Monday, March 26, 2012

Reaching Out to Ex-Evangelicals: A Response to Frank Schaeffer

Church DoorEarlier this month, Frank Schaeffer posted an article commenting on his observations that there are a lot of people out there who, having grown up with evangelical backgrounds, now find themselves disenchanted with that tradition (especially its connection with right-wing politics), and who have left that tradition in search of some other way of living out their faith. Schaeffer further observes that, by and large, these ex-evangelicals are not coming to older mainline churches, despite the fact that (as he puts it) "in terms of world view the older denominations should be a good fit for the progressive former evangelicals." When he has asked if the mainline churches have made any attempts to reach them, the response is usually "no."

As I've said in the past, I still tend to accept the label of "evangelical," but even so, I do find that I have a lot of agreement with those who feel disenfranchised by the right-wing policies currently most commonly associated with Evangelicalism, and am certainly aware that many have considered the label of "evangelical" as a lost cause not worth trying to separate from such conservative politics. Also, both my wife and I are currently serving churches within two mainline denominations, and although our churches do arguably fall closer to "evangelical" than many other churches within our denominations, they are certainly neither of them easily identified with "right wing" politics (although, as I always say, such things do depend on who you're talking to, and about what particular issues). Perhaps more importantly, both of our churches are currently experiencing growth, a decided oddity within our denominations at the present time.

I do not say these things to provide a counter-point to Schaeffer's comments, most of which I agree with. Nor do I wish to argue that our particular churches are experiencing growth because of their evangelical fervor (I've heard the argument that it is the "conservative" churches that are growing, and the "liberal" ones that are dying, a bit too often). I honestly feel that our churches are growing, not because of any particular ideological leaning, but simply because our leaders have been awake to the needs of the people who have been in their communities, and as they have been attentive to those needs, even more people have come (for more on the basic attitude I'm trying to describe, I refer you to this old post by Fuller School of Intercultural Studies professor Ryan Bolger: "Please, no more doing church for 'them'"). I say these things mostly by way of a disclaimer that I come to the issue from a bit of an odd perspective, certainly quite different from Schaeffer's.

Schaeffer's concern seems to be that, although there are good movements out there within the mainline churches (if one is being generous, I suppose my wife's and my churches might be categorized among these), they all seem to be the result of a few individual leaders, rather than as a result of leadership on the part of the denomination itself. He would seem to ask for the denominational leadership of the mainline traditions to wake up to the missed opportunity represented by the increasing numbers of disaffected former evangelicals. This is where I part company with Schaeffer.

It's not just because I believe that the local church is best equipped to do the work of reaching out to people within its local community, or my agreement with Bolger's assertion that trying to reach people "out there" is a potentially time-wasting activity. I know a number of people within at least the Presbyterian Church (I simply don't know as much about the Episcopal Church to comment) who would certainly agree with Schaeffer's basic opinion, wishing that the denomination would turn more of its energy to reaching a community of people that is clearly looking for what we have to offer. Indeed, from what I've read of the current and past moderators and vice-moderators of our denomination's General Assembly (our highest denominational body), they are very much aware of the issue. The problem seems to be, at least in our denomination's case, that movements simply don't start because a leader from "on high" has decreed it should be so. We are, at our core, a democratic body, filled with people of many different opinions and agendas. Change, when it happens at all, happens slowly. Certainly too slowly for many in our midst (although I'm certainly aware of some who would argue that certain changes have either happened too quickly, or shouldn't have happened at all, I don't think it would be fair to say this about the bulk of what happens in the PC(USA)).

What this ultimately means for our churches is that, if we are waiting for some leader to tell us what we need to do in order to reach the people who are out there, we're going to be waiting for quite some time. If this work is going to be done, we really need to be out there doing it ourselves.

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