Several months ago I drove to Western Pennsylvania with my two daughters for a family reunion. We spent several days near the Ohio border. There was plenty to eat and drink as we progressed through a delightful three-day weekend. But perhaps more memorable were some of my conversations with other guests.
In particular, I had a long chat with my cousin Peter whom I had not seen for 30 years. He is a few years younger than me, and works in some capacity as a medical researcher.
At one point, I remarked to Peter how beautiful was the little church that I had passed on my way to that night's family gathering. Peter agreed, but added that as he saw religious faith, it was not about beautiful buildings and ritual ---- it was about strict adherence to some basic Gospel principles. He explained that he was an evangelical Christian, and to him salvation by faith was all about the sin-atoning death of Jesus Christ, which he had come to believe in through personal conversion, meaning that he believed that his life had needed to be changed. Equally important to him, he said, was the authority of Scripture, and the importance of sharing the Christian message, as contrasted with mere church ritual.
At that point, I had to sit down. Peter was a bit wound up now, so I thought I had better ask him some questions about evangelical Christianity. He told me that "evangelicals" do not form a distinct denomination ---- it is an umbrella term applicable in varying degrees, across many Protestant denominations.
Peter explained that American evangelism has had two core convictions: (1.) that a personal encounter with the risen Christ is necessary for our salvation ---- the change in our lives that leads us to reject sinful acts and thoughts, substituting a more holy daily life. (2.) that Scripture offers a trustworthy guide to God's will for humankind. All evangelicals believe in biblical inspiration, he said, though they disagree over how this inspiration should be defined. However, they believe that their interpretation of Scripture is incapable of error.
Peter told me that ever since American evangelism broke with the mainline Protestant churches more than 100 years ago, the hallmark of evangelical theology was a vision of modern society as a sinking ship, sliding toward depravity and sin. He said that for evangelicals, the call of the church altar was the only life raft ---- the chance to accept Jesus Christ, and thus rebirth and salvation.
I was glad he had brought our conversation back to the centrality of Jesus Christ. So, I asked him what he meant by "a personal encounter with the risen Christ"? Did Jesus appear to Peter in a dream, was there a distinct voice in the darkness of night, or did something happen on a mountain top? How did he know that there had been a "personal encounter" with the risen Christ, in Peter's life?
Peter said he had read the Gospels over and over, so he already had an intellectual understanding about Jesus Christ, even though it left some questions unanswered. But at some point, he said, he had begun to feel an emotional attachment to Jesus. He continued, "This analogy is quite simplistic, but it was a bit like my courtship with the girl I eventually married. When we were dating, initially I learned much about her interests, friends and life experiences. She learned many factual things about me. At some point I began to have feelings for her, as well as factual knowledge. On an emotional level we began to have sort of a 'personal encounter'. I thought about her a lot, even when we were not together."
"I continued to have some of my old impulses and appetites," Peter continued, "but I could see myself moving closer to her impulses and her way of seeing the world. Then, whenever we were together, we felt really close. I think a 'personal encounter' with Jesus is somewhat like that. It is a process, over time. When people say they have been 'born again,' I believe that they are simply saying that they have now progressed to the point in a long-term process where they know they are in love with each other. And my 'personal encounter' with Jesus Christ was like that."
"These days," said Peter, "many younger evangelicals take a less fatalistic view. For them, the 'born again' experience of accepting Jesus is just the beginning. What follows" he said "is the long-term process of 'spiritual formation' which involves applying the teachings of Jesus in the here and now. Modern evangelicals do not see society as a sinking ship. They talk more about the biblical imperative to repair the ship by contributing to the betterment of their communities and the world."
Peter noted that modern evangelicals support traditional charities, but also public policies that address health care, racial equality, poverty and the environment. Beginning in the 1970's, he said, emphasis seems to have shifted from just winning souls, to also saving bodies ---- evangelical mission became as much about making the world a better place as it was about populating heaven.
Peter went on to say, " We shouldn't allow a child to live under a bridge or on the back seat of a car. We shouldn't be satisfied if elderly people are being abused or neglected, even though they are living in a nursing home." Peter the evangelist, really resonated with me when he said, "You can't just say 'respect life' and mean it exclusively for unborn babies."
Quoting evangelical pastor Rick Warren, Peter suggested that if more Christians worked to alleviate needs in their local communities, the church would become known more for the love it shows, than what it is against.
At the end of the evening, I thanked cousin Peter for sharing so frankly his approach to faith. At first, I had been a little overwhelmed, but Peter had left me with much to think about. I especially remember his closing comment about today's evangelicals. "People in my age group are much more attracted to participatory theology," he had said, "and are resistant to being told what to think or do."
As my daughters and I drove back to New Jersey the next day, I recalled my conversation with Peter and wondered ---- are there not some members of CPC who would be very happy embracing some of the modern evangelical theology? Perhaps I am one of them!
These thoughts are brought to you by CPC's Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage some personal spiritual growth for you this winter at CPC.