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How Does Jesus Speak to Our Modern Religious and Social Context?

I am currently reading, rather slowly I confess, through the Gospel of Mark. It is a fast-paced narrative a rooted in oral tradition, something easily forgotten by modern readers. At the beginning of the second century CE this Gospel was affirmed in several texts as the work of Mark. It was also attributed to Peter, who was his companion. Because this writing was based on oral texts it was rooted in stories about Jesus passed around from community to community. But Mark wrote for a definite type of community: Christians of non-Jewish and pagan origin. He desire is to show them the mystery and glory of Jesus. His way of doing this is to relate the words and deeds by which Jesus revealed himself as the “Son of God” to humankind.

Mark’s Gospel does not include an infancy narrative nor does it relate Jesus to Jewish scripture or tradition the way Matthew does. It begins: “This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Boom! Here it is: the

How Could Tyranny Destroy Our Democracy?

Political scientists and historians are increasingly expressing profound concerns about the future of democracy in the West. I have been asking, as an amateur historian of America, “How and why do democracies die?”

The study of democratic backsliding, though around for a long time, is becoming more urgent as we watch events unfold so rapidly it creates deep concern in many of us. In the mid-2000s, the global spread of democracy, after 200 years of expansion, clearly began to stall. Perhaps it was the Iraq War and the events in the Middle East but however we understand what happened since 9/11 populist movements in the West began to arise and grow in number. This new form of Western populism, joined with a growing passion for nationalism and a seriously distorted form of exceptionalism, are now impacting America on a daily basis. This feels a lot like something we’ve seen before, in other places, but I do not think mosts of us are paying attention.

This new expression of Western populism bears more than a passing resemblance to Latin American populist waves that turned authoritarian very quickly. (Perhaps this

Do Not Confuse Your Plans with God’s

One of the most persistent problems I face, as both a Christian thinker and leader, is to confuse my plans with God’s plans. I seek God, I pray, and I read widely and study a great deal. I often see a clear way forward, at least sometimes. I sometimes feel quite sure I know what God wants. But my plans are not God’s plans. I have learned this again and again over nearly seven decades of life. But I still fall into the trap even as I watch others do the same in large numbers.

The hope of humanity is Jesus Christ. This hope is clearly being challenged today. It is challenged by politicians. It is challenged by social engineers. It is challenged by entrepreneurs. And it is challenged by ministers as well. Dr. Ralphael Gamaliel Warnock, pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta since 2005, rightly says, “It takes a tough mind and a tender heart to hold on to hope.” It sure does.

I have found holding on to hope very difficult over the last twelve months. I personally came through a quintuple heart

Does What We Sing Matter to the Faith of the Church?

Since the 1970s we have had a raging debate about singing and music in the church. This debate has often come down to “traditional” music, or (old) hymns, versus “modern,” or popular music. The real truth is that the great influence on church music has been a combination of the charismatic influence, much of which is good in directing our hearts to God in personal praise, and the popular songs of television and pop-culture. This “performance” music is not good, at least in my view. Why?

People do not participate in “praying twice” (St. Augustine) as much as they watch and observe and see a professional production of varying quality. On contrast, pietism went right to the heart of people when they sang their faith. What happens if we cease to express our communion in the common faith in deep and thoughtful ways?

The 110th Birthday of One of the Greatest Christians of the Last Century

bdb188d9-723d-438b-99f1-cc9e9d6f603eToday, February 4, is the 110th birthday of the German pastor, theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When I arrived at Wheaton College, as a transfer student in January of 1969, one of the first great joys I experienced was finding the story of Bonhoeffer for the first time. The classic book, The Cost of Discipleship, was my introduction. Later I read his prison papers, a few of his works on ethics and a lot of biography. I did not understand this theology then, and still do not fully understand it now, but I knew greatness and humility when I saw it. Bonhoeffer was truly a great Christian! But here is the point often missed – he was not a “safe” Christian. Anyone who reads him soon realizes that Bonhoeffer was not a typical pastor.

Too few of us have read Bonhoeffer and fewer still have grasped his importance, especially to the modern West. (The popular biography of him a few years ago was helpful in some respects but it also gave some distorted images and caused

“Black Lives Matter” – Michelle Higgins @ Urbana 2015

Many evangelical and conservative Christians, especially older white Christians of conservative persuasion, are weary of the popular slogan: “Black Lives Matter.” Some are even angry at the actual movement that is associated with this name and believe it is harmful to our culture. I’ve heard various responses regarding this negative view of the slogan and the movement but the most common is that this is a bogus notion because Christians should say, and believe, that: “All Lives Matter.” The truth is, as often is the case, much deeper and more socially and personally nuanced.

