An evangelical perspective on the future of ecumenism
Any effort to provide a comprehensive explanation of anything dealing with “evangelical” would be an exercise in futility, at best, and foolishness, at worst. Probably the only way to truly get at the “Evangelical Perspective” of unity would be to have all evangelicals come to this meeting and speak their opinions. The one with the loudest voice would probably be the one most supported, until they got laryngitis and someone else’s voice overpowered them. Of course the real problem would be deciding who’s anevangelical and whether they should even be included.
At the same time, I realize that the evangelical “movement” is a vital part of the Church. It cannot be defined precisely, but neither can it be ignored or minimized. I tell pastors, denominational leaders and students that movements are always messy. And they always create waves. The evangelical movement is no exception. Those who try to codify it, organize it, define it, control it, direct it, or in any way manipulate it as a whole do so at their own peril.
There are a few of us who live and minister within this movement and who try to understand it as best we can within the larger work of God in the world. The word “evangelical” comes from the word “euangelion.” It is the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ. Generally evangelicals hold to a few important principles, although they are expressed and applied in multiple ways. Evangelicals hold strongly to the need for personal conversion in order to become beneficiaries of the saving work of God through Jesus Christ. The Scriptures are the trustworthy word of God and their primacy is authoritative in matters of truth and life. Evangelism and discipleship characterize the activities of evangelicals to the end that persons grow spiritually and in acts of charity. The community of believers is empowered by the Holy Spirit in pursuing the Kingdom of God and adding to the church.
Now, this having been said, there are probably many more evangelicals in this room than many evangelicals may think. A bit confusing, perhaps. Yet therein lies the power and the genius of any movement, especially one that is fueled by the Holy Spirit. And in most cases I believe the evangelical movement is a positive force of God in His divine work in the world. In my humble opinion, any movement that can be explained, parsed, structured, organized, contained, or measured is not worthy of the Divine. Our God is beyond measure and is certainly not tame.
As we consider how such apparently disparate groups could ever come together in a commitment to unity, there are a few factors that I believe are important for consideration from an evangelical perspective. Let me outline some of these factors with full knowledge that this is a conversation that is dynamic. We all learn from one another and so pursue the mutuality of the Kingdom in Christian community.
Fear of Compromise
Perhaps it is due to the relative youth of the contemporary evangelical movement; perhaps it is due to its relative poverty in economic standards; or perhaps it is due to the lack of a common, coordinating center. Whatever the reason, there generally exists within evangelical circles a low grade fear of compromise. The slogan“Cooperation without Compromise” is somewhat indicative of this fear. In fact this phrase may be more suited as a declaration in an interfaith context where the tenets of the faith will more likely be threatened. In an ecumenical circumstance, where there is at least ambiguity over what is essentially evangelical and even more broadly Christian, such a posture presupposes an intransigence which itself mitigates the Kingdom principle of being “mutually submitted to one another as unto the Lord.” In other words, for those whose greatest fear is compromise, everything will be examined with a careful eye of suspicion. ‘We must be on guard in case something sneaks up on us without our knowing, and compromise happens.’ A fortress mentality is the logical expression of this fear-based existence that leads to an enclave of exclusivism.
Probably the single most important area that drives this fear of compromise centers on the authority of the Bible. Of course any threat to the authority of the bible usually is discerned only when a position is taken that breaches generally accepted thinking among those who are “truly evangelical” and “believe the bible.” So this fear of compromise often places evangelicals in a reactive mode which then smacks of fundamentalism, which it is not. In reality the issue of the authority of the bible is more a hermeneutical issue influenced by tradition, heritage, education, and church community.
Thankfully, increasing numbers of evangelicals are recognizing the fact that while there are multiple hermeneutical approaches, the issue of the authority of the bible is as much a matter of choice – perhaps faith – as it is a matter of the authenticity and accuracy of the written Word itself. Yet among evangelicals at large the vibrancy and effectiveness of the work of God in the world is closely tied to a high view of Scripture. Any threat to that means a potential compromise and loss of power.
