Friday, August 11, 2006

What is an Evangelical, Anyway?

Last year I attended an academic conference on politics and religion. Speakers included respected professors and researchers from across the country. Feeling mentally dwarfed by all that brain power, I meekly raised my hand and asked, "Would you define and explain the differences between 'evangelical Christian' and 'mainline Christian'?"

The heming, hawing and waffling I received in response to my seemingly simplistic question clued me into a couple things: 1) No one wants to answer this question, because 2) the question's probably not as simplistic as I thought it was.

Aside from making a list of denominations that identify as mainline churches (United Methodist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Episcopal, American Baptist, United Church of Christ, and Disciples of Christ are the biggies), it's a challenge to define mainliners. That's because mainline churches aren't defined by a set of doctrines, but rather their moderate stance on doctrine.

For example, some members of these churches believe the Bible is literal and that the Holy Spirit directly provided words to its writers. Others view parts of the Bible as illustrations or analogies. Still others believe the Bible represents God but wasn't necessarily inspired by God. Some believe homosexuals should be allowed to serve as church leaders, some don't. Some believe Jesus is the only way to get to heaven, others think God may provide alternate means. The idea here is mainline members have theological latitude on these and other issues.

Once I figured out "mainline" meant an "attitude toward latitude" (polite laughter, please), it started to make sense why I received a rambling, evasive answer to my question. You see, when I posed my question at the conference, the two presenters I asked were both members of mainline churches. Their latitude allows them to accept a myriad of beliefs, including the evangelical stance. It's kind of hard to differentiate yourself from others when your concept is, "I'm right. You're right. We're all right."

Conversely, if an evangelical had been standing on that stage and heard my question, their answer might have been an immediate and direct, "We unwaveringly believe the following four points are certain, factual, God-given truth. The mainliners waffle on these points. That means they're wrong, wrong, wrong."

Now that I've poked fun at both sides, here are the four core beliefs of evangelicals. (There's ongoing debate about the definition of evangelicalism, but these points I lifted from Wikipedia well represent the concept.)

1) Biblical inerrancy.
2) Salvation comes only through faith in Jesus and not good works.
3) Individuals (above an age of accountability) must personally trust in Jesus Christ for salvation.
4) All Christians are commissioned to evangelize.

The problem with such definitions is they never seem quite complete. My friend Brooke feels evangelicals underemphasize the service aspect of Christianity, such as aiding the poor, sick, and hurting. Some scholars expand the definition of core belief #4 to activism, service, and social reform, but I know Brooke is right: Evangelicalism emphasizes evangelizing (telling people about Jesus) more than service.

I find problems with both mainline and evangelical thought, in both what they include and exclude. Yet rather than focusing on what's wrong with their approaches to Christian faith, I wanna give props for what's right.

Mainliners realize legalism hurts the church. Should we kick folks out of the church because they have a glass of wine with their dinner? Should we eject those who aren't Republican, who don't tithe 10 percent gross, who wear flashy clothes and jewelry, who don't attend church every Sunday? Mainline churches don't have a problem with any of this trivial stuff. They understand obedience to God is paramount, Jesus is our focus, and quibbling over small issues is generally a waste of time. Further, they recognize most "issues" are small. (More: Acts 10: Peter's visits with Cornelius; and 1 Corinthians 8: on eating food sacrificed to idols.)

Mainliners believe homosexuals belong in church. Regardless of how churches weigh in on same-sex marriage or gays as church leaders, I believe every church should have its doors open to the gay community. I'm not talking about an acceptance of gay lifestyle. I'm saying Christianity--and church--needs to be available to everyone: drug addicts and alcoholics, those who've had premarital and extramarital sex, women who've had abortions, men who struggle with pornography, pedophiles and murderers. (Truth is, all of these people are already in church.) We must reach out to them with love and forgiveness, just as Jesus reached out to prostitutes, criminals, and the lowest members of his society. (More: John 4:1-42: woman at the well; Luke 7:36-50: woman washes Jesus' feet; Luke 23:32-43: the two criminals.)

Mainliners recognize the God-given abilities of women--as do most evangelicals. Mainliners are particularly vocal about allowing women in church leadership. I've been blessed to attend evangelical churches where both women and men teach, preach, and lead worship.

Evangelicals know when to take a stand, and there's no compromise on salvation through Christ. In our tolerant society, it's a lot easier to say, "Well, maybe there are other ways to heaven." Many Christians will say this when backed into a corner, or because they don't want to offend someone. But this type of tolerance is actually a disservice to others. Say your friend's head is on fire. You're holding a fire extinguisher, but your friend says they don't think it will work. Instead, they're fixated on using a can of gasoline to douse the flames. The tolerant statement would be, "If it were me, I'd use this fire extinguisher. But since you don't want it, I guess that can of gasoline might work, too." If it was my head on fire, I'd hope my friend would tell me the truth.

