SOUTH HAMILTON, Mass. — Repentant for having spent a generation bowing at the altars of church growth and political power, concerned evangelicals gathered Oct. 13-15 to search the soul of their movement and find a new way forward.
That evangelicals, who compose a quarter of the American population, must refocus on shaping authentic disciples of Jesus Christ has always garnered wide support. But how to do that in a consumerist society with little appetite for self-denial is fueling internal debate.
The state of evangelicalism drew the scrutiny of intellectuals as 500 people attended a conference at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on “renewing the evangelical mission.” Leading thinkers called fellow believers to repent for a host of sins, from reducing the gospel to a right-wing political agenda to rendering God as a lenient father who merely wants “cuddle time with his kids.”
“We are seeing the very serious weakening of American faith, even among people who profess to be believers,” said Os Guinness, senior fellow of the EastWest Institute in New York and author of The Case for Civility. “Yet an awful lot of people haven’t really faced up to the true challenge and still think they can turn it around with things like political action.”
Speakers earned applause for highlighting where evangelicalism, which began as a Protestant renewal movement, has ironically come to need its own renewing. At one point, participants sang a new hymn that’s setting the tone for a new era: “We spurned God’s way and sought our own,” they sang, “and so have become worthless.”
“The church in a sense has lost its mission to go out and love the people,” said Steven Mayo, pastor of Elm Street Congregational Church in Fitchburg, Mass. “We’ve become useless in a society that desperately needs us.”
How to become useful again, however, is a matter without consensus. Calvin Theological Seminary President Cornelius Plantinga urged pastors to talk less about fulfilling personal potential and offer more from the likes of Old Testament prophet Joel, who warns God’s people to wail and repent before the Lord scorches the earth. But church leaders responded to Plantinga’s prescription with a reality check.
“For pastors, it’s very easy to lose (a) job by taking your advice,” said Rachel Stahle, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation in Carteret, N.J., after Plantinga’s 45-minute lecture. “It’s even harder to find another one by taking your advice. So what wisdom do you share with us to take what you’ve said back to the churches?”
Some evangelicals are taking little comfort these days in successes of the past two decades, which included hundreds of mushrooming megachurches and the advancement of a socially conservative agenda under former President George W. Bush. Too often, they say, Christians came to display un-Christian behavior in the public square and did their disciple-making cause a disservice.
“Beware the escalation of extremism,” Guinness said. “Christian sayings such as, `love your enemies’ — they’re forgotten. People are attacking their enemies, (but) they’re certainly not on the side of Jesus in this.”
For some, the solution lies in re-emphasizing Reformation doctrines. This approach resonates with the growing ranks of “New Calvinists,” who profess such teachings as man’s total depravity, God’s complete sovereignty and predestination of souls to heaven and hell. Some church leaders feel the drift away from traditional teachings has led evangelicals to neglect such biblical mandates as ecumenism and organize around lesser principles, such as political preferences.
“We (evangelicals) have moved from a church grounded in solid theology to a church grounded in personal relationships,” said Neil Gastonguay, pastor of Bath United Methodist Church in Bath, Maine. “We don’t have a message anymore.”
But others say evangelicals have worried too much about doctrinal differences when they’ve needed to be joining forces on larger issues. Richard Alberta, senior pastor of Cornerstone Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brighton, Mich., said preoccupations with doctrinal purity help explain why he struggles to round up fellow evangelicals to join him at anti-abortion events.
“When you get evangelicals among themselves, instead of addressing the social and moral issues, they get backwatered into some debate about dispensationalism or Calvin or Charismatic Renewal,” Alberta said. “There’s lots of suspicion, and those (worries) seem to act as filters that keep evangelicals from getting together.”
Similar frustrations beleaguer Travis Hutchinson, pastor of Highlands Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church in America) in Lafayette, Ga. He routinely gets a cool response from fellow evangelicals, he said, when he asks them to show courage and join his efforts to minister among undocumented immigrants. The problem, as he sees it, is that the doctrine-obsessed have lost touch with the heart of Jesus Christ.
“The missing ingredient is not the primacy of the mind and doctrine,” Hutchinson said. “It’s the willingness to suffer.”
Though renewal strategies may vary in the years ahead, evangelicals agree their calling is to be found in their bedrock source: scripture. Theologian John Jefferson Davis of Gordon-Conwell, for instance, said today’s Christians “need a high-intensity experience of God” and should seek it through meditative readings of scripture. Still, he conceded, even Bible-based worship will need to be “more attractive and more enjoyable than a trip to the shopping mall.”
“Unless we can experience God (in a way) that is as real and as appealing as what we see on a 60-inch, high-definition plasma home theater screen,” Davis said, “we are in trouble.”