Forgive my bluntness. Maybe you’re not the ones I need to apologize to. Better yet, convey my apology to any evangelical who hears about this and is offended by it. In reality, however, most evangelicals and most evangelical leaders have no idea what the Faith and Order Movement is. They don’t know what Faith and Order is. They don’t care. They won’t go looking to find out. To them “faith” is good. That is belief in Jesus as savior and lord. “Order” is okay, though somewhat suspicious. At best it means “order of worship” as in the church bulletin, or on the “platform manager’s” clipboard to keep the service flowing, or the “worship set” of songs for the band in the service. A few have come to realize there is a long standing effort on the part of other Christians to bring centeredness to the diversity of the church and Faith & Order is one of the organized efforts to that end. Though we would prefer the “life and witness” idea – since that has to do with personal vibrancy and action – we recognize that for our own good and maturity we must learn and grow in understanding the larger heritage, thinking, and Christian church which is our foundation, root, and source whether we know it or not.
It is quite interesting that in the current unfolding of the Gen X mentality, and more significantly of the mosaic generation that is shaping the emergent church movement, these roots are becoming much more important. Many new church plants are exploring the history, tradition, icons, rituals, and thinking patterns that are foreign to most 20th century evangelicals. They are not afraid of compromise. And they are determined to explore the power of the historic church which has for decades remained hidden behind the curtain of ignorance.
I serve with four others on the board of one of the largest churches in America, and fastest growing. The pastor hasn’t a clue what I do in these kinds of meetings. He is ignorant to it, and quite honestly his intense focus is one of his greatest attributes so I don’t push it. But occasionally I drop a little story or open a small window describing someone in the mainline, Orthodox, or Catholic circles that is spiritually vibrant, passionate about Christ, and powerfully effective in ministry. Often it was met with doubt and a glazed look. Gradually it has become a mild response of understanding punctuated with a comment that “there are great Christians in any institution.”
Basically there is a general ignorance of the vibrancy and deep passion for spirituality that exists and may be building in mainline, Catholic, and Orthodox churches. Even in my description of this, I realize that I am probably exhibiting massive ignorance to any one of those circles of Christians, which underscores my point.
In most contemporary evangelical circles any mention of, say, the United Methodist Church is accompanied by derision for the perception that the UMC has fallen prey to the “slippery slope of liberalism.” Yet I venture to say that a majority of UMC pastors are as evangelical as the local Nazarene, or Free Methodist pastor. Only in recent decades have Catholics in North America been blessed to be included by most evangelicals in the circle of privilege known as “Christian.” And yet as I minister in an evangelical university as dean and chaplain, and in many diverse local churchs, I find an increasing respect among people for the generous grace-filled faith that is magnetic among Catholics on the faculty, staff, or in the community. As far as the Orthodox are concerned, well, there is still a journey. They are the mysterious ones. Most evangelicals don’t know what icons are. To them, the Orthodox church means incense, strange rituals and long gray beards. Yet when I go to emergent church events among the mosaic generation of evangelicals, they are mining the wealth of the deep traditions and historic stability of meaning in the Orthodox churches. Of course the fact that most Orthodox people are relegated to the sidelines in the most heated theological discussions that pour from the reformation helps them to remain above the fray and somewhat mysterious.
Evangelicals are coming to realize that the word evangelical is not another denomination. It is not a club, it is not an ecclesiastical delimiter – or at least it shouldn’t be. They are coming to see the word evangelical not as a noun, but as an adjective, a descriptor without institutional boundaries. Many are open to the vibrancy and passion for the Kingdom and its Lord that knows no boundaries. They see themselves in all sorts of Christian traditions, and the veil of ignorance is beginning to be torn, from top to bottom.
Lack of a Center
Contemporary evangelicals trace their roots to a relatively recent past. They find their early formation in the energy of the modernist/fundamentalist debates of the late 19th and early 20th century. Out of a hotbed of controversy over eschatology, and the nature and mission of the church, a group in the middle began to identify themselves as “not Liberals” and “not Fundamentalists.” Obviously this is a simplistic description of a complex mix of forces at work, but it helps to reveal the pattern of multiple streams in the one evangelical movement all vying for a place and influence in shaping the life of the church.
