With the passing of John Stott, we are reminded of evangelicalism at its best—and, by contrast, its worst. It's the worst that has caused us so much angst of late, giving reason for many to become deeply alienated from the movement. But it's the best, which Stott represented, that should give us pause about our understandable cynicism.
For many, the disaffection started with the rise of our movement's two crazy uncles, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. This brought no small amount of joy to the political conservatives among us, and no small amount of consternation and embarrassment among moderate and liberal evangelicals. Add to that the televangelist scandals (Baker and Swaggart, in particular), the flooding of the Christian marketplace with Christian kitsch (made possible by our phenomenally growing buying power in the eighties and nineties), and the crass self-promotion of evangelical mega-pastors and mega-authors—well, it made the ordinary and thoughtful evangelical wonder if something is wrong at the core of the movement.
So for a few decades now, we've witnessed many evangelicals grow weary of arm wrestling about dispensationalism or egalitarianism or annihilationism or atonement or a host of other issues. They look longingly to Rome and that glorious magisterium, where supposedly one fiat ends all debate.
Or we compare our trivial services that pass for worship and become infatuated with the bells and smells of Orthodoxy.
Or we grow tired of rationalism and all things modern, so drift into emergent and postmodern Christianity.
Or we are frustrated with privatistic pietism and long for a faith that engages the world on its own terms.
There are many good reasons to be frustrated with evangelicalism—at its worst. But it's hard to be anything but grateful and admiring of evangelicalism at its best.
This week, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof waxed eloquent about the movement.
Evangelicals are disproportionately likely to donate 10 percent of their incomes to charities, mostly church-related. More important, go to the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide, and some of the bravest people you meet are evangelical Christians (or conservative Catholics, similar in many ways) who truly live their faith.
He goes on to say, "I'm not particularly religious myself, but I stand in awe of those I've seen risking their lives in this way—and it sickens me to see that faith mocked at New York cocktail parties."
(He hasn't heard mocking if he hasn't attended an evangelical theological conference or been in a room full of evangelical journalists. New York cocktail party banter is bush league in comparison.)
In their better moments, the disaffected cry out "Evangelicalism is bankrupt" or "It's lost its way" or "The center no longer holds" or a host of other one-liners that attempt to dismiss with a wave of the hand the most powerful and influential Christian movement in modern history (I am of course including Pentecostalism—the bleeding edge of global evangelicalism in many ways). And then they look longingly at another tradition, hoping to find something better.
What many don't see is that every Christian movement and tradition—Catholic, Orthodox, emergent, liberal, and so forth—has their crazy uncles (Episcopal Jack Spong), scandalous behavior (priestly abuses), and boorish attitudes (Orthodox ethnocentrism). It's called sin, and no movement escapes it.
Naturally, the disaffected look at these traditions at their best. And at their best, they are remarkable indeed. But while perennially attracted to things Catholic, I've attended enough masses to know that it is the rare Catholic parish that hears the gospel each week. I cannot recall a single Catholic sermon I've heard in a local parish that was anything but a moralistic, lift-yourself-up-by-your-willpower motivational speech, combined with a fair bit of guilt. Add to this Catholic sentimental devotional art (like the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which rivals anything we've produced), the exaltation of Mary at the expense of Jesus in many churches, the rote recitation of liturgy—well, it drives me back to the Reformation mighty fast.
The point is not to condemn Catholicism, for the best Catholics are frustrated with this type of Catholicism—just as we are with much of what goes on in the name of evangelicalism. The point is, rather than comparing the worst of evangelicalism with the best of anything, why not think about the best of evangelicalism?
One could hardly do better than by first rereading the works of John Stott, and reflecting on his life.
Why? Because Stott articulated a biblical faith in ways that are true and faithful to the text of the Bible. No postmodern experiments with deconstructing. No theological flights of fancy. No sermons that overwhelmed the biblical narrative with his own cute stories. No pandering after the crowds. No studied attempt to be authentic, no pacing up and down the stage, no working the crowd for a laugh. Just simple and clear exegesis, with the appropriate illustration or classic quote.
Why? Because he lived a life that was true and faithful to the Bible. He spoke with conviction and humility. He worked hard but did not burn out. He played hard—if you call his fascination with bird-watching play—but was never tempted to let leisure define his lifestyle. He listened to his critics without being cowed by them. He wore his fame lightly, and used it not to promote himself or the sale of his books, but to further the ministries he had given himself to. He continued to grow and learn his whole life, expanding God's calling on his life until his last breath. He put love into action, bringing into near perfect biblical balance the call for evangelism and social justice.
Why? Because he preached and lived a life that was an apology for the oldest and strongest pillars of evangelicalism: the complete trustworthiness and authority of Scripture; the primacy of the substitutionary atonement of Christ; Jesus as Savior and Lord; and a life of activism, characterized by both evangelism and social justice.
Those four pillars shaped the life of John Stott, as they most likely have the evangelicals whom Kristof said he so admires. Kristof would wish to have those lives without the "ideology," but it is the ideology—that is, the beliefs—that make the movement what it is at its best.
I sit in a unique position in our subculture. I hear about more crazy stunts by our leaders than you care to imagine in your darkest nightmare. I hear the silliest things said in the name of our Lord. I can't believe the number of shallow evangelical books that come across my desk. I daily shake my head at the narrow-mindedness, hypocrisy, and pride I see in our movement.
But when we at the office discover that some group is ministering to the poor in a garbage dump in Cairo, or rescuing girls from sexual slavery in Thailand, or sharing the gospel with Muslims in a country where conversion is a capital crime, or languishing in a prison for simply practicing their faith under a totalitarian regime, well, we usually discover that they are either Catholics or evangelicals.
I'm not going to argue here that the only way to be a good Christian is to be an evangelical Christian. But I will say it's not a bad way at all—certainly no more moribund or confused or bankrupt than any other way. It is a movement that, at its best, proclaims the good news of the gospel of grace as no other. It introduces the Bible to the literally and spiritually illiterate. It is composed of people who give themselves sacrificially to evangelism and social justice—often to the applause of secularists (what Jesus called shining a light before others).
In short, evangelical theology and ethos have produced some of the most amazing people on the planet, one of whom was John R. W. Stott.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is the author ofGod Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Better than Love Wins (Tyndale).
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Previous SoulWork columns include:
The Most Risky Profession | Why you need to pray desperately for your pastor. (July 14, 2011)
What Faith Is: Accepting Conditions | Eternity is inevitable, one way or another. We may want to get used to it. (June 9, 2011)
What to Do with Aunt Julie | Harold Camping and our problem relatives. (May 26, 2011)