Leaving revivalism behind?

Christianity Today has posted a fascinating article by Gordon T. Smith, excerpted from his essay on “Conversion and Redemption” in the Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology.  The Handbook itself is a fantastic resource, though it is terribly expensive.  Thankfully the libraries I have access to have bought the electronic version.   Included in the Handbook are articles by my dissertation director, Ephraim Radner, on the church, and a chapter on spiritual gifts by Howard Snyder, who has been a mentor to me and many other Canadian Wesleyan theological students during his tenure as Chair of Wesley Studies at Tyndale Seminary.

Smith’s article argues that evangelical understandings of conversion are changing dramatically, and that a common feature that can be seen in the wide variety of changes in this regard is that, across the board, revivalism is being left behind:

It is not be an overstatement to say that evangelicals are experiencing a “sea change”—a paradigm shift—in their understanding of conversion and redemption, a shift that includes the way in which they think about the salvation of God, the nature and mission of the church, and the character of religious experience. Although there is no one word to capture where evangelicals are going in this regard, there is a word that captures what they are leaving behind: revivalism.

Smith offers a sketch of the ways that revivalism has impacted evangelicalism’s understanding of conversion: the focus on a dramatic one-time experience, often crystallized in the the saying of the “sinner’s prayer”; the emphasis on the afterlife; the practical distinction between “evangelism” and “disciple-making,” the emphasis on numeric growth, and so on.

He then traces how developments in evangelical thinking in a number of different fields have challenged the revivalistic assumptions which characterized much of 20th century evangelicalism.  New ideas in biblical studies, new approaches to religious experience, ecumenical influences, the changing face of global Christianity, and an increased interest in learning from Christian history have all combined to undermine the revivalist understanding of conversion.

Increasingly, there is appreciation that conversion is a complex experience by which a person is initiated into a common life with the people of God who together seek the in-breaking of the kingdom, both in this life and in the world to come. This experience is mediated by the church and thus necessarily includes baptism as a rite of initiation. The power or energy of this experience is one of immediate encounter with the risen Christ—rather than principles or laws—and this experience is choreographed by the Spirit rather than evangelistic techniques. Evangelicals are reappropriating the heritage of the Reformation with its emphasis on the means of grace, and thereby affirming the priority of the Spirit’s work in religious experience.

The excerpt ends with Smith pointing to the deeper issues that this sea-change will raise for evangelical thinking about the church.

The only question that remains, then, is whether evangelicals will trust these instincts and devote themselves to Christ-centered worship and kingdom-oriented mission. Will this be evident in deep trust that God will do God’s work in God’s time? To trust the work of God is to trust the Spirit and this necessarily means that the church trusts the Word—the Scriptures preached—as the essential means of grace and conversion.

This begs the question of what it means to be the church. The evangelical tradition is at a fork in the road and, given this sea change in the understanding of conversion and redemption, the most crucial issue at stake is what it means to be a congregation. Evangelicals will only be able to navigate these waters if they can formulate a dynamic theology of the church that reflects the Triune character of God, the means of grace—Spirit and Word—and a radical orientation in mission toward the kingdom of God.

The article is well worth a read.   I think it helpfully draws together and summarizes some of the important developments that are taking place in contemporary evangelical thinking.  While revivalism’s legacy includes many positive things, some aspects of revivalist thinking are deeply suspect, and a critical re-evaluation of its influence is most certainly needed.   This was, in part, what I was trying to do in my article “Five Ways to Improve SA Worship” –  I was highlighting the way in which Salvationist worship has been shaped by a kind of “routinized revivalism,” and arguing that there are aspects of this heritage that need to be jettisoned.  The same kind of thing is happening on a much larger scale, and in relation to a broad range of topics.  It is hard to say where any of this is going to end up, but I think this change in thinking about conversion certainly has potential to bear fruit in a genuine renewal of evangelical mission and theology.

Unity requires conversion

NOTE: This post is my contribution the Rally to Restore Unity, hosted by Rachel Held Evans.  Head on over to her site, check out the wealth of great posts and hilarious signs about unity, and while you’re at it, consider donating to Charity:Water.

Anyone who is interested in the topic of Christian unity has got to read John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint, published in 1995.  And with JPII being beatified last weekend, there’s no better time than the present to acquaint yourself with one of the former Pope’s most remarkable pieces of writing.

If you haven’t read it, and you’re a protestant, you’ll be moved by his humility, his wisdom, and his deep spiritual insight.   If you haven’t read it, and you’re a Catholic, you might be surprised that he doesn’t see Christian unity as merely being about a “return to Rome” (my Catholic friends tell me that many Catholics make that assumption).

