Friday, 28 December 2007

Liberals and Evangelicals: the Coy and the Cocky

Tiny Sign
Originally uploaded by probationboy
This is the first of three posts arising from reactions to my recent poll which asked if evangelical/conservative Christians are better at evangelism than liberal/radical Christians.

Tim suggested that this was a strange poll and Jody is clearly unimpressed by what passes for making disciples in evangelical circles. This first post then relates to some of my concerns about evangelism and explains some of the reasons behind the poll.

My own recent experience and reading has persuaded me that the missiologist David Bosch was onto something back in the 90’s when he suggested the possibility of a coming together between the evangelical and liberal movements. (1) If this is right it is a good thing. Each movement has distinctive strengths that are lacking in the other. In relation to evangelism liberalism tends to be much less formulaic and dogmatic than evangelicalism and much better at humble, respectful dialogue but evangelicalism evidences much more enthusiasm and is much more likely to actually get on with sharing the faith.

What I long to see is an expression of protestant Christianity which combines the best of both these approaches. Many seem to think at that the two sets of qualities are incompatible. I cannot accept this. For example I can’t see why it isn’t possible to enter into genuinely open dialogue with an enthusiastic hope that the other will come to follow Christ. I think it was David Bosch again who spoke of the need for a bold humility.

My fear though is that we will end up running away so fast from the more distasteful approaches to evangelism to be found in some forms of conservative Christianity that we will end up being coy about verbal faith sharing and luke warm when it comes to helping others to become disciples. Certainly recent expressions of classic liberalism, most forms of post-evangelicalism/emerging church are depressingly diffident when it comes to telling people about Jesus. The former is declining at a rate approaching the speed of sound and the latter is patently failing to make significant impression upon postmodern generations.

Sure evangelism is about far more than telling, Jesus didn’t call us to be gobs on legs, but why oh, why do we find it so hard to embrace a genuinely holistic form of witness holding together being, doing, showing AND TELLING?

1. This coming together, if it is to happen, is unlikely to embrace the whole of evangelicalism. I suspect that the future of evangelicalism will see a bifurcation between those who become ever more entrenched in reactionary forms of neo-fundamentalism and those on the left wing of the movement who recognise the need for significant change.


Anonymous said...

Hi Glen. My name is Paul Ede and Esther, my wife, and I am team leaders up in Glasgow. Glasgow still has a strong cultural sectarianism, and has been strongly influenced by the Iona Community and George McLeod. The issue you're addressing here is one I've really been struggling much and to what extent can we see David Bosch's vision outworked in reality in a concrete local community. Check out my recent posts at

At the moment, I'm not convinced we will ever see a genuine fusion of liberal/evangelical protestant Christianity, despite the hopes of some who see post-modernism as laying the seeds of this.

I just see the tensions as being too great at the moment for this to happen without folk converting to one camp or another...I dont think post-foundationalist philosophy and post-modernism is going to help us get there, either...maybe I'm just a cynic, but in actually tryong to plant a church, I feel that the practicalities severely challenge the visions of academia...

I am pretty convinced though that my tradition (evangelicalism) can get off its butt and get more holistic, though. And we really need to embrace the charismatic gifts, too...I'd like to see something like this develop in my context in Possilpark.

Its good to see someone else wrestling with these issue in Blogdom

Glen Marshall said...

Paul, thanks for the observations.

I guess things look significantly different in Glasgow to most other parts of the UK.

It's important to keep up the dialogue between the reflection of academe and the practice of real world ministry and mission.

I guess I am little less optimisitic about the possiblity of wholesale reform of evangelicalism and little more hopeful about the possibilitie offered by postmodernity. I reckon its a fair bet that there will be a split in the movement between a reactionary conservative wing and those on the left wing who are more positively predisposed to more open and modest expressions of the faith.

With regard to the charismatic and the holistic,from where I stand the former looks like old news, an issue that has lost a lot of its heat; the latter is more where it's at.

Will check out your blog and hopefully will get to meet at some UE event beore too much longer.

BTW check out Matt Wilson's blog (link in my side bar).

Anonymous said...

Hi Glen,

Yep, in some ways Glasgow is different, in others its not. So far, for example, the CofS is not about to split over the issue of ordination of gay clergy. Its interesting that one observation I have come across is that the evangelical/liberal divide is not so strong in England as in Scotland. But its just about to rip up the state church, so I guess its a pretty hot issue down south, too. As for the charismatic side of things...I kind of see what you are saying about it having lost its heat in terms of the debate within evangelicalism, as evangelicalism has now effectively been charismaticised. But in terms of the fact that pentecostalism worldwide is capturing the hearts of the poor and the doctrine of the baptism of the holy spirit and the charismatic gifts, I'm not sure this is an "issue" that has come and gone.

Of course, we can lose the heat and disbelieve in these things all over again, but I don't think that's what the Spirit is doing the world over.