OAK PARK, Ill. (RNS) – A conference on the future of the country’s greatest religious tradition began with a bit of honesty. “Nobody knows exactly what an evangelical is,” said Joel Lawrence, executive director of the Center for Pastor Theologians, at the opening of the Reconstructing Evangelicalism conference on Monday, October 24.
The conference, which drew about 400 pastors and other church leaders to Calvary Memorial Church in suburban Chicago, was inspired by a recent trend among evangelicals and other Protestants to “deconstruct” the faith with which they have grown – examining core beliefs and often rejecting the conservative politics, sexism and racial divides for which evangelicalism has become known.
The question “What is an evangelical?” led to a lively, thoughtful, and sometimes pointed conversation during the conference’s opening panel on movement flaws and how to fix them.
Doug Sweeney, dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, admitted that for much of the American public, the word evangelical is synonymous with MAGA-style politics. “That wouldn’t be one of my favorite characteristics,” said Sweeney, who argued that “evangelical” should relate more to theology than politics.
Historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez, who spoke in plenary on Monday evening, defined evangelicalism as a political and consumer culture. She said she’s long wondered if the most important thing to ask is, “Who isn’t an evangelical?”
“Who decides that? ” she asked.
Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, academic dean of Esperanza College in Philadelphia, said theological scrutiny among evangelicals is often “pretty ruthless.” Evangelical Christians from Latin America or other parts of the church outside the United States, she said, are largely ignored by American evangelical pastors.
“Why don’t you know their names?” she asked pastors at the conference. “Why don’t you quote them in your sermons? »
Condé-Frazier argued that any reconstruction of evangelicalism must include a more solid understanding of human sin. While evangelicals often focus on personal sin, they tend to miss how power can be abused by sinful church leaders or movements.
“Sin turns into a monster when you have power,” she said.
Malcolm Foley, who directs the Black Church Studies program at Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas, has advocated for a militant form of evangelism, which combines evangelism with social action. “It’s the only evangelism I think is worth talking about,” he said.
At the same time, Foley was skeptical about whether the word “evangelical” could be saved or reconstructed.
“The work and energy we would invest in reclaiming this term could also be used to love our neighbors,” he said. “Instead of needing to reclaim the term, just be people of the gospel. Be people who will invest in deep spiritual, economic, and physical solidarity as a church. They can call you what they If you live a life that testifies of the kingdom of God, I don’t care what you call me.
Sweeney countered that he was not yet ready to give up evangelism. A self-described “evangelical Lutheran” and member of a group called Lutheran Congregations on Mission for Christ, Sweeney summoned an image of the interfaith movement that evangelicalism aspires to be and which he said he hopes to continue to be a part of.
Yet if evangelism is to be rebuilt, various panelists said, it must be done with humility. Some evangelicals, several panelists said, see their movement as the last hope for Christianity in the world — an idea the panelists rejected.
In an interview ahead of his speech, Du Mez said many pastors at the conference want to be true to their beliefs and lead their congregations well — but outside cultural forces make that difficult.
“It’s a tough time to be a pastor,” she said.
Du Mez’s vision of evangelicalism as a consumer culture is based on observing churches growing by giving people what they want, which has recently included scorching conservative politics and culture war rhetoric. . Leaders who attempt to address racism, sexism or other social justice issues are pushed back from within the church and from social media.
She pointed the finger at evangelicals like Beth Moore, a popular Bible teacher who has been unwelcome at the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest evangelical group, for speaking out against sexism and abuse in the largest Protestant denomination in the country.
“If you step out of line, you will be punished,” Du Mez said.
Du Mez said many pastors are good-hearted and have a clear understanding of theology. But they often lack an understanding of the larger cultural factors that affect the country and their churches.
“One of my favorite virtues is the virtue of wisdom or prudence – understanding how the world works,” she said. “So when you pursue your goals, you do so in a way that will pay off. Because if you don’t properly understand how the world works, then good luck trying to live faithfully trying to bring about positive change. .
Lawrence said the conference, which continues through Wednesday and is be broadcast online, aims to spark respectful conversations about Christianity, its challenges, and the possibility of change.
“It’s not good for any of us if we don’t have these conversations,” he said.