Particularly towards the end, when discussing the role of the Pope in the quest for Christian unity, he says some very interesting things.  There’s his remarkable request for forgiveness from those who have “certain painful recollections” caused by actions of the Papacy in the past (§88).  Then, his reflections on Peter’s human weakness and helplessness as a grounding for his own “Petrine” ministry are an attempt to show that he by no means considers himself “qualified” for the job (§§90-93).  This is followed up by a request for help from Christian leaders of other traditions in envisioning a re-shaped Papacy that they might receive as a ministry of unity:

I insistently pray the Holy Spirit to shine his light upon us, enlightening all the Pastors and theologians of our Churches, that we may seek—together, of course—the forms in which this ministry may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned…This is an immense task, which we cannot refuse and which I cannot carry out by myself. Could not the real but imperfect communion existing between us persuade Church leaders and their theologians to engage with me in a patient and fraternal dialogue on this subject, a dialogue in which, leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his Church and allowing ourselves to be deeply moved by his plea “that they may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21)? (§§95-96)

Adding to this spirit of humility is the way John Paul speaks of the quest for Christian unity as involving a conversion.  To be clear, he’s NOT saying that non-Catholics have to convert to Catholicism!  He’s saying that Christian unity requires conversion on the part of all Christians.  Of course he isn’t being original in saying, so but hearkening back to the teaching of Vatican II:

There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart (Unitatis Redintegratio, §4).

The conversion that the Pope (and the Council) are calling for is both personal and communal.   It is not simply a call to be nice and civilized to one another, but a call to “be more radically converted to the Gospel,” (Ut Unum Sint, §15) by which each of us is irrevocably bound to one another.   Today, we have become so accustomed to divisions between Christians that many of us seldom think about it, but our disunity is a scandal, and an open contradiction of the one faith, one Lord, and one baptism which we all share.

Rooting the call to Christian unity in the gospel itself means that JPII is calling us to recognize that unity is not an afterthought for Christian life and mission.

Jesus himself, at the hour of his Passion, prayed “that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21). This unity, which the Lord has bestowed on his Church and in which he wishes to embrace all people, is not something added on, but stands at the very heart of Christ’s mission. Nor is it some secondary attribute of the community of his disciples. Rather, it belongs to the very essence of this community. God wills the Church, because he wills unity, and unity is an expression of the whole depth of his agape (Ut Unum Sint, §9).

Connecting unity, the gospel, and mission in this way is unsettling, because anyone can see that we fall far short of expressing the depth of God’s love in the way we alienate one another.  The only response possible is repentance and renewal – a conversion of our divided thinking, our divided practices, and our divided identities.

If anyone is thinking that this all sounds very Catholic, and that it therefore doesn’t apply to you (well, first of all, that way of thinking in itself is something to repent of), go and read the sections of the Cape Town Commitment that deal with unity and mission.  For example: “A divided Church has no message for a divided world. Our failure to live in reconciled unity is a major obstacle to authenticity and effectiveness in mission” (§IIF).

Protestants like myself tend to think of “conversion” as a one-time thing, but in Catholic thinking, conversion is seen as a lifelong process – a continual, Spirit-driven turning of the person away from sin and towards God and the truly human life which God desires for us and has pioneered for us in Jesus Christ.   Ecumenism (which I use broadly to refer to any efforts to restore unity among Christians) can be used by God to initiate this kind of continual turning.   As we encounter brothers and sisters of other traditions, we are drawn toward their examples of Christian life and their spiritual traditions – which often contain insights that are new to us.  At the same time, we are made more aware of the many ways in which our divisions impoverish and hinder the life and mission of the church as a whole.  JPII says it this way:

Thanks to ecumenism, our contemplation of “the mighty works of God” (mirabilia Dei) has been enriched by new horizons, for which the Triune God calls us to give thanks: the knowledge that the Spirit is at work in other Christian Communities, the discovery of examples of holiness, the experience of the immense riches present in the communion of saints, and contact with unexpected dimensions of Christian commitment. In a corresponding way, there is an increased sense of the need for repentance: an awareness of certain exclusions which seriously harm fraternal charity, of certain refusals to forgive, of a certain pride, of an unevangelical insistence on condemning the “other side”, of a disdain born of an unhealthy presumption. Thus, the entire life of Christians is marked by a concern for ecumenism; and they are called to let themselves be shaped, as it were, by that concern (§15).

I hope the Rally to Restore Unity has been a time of conversion for at least some of Christ’s disciples – a time for celebrating the enriching differences among us, but also a time for repenting of the sinful divisions which keep us apart and obscure our witness to the gospel.