Today I had the opportunity to visit the famous Christian organization, The Gideons International. Now, before anyone gets the wrong idea, my intention here is not to comment negatively on their ministry. Many people have experiences of being handed Gideon Bibles or finding one in its ever-faithful hotel room night stand. The experience interacting with it has made me think about the various motivations driving the denominational divide of American Christianity.
It’s no secret that I am a graduate student at VDS. My time there has been fantastic for many reasons, but one of the most interesting things I have felt about it is the theological culture. The past few years I have studied in academic institutions that can vaguely be described as evangelical. Experiences in these institutions have taught me many, many things about God and about the church. I have grown far beyond what I ever thought I could be in and through them, but I have also seen the bad side of evangelical culture. In this sense, there are many things that VDS and the mainline church does that are quite refreshing. VDS has a very clear and focused activist culture; indeed, it strives to be a relevant force of justice and academics in the world today. This is not to say that evangelicalism does not ever do this, but I think there is room to say that that side of their conversation is weaker. I’ve observed the strengths and weaknesses living in evangelical contexts as well as in mainline ones.
The Gideons have a deep and abiding need to evangelize the world by spreading the Bible and through personal witnessing. The message is not vague. The message is not lacking in its compelling potency, but there are also several things missing from it. One of things I believe about the problems we are facing as a church is the struggle to articulate the compelling aspects of our faith. All churches are hurting in numbers (especially with young people), but the mainline churches are hemorrhaging people. Strangely, the churches that are doing so much for the broader culture in its participation and contributions to the moral climate are the ones that are hurting the most. I cannot take that lightly because I care deeply about their traditions and the people that practice them. Though, I have noticed that for all their honesty, there are often certain elements of that distinctly Christian voice that are left behind or forgotten. Many mainline Christians are often unable to speak to the compelling aspects of their beliefs as strongly as their evangelical brethren. That is one weakness of the mainline church.
Today, I experienced evangelical culture for the first time in a couple months and it is SO different. The way evangelicals talk is different and the problems they perceive are different. I am curious to know what this means about Christian language. We have divided ourselves in such as way that even the way we talk about what it means to be a Christian is spoken in a noticeably different dialect. Overall, I think that the labels of “conservative” and “liberal” are detrimental to the obvious conclusion that we need each other. Evangelicals need mainliners to give them a serious wake up call. Trust me, most mainliners are some of the most morally genuine and passionate people I have ever encountered. Though they have weaknesses, they are often more advanced where evangelicals are now deficient.
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