The yes to evangelicalism?

Evangelicalism-580x308A recent discussion on the last post suggests that I need to correct the impression that I am against all evangelicals. This blog has absolutely nothing against evangelicals as a tribe but I have been around long enough in the church to know that, when things go wrong in churches with this description, they can go very wrong indeed. Of course the same could be applied to any church congregation but my claim is that there are certain inbuilt institutional factors in many conservative evangelical set-ups that put them in special dangers of becoming an unsafe place for their members. The two most obvious institutional dangers are found, as I mentioned in a recent blog post, are an inerrant bible closely followed by a leadership which on occasion behaves in an unaccountable way.

Before I develop these points any further I want to express my appreciation for certain aspects of evangelical life and worship which make their churches, for many, exciting places to visit. The reader will note that all of these factors arise, not from their written theology, but from the culture and ethos that has evolved out of that theology.
1. The expectation of religious experience. In contrast to many churches in the ‘middle of the road’, evangelical churches in many places encourage their people to feel God within. There is time and opportunity to rise above the rational controlling mind to explore the non-rational aspects of God, including his love and his close presence. I personally do not resonate to much of the modern charismatic music and its lyrics, but the fact that individuals are encouraged to give time to the contemplation of the mystery of God can only be applauded. I am influenced in this comment by a book I am reading entitled ‘When God talks back’. It is an intriguing exploration of religious experience among American evangelicals by an anthropologist.
2. The expectation of inner change. Christians who go to some churches actually look for and expect that their lives will change after the experience of conversion. Whether they do in fact change is not for me to judge, but this expectation makes a change from Christianity being understood by many as a convenient mark of respectability to be added to a bourgeois life-style.
3. Along with the expectation of change is an openness to spiritual healing. Evangelicals pray more, it seems, for the sick both in intercession and in the presence of the afflicted. The possibility of miracles is talked about quite a bit. Whether miracles in fact happen or not, there is an air of expectation around in their observance of Christianity which puts other more rational Christians to shame. Personally I would always want to be among people who were hopeful and open to change than with those who prefer to keep the lid firmly on emotion and openness to new experience.
4. Adventurousness in community experience. Evangelicals seem better at the ‘fellowship’ thing. In other words they mix with a degree of confidence with other people, even though they combine their closeness to fellow believers with a measure of indifference or even hostility towards who fall outside the boundaries of their fellowship. Community is for them extremely important and the congregation may be their chief experience of family, sometimes more important than their own relatives.
5. A further point is that evangelicals are prepared to speak about their faith. While I may not agree with all that they actually say, I have to express a measure of admiration of their articulation of what they think. Outside evangelical circles, Christians are notoriously tongue-tied when it comes to talking about what they believe and why they believe it.
6. Finally I should mention the level of learning among many evangelicals. Alongside their readiness to speak about their faith there is a determination both to study and learn and remember information about the Scriptures and other theological material. Once again the content of this learning has, from my perspective, sometimes pushed them in a strange direction and away from a coherent grasp of what the Bible is really saying. But a distorted idea and understanding of scripture is perhaps better than no understanding at all. That seems to be the default position of many other Christians who, after hearing literally thousands of sermons, seem to have retained very little in terms of knowing the content of Christian doctrine.

So from my perspective there are a number of positive aspects of evangelical belief and practice. The problems that arise, and which this blog is concerned with, come from two sources. The first comes from unsupervised independent churches which do not look to any authority beyond themselves. My psychological studies suggest that if anyone is left to lead a group for a lengthy period without such supervision, that leadership is very likely to become corrupted and tainted. My blog readers who have an interest in Trinity, Brentwood know exactly what I am talking about. Such leaders will claim eloquently that they are under the authority of the Bible. It is the way the Bible is actually being read that gives me cause for concern. In practice leaders are good at reading the Bible in a particular way that reinforces their authority and thus protects them from scrutiny when things go wrong. One issue that evangelical churches never come clean about is the fact that in a country like the States, there are some twenty thousand separate Protestant churches all claiming to preach and teach from the same Bible. These churches claim to have the same basis of faith but they disagree over many issues. They are divided, for example, as to whether women can preach in church. Both supporters and opponents of women’s ministry will claim their position is rooted in scripture. The Anglican church is perhaps more honest than some by admitting that it does have divergent beliefs within its communion but continues to try and live and worship together in spite of those differences. As far as evangelical churches are concerned, there is one issue that unites almost all of them and that is the gay marriage issue. They are gloriously, some would say obsessively, joined together in telling the world that this is evil and that all ‘real’ Christians agree on this matter. Thankfully there are other evangelical groups such as ‘Accepting Evangelicals’ who have broken rank over this and who challenge the apparent unanimity and settled opinion of their tribe.