At its root, the basis of identity is as a reaction to some other force. Evangelicals have largely been defined by what we are not. We are not liberals. We are not fundamentalists. Because of the inherently reactionary nature of the movement’s identity, then, anything or anyone associated with “the other guys” immediately becomes a threat to be feared. Compromise is tantamount to capitulation. (I once had to decline being present at a significant formational meeting of what is now the CCT because of the possibility that it would appear that I had capitulated. Kindly, the Director of the NCCC offered to take out ads in the NY Times declaring his hatred of me thereby appeasing many evangelicals and reassuring my constituents.)
Any time a movement attempts to define itself relative to another entity, it will ultimately become hostage to that entity and fail to become well-formed in its own identity. Thankfully a transition has begun in the periphery of evangelical circles largely among the emergent generation, and from my perspective especially in the Wesleyan-Holiness segments of the academy.
I often describe the need among evangelicals to move from bounded-set thinking to centered-set living. Rather than being defined by the perimeter of behaviors, positions, and actions which become a line demarcating “in-ness” or “out-ness” we are being called to understand the center values from which behaviors proceed but which allow for diversity of appearance. The perimeter will always exist as long as we honestly seek to be classic Christians. The question is, however, “Where will we focus our eyes? On the outside edge of behavior to define ourselves, or on the centered values from which those behaviors proceed, and change?” It’s the same question I asked my daughter when I was teaching her to drive on the freeway entrance ramp. “Where will you focus your eyes? On the inside of the curve – to stay close? Or on the outside of the curve – to stay away?” The answer to that question determines our identity, to say nothing of our attitude toward others. I further describe this thought in the book Church 2k: Leading Forward.
An already complex mixture of thinking and actions has been exacerbated by having no magesterium to referee or guide the coalescing of the various streams. The evangelical movement has no theology. And there is no central entity providing guidance to the orthodoxy, expediency, or heresy within its ranks. In essence the evangelical movement is one big public conversation on the street corner of a rapidly changing city that is not completely attuned to the language or exclusivism it seems to portray as it stands in a circle talking to itself. Yet the city desperately needs the life, vibrancy, joy, and grace offered by the gospel that is central to its conversation. Thankfully, the passion in the conversation has motivated many to eschew the discussion in favor of single-mindedly penetrating the city in relevant, transforming ways that indeed make a big difference. Unfortunately by leaving the conversation, they can sometimes be driven by the passion of their mission to the exclusion of the tempering, deepening, and maturing effect that diversity and breadth affords. On occasion the conversation takes the form of graffiti that proffers sound byte truths on passing issues of politics, economics, social reform, or cultural commentary. This “tagging” becomes the mark of the evangelical to the outside world further compounding the perception of exclusive, reactionary, irrelevancy.
The evangelical movement is not a theological movement as much as it is phenomenological. Having no theology, it only finds theological credibility when drilling into the various heritages or traditions commonly claiming a place in the movement. I realize I am biased, but the Wesleyan revival and theological method gives a wonderful place for the integrative thinking required to convene the streams of evangelical thinking. Consider the breadth of theologies ranging from the Holiness movement, to the Alliance for confessing evangelicals, to renewal movements in the mainline denominations, to the charismatic Catholics and the upstart emergent movement. Each has a unique theological foundation. Yet in all of them the marks of an evangelical movement can be found.
So what is THE evangelical movement? It belongs to no one – and everyone. It is AN evangelical movement among those within and without the established church, in multiple theological streams, fueled by the passion for God, the centrality and lordship of Jesus Christ, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in renewing and transforming lives who then find unity and oneness of identity in the living Christ. If understood, this passion can be the unifying force that revitalizes our various traditions, restores our foundations as the Body of Christ, reorders our priorities and reunites us as the people of God extending the work of His Kingdom in the world.
Maturing Evangelical Community
This factor is somewhat more involved so I may not spend as much time discussing it. But for our purposes it is important to know that evangelicals are still finding comfort levels among themselves. There is a diversity of positions in what some may assume to be a monolithic movement. With those positions come truck loads of issues and relationships all revolving around the question of trust and true effectiveness in Great Commission work.
