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Home > 2012 > July Online Only > Who's Tending Our Well?

I get worried that evangelicalism increasingly lacks a center.

I don't mean in an ultimate, spiritual sense. The issue of who owns the church—while disputed in human courts—is terribly clear from the founding documents. Jesus has been making do with jars of clay for a long time, and if the church hasn't driven him to (in Anne Lamott's phrase) "drink gin from the cat bowl" in the first two millennia, he's probably not getting nervous now. Still.

I know the word evangelical is just about shot in our broader culture. But no good replacement has come along yet. And many of us long for a sense of Christian identity that is clear and crisp and compelling and non-anxious and carries the easy confidence of grace-filled conviction.

There is an old metaphor about two methods Australian ranchers use to keep cattle on their property: they can dig wells, or they can build fences. It seems like some of the loudest voices in evangelical circles spend most of their time fretting about the placement of the fences. Those tending the well are less conspicuous.

This metaphor doesn't mean we should be fuzzy about theological commitments. It doesn't mean we don't need mutual accountability. It calls for a right sense of priority and mature judgment, because our clarity needs to be greatest around what is most central.

There are at least two dynamics driving the need for greater clarity around an evangelical center. One is the demise of mainline Protestantism as the civil religion in the U.S. I grew up in the evangelical world—church, college, and seminary. In that world, a large part of our identity was simply that we were not the liberal church—who, I uncharitably assumed, spent most of their time sitting in the basements of their churches smoking cigarettes and thinking up ways to weaken the gospel.

For better or for worse, the institution of mainline Protestantism dies a little more each year. This increasingly leaves evangelicalism as the primary alternative. In the last presidential election, both candidates spoke at Saddleback Church. When I was a kid, it would have been unthinkable that, say, Richard Nixon and George McGovern would have squared off in one of "our" churches.

But in an odd way, this lack of contrast leaves evangelical identity muddied. It's a little like NATO—once the Soviet bloc broke up, why exactly does NATO exist? If attendance at World Council of Churches goes down, and readership of The Christian Century declines, what does that mean for the National Association of Evangelicals and Christianity Today?

Which actually leads to the other dynamic: the inevitable end of the staggering influence in the evangelical community for so many decades of Billy Graham. Mark Noll has written that for many years you could gauge someone's relationship to evangelicalism simply by their response to that one name. Billy Graham—and, in counterpart, John Stott in the U.K.—was at the center of an incredibly thick and dense relational network that helped define evangelical identity. There was a tremendous sense of convening power. Evangelical leadership had a place to look for cues or hold discussions about, for instance, the Civil Rights movement, or ecumenical cooperation. If, for example, Fuller Seminary's evangelical credentials were being questioned in the 1970s, having Billy Graham remain on the Board of Trustees was a critical statement. That's not to say that all these issues got led in the right way with the right urgency, but there was a table at which to have the discussion.

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John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership Journal and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California.

Related Topics:ChristianityEvangelismFuturePrioritiesRenewalTruth
Posted: July 16, 2012

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Displaying 1–5 of 7 comments

Johnny Turvin

August 11, 2012  1:00pm

We all have our own influential persons in our Christian formation. These persons speak to something resonant in our personality. John Ortberg is one of mine. That he is a white male has no bearing on the manner with which his "voice" resonates with my "inner ear". The point of the article could as easily have been made by anyone of any physical description. Are we hearing the message, or are we examining the meesager? To do the latter is to build the very fences which the message cautions against. Would a thirsty person refuse to drink from a well based on who dug the well? Only if a fence restrained them.

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Gary Stewart

July 25, 2012  5:08pm

I found the article well reasoned and relevant for our times. I am an American male (although I'm not sure why that matters) but I have ministered in India and two different African countries and think the issue of well digging v fence building relevant for those places as well

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Mary Fisher

July 18, 2012  1:02am

John Ortberg, May I suggest some other than white and other than male names. I confess I read your article with a growing sense of "Here we go again...cognitive control is his paradigm". And when I saw all the names I thought Menlo Park for goodness sakes send him overseas to a non English speaking country for a few years.

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Mary Fisher

July 18, 2012  1:01am

John Ortberg, May I suggest some other than white and other than male names. I confess I read your article with a growing sense of "Here we go again...cognitive control is his paradigm". And when I saw all the names I thought Menlo Park for goodness sakes send him overseas to a non English speaking country for a few years.

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David Severy

July 17, 2012  10:20pm

from the article: "I know the word evangelical is just about shot in our broader culture. But no good replacement has come along yet." Some one teaches that evangelists are church planters. I am quite enamored of this view.

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