Evangelicals don't keep faith to themselves. A mainline friend once told me, "I feel no need to evangelize. I leave that up to God." Now, I know plenty of mainliners who love to evangelize, and I'm sure there are plenty of evangelicals who keep mum about their faith, so I'm not trying to characterize mainliners here. Rather, I'm praising evangelicals for making evangelism a core value. Peoples' heads are on fire, and we Christians--evangelicals and mainliners--are all holding a fire extinguisher. Personally, I think we need to be offering it constantly.

I've witnessed and participated in plenty of cat fights between Christians about abortion, same-sex marriage, alcohol, political parties, dancing, having church bingo night ... the list goes on and on. Most often the fights rage on, opinions stay the same, and nothing gets accomplished. Do I think we should drop all our opinions and be indifferent about everything? No way. The thoughts in our heads are there for a reason. God's given each of us the ability to think deeply and rationally.

Therefore, I do believe we should be looking for the rational side of every opinion, and giving props for what's right. It's my hope women might look for alternatives to abortion. It's also my hope churches will reach out to women who've had abortions.

Admittedly, it's hard to see beyond my own ideas. (Maybe it would be easier if I was one of those tolerant mainliners!) But I think God can use this exercise to humble me, and remind me I'm not always 100 percent right.

To ponder:
1) Is it difficult for you to see another person's point of view? If so, why? If not, what do you think makes it easy?

2) Do you often find yourself getting wimpy about your faith? What situations cause this?

3) Do you find yourself getting defensive about your faith, and/or losing your temper? What sets you off?

4) Consider your responses to #2 and #3. Imagine yourself in a situation where you're feeling pushed around, or getting angry. Try to think about words you could use, or actions that might make this easier to deal with. For example, my friends who are hostile toward Christianity often begin conversations with hostile remarks such as, "Christians are such judgmental jerks!" When I'm having a conversation with a good friend, I've learned to ask them a question that reminds them I'm a Christian, such as, "You know I'm a Christian. Do you feel I judge you?"

Monday, August 07, 2006

Dirty Song Lyrics May Lead to Early Teen Sex

"Teens will try to deny it, they’ll say ‘No, it’s not the music,’ but it IS the music. That has one of the biggest impacts on our lives."

--Natasha Ramsey, 17, of New Brunswick, N.J. Ramsey is a teen editor for, a teen sexual health website produced at Rutgers University.

A study by Rand Corp. found a correlation between exposure to sexually degrading music--where men are depicted as sex-driven and women as sexual objects--and early teen sex. For the study, teens were surveyed over three years on their music choices and sexual practices. Among frequent listeners of explicit music, 51 percent started having sex within two years, compared to 29 percent of those who said they listened to little or no explicit music.

Holly says: In this article, teen Natasha Ramsey says she sometimes listens to a song for its beat and doesn't initially realize it has sexually explicit lyrics.

We all have our moments of passively listening to music and watching TV and movies. A few weeks ago, I planned to show my youth group the movie "Signs." In my mind, it had perhaps one or two swear words, and it passed muster with some parents I spoke with--they agreed it was "clean." I even read a couple Christian reviews of the movie, which counted few swear words in it. So when I sat down to preview the movie, I was surprised at just how much profanity it contained.

Granted, "Signs" is an extremely clean movie by today's standards. While this blog post may be sounding like a suggestion to separate ourselves from pop culture, I'm actually in favor of the opposite. We should be tuning in. We should realize what songs are on the radio stations we listen to on our commutes. We should take note of how many suggestive jokes are on our favorite TV shows. We should examine which swear words are becoming common, acceptable language (When I was a kid, "butt" was foul language.).

Honestly, I don't know what happens next. I've got to prayerfully get my eyes and ears open to what's going on around me. Maybe once we do that, we'll know exactly how to respond.

For more on being a discerning viewer, look for Holly's article, "Is it OK for Christians to Watch Occult-Themed Television Shows?" in the September/October 2006 issue of Today's Christian Woman, which will be available on newsstands later this month.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Just in 'Time': Magazine's Readers Ponder Faith & Works

In light of our recent discussion on the definition of Christianity, I found the following letters to the editor of Time magazine quite interesting. Both letters respond to a Q&A with Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop-elect of the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. Schori's original comment:

Q: What will be your focus as head of the U.S. church?

Schori: Our focus needs to be on feeding people who go to bed hungry, on providing primary education to girls and boys, on healing people with AIDS, on addressing tuberculosis and malaria, on sustainable development. That ought to be the primary focus.

