I suppose I surprise no one when I confess that I am not an Evangelical. That is not to suggest that I am not evangelical. I am gobsmacked when I hear Episcopalians state that numbers aren’t important or that Christians shouldn’t seek to convert nonbelievers. How do they think they have a church in which to worship or a faith to espouse?
When Americans crossed the eastern mountains and began to spread across this vast landmass, it was the commitment of believers which Christianized new settlements. Granted, the different name brands of Christianity or their adherents first sought their own and set up a church on every corner. Yet many, even most of the pioneers which possessed the land, left behind them adherence to organized Christianity.
The tale is told over and over again of families once “churched” whose children left behind the faith of their ancestors. True, many read the Bible, but that was as far as it went. These people were evangelized by those who retained allegiance to “organized religion.” And so for generations the new America of the frontier became, at least for a period, a Christian nation. Even those who embraced no church, like Abraham Lincoln, were haunted by and inspired by a biblical worldview.
The America of the early 19th century, only sporadically churched, transformed into a land where the church in its baffling diverse “denominational” structure swiftly established itself. Certainly this diversity contrasted sharply with European Christianity where national churches, Roman Catholic, Protestant or Anglican, claimed the devotion of the many. Yet there was a certain vigor in such diversity.
The downside was that evangelism often transformed itself into a method by which competing denominations grew, apart from the normal allegiance of families to their churches, into a process of a form of free-market economy in which rival church memberships sought to evangelize each other.
Episcopalians relied on this process, attracting those who sought its worship forms after leaving their own religious heritage behind. That evangelistic method grew to be paramount in Episcopalians’ church growth and evangelism. Sheep stealing possessed the Episcopal imagination. It remains entrenched in our imagination. Our websites predicate outreach in terms of locating and attracting floating people who might rather like the way we worship, or recently our espousal of progressive causes.
Our larger and growing parishes, liberal or traditional, have grown by attracting those who discover in their midst something lacking in their former church homes. Secure in their numerical and economic success, many decry the old methods of sheep stealing while continuing to expand by that very process.
Disaffected Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists discover a place where they feel secure and happy. Our national church peddles the wares of liberalism and suggests a churchly fortress available to the like-minded, while traditionalists peddle the wares of conservatism and suggest a churchly fortress available to the like-minded. These methods are just 19th-century free-market approaches to Christianity tweaked to take into account the polarity of contemporary American life.
The death of John Stott underlies this scenario. Stott emerged from an old-fashioned Anglican Evangelical conversion to personal faith in Jesus into a prophet who realized that mere Christianity is much more than the preservation of a particular church party. He obviously remained an Anglican Evangelical, but he gradually became convinced that the Gospel was more than sheep-stealing or shoring up a particular brand of religious expression.
For Stott the Gospel was not merely about saving souls or converting people to Evangelicalism. He became a churchman, and one who saw evangelism in great breadth, the telling of the Story which included Jesus’ commitment to economic and social justice, to “ecology,” to churchmanship, and to a lively and converting faith in Jesus as Lord.
He distanced himself from schismatic alternatives while taking very seriously the plight of an Anglicanism shorn of biblical faith and practice. His quiet, kind, and open approach placed him above the fray of church politics and remarkably above the fanaticism of right and left, despite the fact that he decried the introversion of much Evangelical thought and the powerlessness of those who affirm “justice” while ignoring conversion to Jesus and his saving grace.
Stott’s evangelicalism was that of John Newton, William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury, in an understanding that genuine Christianity champions the poor and the outcast and tackles both spiritual and social neediness not as separate dimensions but in the wholeness of both.
And the field of evangelism has taken a step backward in time. In the West the mission field is not the supposed deficiencies of this or that denomination anymore, tackled by peddling sectarian wares to floating Christians. More and more, like the early 19th-century West, it is a field peopled by those who perhaps preserve some God-awareness, but for whom the churches are remote clubs practicing rites which, to them, the unchurched, have no earthly practical utility in living life.
In such a scene, the churches are called to offer a Living Jesus and the claims he makes for himself as he who came to die and rise again to make all things new. John Stott’s voice was silenced as he listened to Handel’s Messiah. He then met the Messiah and now calls us all to own Jesus as Lord and Savior and to tell of his coming, dying, rising and ascending work, his care for the poor, the ill, the disadvantaged, the disowned to a needy, polarized, dysfunctional world. He calls us out of our holy clubs into the world which surrounds them. He calls us to holistic evangelism and to learn the means of winsome evangelism. I pray Stott’s vision will become that of the Church.
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