Evangelical Futures – Evangelicals Now (reflections in response to Glen Scrivener)

Evangelicals Now have been running a series of articles from various prominent evangelicals entitled “Evangelical Futures.”  In the most recent article Glen Scrivener shares some of his experience of the conservative Evangelical scene.

In the article, Glen reminds us of the book “The Trellis and the Vine” by Payne and Marshall. He suggests that there is much positive stuff to see in terms of vine work but we have a problem with the trellis -with the structures intended to support Gospel work and discipleship.  To illustrate why, Glen tells us a little bit of his story, focusing on his years at theological college.

I think of the student touring me around the Bible College Of Choice for Sound Anglicans when he asked: ‘Are you considering studying at any other colleges?’ He tried to sound conversational, but this was about as loaded a question as it gets in our tribe. ‘Yeah, I have friends going to Another College, so it might be nice to go there.’ We had been walking through a corridor. We stopped. ‘You don’t want to go there,’ he said. ‘At Another College they get to the end of the lecture and tell you ‘It could be this, it could be this or it could be this’. You don’t want that,’ he assured me, ‘You want The Answer.’ I asked, ‘What happens here if you disagree with The Answer a lecturer gives?’ ‘Oh they’d shoot you down,’ he said, before hastily adding, ‘In love. I mean, they’re very thought-through.’ ‘Sure,’ I said, ‘But what if you come with Bible verses, how do they handle disagreement?’ I could almost hear the siren go off in his head. ‘What do you want to disagree about?’ he asked. ‘I don’t know yet,’ I said, ‘I just want to know if I can.’ I was assured once more that the lecturers were very thought-through and that I needn’t worry.

He goes on to mention the motto displayed in the dining hall “Be right and persist.”  I too remember it well and I recognise the culture he describes because I was at the same Theological College as Glen, our time there overlapped.

It’s worth clarifying that what that student guide said about the faculty simply wasn’t true. These were not men and women who would “shoot you down.”  I don’t think that really described the character of the majority of those there – of course there may have been exceptions. Rather, my general experience there was of gracious, gentle, humility. Of course, that does not mean that they had an “any view will do” approach.  Gentleness and humility doesn’t have to be a gateway to liberalism or relativism. It is possible to have both grace and clarity.  This does not mean that the faculty were without fault. They were finite. I remember one particularly difficult point where there was a falling out within the faculty and that overspilled into wider college life. But I also remember that when a couple of students went and met with tutors to express concerns we were not brushed aside but were listened to. A side lesson at the time for me was that godly, wise people I looked up to could still act unwisely. We are finite.  Christ should be our only hero.

However, the kinds of things that the student tour guide attributed to the faculty probably described better the temptations for students.  Indeed, one challenge in that culture was that students identified as “Blokes worth watching” who had already served their theological apprenticeships as camp leaders and Ministry Trainees, hand picked out of the best of the best at our leading light churches could believe that they had already made it, that theological college was an unnecessary delay, that they weren’t really there to learn anything more, just to get the necessary paperwork. Indeed, some of them were already published authors.

And there I think is something important to dwell on a little bit longer. That “Blokes worth watching” culture was I believe toxically destructive.  You see, it came in from outside. I first heard the term used by Phillip Jensen to describe the methods he used for identifying potential future pastors. And, there’s in one sense something helpful there, I too as a pastor have talked with fellow leaders about whether we were looking out for people (not just blokes) and the gifts that they have to bring.  The problem is that we often too narrowly focused purely on people worth watching as potential leaders rather than thinking about all the gifts needed. And our criteria for identifying such leaders was too narrow as well.

What I’m beginning to draw out here was that UK conservative evangelical culture, was heavily influenced in the late 90s and into the 00s by Sydney Anglicanism and particularly by the Jensen brothers. We attended seminars by them, we eagerly devoured their books, we waited with bated breath for the next issue of the Briefing to come out from St Matthias Press.  What? You’ve not heard those names and never read that magazine?  I’ll come back to that later.