It is true that “All Lives Matter.” From conception to the grave life matters. This is, at least for the broad tradition of Christian faith and practice, the truth. This is why I believe the death penalty needs to be abolished. It has become a “cruel and unusual punishment” in its present form. (This assumes it was right in the past and I even question this conclusion on ethical grounds as I understand the New Testament and the teaching of our Lord.) I also believe environmental concerns must become the concern of the

National Workshop on Christian Unity

Since 1963 the National Workshop on Christian Unity (NWCU) has met in a designated city in the United States. It began when a group of Roman Catholics, in the context of Vatican II, met to equip local leadership for the task of ecumenical ministry. In 1969, they invited leaders of other Christian communions to join, and today the national ecumenical officers of the churches continue their oversight of the workshop, which is planned by national and local committees. There are both denominational and ecumenical sessions during the workshop. The NWCU celebrates the spirit of ecumenism by:

  • providing meeting seminars for all who are concerned with the ministry of Christian unity: laity, clergy, ecumenical officers, theologians, staff of ecumenical organizations;
  • stimulating an exchange of ideas and experiences among people concerned with Christian unity and the bodies they represent;
  • being a resource and balance between national planning and local responsibility, general ecumenical discussions and particular interchurch conversations, and regional leadership efforts and local realities,
  • encouraging denominational networks to develop and serve as a framework within which they can interact;
  • celebrating the unity which already exists among Christians and searching for ways to overcome the divisions that

The Pope’s Appeal for Inter-Religious Unity and Love

In the light of the debates now raging among Christians regarding how to respond to people of other faiths Pope Francis gives us here a short video in which he expresses his heart and personal hope.

Many evangelicals will see this video and conclude something like the following: “Pope Francis believes all people are brothers and sisters and thus he believes all will be saved by God regardless of their life and faith. Therefore, it makes no real difference whether or not the church does evangelization and mission since ALL people who are sincere in their faith will be saved in the end.”

Am I right or am I wrong in the way in the way I state this conclusion?

I think I am right. I know this is how I would have heard this message twenty years ago. So, my next question is this: “Does this make me a pluralist (or liberal) who denies John 14:6 or sees no urgency for sharing the good news and making disciples of Jesus?”

The problem lies in the meaning of all the words and ideas presented here by my comments. The Catholic

Christena Cleveland: A Powerful Message on Unity at Urbana 2015

The recent Urbana 2015 Conference, held in St. Louis, featured a number of great speakers and topics. One of our ACT3 board members, Scott Brill, is on staff with InterVarsity and sent me links to two plenary addresses I found immensely important. I share the first of these two messages in today’s blog post. Scott Brill was also responsible for staffing a Catholic room at Urbana to network with Catholic students who were in attendance. This Catholic presence is new to IVCF and something I wholeheartedly welcome. (Catholic staff have served with IVCF for some years now, though their number is still quite small.) Pray for many evangelical mission agencies who now work openly with Catholics and do not try to “convert” students to evangelicalism but to Christ in humble faith. This is a risky strategy and presents challenges when donors do not like this direction. ACT3 not only openly supports this direction but seeks to serve it, and ministries who are doing this, wherever possible.

Dr. Christena Cleveland, author of a wonderful book titled Disunity in Christ. She is a social psychologist with a hopeful passion for

Pope Francis, the Mercy of God, and the Danger of Fundamentalism

frpoorwertchPope Francis just returned from his first trip to Africa a few days ago. Those of us who watch and pray for him were amazed once again at his courage, faithfulness and continued displays of pastoral mercy. Surely “mercy” does sum up what Francis says and does as pope. Thus it is not surprising really since he has declared the coming year to be a “Year of Mercy.” He recently said that he will make twelve big (“significant”) gestures, one each month.Each is mean to demonstrate God’s mercy. This is what the Catholic Church calls a Jubilee Year. This year was pre-launched last Sunday when Pope Francis opened the Holy Door of the cathedral in Bangui, Central African Republic. One of the admirable features of Catholic Church life is the way this biblical concept of jubilee can be used to capture the minds and hearts of the whole church over a span of time.

In a brief interview in Credere, the official jubilee weekly magazine in Italian, Francis said: “There will be many gestures, but on one Friday each

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