Over the past few decades, those differences have manifested themselves in various ways across denominational lines. To name a few, they include what I call in Church 2k, the Wars. Chief among them is the Scripture wars, including but not limited to the battle for the Bible in the 70’s. Another was the more heated worship wars of the 80’s and early 90’s. Would the organ and piano give way to the drums and guitar; would the choir give way to worship teams; would the hymnal give way to the overhead projector, now the powerpoint; would folded hands give way to raised hands. And then there was the divisive war over gifts of the Spirit in which gifts given freely by God were used as trump cards to play spiritual one-upmanship. Structure and polity were also a significant point of dispute, although much less publicly visible. Issues of general superintendency versus regional leadership; ecclesial authority versus constituted authority; general ordination or local licensing; CEO leadership or pastoral shepherding; visionary and prophetic leadership or facilitating managers.
A fairly significant, but often overlooked, factor in the maturation of the evangelical community is the balance of sodalic or modalic attitudes toward the church and its mission. It is this point that fueled the rise of parachurch organizations created to meet a specialized, missional need that was perceived as not being met by the organized church. As these para church entities became successful in their singular mission, the gap became greater to the point of frustration and even disenchantment with ineffectiveness in local churches which appeared to have abdicated responsibility for mission to the sodalic, parachurch organizations.
The dynamic condition these circumstances create within the contemporary evangelical movement have forced a maturation that is increasingly being formed as internal conversations and relationships are deepened and solidified. The result is a growing sense of identity that allows for broader conversations. It also is giving rise to greater recognition that those groups typically outside of the “evangelical circle” may not be so bad after all.
Low Church Ecclesiology
Generally evangelicals do not see the Church as a gift of God to be discovered. Rather it is an organization, created by God and constituted by those who respond to the call of God (kaleo) to be out of the world (ek). Grouping believers together is what comprises the church. The mystical nature of the body of Christ is not in understanding ourselves as being the corporeal reality of Christ. It is the organization of the born again ones into being the extension of Christ in the world as salt and light. The mystery, then, is not in being the Church, but it is found in the way the Holy Spirit empowers otherwise ineffective people to be changed spiritually and to do things that surpass their human limitations. If the church is growing faster than we can effectively administer, it becomes a “God thing.” If the ministry is growing and finding effectiveness in expanding the church or touching lives well, it becomes “God is blessing the work.” If it’s not growing and it’s hard to measure, it becomes “God is doing something, we just don’t know what.”
Ecclesiastical structures proceeding from this general ecclesiology incorporate democratic principles that begin with the assumption that salvation is an individual thing and the church is the corporate gathering of individuals, the net result of which is the body of Christ. This congregational base of authority vested in the group of individuals immediately introduces the seeds of tension between the lowest level of the church and the governing judicatories and overseers. The result is a reticence on the part of so many leaders to speak for their church or denomination much less for the larger evangelical movement where they have no administrative authority whatsoever. And this also explains a growing mistrust of denominational leaders.
On the other hand, this has given rise to a significant sense of Body Life and emphasis on Christian community within churches. Right belief is important, but not without right living. In some cases right doctrine is secondary to the relationship among individual Christians that reflects what they have come to understand to be Christlike behavior.
At the same time, this ecclesiology has given rise to a heightened sense of pragmatism that often becomes the final point of evaluation. Does it work? If not, discard it. If so, then let’s figure out how to incorporate it into our theology.
A pragmatic emphasis is difficult to maintain without some form of measurable outcomes. Although no one has written the last word on what exactly those outcomes are for evangelicals, many have tried. 10 Characteristics of Effective Churches, 13 descriptors of a growing church, “How to make your church grow,” Purpose Driven Church, and many others capture the pragmatic emphasis of most evangelical churches. My own book 15 Characteristics of Effective Pastors certainly contributes to this factor.
