What mainliners can learn from evangelicals

Mainliners can be awfully smug in their (our) attitude toward evangelicals. There is a certain “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people” syndrome in the way mainliners view evangelicals. In some mainline churches I’ve been in, evangelicals are the perpetual “other” over against whom we define ourselves. We’re NOT conservative, NOT homophobic, NOT biblical literalists, etc.

But in case you haven’t noticed, mainline churches aren’t doing all that great nowadays. And while evangelicalism certainly has its problems, mainliners would be foolish to think that there’s nothing they can learn from their evangelical co-religionists.

This post from Frederick Schmidt highlights some things that evangelicals have but mainliners don’t, and I think it’s well worth considering:

Evangelicals believe something. To name a few things: They believe in God, the Trinity, the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, the Resurrection, and the authority of Scripture. These things define reality in a particular way for Evangelicals.

[…]

Evangelicals are actively committed to what they believe. Both the Old and New Testaments connect what is known about God with living for God. The Book of Deuteronomy admonishes Israel to “Teach your children the Law and to do it.” The Epistle of James picks up on the same theme: “Faith without works is dead.” And Paul connects the facts of the faith with imperatives in his letters. To embrace truth, it must be lived.

[…]

Evangelicals also think that thinking about what they believe is important. Stott and, before him, C.S. Lewis, gave their lives to the effort to be clear about what they believed and they engaged others in the effort. Being clear opened both of them to criticisms, of course, but nearly fifty years after his death Lewis is still widely read and continues to engage his readers in that conversation.

As Schmidt points out, these things are “not unique to Evangelicalism [but] are as old Christianity itself—and present when and where it thrives.” I think we could quibble about the extent to which evangelicalism consistently manifests these qualities and the extent to which mainline churches lack them. But on the whole, the generalization strikes me as having a lot of truth to it.

This is a drum I’ve beaten before. And there are no easy answers. For one thing, if mainline churches are committed to a critical approach to the Bible and church tradition (as I think they should be), it will always be harder for them to confidently say “This is what we believe.” But the alternative–watering down the faith to a vague, lowest common denominator–is just as bad. Somehow we have to learn to walk that tightrope of critical faithfulness.

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One thought on “What mainliners can learn from evangelicals

  1. What you are saying is demonstrably true. The spiritual lukewarmness and fuzzy thinking–now more aptly described as outright rebellion against biblical authority–in the .Presbyterian Church USA has led me, an evangelical, to shake the dust off my feet after 24 years in the denomination. I just can’t take it anymore. I’ve noticed over the years that the mainline churches and pulpits that have the greatest vitality often have a historical evangelical connection somewhere–the pastor grew up in a Free Church, or the membership contains a lot of expats from the Baptists or the Assemblies of God. It should also be said here that evangelicals have much to learn from mainliners. It was the ethos of the Presbyterian Church–the learned clergy, the appreciation of the arts, the commitment to quality and excellence in most things–that drew me there originally. But it has been a frustrating couple of decades. None of that sophistication makes up for the lack of a simple and genuine faith lived day to day.

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