Steal It Back

The always-thoughtful Alastair Roberts asks:

In light of the ignominious behaviour of leading ‘evangelical’ voices in supporting and standing by Donald Trump, I have a question for my American friends who haven’t compromised on this point. At what point should the self-designation ‘evangelical’ be abandoned? At what point do the liabilities of the term outweigh its potential benefits? At what point does the meaning of a term need to be so hedged with qualifications and distinctions that it ceases to be fit for purpose?

Roberts concludes that the term should be retired: “We need to shift the weight of our identity and our labours away from the mass movement and back towards the church and the task of forming a healthy and well-defined public.” In one sense, he’s right: evangelicalism has traditionally been a renewal movement within existing denominations or traditions, not something that stands on its own outside those traditions, and I think it works best that way. Evangelicalism at its best sees how the Christian traditions tend to lose their focus and their fire; it strives to bring Christians within whatever tradition to a new intensity of focus, a new fire of faith.

But to say that is to say that the term “evangelical” needs to be re-situated, not that it needs to be abandoned. I find myself remembering that moment in Rattle and Hum when Bono introduces “Helter Skelter” by saying, “Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.” It’s time to steal “evangelical” back.

Who should steal it?

  • Those who believe that renewal among Christians is necessary
  • Those who believe that such renewal is difficult
  • Those who believe that such renewal is costly
  • Those who believe that the power to be renewed comes only from the Trinitarian God
  • Those who believe that that power of renewal is primarily and always to be sought through what John Wesley called the “the ordinary channels of conveying God’s grace into the souls of men,” as identified in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” In Wesley’s formulation, “First, all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the way of prayer…. Secondly, all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in searching the Scriptures…. Thirdly, all who desire an increase of the grace of God are to wait for it in partaking of the Lord’s Supper.”
  • Those who can discern the resources within their own denominational traditions to pursue these tasks

Whom should they steal it from?

  • Those who think God is happy with them just as they are
  • Those who turn to God for material prosperity in preference to intimacy with God and charity towards their neighbors
  • Those whose minds are formed not by “searching the Scriptures” but by television, talk radio, and Twitter

How should they steal it back?

  • Put “searching the Scriptures” at the heart of congregational preaching — and singing (which requires, among other things, immediately eliminating all praise songs that are not thoroughly scriptural and restoring the place of hymns that offer a sophisticated interweaving of biblical texts: nothing teaches Christians how the various parts of the Bible interrelate better than the great hymns)
  • Rigorously and patiently teach people the various disciplines of public and private prayer (Adoration, Petition, Intercession, Thanksgiving, Lamentation)
  • Regularly and reverently celebrate the Lord’s Supper

If even a handful of the churches that now call themselves “evangelical” were to take these steps — in full awareness of how radically countercultural such steps are, and in full willingness to pay the price in popularity for their dedication — then in a generation or two there could be enough people who are properly formed within the ancient practices of the Christian faith to provide the critical mass necessary to have a significant impact on society. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick, but it will be a great work of mercy and grace. And anyway, the churches that fail to do these things will fade away, because they have nothing to pass on to their (biological and spiritual) children.

Don’t abandon “evangelical.” Steal it back.