Most evangelicals dislike attaching an adjective to the great word evangelical. But because names like “liberal evangelical” or even “catholic evangelical” are sometimes heard, those who adhere to historic evangelicalism have come to be called “conservative evangelicals.”
Sometimes the adjective is very appropriate. I recall hearing an evangelical leader whom I greatly respect and admire say, “I am a conservative. I am conservative in theology, in religion, in politics, and in economics.”
Non-evangelicals have often seized on this kind of conservatism and dismissed the whole evangelical movement as hopelessly obscurantist. Evangelicals have defended themselves by pointing out that it is senseless to give up lightly the gains of the past. Where the truth has been once established, it is not the path of wisdom to surrender it.
This is, of course, quite true. But it is also true that society rarely advances majority end foremost. While evangelicals have been busy conserving the great traditions of the past, others have often been trailblazers, striking out into new fields. It would not be true, of course, to say that evangelicals have been totally lacking here. There have always been evangelicals who have been daring innovators and who have refused to walk meekly in the old paths. But they have been comparatively few.
I wonder whether we are seeing something new on the evangelical scene. Wherever I look I seem to see evangelicals taking an initiative. While holding firmly to the basic evangelical position, many are refusing to be bound by the old evangelical shibboleths and are advocating radically new ideas and practices.
For example, at the end of August there was a national congress of evangelical Anglicans in Melbourne, Australia. Had this met ten years back it is likely that among other things it would have expressed a firm conviction that the Book of Common Prayer (i.e., the English prayer book authorized in 1662) set out the kind of worship that its members wanted.
The 1971 congress was not slow to express its approval of the godly order of 1662: it is “biblically based in concept and wording,” it has “balance and order,” it is “one of the important links throughout the Anglican communion.” But the congress was a long way from holding that this was the book it wanted its members to use. It thought that the 1662 book had had “an unfortunate influence on our worship and fellowship,” its language might “give the general impression of irrelevance,” and its “rigidity” prevents its “being effectively used in a heterogeneous society.”
So the congress went on to plead for worship suitable to our day and age. It became almost a dogma that service forms must be updated, that modern language must be used both in readings from Scripture and in the language of prayer. While uniformity was seen to have advantages, so too has flexibility, and there was no doubting where the emphasis lay. The congress thought that new structures for the church in Australia ought to make provision for “the orderly exercise of gifts of prayer and speech by qualified members of the congregation, especially extempore prayer and testimony.”
It went further. It maintained that “not nearly enough thinking has been done by evangelicals on the best use of Sunday by local churches.” We all have our settled routines on the Lord’s Day. Could they be improved? The congress thought they could.
More could be written about the way the congress called in question ideas about the ministry, the place of lay people, church union, and much more. Suffice it to say that the largest and most significant gathering of evangelical Anglicans in Australian history was characterized above all by a desire to search for new ways.
This does not seem confined to one country. In Singapore, Bishop Chandu Ray is working in the “Coordinating Office for Asian Evangelism.” I am not in a position to assess the work being done, though from my knowledge of Bishop Chandu Ray I have not the slightest doubt that it is first class. But the exciting thing is that it is happening. Asians are dissatisfied with the traditional approach to the evangelism of their great continent, and they are taking the initiative to do things better. In this and other ways evangelical Asians are making it quite plain that they will no longer simply follow where the missionary leads them.
These Asian evangelicals are branching out in new directions. I will cite just one. Christians in Asia have been traditionally suspicious of the dance-drama. They have seen it as a vehicle for the teaching of Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucianists, and thus as hopelessly compromised. But now evangelicals are taking a fresh look at dance-drama and trying to devise ways in which this very powerful medium can be used to convey the Gospel.
When I was in Manila last year I learned of a new program for establishing 10,000 Bible-study groups by the end of 1973. Many of the Filipinos felt that traditional methods of evangelism were not satisfactory. So instead of applying them a bit more diligently, they thought up a completely new approach. Lay people lead groups in the study of the Bible in private homes. They invite their non-Christian neighbors in and confront them with the challenge of the Gospel. The program is working, as are similar programs in other lands. Groups of evangelical Christians are refusing simply to go along with the traditional approach. In new situations they are using new ideas.
Reports from America seem to show that there are similar new happenings there. Carl Henry wrote in CHRISTIANITY TODAY of July 2, 1971, “Not a little student vitality is channeled into underground activity quite independent of both the ecumenical and evangelical establishments. Often these young believers move into venturesome creative paths, despite high risks. More and more evangelical movements seem to be emerging free of established church patterns” (p. 30). The last sentence is critically important. While there are evangelicals who walk in the old ways, there are others who do not.
And I have really only started. What of British Inter-Varsity, its meetings for students and its fine publications department? What of Key 73 with its prospect of unparalleled evangelistic cooperation? There is much more.
It seems idle to speak of evangelicals these days as conservative. There is conservatism enough, it is true. But an eager search for new ideas and new methods characterizes evangelicalism as it starts the seventies. If this creative, innovative attitude can be maintained, the consequences are incalculable.
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