21st Century Evangelicals – A Snapshot of the beliefs and habits of evangelical Christians in the UK.
This is my reflection on the above named report just published by the EA – get your own copy here.
I have to be honest and start by saying that I struggle with the term “evangelical” . . . not because I am not one, but because I am not necessarily perceived as one by everyone in the evangelical wing of the Church. I work to serve the whole Church in my Diocese . . . and this can sometimes be a challenge – in my role as adviser for work with children and young people, I find that the next generation of leaders (our young people) are largely the same across the churches . . . many of them would find themselves during the week rubbing shoulders with “Christians” from other denominations and other streams . . . often in a way that their parents, and adults in the church at large never do. They share life together.
The other dynamic that is interesting in actually “being” in an evangelical church (both growing up in one and working in one for 7 years) is how little that term is used to describe the church . . . paradoxically, I was in a couple of churches that routinely referred to themselves as “charismatic” but you would not know that from a Sunday morning service!
labels are notoriously slippy things . . . but as I have got older, I have felt far more comfortable with calling myself a “follower of Jesus”, than identifying myself with a particular stream . . . this might be because I do not believe that the Church that Jesus sees is an evangelical one . . . the Church that Jesus sees is the one church, one faith, one Lord type . . . which (incredibly) almost every different kind of church will refer to without irony . . . yet in towns across Sussex there are “Churches Together” groups which only seem to welcome and accept “particular” churches . . . based on whether they are consider evangelical “enough” . . .
Young people do not care about these differences and quibbles. This, sadly, is not new . . I say sadly – because division in the church whether across gender divides / churchmanship divides / protestant catholic etc . . . is not new. Back in the 1950s, an excellent book by JB Philips called “New Testament Christianity” referred to young peoples annoyance at the lack of unity in the church . .
“I find that there is a definite movement towards a united Church, and a very deep desire to see the end of “our unhappy divisions”. I have found this strongly marked desire in all denominations, including my own, and for myself I would say that unless a man is completely blind and bigoted, he could scarcely deny that the living Spirit of God is using gentle but considerable pressures to bring all Christians together. Young Christians particularly, many of whom are in daily contact in office, garage, factory, and workshop with ardent young Communists, find the tragedy of a divided Christendom a painful obstacle to their witness. As has been brought home to me so many times, the points of agreement among the Christian denominations are so very much larger than the points of disagreement that, surrounded as we are by a largely pagan world, it is the height of folly to say or do anything which postpones the process of unity or perpetuates our differences. Prayer is probably the best weapon here, since a real influx of the living Spirit into existing denominations would quickly expose the stupidity and sin of maintaining denominational barriers of which, be it firmly said, many keen young Christians are not even aware.”
JB Phillips, New Testament Christianity (Hodder & Stoughton, 1956)
And so to the research from the EA . . . in particular, the trend among 16-25s (titled in the research “The Future of Evangelical Christianity”) to not call themselves “evangelical” . . or, to be unsure . . . at a young age then, the figures in the report would suggest to me an openness and a lack of concern about defining what it means to be a follower of Jesus . . . it is disturbing to me that (apparently) the older people get the more we are hammered into submission when it comes to denominational affiliation or being required to take a particular stance – the most worrying aspect of what Phillips writes is that those young idealists he talks about, who were young people in the church in the 1950s, grew up and reinforced the differences that existed in the church just as the generations before them had done so . . .
Unity, at least according to Christ, revolves around Him . . . (see John 17) rather than a particular doctrine / theology / churchmanship – young people in the Church, I believe, love Jesus – but have no time for the additional labels other than Christian (Christ follower, Jesus follower) . . . do we need to “re-define” evangelicalism or do we need to ask them, with humility, what they think it means to be, simply, a follower of Jesus?
We might be suprised by their answer. At some point, one of the next generations that comes along . . . (Gen Xers have not been allowed to) need to be given the space to shape the future of the church . . . rather than those of us who are older (who have presided over a shrinking Church in this country) to presume we need to tweak our language, but essentially ensure “evangelicalism” continues . . . is the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed, and Jesus Himself is glorifed . . . and there begins to be a greater movement towards an ecumenism without “denominational” or “stream” bias, and “evangelical” disappears from our vocabularly . . . does it matter?
Ultimately, what is more important? Andy Frost, commenting on the report says that evangelicalism needs to be redefined as “grace and truth” . . . JESUS is grace and truth – do we need to make it more complicated. Grace and Truth are found in a CATHOLIC Eucharist an EVANGELICAL preach and a CHARISMATIC worship service . . . if Christ is the centre of our worship it is time we properly acknowledged Him as Head of our Church . . . all of it.