In short, if a church is not growing or having some measurable impact in some sphere, it is not considered to be effective. Usually the outcomes that are examined include but are not limited to conversions – how many people have received Christ personally; small groups – how many groups of believers meet regularly to ‘live out’ their faith; spirit-filled – is there a sense of God’s presence that is palpable in the services; political impact – does the church have influence in the community, region, nation in ways that are noticed and generally for the good; issue-driven – is there a particular issue that has become the hallmark of that church and by which they are known; and, king of them all, weekend attendance at services.
In connectional forms of structures, these or similar points of accountability are the basis for evaluation, hire, and reputation among peers. It is not uncommon to observe the “pastoral dance” at pastors conferences where each one is trying to find out how many the other had in church last Sunday without appearing to be too obvious, too unspiritual, too concerned, or too numbers oriented. (By the way, the church where I served as interim pastor has approximately 1182 in attendance on Sunday morning; and the church I mentioned earlier, where I serve with 4 others on the board is 89th on the list of the top 100 churches in America as of October 15, and with attendance reports for the last few months is about 55th largest – but who’s counting!!)
“Getting saved, altar call, testimony meeting, witnessing, ecumenical, worship set, contemporary worship, emergent, Eucharistic, lay driven, staff led, apostolic succession, faith and order, personal savior, missions conference, executive pastor, icons, inner court/outer court, ushers, stewardship campaign, Book of Common Prayer, unity, spirit filled, chancel, acolytes, baptized in the Holy Ghost, praise team, lectionary, worship band, church growth…” a cursory, incomplete, selection of terms, phrases and concepts that will not only confuse the most enlightened church statesperson but will tag, categorize, place, and mark anyone who uses them as a description of their faith journey. And you think it’s confusing? Imagine the poor “Joe” who happens to show up at one of our churches seeking a spiritual experience only to be confronted with a thousand terms they have never heard before, much less understand. Or in some less sensitive, sectarian, zealous congregations, “Joe” may actually be quizzed to establish his qualifications for the privilege to attend, and participate – “When did you get saved? Do you know your power gift? We are a lay driven church that expects the laity to be stewards of their ministry gifts for the witnessing of the Kingdom through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and authentic, inner court worship.”
There’s a lifetime of discovery in that one phrase. And the words mean something different to each of us. Let’s just take one such word: “Unity.” I think that is the underlying premise behind the Faith and Order discussion, although even that may be incorrect given my own relatively recent exposure to the Faith and Order activities. Evangelicals by and large have no idea what Faith and Order is. And when it comes to discussing unity, there is disparity within evangelical ranks about its meaning. How an evangelical understands unity is determined by their ecclesiology, by their understanding of the mission of engaging the world, by the concepts of marketing the church in a neo pagan culture. Unity is the casualty of the proliferation of denominations, styles, programs, and doctrines all foisted upon people with the claim that they are the truly Christian ones. In reality, it represents a confusion of terms.
Language is a major factor in considering anything to do with unity in the Church. Somehow we have allowed ourselves to be commandeered by the multiplicity of traditions – each valuable – with their own set of words, phrases and concepts. Over the course of time in our natural tendency for homogeneity we have confused the lines between our tradition and the Kingdom. The drift allows for silos of independence to grow into competitive teams each claiming greater spirituality and closer proximity to the right hand of our Lord.
Evangelicals often have a hard time distinguishing between Unity, Unanimity, and Uniformity. Merrill Tenney has helped me to categorize the differences. The unity for which Jesus prayed has to do with the essential nature of our identity that is rooted in Christ, just as His identity proceeded from the Father. From this essential unity of nature we derive the doctrine of the Trinity – One Essence, three Persons. Within this Trinity there is both unity and diversity. Yet both are not possible unless there is some difference in category by which both may occur in perfect harmony. Unity in essence, identity, nature, but diversity in manifestation (not modalism), person, role, and function. This is the unity which Jesus desires for His Body, the Church. One river of God, flowing through a desert land bringing life wherever it flows.
