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.
There was a recent survey of "famous Christians" according to which Billy Graham, amazingly enough, was still the name with the most responses—but of course at a much lower level than in previous decades. The pope was second; only one other name (Joel Osteen, at 4%) registered at a statistically significant level.
The social capital of evangelical leadership is getting thinner each year. The desire for a pope might be as misguided as Israel's desire for a king, but our current strategy of "each did what was right in his own eyes" is not working that hot either. There is an increasing sense of fiefdoms and competing coalitions. There is a certain kind of mindset that almost seems to rejoice in "outing" someone who has questionable evangelical credentials in the eyes of the "outer." This is not healthy for the evangelical community, and is repellent to those who are truly on the outside.
C.S. Lewis (another well-digger) said that one of his reasons for writing about what he called Mere Christianity ("the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times") was that when we publicly focus on intra-mural divisions it "has no tendency at all to bring an outsider into the Christian fold."
We have been blessed with some wonderful voices in our own time—I think of Rich Mouw, Neal Plantinga, N.T. Wright, Scott McKnight, and Dallas Willard. I hope we listen to our best voices, not just the loudest ones.
I hope conviction-filled civility triumphs.
I hope we spend more time digging wells than building fences.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church and editor at large of Leadership Journal.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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