Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Blogging A New Evangelical Manifesto, chapter 1: The Wave of the Past

Speakeasy alerted me to an interesting essay collection entitled A New Evangelical Manifesto, edited by David Gushee. Gushee is one of the founders of The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good (NEP). While NEP's principles and commitments are summarized at their website, the book-length Manifesto purports both to present NEP's positions much more fully and to widen the conversation to include other like-minded "New Evangelicals."

I'll be posting a handful of my reflections and reactions as I read through Manifesto in the coming weeks. So let's begin at the beginning:

Chapter one is written is by an old friend who deserves mention, Brian McLaren. His essay, "The Church in America Today," kicks-off the section one, "A New Kind of Evangelical Christianity. . ." The section's title offers an obvious nod to McLaren's influence in the New Evangelical movement. I have to admit that this allusion makes me feel a bit welcomed into the fold. Both McLaren's A New Kind of Christian and his A New Kind of Christianity have met me as valued counselors at crossroads of faith in my life. Right now his newest Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? is by the bedside table, waiting to be read.

McLaren's been a good friend over the last decade, so I was excited when I Manifesto's table of contents included his name. His essay didn't disappoint me.

One of McLaren's strengths is his ability to analyze movement in contemporary (Evangelical) Christianity. I think this is a gift from the Spirit for the church, one that lies somewhere in the space between prophet, pastor, and theologian. In Manifesto's first essay, McLaren uses this gift to help locate NEP and its friends and allies in today's American church context. (As a new immigrant to America's northern neighbor, I wonder how well his analysis applies to churches in Western Canada.)

Here's a taste from the opening paragraph:
For many decades, church researchers (in evangelical circles at least) created a cliché referring to evangelical growth and mainline decline. Evangelical growth rose from vibrant conservative theology and piety. Mainline decline resulted from institutional bureaucracy and liberal theology. . . .Now those clichés have become threadbare, and a clearer assessment of the church in America today is showing through. (2)
 Something has changed. For years, even in recent years (i.e., I heard this in a seminary classroom), the Evangelical party line has been that conservative (a.k.a. "orthodox" or "biblical" or "Evangelical"; could it be time, in a surprise twist, to add "missional" to this line up?) churches have grown in recent decades while Mainline churches have emptied out. Evangelical churches, I heard, had the staying power of biblical preaching, a call for high personal commitment, a demand for holiness in life. While other meaning structures imploded and collapsed (Didions "center [that could] not hold"), liberal Protestant churches were buried with them. But the belief, practice, and lifestyle of Evangelical congregations held firm.

But, to stretch this myth as an analogy, Evangelical churches, according to McLaren, are being now swept away by that very wave from the past. Conservative congregations are empty out just as those of their liberal sisters and brothers did a few decades earlier. I recently read an article in The Globe and Mail about many churches in Canada's United Church permanently closing their doors, falling silent both on Sunday mornings and in the realm of public opinion. This is familiar story for those of us on both sides of the border, one that backs up the myth of liberals losing and conservative winning.

But I also read in a recent edition of The Canadian Mennonite about a (seemingly and statistically-likely) conservative MC Canada congregation shutting its doors. From my recent involvement in Mennonite Church Saskatchewan, I know this isn't an isolated event. Anecdotally, I've heard of many Evangelical believers (or the children of Evangelical believers) pulling back from church, and of a few Evangelical congregations closing up shop permanently.

In the wake of this unadvertised exodus, McLaren finds many Evangelicals reacting to change in society by retrenching their identity in ways that only continue to chase an emerging generation in an emerging context from their congregations. He sums these up in three N's: nostalgic, nativist, and negative. Evangelicals are often longing for a bygone time, fearful of "others" (women, African Americans, Asians, Latinos, LGBT community, you name it), and negative in overall tone. I wish I could say McLaren was judging too harshly, but I myself have run up against some of these barriers in churches. McLaren suggests that these three N's dominate some neighborhoods of the Web, broadcasting, print media, and politics. Too true.

I would hurry to add that this doesn't mean that Evangelicalism has nothing to offer. I've both read too much church history and lived in Christian community too long to deny the good gifts God's Spirit gives even in ugly, even in wicked packages. If medieval church could give us great works of mysticism even while it utterly mystified the gospel for the masses, if the Jesuits can give us the Exercises (and me a first-rate theological education) even though they were at times heavily involved in the Inquisition, then I trust that there are gifts God gives us through the hearts and hands of Evangelicals.

McLaren says that an emerging generation, including many of those who may identify as New Evangelicals, are looking for other things: hope, diversity, and creative collaboration. Some of these folks keep up their attendance at their childhood churches. But McLaren offers a strong warning to those of who thank God for rumps in pews:
Some continue to show up at conventional churches, enjoying what they can and enduring the rest, but they will never be fully engaged “true believers” in the way their parents were...unless substantial change comes. (7)
Change, if it comes, will come slowly and at a high price. The conservative stakeholders of Evangelicaldom have not welcomed dialogue with those questioning traditional responses to postmodern, post-colonial, post-industrial, pluralist, and hyper-politicized world. Responding to an ever-changing world with hope and hospitality and creativity requires that we reassess not only our politics or polity, but also our theology, our worship, our sense of identity (ours as well as God's).

McLaren locates reason for hope in small groups within Evangelicalism trying to speak with a different voice, trying to dialogue in a different way. These are pioneers, entrepreneurs--what McLaren calls a "leading-edge--which is necessarily a marginal rather than central space" (8). Giving up claims to power, claims to hold Evangelicalism true identity, is a price these small groups pay. McLaren names group like Sojourners, Red-Letter Christians, new monastics, emerging conversations, and the Wild Goose Festival as good exemplars of this spirit. These groups, he says,
"mirror the networked world of the Internet, where power is decentralized, where assets are open-sourced, where borders and boundaries are blurry and intentionally porous, and where rapid change is expected, not resisted."(9)
A wave, like the one that claimed Mainline Protestantism in the past, has returned to wash away an assumed Evangelical privilege in popular culture. No longer can Evangelicals brag that their churches are still going strong, however society may be changing. No, change is here, and it's left none of us untouched. We've all been baptized into a new world. McLaren is helping us learn how to swim.

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