Most readers will know this, but I need to explain this for those who aren’t familiar with the Christian world outside the Churches of Christ.
“Evangelistic” means “tries to convert the lost to Jesus.” You knew that, of course.
“Evangelical” refers to a subset of Christians who are theologically conservative, Protestant, and not legalistic. Saddleback and Willow Creek would be considered evangelical by most. Most Bible bookstores cater to an evangelical audience. Young evangelicals like contemporary Christian music.
That’s not a good definition, but I can’t present a good definition, because there isn’t one. A practical definition of “evangelical” might be: people who would show up to support a Billy Graham campaign. Obviously, traditional Churches of Christ are not evangelical.
Now, with this definition in mind, it can be observed that the progressive Churches of Christ are headed in an evangelical direction. We read C. S. Lewis, the patron saint of the evangelical churches. We love Max Lucado, even if our more conservative Church of Christ brothers call him a heretic. We shop at the local Baptist bookstore and find plenty of good books to read.
But in the larger Protestant community, there’s a lot of unhappiness with evangelicalism. For example, there is this quote from Christopher Benson regarding “generic evangelicalism” —
… I am still restless with “evangelical” … as a descriptor of my own religious identity. That restlessness owes to what I perceive as the cultural captivity and politicization of the movement during my lifetime. Add to this “the anointed” authority structure, pointless heresy hunting, institutional weakness, ad hoc liturgy, anti-intellectualism, middlebrow aesthetics, and flaccid theology (“moralistic, therapeutic deism”)—and you will begin to understand the winter of my discontent. (There are exceptions to the above generalizations, but apologists often make too much of those exceptions.) Some of my evangelical contemporaries have found vernal promise in Catholicism or Orthodoxy. I investigated both traditions and could not be at home there for theological reasons.
Sound familiar? Do we really want to leave behind the Church of Christ community only to find ourselves a special interest group within the Republican Party, pursuing a party’s agenda rather than Christ’s? Do we really want to divide over evolution and Creationism? Do we want to leave one group’s fights only to join another’s?
Benson suggests post-evangelicalism —
So, where shall a person like myself go? The answer, I believe, is toward post-evangelicalism—not to be confused with ex-evangelicalism or anti-evangelicalism. A post-evangelical can retain the ethos (lowercase) while leaving behind the movement (uppercase).
That is, he proposes to hold tightly to the virtues of evangelicalism. He lists these as —
- Crucicentric. Evangelicals are Christocentric in their piety and preaching, and emphasize particularly the necessity of Christ’s salvific work on the cross.
- Biblicist. Evangelicals affirm the Bible as God’s Word written, true in what it says and functioning as their supreme written guide for life.
- Conversionist. Evangelicals believe that (1) everyone must trust Jesus as Savior and follow him as Lord; and (2) everyone must cooperate with God in a life of growing spiritual maturity.
- Missional. Evangelicals actively cooperate with God in his mission of redeeming the world and particularly in the proclamation of the gospel and making of disciples.
- Transdenominational. Evangelicals gladly partner with other Christians who hold these concerns, regardless of denominational stripe, in work to advance the kingdom of God.
Amen. But how do we hold fast to these virtues while escaping the worse elements of contemporary evangelicalism? He suggests —
“Confessional” refers to a denomination defined by a creed. Yep. In other words, he says, it’s better to join with an established community of saints — a non-exclusive community, for sure — than to try to re-invent the wheel and be entirely independent or even to create a whole new movement.
And the “ancient-future faith” movement seeks to restore traditional liturgy and the Christian calendar — Lent, Advent, Pentecost, etc. And many churches are experimenting with various blends of high church and low church — sometimes for very serious theological reasons and sometimes as a marketing tool.
The point is not to advocate adopting a creed or celebrating Lent. The point is that we’re not the only ones who are struggling to find our feet in this post-denominational world. And we’re a bit naive if we imagine we can just add a band and find instant tradition and stability. No, it’s not that easy.
This is a conversation that we cannot avoid. Where do the progressive Churches of Christ go from here? Do we become independent, autonomous congregations answerable only to our own elderships? Do we form yet another denomination? Do we cling to the rapidly shrinking Churches of Christ? Do we merge with the independent Christian Churches?
Do we jump into evangelicalism? Or is evangelicalism a dying relic of ancient battles? Do we instead jump into the nearly dead emerging church movement? Do we become a loosely affiliated league of unbranded community churches?
Where do we go for theological structure? What defines “us” other than memories of Church of Christ affiliations that will be foreign to our children?
Do we take our worship practices from the Baptists? The Pentecostals? The mega-churches? The Episcopalians? Do we blend? Just who are we going to be?
Will we be defined by our institutions — the universities? the missions programs? what?
Can we be Christians only and not the only Christians if there is no definition of “we”? Who is “we”? Those who attend the Pepperdine lectureships?
The boundaries are a bit fuzzy, and maybe that’s good. But we should at least think about them.
I mentioned in the last post that we’re quickly being forced to actually honor the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery —
Imprimis. We will that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large: for there is but one body and one spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.
That’s the earliest document of the Stone-Campbell (Restoration) Movement. Kind of scary to imagine actually doing what it says, isn’t it?
After all, we don’t have a clue as to how to do that. If we don’t merge into an existing denominational structure and don’t form a new one, then I suppose we become free-standing, autonomous churches. Is that good? Is that even scriptural?
The Church of Christ teaching and practice of congregational autonomy has always been a problem, as we don’t see the First Century congregations being so radically autonomous. They submitted to the apostles. They sought guidance from Jerusalem. They cooperated. And there was but one denomination. They didn’t pick a subset of churches to cooperate with.
(I mean, can you imagine Corinth saying they’d send money to the East Apollos Church in Jerusalem but not the Central Paul Church across the street? Can you imagine what Paul would have said to that?)
So what would it mean to “sink into union with the Body of Christ at large”? How does being entirely independent mean “union”? I don’t see how.
How can we be united in a scripturally sound way? How can we be edified by other churches? How can we build up other churches? How can we become accountable to other churches? How can we cooperate with other churches? I mean, doesn’t unity require those things?
And how do we become accountable to other churches without creating some kind of hierarchy that brings with it its own set of problems? Would we be trading one flawed organizational pattern for another?
Or am I wrong to insist on accountability among congregations of the Lord’s church? If a congregation goes nuts and begins preaching, oh, say, the prosperity gospel, should the other churches even care? You see, I think we’ve adopted the American corporate model, which says we compete with all other storefronts, and if a competitor messes up, we celebrate the opportunities that creates. That’s the American independent, autonomous ethos, isn’t it? Where is the Golden Rule? Where is love?
But I’m struggling to type a sentence that doesn’t end in a question mark. Maybe the readers can help. What do you think?