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Questions for evangelical leaders

Evangelical LeadershipI am pleased to say that my Grove Leadership booklet Evangelical Leadership: challenges and opportunities is now available on the Grove website. You can order it post-free (in the UK) or have a PDF emailed to you. In it, I address what I think are the five major challenges for evangelical leaders—which of course offer five areas of opportunity.

Leadership

We are living in a world which increasingly values leadership and leaders (and often rewards them accordingly) and we live in a church which feels ambivalent about this. On the one hand, parts of the church share with the world around us the high estimate of leadership, not least because experience shows that leaders matter. But that often sits uneasily with our theology of both leadership and the people of God. If the Spirit ‘gives to each one as he wills’ do we need a distinctive leadership ‘caste’?

In this context, evangelical leaders need to pay careful attention to the sources of their ideas on leadership. In the first chapter of the booklet I look at the language of leadership in the New Testament, and the way that it appears to carefully avoid most of the common terms for ‘leader’ that were used in its world. Paul’s language of the people of God, and the gifts and ministries within the church, means that our leadership needs to have a particular shape to it, focussing on work together in mutuality. The call of an individual to leadership cannot be divorced from God’s call on his whole people.

Identity

The question of evangelical identity appears to being seriously contested at the moment—though in fact a look back at the history of evangelicalism shows that this was always the case. One tendency is the broaden out the definition of ‘evangelical’ to include anyone who quite likes the Bible and finds it an inspiring read. Another tendency, often in reaction to the first, is to narrow the definition down to include only those who sign up to particular doctrines expressed in particular ways. A third response, in the light of this debate, is to propose abandoning any labels at all, since all are either worthless or misleading.

But evangelicals have always brought something distinctive to the church, and have (at their best) reminded the church of important truths which it lets go of at its peril. At the heart of evangelical identity is not so much a list of convictions (whether ‘conservative’ or more ‘liberal’), nor even a set of characteristics (like being activist, biblicist, conversionist and ‘crucicist’) but being centred on the good news—the evangel—as it is found in the New Testament. Whatever the range of views amongst evangelicals, these cannot simply be divided up according to choice into, for example, the charismatic, the open and the conservative. We need to be as charismatic, as open and as conservative as the New Testament calls us to be. And that needs to be rooted not in adherence to doctrines, but in a transforming, personal relationship with the living God.

Mission

The term ‘evangelical’ is often confused in the media with the term ‘evangelism’—and at one level that is a nice confusion to have, since evangelicals have often been distinctively committed to the task of proclamation of the good news of Jesus. Evangelicals have therefore mostly welcomed the renewed commitment within the Church of England to evangelism as (in Justin Welby’s words) not an optional app for the Church but part of its operating system. Not everyone has welcomed this, though. Some feel unsure about the importance of proclamation, for personal or theological reasons, and others don’t have the vocabulary for it in their tradition.

Evangelicals have struggled with evangelism as well—all too often it becomes a programme of things that we ought to be doing, and both guilt and instrumentalism cause problems. It is rather striking that, in the New Testament, there is comparatively little language about evangelism as something that ought to be done. Rather, it is the natural overflow of our life in Christ, our life in community, and our place in the world. Evangelism happens best in the context of relationships, and evangelicals have not always been good at investing in these kinds of trusting relationships with the wide world. We don’t love in order to evangelise; rather, we share faith as a natural outworking of our love for others.

Scripture

It is widely noted that there is a general decline in ‘biblical literacy’, that it, in our culture’s knowledge, understanding and use of the Bible. But what is surprising is that this is true in many evangelical churches as well. Whereas a traditional Anglican service might include the reading of five portions of Scripture, the reading of Scripture itself is happening less and less amongst evangelicals—in services there might be only one passage read, and in some traditions the reading of Scripture doesn’t form part of public worship.

Confidence in the reading of Scripture has been undermined from several directions. Some think that the language of ‘interpretation’ is a way of avoiding what Scripture is ‘clearly’ saying, and so avoid it—without acknowledging that all readings of Scripture are in fact ‘interpretations’. Some believe that Scripture contains God’s word in parts, and that we need to discern which parts are and which parts are not in fact from God. For many others, the internet age means rejecting any ‘authorities’ which might help us understand what Scripture is saying, since each person’s view is as good as every others’. Evangelical leaders will need to address each of these challenges if confidence in Scripture is to be restored.

Engagement

For any group concerned about distinctive identity, commitment and holiness, the temptation is to withdraw into a ‘holy huddle’—and evangelicals have often exhibited that tendency! But at key moments in the movement’s history, the call has been to engage—with the wider church, with biblical scholarship, and with the world around it—and the movement has responded.

Evangelicals need to continue to engage at every level—not just in the church institutions of which they are part, but as local congregations engaged in their context and relationships. That is the only way they will be fruitful and effective.


The booklet is available post-free (in the UK) from the Grove website. If you would like a review copy, please be in touch with me using the contact form (link above).


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One Response to Questions for evangelical leaders

  1. gill April 9, 2016 at 5:13 pm #

    I remember at my BAP interview the interviewer asking me what I thought an evangelical was. I replied that it was someone who believed that a personal relationship with Christ was key, and who accepted the authority of Scripture as a way of understanding who God was and the nature of our relationship with Him. I guess I would still say something very similar …

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