Monday, August 8, 2011

Evangelicalism Renewed

Yesterday in the Sunday-morning adult forum, we discussed John Stott, the recently deceased British clergyman who was at one point the generally acknowledged leader of the Evangelical Christian movement. Even though Stott was an unapologetic Evangelical, I loved him and what he represented without equivocation. Despite his unwaveringly conservative approach to the Bible, there was something about his understanding of the Christian faith that made him approachable by both progressives and fundamentalists.

In the forum, we did look at the life and work of Stott, but the real purpose of our conversation was to investigate the Evangelical Christian movement and to ask what it might best be able to contribute to contemporary Christianity. After given some opportunity for discussion, each table reported back that their conversation on the issue had mostly focused on distinguishing between Evangelicals who usually make headlines (e.g., Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell) and those who bring the good news more gently (e.g., John Stott). The link between the two, it seemed, was an emphasis on the bible as “good news”; the difference was what we then do with that good news.

In today’s lesson from Acts (20:17-38), we read Paul’s farewell speech to the elders of Ephesus. Among his words is a line that reminded me of yesterday’s conversation: “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” Paul was an Evangelical of the first order, and he understood implicitly how his role as bearer of the good news was supposed to work. He shared the saving news of Jesus Christ to everyone he met, but, as this line indicates, he knew that God was the one who did the saving. It’s one thing to tell someone the good news; it’s quite another to tell them exactly how the must respond to that message. And that, I think, is the difference between being an Evangelical and being a fundamentalist.

We do have good news—the best news. We know that God loves the world and that he wants the world to be saved. How can we not share that news unapologetically? The label “Evangelical” has gotten such a bad reputation in our culture that we now shy away from sharing with others the message of salvation. To say to someone, “I’m a Christian. Have you ever thought about becoming one?” is little more than a gentle invitation, but the baggage that preachers on television and the radio have attached to evangelism have made it nearly impossible to issue such an invitation. When I say, “Are you a Christian?” people are preconditioned to hear, “If you’re not the kind of Christian I think is right, let me show you how you’re supposed to believe.” But that’s not evangelism—it’s oppression.

John Stott and the apostle Paul both understood that there is salvation in the good news of Jesus Christ, and they also understood that the evangelist’s job was to preach that message without owning how the message would be received. “I planted the seed; Apollos watered it; but God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). If we are to recapture the label “Evangelical” and make it a good thing, we need to refocus our efforts on studying the bible, sharing the good news, and trusting that God will change people’s hearts accordingly. If I’m worried about tallying up “number of souls saved,” the good news I’m preaching becomes an oppressive sales pitch rather than a gentle invitation.

I’m an Evangelical Christian, and I’m proud of it. I believe that there’s good news to share with the world, but I also believe that God is using that message of salvation to transform individual lives and the whole world in ways I can neither control nor appreciate. Being an Evangelical isn’t about reproducing one’s version of the faith in the hearts of others. It’s about sharing good news and watching what happens.

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