In conclusion this blog is not unappreciative of some aspects of the evangelical world for the reasons I have outlined above. At the same time I am reserving the right to criticise that monolith on theological and practical grounds, particularly where these same factors cause harm and abuse to individuals. Because I don’t think in binary ways, it is not a question of the evangelical world being all-good or all-bad; it is rather a case that, like the curate’s egg, it is good in parts. I genuinely appreciate the parts that are good but will continue to show where it is bad or harmful.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

21 thoughts on “The yes to evangelicalism?

  1. Excellent post. I have to say, I have had experience of healing services that have been led by a mixture of high Anglo-catholics and evangelical Anglicans, and very good they were too. I have found my fellow evangelicals rather badly educated or na├»ve, I think that has been my problem, they irritate me! And very narrow minded. But Anglo-Catholics are capable of it too. I find, though that a fair number of churches of the middling sort do show disturbing signs of being on the road, if that’s a good description. The vicar is always right. A view quite often held by others, too, not just the vicar! What the previous chap did is always thrown out, including the people. Nothing of value ever happened before he came. The play group is closed, the Bible study closed down, the people who went on the course and have been doing the healing ministry are replaced by people who haven’t been on the course, but whom the vicar likes. All the services are changed to the format he is told is “tradition”, “we always”, by the first people to get to him after his licensing. And of course, the vicar’s wife will start taking services, or her husband will write her sermons for her and choose all the hymns. These things have all happened in my experience. Now none of this is anything like the kind of abuse on a deeply personal level some of the people we’ve heard about here have had to endure. But it is, I would beg to say, in one sense only different in degree. It is the same institutional sin.

  2. I have frequently read and appreciated the articles on this blog, but some contributers’ comments are making me feel unwelcome here. Because: I am a minister’s wife and I have taken the occasional service. The material and choice of hymns was entirely my own. And looking back over previous posts, I, like one of the anons, went to a public school. I will pack my bags now.

    1. I have found it quite difficult to find a suitable church for my family due to class divisions. I see us as a middle class family, but would prefer the working class’ faith – more radical (sometimes irresponsible – downside). Whereas the middle class’ faith is too moderate and can be rather superficial Can anyone help?

      1. When you use the word,’radical’, do you mean spontaneous, Anon? Are you talking about a quality of worship or a socially aware agenda? I will have a bash at answering your issue when I am clear I know what you are referring to. It is a tricky business writing about class issues and church without falling into a very large pit call called political correctness!

        1. My reference to ‘radical’ means the willingness to take risks, the propensity to trust God unreservedly, the readiness to exercise faith more regularly than someone who is perhaps more comfortably off materially.

          1. Thanks for your interpretation of ‘radical’. The problem I have with your hopes of church is that any church is run by a minister or pastor. To talk about trust in God ‘unreservedly’ will also in part mean trusting that leader. Such a trust can make you vulnerable. This potential problem is not going to be solved by avoiding ‘middle-class’ congregations. Middle class people are possibly over-careful in avoiding vulnerable situations, ready commitment to people and maybe this affects their ability to trust God. But as you will see from reading this blog back over the months, the Church sadly is sometimes not a place which is safe. I feel for your situation but there is no ready solution. The avoiding of abuse means developing your sensitivity to potentially dangerous situations. One needs to be able to answer the question every time, ‘is this of God or is it a power game being played out by a leader?’.

