or infallibility. Evangelicals understand scripture to be right, true, and, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”. Without this base, Christianity is all but lost.
  • Evangelicals correctly hold to the paradoxical identity of Jesus as both all man and all God…even if we don’t always live out the impact of that belief (more on this below). Again, without conviction about the person of Jesus, we can neither have nor proclaim hope for the world.
  • Evangelicals understand the imperative of spreading the message of Jesus (specifically, of salvation in and through Jesus) to a world that according to scripture is lost without him.

Recovering From Going Astray – Practice
As is true of every religion at every point in history, what we believe (doctrine) is sometimes not well worked out in what we do (practice). Such is the case with evangelicalism. In two specific areas I think evangelical practice has gone off course, even if only slightly.

  • First, we have focused on conversion as a point-in-time experience, a “profession (or confession) of faith”, rather than recognizing that coming to faith is a process. Our evangelistic efforts (“spreading the message”) have not kept pace with the changing culture around us. Whereas not many decades ago even non-believers believed the Bible and what it taught about Jesus – even if they didn’t adhere to those truths in their hearts and lives – today there is a great ignorance of the Bible and an acceptance of a less-than-divine Jesus; while those of the former persuasion may respond to a four-step gospel presentation concluding with “the sinner’s prayer”, the latter need to be drawn toward a relationship with Jesus in which they will eventually place their faith in him. In many respects, this is the difference between “becoming a Christian” and “becoming a disciple.”
  • Second, we have unduly emphasized separation, expressed through a rejection of both activities (e.g., drinking, dancing, movies, etc.) and those who engage in them. Like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, we seem to be afraid that merely associating with “sinners” will make us unclean. Of course, this was what they had been taught; it grew out of the Mosaic Law with its strict definitions of clean and unclean. In our day, we read James’ counsel that pure religion is “…to keep oneself unstained by the world” and understand that to mean just this separation.

As for what a recovering evangelical should do, I think I will leave that question for another post….