I will be honest with you. I often get frustrated with exercises such as “Respectful Conversations.” That is not to say that the ideas and conversations aren’t valuable or worthy, it is just that attempting to cobble together an evangelical consensus is pretty impossible. Evangelicalism really is a movement, wild and uncontrollable. It consists of independent churches and institutions beholden to no one, plus a myriad of denominations from Catholic to mainline to Pentecostal. In a sense there is no evangelical center and there certainly is no evangelical pope. Everyone does what is right in their own eyes, but around a fairly strong commitment to the historical Bebbington essentials of evangelicalism. Still, even these essentials get fleshed out and defined in myriads of ways. Moreover, what people often try to pigeonhole as evangelicalism is nothing like what I have experienced over that last two decades of my life. Even those evangelicals who I greatly disagree with, or who I am sometimes embarrassed by, usually transcend in their own complexity the labels and scorn we often wish to throw on them. What is more, they are usually very nice people. Of course, there are dark corners here and there, but those tend to be the exception and not the rule. In this milieu how will we ever agree on anything, or come to evangelical unity? And why do we need to as well? With that said, let us get on with the fun.
That isn’t to say that evangelicals of various and sundry ilk should not get together, work together, worship together, theologize together, have dance parties together (sorry Southern Baptists), and talk about issues together. Let’s do all that generously and charitably in the power of the Holy Spirit around our shared agreements, all the while realizing that there are still things that divide us as well, and that is alright. It is just that the evangelical need to make pronouncements about what “ought” to be often ignores the reality of evangelical unity and disunity.
That is probably why I was particularly drawn to Sarah Ruden’s meditation on evangelicalism as ultimately the way forwards for a hurting, hopeless, and fragmented world. Here Ruden gets to the heart and possibly the future of evangelicalism: activism. Evangelicalism, even in its theologically shallower incarnations, is about doing (of course we can get away from this at times) and about transforming lives for the better. This is why para-church organizations and seminaries can attract a wide variety of evangelicals, who can come together in unity. The beating heart of evangelicalism is the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, God’s love and grace poured out in salvation for all people. For Ruden (and I highly agree) evangelicalism “doesn’t need to explain itself; it just needs to be itself.” It is here in mission, and in enacting the kingdom of God in our lives, our churches, and in the world through faith in Jesus Christ, that we can find an evangelical center that is activist, yet still respects our complex differences.
What ultimately I enjoyed about “Respectful Conversations” was that it was a strong attempt to engage with each other RESPECTFULLY. I am weary of the constant slate of online heresy trials and futile bickering between evangelicals. There seems to be a cottage industry in looking for online feuds within the evangelical world. The problem is that none of these pundits are in any real sense in communion with each other (they aren’t accountable to each other), neither are any of them the evangelical pope, and if they are I did not vote for them. I am of the mind however, that if one has a theological or personal issue with another, that perhaps the internet is not the best place for the airing of grievances unless one has a relationship with the person, or in a very real way is willing to sit down with them and hash things out. These conversations seemed to be aiming for that goal, and moreover, were being argued at a fairly scholarly and theological level, and not just to score points.
I highly recommend engaging and interacting with Respective Conversations.