    2. Ok, Elizabeth, I wasn’t having a go at you. I know a situation where the new incumbent simply moved his wife in to take services and preach as if she was his curate. There were people available who had the Bishop’s license, and he wouldn’t use them. Taking services occasionally is not an issue. But it is an issue if the incumbent uses people who are not trained, gone through the selection processes, do not have the Bishop’s license and so on. This is where there is a lack of accountability. Wouldn’t you be appalled if you heard of one of your husband’s colleagues behaving in such a way? When people have seen such things happening, they do get angry. If you haven’t seen it, that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t. As for public schools, my position is, most of them are very good, mainly because a great deal of money is spent on the education of the children. Wouldn’t it be fairer if enough money was spent to enable all children to have a great education? Why is this only available for the children of the rich? And why do the ordinary schools have to follow the national curriculum, and public schools don’t? Good for you if you had a good education. So did I. And in my day, University was free. But I think perhaps you should wish for that education for others less fortunate than yourself. Oh, and by the way, there’s only one of me. The other posters may not feel the same way at all.

  3. I would hope that you carry on visiting us as this blog teeters on the edge of viability. We have less than twenty readers! As editor I cannot censor the comments made (unless they are offensive) and the real continuity will be in the articles which I try to write every three days or so. Some of my followers tell me that they subscribe to the articles on their own. I don’t how to do this but it is a possible way of keeping in touch. Personally I find some of the discussions very interesting and helpful, and it certainly helps me to remain anchored in the world of people’s concerns as a way of informing what I write. I hope you will see this note Elisabeth.

    1. Thank you Stephen and Chris for your comments. I will keep reading the blog because it is very good and very needed. I am not usually one to make comments, but I felt I had to on that occasion. We all need to stick up for ourselves sometimes.

  4. Elisabeth,
    How would you wish to communicate? I think everyone knows my background now, illiterate,but by a quirk of fate got a basic education. My bags were packed a long time ago.You can pick all the hymns no problem to me. I don’t go the ‘Church’ but I assure you I accept you! My best hymn is the same every day, ‘All you need is love’. Never failed yet! Peace, Chris

  5. Anonymous,
    I see your great difficulty. What is Church? I think the answer is
    this: Can you be uninhibited and speak the truth in love in a ‘Church’? You may find this helpful > Peace, Chris Pitts

  6. It is sad that God gets the blame for the ways humans treat each other, i thought that was what this blog was about. God didn’t hurt you Chris, people did.

    1. Yes, but the church is supposed to reflect the love of God. If it doesn’t, it can be hard to feel God’s love. Theoretically, fine, but actually feel it? I’ve precious little experience of it, that’s the trouble.

    1. Chris, you have not betrayed Christ. You are the one who has been betrayed by people. Please stop blaming yourself and feeling guilty.

  7. Thanks Anon & Elisabeth.
    I always knew something was wrong, right from the start, so I don’t think I can let myself off the hook so easily. But thank you for your kind words.
    Peace, Chris.

  8. Thanks EnglishAthena,
    As you say, you sometimes can’t find God’s Love in a ‘Church’. However, you come across as a truly caring person with sympathy for the underdog. So you must get His Love from somewhere? So don’t worry! You always give me encouragement!
    This underdog says, Woof, Woof, to you. Peace, Chris.

      1. On the subject of ‘love’ and ‘pastor’s wife’ (both referred to above), have you ever heard preaching on the theme of love and heard a rather unloving message? I’m pretty sure she wrote the sermon herself, ie the pastor did not write it for her. At one point she barked “you are nothing!”. Then the penny dropped – he is called to be a pastor. She is called to be a pastor’s wife. There is a world of difference between their callings. If you don’t have a shepherd’s heart, you’ll empty the church (unless it is a cult and people are trapped in it). On the contrary, he is definitely a pastor with an amazing shepherd’s heart. I can clearly see why God needs to work a shepherd’s heart into pastors.

        If one is in a secular job, ie not in ministry, one is not expected to have a shepherd’s heart (eg love and compassion, empathy etc). If you are not in ministry and you have a shepherd’s heart, it is a bonus. I don’t claim to have it and that is why I am not in ministry – pure and simple. Don’t bark at me!

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