The Banner has a subscription to republish articles from Religion News Service. This story by Bob Smietana was published on religionnews.com Oct. 25, 2022. It has been edited for length and the last three paragraphs, with context for the Christian Reformed Church, have been added.
A conference about the future of the largest religious tradition in America began with a bit of honesty. “Nobody knows exactly what an evangelical is,” said Joel Lawrence, executive director of the Center for Pastor Theologians, at the opening of the Reconstructing Evangelicalism conference Oct. 24.
The conference, which drew about 400 pastors and other church leaders to Calvary Memorial Church in the Chicago suburbs, was inspired by a recent trend among evangelicals and other Protestants to “deconstruct” the faith they grew up with—a process of examining core beliefs and often rejecting the conservative politics, sexism, and racial divides evangelicalism has come to be known for.
The question “What is an evangelical?” led to a spirited, thoughtful, and sometimes pointed conversation during the conference’s opening panel about the movement’s flaws and how to mend them.
Doug Sweeney, dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., admitted that for much of the American public, the word “evangelical” is synonymous with MAGA-style politics. “That would not be one of my favorite characteristics,” said Sweeney, who argued that “evangelical” should be tied more to theology than politics.
Historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor at Calvin University, gave a plenary address Monday evening. She defined evangelicalism as a political and consumer culture. She said she has long wondered if the more important thing to ask is, “Who is not an evangelical?”
“Who gets to decide that?” she asked.
Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, academic dean of Esperanza College in Philadelphia, said the theological gatekeeping among evangelicals is often “quite ruthless.” Evangelical Christians from Latin America or other parts of the church outside the United States, she said, are largely ignored by American evangelical pastors.
“Why don’t you know their names?” she asked the pastors at the conference. “Why don’t you quote them in your sermons?”
Conde-Frazier argued that any reconstruction of evangelicalism must include a more robust understanding of human sinfulness. While evangelicals often focus on personal sin, they tend to miss the way that power can be misused by sinful church leaders or movements.
“Sin turns into a monster when you have power,” she said.
Malcolm Foley, who directs the Black church studies program at Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas, advocated for an activist form of evangelicalism, one that combines evangelism with social action. “That is the only evangelicalism that I think is worthy of talking about,” he said.
At the same time, Foley was skeptical that the word “evangelical” could be saved or reconstructed.
“The work and energy that we would be investing in reclaiming that term could also be used in loving our neighbors,” he said. “Instead of needing to reclaim the term, just be gospel people. Be people who are going to invest in deep spiritual, economic, and physical solidarity as the church. They can call you whatever they want. If you are living a life that is bearing witness to the kingdom of God, I don’t care what you call me.”
Sweeney countered that he was not willing to give up on evangelicalism yet. A self-described “evangelical Lutheran” and a member of a group called Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, Sweeney recalled the cross-denominational movement that evangelicalism aspires to be and that he said he hopes to remain part of.
Still, if evangelicalism is to be reconstructed, various panelists said, it has to be done with humility. Some evangelicals, several panelists said, see their movement as the last hope for Christianity in the world—an idea the panelists rejected.
In an interview before her address, Du Mez said that many of the pastors at the conference want to be faithful to their beliefs and lead their congregations well—but outside cultural forces make that difficult.
“It is a hard time to be a pastor,” she said.
Lawrence said the conference is meant to spark respectful conversations about Christianity, its challenges, and the possibility for change. “It’s not good for any of us if we are not having these conversations,” he said.
The conference ran Oct. 24-26 and was streamed online. Other plenary speakers included Conde-Frazier, Russel Moore, Walter Kim, and Karen Swallow-Prior.
Derek Buikema, a Christian Reformed pastor in Orland Park, Ill., attended the first day of the conference. “I was excited that the CRC was well represented among the speakers,” he said. “I found Dr. Gayle Doornbos’s talk (assistant professor of theology at Dordt University) especially helpful. She offered (Dutch theologian Herman) Bavinck as one potential guide through times of division and uncertainty like our present moment. Dr. Doornbos showed that Bavinck’s response was to be characterized by a deep-rootedness within the Reformed tradition, an irenic spirit, and deep ecumenical engagement. I think if we Reformed believers could be characterized by the same, it could be a beautiful witness to the world and a blessing to Christ’s church.”
The Center for Pastor Theologians, according to its website, is an interdenominational network of clergy who “share a passion to lead the people of God theologically and to do so from the point of view of orthodox Protestant teaching.” The Reconstructing Evangelicalism conference is its seventh annual conference.
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