Monday, 1 June 2015

Your Theology When The Music Stops - Why I Am Now Uncomfortable Calling Myself An Evangelical

When I was on holiday in Scotland last September, I bought the book The Blunders of our Government to read. And one thing that struck me was the idea of "cultural disconnect". You can draw up policies which sound good on paper, but fail to understand the culture of the people in the United Kingdom that will be affected by it. You take for granted that your upbringing and lifestyle will be the template for other people's. You assume that if someone can't pay their Poll Tax they could always sell a painting.

Cultural disconnect can lead to asking questions that are completely irrelevant - but the asker cannot understand why they are irrelevant. I once had a temp job where I was in the minority of people from a state school background. Asking me whether I hated Saturday morning detentions as well, or whether I still keep in contact with my "dorm mates" is simply asking me questions that do not apply to my background.

Cultural disconnect is something that can affect the church too. We can assume that everyone out there had a church upbringing, and that Bible stories will be familiar from Sunday School.

Indeed, when I became a Christian as an undergraduate (from a non-Christian background) this was one thing I had to battle against. There was the standard conversion story - brought up in a Christian household, church, Sunday school, boarding school chapel, Scripture Union/CYFA camp. That's fine - if that is your background. But don't assume everyone else is going to have the same.

Don't become so sheltered and stuck in the evangelical bubble that you cannot understand other people.

I have to say the worst Christian Union talk I heard was from a vicar who had a very odd view of the Parable of the Sower. For him, when Jesus spoke about the seed sown on rocky ground, which had no root, well "root" meant the sort of upbringing I mentioned above. It was people like me, from non-Christian backgrounds, who didn't have the "root" and would fall away. The message came across that evangelism should really be a sort of mop-up exercise, focussed on people who went to church as children.

A bit of context - this was the era of the Church of England's Decade of Evangelism, with the talking about what the Church tweely called "lapsed communicants".

And you can see why the focus is on overseas - rather than home - mission. If we live in a Cozychristianland, only associating with Christians, then it is easy to see why some assume that, within the UK at least, the Great Commission is complete.

You will find that oodles of non-Christians do not think they have a "God-shaped hole" in the middle of their lives and are not lying awake at night wondering if God exists or not.

We can make assumptions about why people don't go to church, and ignore the reasons they give, projecting the things we don't like onto them.

For example, a couple of years back there was the Disco-Dancing Deaconess showing off her moves at a wedding. I could not get caught up in the squeeing that Christianity had suddenly become relevant. I have non-Christian friends and I listen to what their objections are. What they need is solid apologetics that answers their questions, not the knowledge that a woman in a dog collar is busting her moves.

I remember shortly afterwards mentioning on my old Twitter account this, and one woman responding with "Oh, come off it!" She knew that the objection that people she had never met had about Christianity was that church was not "participatory" enough - which, oddly, none of my non-Christian friends has ever raised as an objection to Christianity. Sorry, Ms Participatory, none of them could actually give two hoots about whether people in dog collars and frilly robes dance round the pews or not.

I guess I was asking the sort of questions that only a miserable old git would ask - such as would it be a comfort to those in dark times wanting pastoral support to learn that the church was cool, and hip, and groovy, and above all, relevant?

So, why do I feel uncomfortable calling myself an evangelical?

I'll begin to explain what aren't the reasons - I know that in some circles it'll simply be "Hey, that Pointer says he's uncomfortable calling himself an evangelical", and people left to draw their own conclusions. It's OK; in certain circles I'm used to what I say and do being twisted, and I have given up the careful walking on eggshells where I always had to consider "if I say this, how will it be spun and what story will enthusiastically and hyperventilatingly be doing the rounds about me a few weeks down the line?".

So, here goes.

I still hold to the solid evangelical faith I adopted 25 years ago. I believe in the Trinity; I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that He died on the Cross for my sins, that He rose again, ascended into Heaven and will return as Judge at the end of time; I believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, for teaching, rebuking and correcting.

I have not gone liberal.

I am not going to hide a thurible in my rucksack on Sunday morning and suddenly run round church waving incense everywhere. (Actually, on second thoughts....)

Neither is it because I fear the word "evangelical" has become too broad a term. Nor that it gets misused - for example, I remember once a vicar writing in the New Forest Post to make people aware of something that had come across the Atlantic, known as evangelicalism. His examples of evangelical groups were the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons.

It's the fact that evangelicalism is a sub-culture which I struggle to identify with. I am not middle-class enough or financially well-off enough to live the evangelical lifestyle of the annual skiing holiday and a week camping at a festival. I do not conform to the stereotypical blokey image that evangelical men are expected to conform to. So much has been added on to the basic evangelicalism these days.

And I have found modern evangelicalism to be about a faith which is there to opt-out of reality, rather than engage with it. Yes, have your endless round of BBQs and church social events for the "church family", but there comes a time when the music stops, a time when disaster and tragedy comes.

I know I am going to sound like a dour Puritan, but life can be tough. And I wonder whether the modern evangelical faith prepares people for this.

The Christians I really respect are those who have walked with God through the valley of the shadow of death. Those who have cared round-the-clock for a dementia-ridden spouse or a disabled child. The Methodist couple who stayed in Singapore to minister to God's people when the Japanese moved in.

What I find with modern evangelicalism is that it seems to be about fun-fun-fun with cool, successful people, and if anyone is a loo-zer then they can be ditched. After all, didn't our Lord Himself say "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, YOLO"? No, He didn't.

One of the trickiest theological questions is that of suffering. And the modern evangelical faith doesn't say much about it - and, sorry to say this, but the way of tackling the issue of suffering is "out of sight, out of mind".

I am not calling for evangelicalism to become miserable. But what I feel is that we need to see that life is serious, that it isn't all fun and have a theology which sees where God is when everything hits the fan. And have a compassion for those on the fringes, the sick, the lonely, the hurt, the vulnerable. A real compassion which involves including them rather than treating them as outsiders and loo-zers.

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