Now, I think that in many ways we benefited from Sydney Anglicanism. We should be grateful both to the way that this one Archdiocese stood firm whilst outside of the Global South, Western Anglicanism was deserting Biblical Christianity and in full on retreat. We learnt many good things from these guys. However, there were some unhelpful things too.  When the robust, boot camp, SAS culture of Sydney Anglicanism met the English class system, when the concept of “blokes worth watching” was mapped onto Bash’s idea of reaching a hand picked elite through the camp system I would suggest that the results were toxic and we are seeing the consequences today. 

I want to keep pressing into that issue of culture and how individual attitudes arose out of it. If individual Christians believed that they were persisting in being right, if they saw themselves as uniquely qualified to lead, if there was a level of privilege and entitlement then it came from somewhere.

Here’s another story.  A pastor of a medium sized independent evangelical church is encouraging a young man who is still very young in his faith. One day, the pastor gets a call from a large conservative anglican church to be told that the young man is about to be accepted onto their ministry training scheme. They want a reference, but “don’t worry too much, it’s just formalities you understand.”  The pastor asks if they can slow down. He’s not sure that the young man is ready for such a move. He doesn’t think it will be good for them.  He’s also not sure that it’s great for the local church either.  He is quickly put in his place (by a staff member about half his age and with a third of his pastoral experience). He has to understand that this large church know better than him and that his response is very typical of small church pastors like him.

 I wish that this story was made up but it is not. And if it sounds like I’m having a go at Anglicanism, I’m also aware of people discovering that a person has been head hunted within independent evangelicalism or of applicants for pastoral posts discovering that they’ve been bumped down the list at the last minute because someone has decided that the job is just right for someone who hadn’t even been in the process until two days ago.

So, I think that Glen is on to something.  We’ve got work to do if we want our evangelical future to be healthy and Christ honouring. However, I want to come back to something I alluded t earlier. I mentioned some names and acknowledged that a few of my readers would not have heard of them. 

When I turned up at theological college I remember being asked “which camp did you go to.” By a couple of people. I looked confused and said something about “Boys Brigade Camp” and realised it was the wrong answer and it felt like the equivalent of not having the right school tie.  I discovered that there wasn’t an exceptionally effective youth evangelist called Ewan Camps but that rather Iwerne Camps were summer events set up to reach public school boys. We were back in the English class system. A comprehensive lad from Bradford was never going to have been connected into the right circles.

The point is I got into my mid thirties without knowing about these camps.  A few years later, and I’m hearing about abusive leaders and people talk about John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher as influential Evangelical leaders. Now, I’d been to Keswick, I’d attended one of the largest churches whilst at Uni, I’d devoured my share of books but I’d not heard of these “famous men.” And I’m not alone in that.  One person responding to Glen’s article commented that he might only be at best describing 10% of conservative evangelical churches. In so doing I think they drew our attention to another part of the problem.

The sad truth is that evangelicalism has splintered and become tribal and cliquey.  I’m sure that the danger has always been there but I believe it has got worse during my adult life time. As a young person I remember the church scene back in Bradford, Pentecostals, evangelical Methodists, Anglicans and Baptists rubbed along together quite nicely. You’d find us mixing together at occasional teaching conferences or youth events. We would work together to bring Roger Carswell or whoever along to lead an evangelistic campaign.  So the tribalism I began to encounter later became something of a shock. Conservatives are not alone in this, I recently heard someone describing their experience of becoming a Christian late in life and then being expected to know all about HTB and Nicky Gumbel.

The problem with this tribalism is two-fold, first we’ve got the division itself but secondly, because of our class structures we have an additional issue.  Resources are not evenly spread around the church and particularly around Gospel need.  So, we end up in a situation where those controlling things like money, training and sending have quite a constrained view of the world around them.

Glen finishes his article by encouraging us to focus on the vine. I want to say amen to that. It’s Gospel work that matters. However, when it has been a small group of people from within one circle who have built the trellis, when the people telling us “just focus on the vine don’t worry about the trellis” are the very ones who built the trellis and when the trellis itself acts as a constraint on Gospel ministry then I would be cautious about following that advice. We do need to pay attention to the Trellis.

And one reason why we do need to talk about the Trellis is because if it is designed to support only one bit of the vine well at the expense of the rest of the vine then we have a problem. So, let’s start having that conversation.

Postscript: For interest, David Baker, editor of EN made some similar comments in this article over a year ago.

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