Modern. Progressive. Evangelical. Balanced: Part 4

This is the fourth installment of a 6-part series. Scroll down to read the previous posts.

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

So what does it mean to be evangelical? The term evangelical has become synonymous with the religious right and Christian conservatism.  I, however, do not use the term evangelical to identify myself with a political ideology. Religious terms ought to speak to our faith, not our politics, and evangelical is a word that speaks to a particular vein of American Christianity, not a particular brand of American politics.

Baptists are evangelical Christians. We believe in individual conversion and believer’s baptism. One is not “born” into a Baptist church. One becomes a member of a Baptist church when one is “born again” in the faith. An emphasis on religious experience and individual conversion are hallmarks of evangelicalism.

In fact, the belief in and insistence on individual religious experience and individual conversion are the defining characteristics of evangelicalism.

From that central emphasis, other emphases follow, many of them nearly synonymous with traditional Baptist distinctives: things like the primacy, freedom and competency of the individual before God and the Great Commission responsibility to go and tell and teach and baptize.

Baptists have traditionally been evangelical in our worship, evangelical in our witness, and evangelical in our focus on the experience of God in worship and prayer, in nature and vocation, in family and service.

Moderate Baptists, though, perhaps in an effort to distance ourselves from more fundamentalist Baptist traditions, have drifted away from our evangelical roots toward more mainline Protestant traditions.

Mainline Protestantism
Mainline Protestantism is generally characterized in practice by a set liturgy (or, in varying degrees, a predetermined order and content to worship), an emphasis on tradition and ritual, and higher levels of denominational control at local levels. Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Episcopalians are all generally considered to be mainline Protestant denominations, although each has an increasing number of evangelical offshoots.

One of the main differences between mainline Protestant and evangelical traditions is the evangelical belief in individual, experiential conversion. Membership in mainline bodies generally requires assent to a confession, a doctrinal statement or a written set of beliefs. By contrast, for evangelicals, membership in a body of faith is about acknowledging a developing and personal relationship with an active, present and living God. 

Evangelicals, of course, like mainline Protestants, want our members to know the right things about God and the faith. We want them to be doctrinally sound and orthodox in their beliefs. Evangelicals understand, however—and perhaps with greater emphasis—that an unbeliever can learn all the facts and know all the right things, but only a believer can articulate an individual experience with the living God and a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. We need never forget that knowledge—as important as it is—cannot make anyone a Christian.

Why Evangelical? The Doctrinal Reason
I identify as evangelical because evangelicalism is more consistent with traditional Baptist faith and practice. I grew up as an evangelical Baptist. I believe in a faith that changes who we are. I believe in both the potential and need for radical—and sometimes sudden—transformation in individual lives. Sin is a  powerful and corrupting presence in our world and evangelicalism doesn’t shy away from that fact.

I believe in evangelical worship that creates space for God to lead us to feel and experience something, not just to learn something or be rationally convinced of something. We shouldn’t shy away from emotion and mysticism, from the feelings of the heart in worship. Our emotions can lead us to teachable places and holy moments that our intellects never will. While mainline Protestants can emphasize deep, emotional connections to the holy, evangelicals place a different kind of emphasis on ecstatic, emotional experiences of God in worship and prayer.

I also believe in the evangelical missionary purpose to go and teach and baptize. Yes, we are also to heal and clothe and feed and free. One of our undisputed missionary purposes is to meet the physical needs of those who suffer in this world. But our primary missionary purpose—our evangelical purpose—is to introduce people to Jesus Christ and to help them experience the holy presence of God in their lives for the very first time. Our goal must never be to "just" feed the hungry. Untold numbers of secular organizations have that as their goal. Our goal is to make converts and save sinners. It is to help others experience the grace and forgiveness of God that we have experienced ourselves.

Why Evangelical? The Practical Reason
There’s a practical reason I lean toward evangelicalism, too. Evangelical churches have a traction in today’s world that mainline churches don’t. It’s true that even evangelical churches have experienced some decline recently, but mainline churches are dying.

One need not survey the landscape for long to understand that the overwhelming majority of energy, creativity, experimentation and resources necessary for Christian growth and progress in America are clustered around evangelical causes and organizations.

As a relatively new church in a relatively new fellowship of churches (CBF), our leaders have the freedom to choose in which direction they will lead, and what traditions they will emphasize. There is, of course, room for all different kinds of churches in our fellowship, and individual churches like ours can—and do—choose to follow the practices and emphases of multiple traditions.

But, while we still have the freedom to form our identity, we have a clear choice. We can be a group of people who choose to hew closely to our traditional Baptist evangelical roots. We can work within the energy and creativity of today’s evangelicals. Or we can cast our lot with the dying traditions of mainline Protestantism.

Many of us are more comfortable with mainline, progressive theology. So it’s natural that as an outgrowth of our theology we would tend toward mainline practice. Some would argue that intellectual honesty and a rigorous consistency are more important than cultural relevance and numerical growth. If we die out, they say, so be it. We will have died out being faithful to our consciences.

But I think our particular brand of Christianity is too valuable to be treated so cavalierly. If we have the important task of safeguarding and preserving for future generations progressive Christianity—and I believe we do—and we understand that mainline progressivism is increasingly unable to impact the larger culture, then we MUST understand how important it is for progressive, evangelical churches to thrive in the 21st century.

I embrace evangelical practice because I am a Baptist and that’s how I was raised. But I also embrace evangelical practice because I believe so firmly in the importance of advancing progressive theology. It is ultimately the theology—the truth about who God is—that matters. And if that theology needs to be wrapped in a modern, evangelical package to reach our neighbors for Christ, then modern and evangelical we shall be.

See you Sunday.