On remaining evangelical, even when I’m not sure what it means

open-bible

I

On Tuesday evening I staggered home from the tube station, zombie like from nearly a full 24 hours travelling, from the rising of the sun on one side of the world to its setting back home in London. I’d been in Cambodia for just a little over a week, but the time I was gone failed to do justice to the intensity of the experience. Seeing communities overcoming poverty, and churches working for the good of their neighbours. Hearing about a regime in living memory that saw the deaths of a quarter of the population, many tortured and executed, many more dying from starvation and disease. Experiencing hospitality from a church of a dozen people.

I thought perhaps I would have a lot to process and a long post of reflection to scribe. In fact, it was rather simple, the good was great, the opportunity brilliant, the place beautiful and the food wonderful (mostly). The things that were hard, were not really that hard. It was tiring, exhausting, and has taken me almost as long as I was there to begin to feel human again. The burden I felt we carried through the trip was the attempt to encourage new supporters to back Tearfund and help communities such as those we were meeting in Cambodia become self-reliant and shrug off the anvil of poverty weighing them down. It was awkward, and it was tough, and we failed to achieve what we had set out to do. I found that very hard, and Rich has also written about this.

More than anything I was overcome by the beauty of the place I had spent a few precious days. And the chance to move beyond the sights and sounds of the capital and share meals with people in their houses, and hear the hopes and dreams they shared, and the problems that together they were going to overcome.

As I barely crawled along the footpath outside Bermondsey tube station with a rucksack on each shoulder I bumped into a friend and uttered some incoherent words. She offered to carry my bags, I turned down the help and staggered on, regretting my refusal to inconvenience her a few streets later. I had spent a week seeing and writing about the virtue about helping one another, and yet I carried on alone.

II

The week has seen a lot written about evangelicalism, did it write its own death warrant, was it the timely reassertion of biblical beliefs, does it mean anything anymore; who are these people anyway, and how do I know if I’m one of them?

This weekend has not brought the floods some thought could be attributed to the introduction of gay marriage but the sunshine of early spring.

Amid the complexity of a social order with mixed beliefs and contradictory worldviews, this is only the beginning of navigating our fluid modernity. A modernity which is not fully past, as absolutes still abound, but they shift frequently, changing colour and changing favour, in a way that it is never quite certain which way is forward and which is back. And if it is forward, what the forward is towards.

World Vision in the USA announced on Monday their decision to employ people in same sex marriages, which was welcomed by some and heavily derided by others. Thousands withdrew their sponsorship and further blows to the organisation appeared imminent when the board and president rescinded the decision. This provoked fury and sorrow from those who had welcomed the shift two days earlier and a glee I’m not sure totally appropriate from those who earlier called them traitors to the biblical cause.

For many in the States who were elated and then disappointed and hoped this was a sign that the church was coming to accept what it had previously rejected, this felt like a decisive moment. For some who wanted to call themselves evangelical this felt like a notice of eviction.

I wish this was simple. I wish it was as easy as saying they were wrong and now right, or right and now wrong. I wish I could applaud or lament but do either with clarity. Instead it feels like a mess. My instinctive response is they did it for the money, not once, but twice. Or perhaps they did what they thought was right but got scared by the cost to the balance sheet and then thought again. Or maybe they felt pressurised into taking their first change of position, and once the response became apparent regretted it, apologised and returned to where they were before.

The sorrow expressed through all of this was that the children being sponsored in parts of the world where they need it most, were being left behind on the back of ideological positions for and against. The cry went out, disagree by all means, but remember the children! And those who said just that swallowed their words and did remember the children when the wind switched against them.

Some of those who had walked away returned and asked ‘for their child back’. They had thrown their toys out of the pram and now they wanted them back. Except they weren’t toys, but children.

III

In ceremonies at midnight, as Friday turned to Saturday, the first same sex marriages took place in England and Wales. Many Christians, as well as others, campaigned against the change to the law. Most of whom did so with respect and integrity, refusing to be drawn into abuse or vilification. Not resorting to insults, even if that was how their opposition was characterised.

Just today I noticed on the Telegraph website an article about a senior executive in America whose employees were calling for his resignation because he opposed gay marriage in California. And in the side bar of most read articles this opposition was contracted to his homophobia. We cannot see disagreement and read into it something that is not there. We cannot take disagreement with gay marriage, or a belief that sexual activity finds its best place within a marriage between man and wife, and transmute onto that disagreement something else, something more easy to dismiss, discard and not tolerate.

I read Gillan Scott write profoundly about the landscape and his experience of blogging about it over the past two years.

I read a post by a vicar who would describe himself as inclusive explaining the tension he felt at whether to attend celebrations of the first nuptials.

I wondered at what defines inclusion. It is certainly welcoming those who are different to you. It is certainly welcoming those who disagree with you.

I believe the gospel is radically inclusive. I believe it is good news for everyone. I believe the church should be the most inclusive place in society. I believe everyone should be welcome.

And yet. You knew it was coming. And yet I don’t think that’s all inclusion requires. If that is what an inclusive church looks like I believe it is gagging itself. It may not want to challenge views about homosexuality. But I am sure there are some views and practices it would wish to challenge. And when views are challenged I do not think that undermines the inclusivity of the church.

The church should welcome and it should challenge. It should provide and it should provoke. It should be steadfast and it should show mercy.

On top of one ‘and yet’, comes another. And yet I don’t always think the words the church says should bring disagreement to the front and centre. I believe the world knows what Christians think about homosexuality and same sex marriage, and I believe that regardless of the care and attention and nuance we give to the words we apportion to speak about it, what is heard is opposition and not to an idea but to identity and personhood.

