Yesterday I shared some reflections in response to an article in Evangelicals Now by Glen Scrivener. There’s much I agreed with in his article, much that resonated. However, one thing I’m not so comfortable with is that in many respects, his description was only of a small part of Evangelicalism. Indeed, I think that the very fact that this is for many the dominant image of conservative Evangelicalism perhaps is part of the problem.
The image we have might be summed up as follows.
- That there is a perception that conservative evangelicalism is primarily a middle and upper class thing.
- That conservative evangelicals have a tendency to a form of stunted cerebralism. There’s a suspicion of experientialism but also even our intellectual engagement is shallow and stunted because of a suspicion of academia.
- That conservative evangelicals are cessationists, in practice if not in theory.
This leads to the kind of diagnosis that Glen describes as follows:
Our Bible emphasis can easily fall foul of Christ’s warning in John 5: that we diligently study the Scriptures but miss coming to Christ to have life. Our preaching can tilt towards the explanation of a passage rather than the proclamation of a Saviour. It can be more like a drill sergeant’s pep talk than a herald’s announcement of victory.
Our evangelism emphasis is excellent but it can also crowd out other concerns, like worship or a richer account of discipleship in all of life. We make Sunday all about ‘accessibility’ to the outsider and we make Monday–Friday all about having ‘conversations at the watercooler’. Worship and discipleship are far deeper than that, but sometimes our brand of evangelism can keep us shallow.
And this is where I want to respond by acknowledging that whilst this may be true of some, it is not of all. We need to be alert to the wider picture. I am focusing in narrowly still by restricting my comments to reformed evangelicalism – the tradition that emphasises God’s Sovereignty and the crucial dominance of grace in our theology (particularly associated with Calvin). That’s not to forget that evangelicalism is broader still encompassing Wesleyan, Lutheran, Arminian, pietist, and Pentecostal positions).
But I wanted to highlight a couple of things, partly so that we get a fuller picture and partly so that we start to think about more about the issues I raised yesterday concerning the inadequacies of the so called trellis.
First of all, there are many reformed evangelicals who are actively and practically delighting in an experiential faith. They are rooted in Scripture and have discovered its sufficiency. However, they have learnt what it means to enjoy God -many before or without encountering Piper! This means that you will find reformed Christians who strongly affirm the present day availability of gifts of the Spirit. Some conservative evangelicals will happily own the label “charismatic” others less so. Some will happily talk in terms of “pictures”, “dreams”, “visions” and “prophecy” some don’t use the labels and yet there is a real nowness to their faith. Yes, some church services may feel like “school assemblies” and some of us need to sing a lot more. Some of our preaching at times comes across as more suited to the lecture theatre. But I can take you to plenty of churches where there is lively singing and a sense of expectancy in the preaching (and note this isn’t primarily about whether you sing traditional hymns or modern worship songs).
Secondly, the church isn’t confined to middle class suburbia. I’m pleased that God has multiplied churches in student and graduate areas but there is more going on. There are churches being planted on London Estates and Scottish schemes. I might mention Gospel work in West Yorkshire with Graham Thomson planting in Spen Valley, of faithful ministry by Steve Kneale into one of the most deprived council wards up in Oldham or Dan James starting a church plant on an estate in Leicester. Then, there’s what we are seeing in terms of multi-cultural church life. It was our privilege and joy at Bearwood to see a church where the majority of people coming were not from white middle class backgrounds. About half of our current church family are from African and Afro-Caribbean backgrounds.
Thirdly, I detect a genuine hunger among many to dig deep into the riches of God’s Word. Again, over time in Bearwood we saw people growing their appetite for listening to expository teaching and deep Bible study.
I say this both to encourage and to challenge. The encouragement is that there is more to the picture than we might pick up from the Evangelicals Now article. However, the challenge is two-fold. First, as I mentioned last time, some trellis work is needed. We simply aren’t geared up to support and encourage that bigger picture. What can we do about that. Secondly, yes, stuff is happening, more than first impressions might have suggested. However, it’s not anywhere near enough. That’s why some of us keep banging on about the need for Gospel churches on our estates and inner cities.
How can you play your part in helping us to see more of this -a wider, richer, deeper evangelicalism?