Now, I didn't blink twice at Schori's answer. Two Time readers were moved to write the following:

I was saddened by your interview with Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop-elect of the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. [July 17]. When asked about her focus as head of her church, she mentioned feeding people, providing primary education, promoting sustainable development and healing people with AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. She made no mention of God, let alone Jesus Christ. Her answers would have been more fitting coming from the head of the Gates Foundation than a national religious leader. For 2,000 years the church has taught that our works must flow from our faith. Sadly, Bishop Jefferts Schori spoke only of works and of a church whose focus doesn't include God.
(The Rev.) Canon Francis C. Zanger, Charleston, S.C.

I just about shouted hallelujah when I read that Jefferts Schori's focus will be to help right such global wrongs as hunger, lack of education for girls and boys and the fact that too many people die each day of preventable diseases. Ending suffering should be the top priority for all world leaders.
L. Patricia Arias, Atlanta


Why would Zanger go ballistic over a seemingly benign statement? There's a lot of tension in the Episcopal Church right now, including battles over whether homosexuals and those who are divorced may serve in leadership. (At the church's June convention, a twice-divorced man--currently in his third marriage--was appointed to a bishop post in a split decision by committee members.) Entire churches and dioceses are distancing themselves from the denomination. Makes sense some members would take potshots at Schori.

But I think Zanger's letter may point to some lesser-known activity at the Episcopal church's conference, including dropping the language "Scripture is the church's supreme authority" from a statement about biblical authority, and shelving a proposal to declare Jesus "the only name by which any person may be saved" (full story). Schori made a seemingly Unitarianistic comment herself in the Time Q&A which raised more than a few brows.

I'm all for defending Jesus' place as the head of the church. But here's the scary thing: Zanger's letter makes Christians sound pretty loony, as if feeding the poor and aiding the sick are somehow not part of recognizing God. Now I truly understand my friend Brooke's point: Subtracting works from faith is just as wacky as removing God from works. Both components are necessary to complete the equation of Christianity.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Before Offering the Repair, First You Gotta Find the Leak

More thoughts on sharing Christian faith from Tina:

I didn't grow up in the church; I became a Christian in my late 20s. I got the sinner part of the equation quite easily. It was easy for me to see the gap between (as Kevin puts it) "God's righteousness and my own weakness." I accepted that Jesus bridged the gap, but amazingly enough, that wasn't enough to make me a Christian.

What did was understanding about God's unconditional love. Understanding that soften my heart--yes, I felt convicted as a sinner, but not condemned. It wasn't the end, but the beginning of a new life full of blessings (despite occasional hard times). Love made all the difference for me.

Jesus approached people where they were spiritually, emotionally, and physically, and gently guided them to the truth.

Now, this may not work for everyone. For me, acceptance was an issue--once I realized God accepts me where I am, it was easier for me to embrace Christianity and to move forward and learning how to become more Christ-like. Others might need something else to get to that point.

That's why I liked that Jesus approached people where they were spiritually, emotionally, and physically, and gently guided them to the truth. I think that's probably our best chance of letting people know about our faith.

I have enjoyed reading the different perspectives on this issue. Thanks again for all the food for thought!

Holly says: Two of my friends, a married couple I'll call the "Evereadys," have been dealing with a leaky roof for more than a year now. They've consulted with numerous inspectors and contractors, and spent a good deal of money trying to plug up the source of the leak. Many of the professional opinions they've received, and the resulting repairs, haven't helped resolve the Eveready's leak one bit.

I grew up in a home with a leaky roof, and remember my parents' frustration trying to fix something when they didn't know where the hole was. It's easy to say, "There's a hole--just patch it up." In reading Tina's comment, I once again realized I often apply my own experience when offering counsel to others. That's not necessarily a bad thing. After all, God has allowed each of us to have particular experiences for a reason. And our experiences are the ones we know best. We can speak of what we know with honesty and authority.

However, one patch doesn't work for every hole. We may share our faith to the very best of our ability, but (as you well know) it rarely causes hearers to instantly proclaim, "That's it! That's just what I needed to hear to follow Jesus!"

That's a good thing. If there were magic words or actions to change someone into a Christian, we'd probably begin relying on that process instead of patiently waiting for God to reveal himself.

After living with that leaky roof for many months, the Evereadys had a good idea of where the leak was coming from. They'd spent time with it. They'd observed it. What they learned helped inspectors pinpoint the leak.

In the same way, as Tina pointed out, we can help plug the God-shaped hole in others by spending time with them, learning where they're at spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

Thinking about our own experiences can help, too. Sometimes we forget what it took for us to follow Christ. Sometimes we don't reflect on why we continue to follow Christ. We may simply tell others, "Yeah, Jesus filled the hole in my life." Wouldn't it mean so much more to tell someone exactly where that hole was, and how Christ continues to fill it?