IV

This thing called evangelical. For some it is a burden to carry, for others a fortress to flee, or to defend; for others still an enemy to throw rocks at.

It’s what I am, and it’s who I work for, so that makes this kind of awkward.

I don’t always understand what it is.

I listen to theologians spend seven hours discussing it.

I hear journalists throw it about without a care for its meaning. Sometimes they mean evangelists.

I know people who are precious about it.

And people who avoid it like the plague.

Myself, I’m ambivalent. I get it, when I look at its historical depiction I recognise a Christianity I am inspired by and passionate to be a part of. When I look at its doctrine I agree with it.

But I hear the critiques and I wonder why the extra word is needed. I’m a Christian, I’m a follower of Jesus. What need for anything more.

Is evangelicalism a circle drawn to exclude, or a passion that lies at the core?

You hear it all the time. When people are evangelical about something or another. Their passion, their zeal, it spills over. Often said about many things nothing to do with Christianity. That’s the kind of evangelical I want to be. I want to have that passion. I want people to know what I know, and meet the Jesus I love and who loves me.

And yes, meeting Jesus is not always easy, it rarely is. To hear what he says, to understand what he did, and to accept what that means is not easy. And we should not make it so. It is a challenge, it is a cost, it is a cross on Calvary.

It’s exclusive, in a kind of way, but the kind of way where everyone should have the choice whether to be a part of it. But exclusive in that not everyone will be a part of it. The cost might be too much.

Evangelicalism isn’t a political platform, and it’s not a cultural formation programme as hard as many may have tried. For me being evangelical is not so about what I believe – that’s being a Christian – but more what I do with what I believe. And the complication is manifold because what I do with what I believe is an outworking of what I believe. It’s not easy to separate.

V

The church is at its most vibrant when it cares about the lost and the least. But not when it panders to them. The church should want to see the lost saved and the least served.

There’s a reason the church in Cambodia is who Tearfund work through, and why they work through churches across the globe. Because churches stay when charities go; because churches care for people, while charities have donors to satisfy.

The passion I heard from the church in Cambodia was for the lost to be saved and the least to be served.

I want my faith to be active, it isn’t always, but I want it to be, I want it to make a difference. I want it to be grounded in the Bible, and I want to never give up on learning more about it. I want others to come to know Jesus and be changed through that relationship – you could say converted. And I want to trust in the death of Jesus on the cross to deal with what I cannot.

Funny how that last part’s often the hardest. I can nod along to the creeds and sign the statements and affirm in theory the atoning work of Christ.

And I can go on and live like an atheist. I can walk out the door as though Jesus was nothing to me. As though knowing him did not change me and does not change me. I can forget too easily what the cross achieved and I can live as though I do not need God.

VI

When I sat on the upstairs balcony about an hour out of Phnom Penh after the sky had gone dark and prayed together with the church pastor and a few others I felt the Holy Spirit.

We can know things. We can even know a person. But until we feel.

Our doctrinal statements must lead to being known by a person who is God, and that must lead to feeling loved. Feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit that overlays the knowledge and the relationship and turns the good into very good. The thing that makes a difference.

Without the Holy Spirit we would be left on our own. We might have a knowledge of Jesus and what he did but we wouldn’t be able to know him. And we wouldn’t be able to feel part of the family.

It’s being part of the family that gives me confidence to go out, to be active, to let others know the joy I have and want to share.

And the feeling of being loved is also the feeling of knowing I need to grow. That there are old ways I should change. Paths I should not walk down.

The reason I couldn’t share the glee of those celebrating World Vision’s reversal was because I had read first of those hurt by it. And actions that cause hurt, even when important, even when necessary, are not occasions for rejoicing.

I read about leaving evangelicalism, and others opening their arms to welcome those who had recently departed.

And I grieved. Not that I want people to stay in a camp against their will, or affiliate to a tribe they no longer agree with. But I grieved that perhaps the place I call home is a hard bed to lie in. Maybe more of a circle than a passionate core.

And I hoped. That there is a future, for a faith that is alive, a faith passionate about Jesus, and passionate about changing the world as well as changing lives. And confident, that as the church in Cambodia and the church in the UK, and the church across the globe, commits to that mission, the kingdom of God is at hand.

PS. I linked to Sarah Bessey’s post above about welcoming those leaving evangelicalism. She’s also written a post to those who choose to stay which is also well worth reading.

7 thoughts on “On remaining evangelical, even when I’m not sure what it means

  1. Thanks for grieving, and for the meandering feel of this post. I’m grieving too, though I don’t quite know what for.

  2. Truth and love.. and the challenge to utterly embrace and live out the consequences of both remains as challenging as it ever was.

  3. Good post (as I have just said on Twitter but anyway). So much truth in it.
    I almost want to reply/write myself a reflection on this (evangelicalism, all the gay weddings/World Vision/Rachel Held Evans/finding where I am with faith stuff), but I don’t quite have the time right now and I don’t think I’m that good at explaining or expressing myself in such prosey analytical posts anyway. But this makes me want to! I think that’s a compliment.

    I’ve not felt the need to say much online about the new UK law or the World Vision debacle as frankly there are enough people giving their much more informed opinions, but like I say, it’s all very strange and I think you’ve articulated well the strange and sometimes uncomfortable position you can find yourself in when things blow up in the media about faith-related stuff. In the awkward middle ground between ‘sides’ or from the sidelines as it were, you can find yourself simultaneously grieving and hopeful, uncertain and sure. That’s the now and not yet of life, I suppose.

    So many thoughts! Will have to go and write it out. But yeah, nice reflection.

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