Taking To The Streets: Evangelical Lessons For Liberal Christians

Image by Kara David

Today marks the end of a series of blog posts called Evangelical Lessons for Liberal Christians.

I’ve been looking at some of the things that evangelicals do really well and exploring some of the ways in which liberal Christians might benefit by taking seriously the gifts of our evangelical cousins.  Life has been pretty rough as of late in the mainline Protestant churches.  Battle lines have been drawn between evangelicals and liberals and the armies are loading and aiming.  In some sections, shots have already been fired from both sides.  I’m beginning to feel a bit like Prince Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita: parking my chariot between the two armies and imagining that there must be a better way than war.  Perhaps that’s not the best analogy to use since, in the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna ultimately advises Arjuna to fight and kill.  Well, with all due respect to Krishna, maybe I’ll get better advice if I imagine Jesus with me in the chariot.

My colleagues tell me that they expect this summer’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to be a bloodbath.  I’m hoping that’s not necessarily the case.  With blog posts like these, I’m hoping that we might be able to foster the growth of a more generous spirit within liberals and evangelicals alike.  Perhaps, as it was for Arjuna, the end result will be the same, but maybe we can change the spirit of the split, so that the seeds of future reconciliation might be sown today.

Enough of that for now.  This series isn’t about denominational schism.  It’s about those qualities of evangelicals that liberal Christians can and ought to appreciate and imitate.  Let’s get to it, shall we?

In the first installment, God Has No Grandchildren, we looked at the ways in which evangelicals do such a great job of taking personal ownership of their spirituality (a.k.a. their relationship with God).  In the second post, Romancing The Book, we looked at the evangelical passion for the Bible.  In this final chapter, I want to talk about the evangelical commitment to mission and what liberal Christians can learn from it.

In many ways, mission is at the very heart of what it means to be evangelical.  The name evangelical comes from the Greek word euangelion, which means, “Good news.”  Evangelicals are all about announcing good news to the world.

They tend to mobilize quickly and effectively using grassroots techniques.  Evangelicals were the ones, primarily through the Baptists and Methodists, who most effectively brought Christianity to the American frontier during the periods of colonialism and westward expansion.  During the 19th and 20th centuries, they spearheaded international missionary efforts to Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  In fact, evangelicals did such a good job at this that the churches they started a century ago are now sending missionaries back to North America and Europe to “re-evangelize” our increasingly secular societies.

Take my own denominational tradition (Presbyterianism) as an example.  We have our historical roots in Scotland but, numerically speaking, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa has about twice the membership of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and more than eight times the membership of the Church of Scotland.  The world’s largest Presbyterian congregation (Myungsung Presbyterian Church) is located in Seoul, South Korea.  Say what you will about evangelicals, they know how to get things done!

Liberal Christians, on the other hand, have a tendency to be more self-critical, inward-focused, and reliant upon institutional infrastructure.  The one thing that we constantly seem to forget is that the church is ever only one generation away from extinction.  A church is never so well-established in a community that it can excuse itself from putting faith into action outside its own walls.

When liberal Christians talk about “doing mission,” they usually mean supporting various nonprofit organizations that do good work in a community.  If you were to look at the various projects supported by the mission committee at my congregation, only one is operated in-house.  Another was started by a former-pastor, but is now run by folks from other churches.  Most of the time, they send money to other agencies.  Don’t get me wrong, that’s a good thing.  These agencies desperately need the support.  Last winter, a low-income daycare provider in our county would have shut down or reduced services if it had not been for the last-minute financial support of congregations like ours.  However, I worry about us when we limit our sense of “mission” to just giving money to nonprofit service agencies.  I would like to see us also donating our time and talents to these groups.

Let our churches develop a reputation for the kind of hands-on care that made Jesus and the early Christians (in)famous.  The Roman emperor Julian complained to the pagan high priest of Galatia that these “impious” Christians were winning converts because of the way they cared for the poor.  This was particularly true during times of plague, when Christians would risk their lives by staying in the infected cities to treat the ill and bury the dead, regardless of religious affiliation.

St. Lawrence the Deacon, when ordered to turn over “the treasures of the church” to government officials, emptied the church coffers into the street and then gathered the poor and destitute together in front of the governor’s office saying, “Behold, the treasures of the church!”

Doesn’t this provide a stellar model for socially engaged, grassroots ministry among liberal Christians?  We come to the mission field with a sense of self-awareness, cultural sensitivity, and respect for pluralism.  At our very best moments, our acts of service and justice preach silent sermons to the lost souls of this world who are looking for a place to belong.  In times more recent than those of Julian and Lawrence, pastors such as Walter Rauschenbusch (early 20th century Baptist) have found their social consciousness awakening as they serve churches in communities like Hell’s Kitchen in New York.  The Social Gospel movement, of which Rauschenbusch was an early leader, is responsible for many blessings that we now take for granted: child labor laws, workplace safety regulations, weekends, paid vacation, retirement and healthcare benefits, and minimum wage, just to name a few.  Later in the same century, Martin Luther King led his prophetic grassroots campaign against racism, poverty, and militarism.  Dorothy Day and the Berrigan brothers led activist campaigns for labor rights, racial equality, and nuclear disarmament.  The Catholic Worker movement, which they founded and supported, now has houses of hospitality in almost every major city in the United States.  When liberal Christians get engaged in mission, we do it well.

Even though we don’t tend to go out with gospel tracts and religious sales pitches for “winning souls,” I consider these efforts of liberal Christians to constitute an effective witness for Christ.  People are drawn to communities with open hearts, open minds, open arms, and open doors.  In our individualist and increasingly isolated North American society, people are looking for belonging more than believing.  They are attracted to churches that make a difference in this world.  They want a spiritual community where they can feel welcomed and get involved in something that really matters.

That’s where folks are most likely to discover for themselves that God is real and Jesus is worth following.

We liberal Christians need to get a clue from our evangelical brothers and sisters.  We need to get out of our pews and into the streets to share some good news in word and deed.  The only way to save our lovely churches is to get outside of them.  So, let’s get out there are let people know who we are and where we’re from.  Speak up and act out in the name of your faith!

Just as the disciples left their nets in the boat to follow Jesus, leave your capital campaigns, steeple restoration projects, stained-glass windows, pipe organs, and hymnals.  Take to the streets again!

The fact that the word “evangelical” means “good news” doesn’t mean that liberal Christians don’t have good news to proclaim as well.  We do.  In the same way, the fact that the word “liberal” means “freedom” doesn’t mean that evangelicals don’t value freedom of heart and mind.  They do.

Some folks wonder why I’ve decided to be so intentional about using the loaded terms “evangelical” and “liberal.”  Many think we should do away with labels and categories altogether.  I’m not convinced that’s such a good thing.  First of all, it’s just plain inaccurate.  We have two very distinct versions of Christianity that are currently coexisting in our mainline churches.  We’ve got to call them something, otherwise we won’t have an accurate picture of who we really are.  The various attempts to hold “the middle ground” seem to have resulted in an amorphous and watery theology that fails to challenge or inspire anyone.  Rather than eliminating our theological categories, why don’t we be honest about our diversity and focus instead on how our camps are relating to one another?

I don’t want to meet evangelicals on “the middle ground.”  I want to be a liberal Christian who respects evangelicals and makes room for them to be who they are and do what they feel called to do, so long as we get to do the same.  I hope this series of blog posts has contributed to making that dream a reality.

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