Sorry we have been terrible about posting lately. With finals, Christmas, and then illness, we have been rather busy during the past month and a half! We hope to return to regular posts ASAP.
I’m thoroughly a dork, because when I realized our church had a library, I had to visit it. It did take me a while to realize it existed, thanks to its apparent lack of popularity, as well as its being located far from anything else in the church I regularly access. Regardless, it was exciting to visit and know that there was a library, despite the old age and mediocre quality of many of the books. This just goes to show what a book nerd I am.
I did, however, find a book which I really enjoyed reading over my winter break called Evangelical Renewal in the Mainline Churches by Ronald Nash. The book was split into chapters describing the history of various denominations’ decline into less-than-orthodox theology and the renewal movements currently (well, when the book was written in the 80s) at work to bring doctrinal change and spiritual revitalization alike. While I was irked here or there by some of the assumptions made about “evangelicals” (e.g. their not being fond of feminists—an assumption not true of me nor many of my friends), in general, I found the book to be various gracious and balanced. I was also intrigued to hear the specific stories of various denominations and inspired by the commitment of leaders and laity alike to remain in these churches.
Two themes particularly stood out to me:
(1) It seemed denomination after denomination became increasingly liberal not because laity or even clergy became more liberal, but rather because the denominational leadership became liberal enough to change the direction of the entire ship. This really commands my sympathy, since I also hate how power has been misused in the Southern Baptist Convention to oust moderates. It doesn’t matter what side of things is doing the bullying, it’s unfortunate for those on top to marginalize those at the middle and bottom of the organizational pyramid. It seems a feeling of disenfranchisement and exclusion is behind the droves of conservatives, and even moderates, who have left mainline denominations (individually or as an entire church), which is really sad. I think wherever we are theologically, we have to consider that a tragic failure of the church to be the church.
(2) I really appreciated hearing what led people to stay, especially after feeling so marginalized in the denominations they ministered in (and often grew up in!). It seemed clear that developing networks with other like-minded people was a great encouragement to these people, entirely aside from any political power such networks might develop within their denomination.
It was also striking to me just how many more evangelical/traditional/orthodox* Christians are still in such denominations. I grew up split between worlds. On the “good evangelical” side we attended Southern Baptist, Missouri Synod Lutheran, Nazarene, Evangelical Free, and non-denominational congregations, and I went to fundamentalist Baptist and conservative Wesleyan schools for a while. On the “less than evangelical” side, I also attended a Catholic school (probably including people all across the spectrum of liberal/conservative, as well as more/less devout), and for a long time we went to a PC(USA) church. What is clear to me from these experiences, as well as this book, is that there are always people who love Jesus, even in the churches where some might least expect it.
And they do least expect it. Evangelicals in more conservative denominations are just plain awful at forming meaningful relationships with churches from mainline denominations or with evangelical renewal groups within them. It is quite unfortunate, I think, that there aren’t these sorts of trusting relationships built between Christians across denominational—and even theological—lines. I have sometimes found that leaning-liberal people are sometimes so enriched by leaning-conservative conversation partners and vice versa, that everyone ends up moving a bit towards the middle.
Either way, you can have a positive, supporting friendship, right? And especially when it comes to moderates/conservatives in mainline denominations, I think it is the duty of other evangelicals to love and support them, rather than to doubt their existence or judge them for staying. Many of these individuals see themselves as “missionaries” of a sort to their own denomination. Others with somewhat more conservative views may seem complacent with their denomination’s direction but in reality be untapped resources for the renewal effort, if only someone reached out to them and helped them see their potential as leaders.
I’m sure my little post won’t change the world today, but if I could have things my way, I would love to see less suspicion and more grace among Christians of different backgrounds. I would also appreciate a greater willingness on the part of conservative evangelical churches to join mainline congregations in ecumenical associations, which are mostly about helping poor people or generally being friendly than they are signing off on each other’s doctrinal statements.
*An interesting acronym I recently discovered while doing some web research on the UCC’s evangelical-ish population is ECOT, standing for evangelical/conservative/traditional/orthodox, encompassing many of the differing labels such people/congregations may prefer. For more info, read “What is ECOT?“