Recently a young man sat in my office enthusiastically telling me of God calling him to a new level of ministry in a well-known evangelical denomination. In summarizing his new sense of motivation he recalled his formative journey: “I was raised to know well what I was against, but really never knew what I was for.” He described this discovery of what he was for as a moment of freedom as he experienced God’s maturing work in his life.
Clearly this is not everyone’s experience. Yet too many evangelical organizations have been defined by a negative mindset that was forged at its birth when the rallying point was to “oppose” or to “correct” the extremes of another group. At its core, this mindset has tended to create an environment in which we define ourselves as opposed to the faulty beliefs or behaviors of “the other guy.” As a result, our identity has too often been shaped by the position of others rather than by the center of biblical revelation.
Recently the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) made the decision to alter the longstanding position that a denomination could not be a member of both the NAE and the National Council of Churches. While to many people it may sound unimportant, in reality it serves as a weathervane to the future of evangelical Christianity in America. This decision marks a milestone in the development of the evangelical movement and demonstrates the commitment to be a strong evangelical witness that stands on its own.
In American culture, the evangelical movement in general and the NAE in particular have served the Church well with its clarion call to a soundly scriptural witness. Yet as the culture and organizations change, the points of reference also change. While the NAE was formed largely in response to the theologically liberal NCC, the landscape today is different. Likewise, the evangelical movement has matured. Not only have we grown in the confidence of our scriptural identity and witness, but the groups against which we pitted ourselves are crumbling. To continue defining ourselves in opposition to the liberal groups not only validates their importance, but ties our identity to a dying cause.
Instead of defining what we are not, we must focus on what we are. It’s much like drawing a circle and focusing on the perimeter as the basis of who we are, or establishing a center-point as the focus of our identity. In one case we define ourselves by exclusion. In the other, by declaration. In both there are exclusions since those organizations not consistent with our center-point are naturally and automatically excluded. But the difference is where we place our energy and focus.
Not long ago, as I helped my daughter learn to drive, we took particular care in navigating the “clover leaf” ramps to get on and off the freeways. I told her, “You have a choice about where you focus your eyes as you make the curve. If you look at the outside edge of the curve and try to stay away from it, you’ll always be jerking the wheel to keep away.” “On the other hand,” I told her, “you can focus your eyes on the inside of the curve and decide to stay near it. The natural result is not only a smooth curve, but you’ll find that staying away from the outside edge is the natural result.”
As we move into an era characterized by a post-modern and relativistic mindset, the absolutes of what we stand for are more important now than ever before. We dare not, will not abandon biblical truth. But our culture is not as much interested in how we oppose the liberal theology of old line Protestantism, as they are interested in the compelling and transformational message of the gospel of Christ. We must not continue to make our defining characteristic the fact that we are “not liberal.” We must be known as the people who are so committed to the transcendence of God, the centrality of Jesus Christ, the power of His Holy Spirit, and the full authority of biblical revelation that anything that is contrary is by definition excluded. At the same time people will be drawn to the beauty of His message conveyed through His Church. The force that drives us, then, is centripetal in drawing us to be “center-seeking,” focused on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
These are very important and strategic days in the life of the Church. It truly is the day of the evangelicals. Evangelical churches represent the fastest growing segment of the Church worldwide and hold in trust a significant measure of influence for shaping our society. Now is not the time to fight secondary battles with an adversary that is diminishing. Now is the time when God is calling us to stand on our own, preaching and living the whole gospel for the whole world. Let us not be frightened that someone will “contaminate” or impinge upon our ministry, but let us boldly articulate what we are for and move forward undaunted in our mission.
Evangelicals in America are at a point when our development as a movement calls us to focus our eyes on the “Center of all” keeping our eyes on the “inside of the curve.” The faithful persons on whose shoulders we stand have brought us naturally to this point and, in God’s power, our culture requires this kind of leadership and influence for a new day. Never have we been so needed. By His power and grace we can navigate the transition keeping our unity in Jesus Christ and our eyes on the goal of making Him known.