Yet it is not uncommon for this call for unity to be misunderstood as a call for unanimity. “Why can’t we all agree? Why are there so many doctrines? Why are there so many different expectations from different churches? Can’t we all just get along?” You see, unanimity presumes one-mindedness on the part of everyone in the circle. Where there is difference of opinion, there is no unanimity. This unanimity usually finds expression in the various denominational values, traditions, and polities that litter the ecclesial world. To the indiscriminate observer, this lack of commonality appears to be divisive. These people are ascribing to unity the definition of unanimity. To them, it’s like multiple streams flowing in different directions and places all claiming to be the real river.
To the still more exacting observer, and in some cases evangelical leader, unity in the church should mean that we all look alike – a perfect definition for uniformity. To the propositional leader who sees success in terms of “sameness,” unity is only achieved when we all look alike, and do things the same way. And of course that’s a euphemistic way of saying, “My way!” We should believe the same and talk the same in regards to the authority of the Bible; the nature of Jesus; the role of the Church; the work of the Holy Spirit. Gradations of difference mean simply varying degrees of distance from the propositional truth. Uniformity in its positive manifestation can best be seen in the local church where there are common rituals, experiences, phrases, values and behaviors that characterize real life together. Uniformity happens descriptively to people who walk the same path together and deal with the same issues as a group. It’s kind of like being married; after a number of years they say we actually start looking like our spouse. (A pity for some of them!) You see, we tend to become like the people we spend time with. For the outside observer, this lack of uniformity means the church really doesn’t have its act together and can’t agree. They try to define unity by descriptors that are only appropriate for uniformity. To them, it’s like a side pool on the edge of a stream that has become isolated from the flow and begins to look the same – mucky, and act the same – stagnant, and smell the same – icky!
The Church should manifest some measure of uniformity and unanimity, but mostly unity. At some level we should all look alike to people who are not part of the Body of Christ. And certainly there is a place where groups are of one mind and manifest the basic principles of the Kingdom in common values that may be similar to “family values and traditions.” Most importantly, however, when people look at us, they should see some significant unity in spirit, essence, nature, character, identity. If not, then truly we have done a poor job of allowing the nature of Christ to so permeate our lives that our very DNA is altered to become like Him. And this is the greatest concern I have – that we miss the transforming, unifying power of the resurrected Christ to bring unity.
In serving the Free Methodist Church as a superintendent and then as a Bishop, I walked the painful road of trying to make sense of things. In suspending pastors for immoral conduct – “How has the nature of Christ been thwarted in transforming their character?” In confronting bureaucratic intransigence – “How have we missed the passion for Christ and His Kingdom?” In pleading for more grace-filled response to people who were different from other denominations – “Do these differences really matter?”
I didn’t always find answers. And I still seek for understanding. But I did conclude and remain convinced that the unity of the Church is not only possible, but is increasingly necessary as more and more evangelicals seek deeper understanding and partnership in the cause of Christ in the world. This seems to be a huge challenge. It’s almost tiring just to think of trying to find a path that would lead us to unity across so many lines, so many words, so many experiences.
It seems insurmountable. And that’s the joy of it. It is impossible, for us. But for God, it is not. Our God is not ordered according to our patterns, not patterned in our image, not contained by our structures. In God there is chaos and energy that surpasses our ability to confine. In that I take hope. It is His river, not ours. And Christ alone has the understanding of how each stream and side pool contribute to the larger flow of His Body, the Church. This river moves through history making a difference and brings God’s love, holiness, and presence into contact with dry and desperate lives and cultures. It is a river that we pray for, not a stream. And only God, in His transcendent chaos, can bring the unity for which Jesus prayed. Were it possible to achieve on our own, there would have been no need for the prayer.
So, we too must pray and work. I ask that we hold loosely to anything but the Lord of the Church. May we apply ourselves with all diligence to finding that personal and corporate transformation that can only be traced back to the Holy Spirit. May we seek with all our energy to submit ourselves to one another as unto the Lord. May we passionately pursue the nature, the essence, the identity that only God can give through Jesus the Christ. May we in all our efforts truly seek to be one by the molding, shaping work of Christ in us. May we be the healthy, authentic, life-giving people that reflect Christ well. AMEN.