April 8, 2013 / Praxis
D. L. Mayfield explores her personal experiences of American inequality and considers what social justice might really looks like.
November 7, 2006
The question of ‘Do I want to be an evangelical?’ is interesting. All of a sudden I seem to have a ‘choice’. I have never thought I have. But do I really have a choice since I was raised up with evangelical milk?
If being evangelical means supporting the war against Iraq, pushing conversion without paying attention to the issues of poverty, injustice, and politics, then I certainly don’t want to be an evangelical. All too often at the YLG, the term evangelical was equated with evangelism. For instance, the mindset behind the presentation of Operation World (a presentation outlining Christian evangelism to the world and specifically unreached people groups) certainly assumed an equivalence between evangelism and evangelization. That to me is a “back sliding” from the Lausanne Covenant. The globe should not be measured solely by the number of converts. The idea of evangelization certainly should entail a healthier set of parameters for measurement or evaluation. Some suggestions of an alternative set of measurements are: number of converts, number of churches, human rights conditions, gaps between the rich and poor, freedom of press, environmental index, social well-being of the nation, degree of church participation in social re-generation, etc… Evangelicals certainly should take the phrases ‘whole gospel’ and ‘whole world’ seriously. Maybe ‘evangelizer’ is a better word than ‘evangelical’!? I mean, if evangelical means having nice, static statements of faith for one to portray without the mission to engage the political, global and the wider-communal issues, there is definitely something wrong with our understanding of the gospel. We are simply too individualistic.
Some years ago when the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students movement turned 50, I observed how difficult it was for different movements to connect as a ‘body’ and to form significant task forces to deal with global issues. We used to work individually rather than jointly as national ministries. At best, different para-church organizations would work ‘regionally’ together, with our agendas usually being non-political and non-social. I think it is important and indispensable to join forces together to face the world as a whole, given the interconnectedness of the global village. Issues like AIDS, terrorism, and globalization need efforts not confined to a singular, simplistic approach but instead well-formed and structured strategies. One good attempt at the meeting for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students was the formation of the Micah Challenge, a network of evangelical Christian relief, development, and justice agencies. The Micah Challenge is closer to what I would love to see, but it is far from enough. Unfortunately at the YLG, I still smelled the dualistic worldview that treasures the spiritual more than the material, the eternal more than the temporal, the other worldly more than this worldly. It is a betrayal of the idea of ‘whole world.’ To many evangelicals, we either understand only part of the world or a twisted world.
My hunch is that one of the reasons behind the difficulty in realizing both the corporal and social dimensions of the gospel is that we evangelicals tend to take personal salvation as absolute, even to the point of falling into the trap of the Western notion of individualism. The Bible stresses salvation but it is not too clear on whether it is absolutely giving priority to individual over the social/corporal. I remember hearing an evangelical missionary saying even Paul and Moses at one point prayed to God for their countrymen forfeiting their own personal salvation as a cost to pay. That, to a certain degree, relativises personal salvation! If there is some value in their prayers, then we should ask ourselves again what should be contributive to the core of the evangelical faith. Under the BIG umbrella term ‘evangelization’ and ‘whole gospel’ I certainly think that we have room for re-evaluation of what our present missions are. From many of the presentations at YLG, I observed a wide range of missions that emphasized evangelism explicitly and implicitly as simply spiritual conversion, and that is very frustrating. If it is true that this program was designed by the younger leaders, then I wonder if there were not much to choose from when they were designing it other than the ‘heroic evangelism’ leaders or perhaps the younger generation of leaders have not learned enough from the original text of the Lausanne Covenant!
Another point that triggers reflection onto whether or not to be an evangelical is the arrogantly expressed statement of faith. In its statement of mission, the Lausanne Covenant says, “The whole church…” But who really is the whole church? Our ecclesiology is certainly erroneous if by the ‘whole church’ we mean just the evangelicals. And what kinds of beliefs define the church? Or what separates the church from the non-church? Is it that all that the evangelicals believe, the Lausanne Covenant, that defines the church? St. Augustine was certainly genius when he said that only one thing matters: Jesus is Christ and he died for us. This selection of Christology and soteriology from the whole doctrines is not meant to be reductionism but I find it helpful in finding minimal criteria for the word ‘Church.’ Shall we or can we say the rest of the doctrines are just ‘add-ons’? I find it difficult to make the doctrine of the trinity a side dish, but the idea of keeping the doctrines minimal is certainly wise.
If the “whole church” is not just the evangelicals, then what as evangelicals do we do with the rest of the church? Why do we evangelicals think we should call upon the whole church to do the mission of bringing the whole gospel to the whole world? What are some apt actions in pursuing this endeavor? The example we saw presented at YLG, with the Jesus Film being used by the Catholics, was one good example but certainly much more should be done. Are we prepared to have dialogue with the Roman Catholics, the fundamentalists, and even the Eastern Orthodox Church? In fact the term evangelical by definition is not a sect but a special combination of Christian characteristics that permeates every major division of the Christian church. It has its advantages as well as disadvantages in bringing the attention of the whole church to its mission.
Amidst all this reflection, the thing that bothered me most about YLG, from an Asian point of view, was the lack of focus on the mission of the church and instead one on her doctrines. In other words, at YLG it sometimes seemed that deeds mattered less than beliefs. The world is very different nowadays, as compared to some 30 years ago when the Covenant was written. The global village needs some intrinsic networks of connectivity to cultivate a web of power in order to run and control its economic machinery. We see that the UN has often failed to function as it should, never mind the World Bank, the IMF and other gigantic monetary institutions. If the church, and evangelicals in particular, could be more vibrant in terms of getting her feet into the deep water of the economic, social, political life of this globe, my hope is that we would offer significant help toward the course of our evangelization project.
Jesus was murdered openly, killed as a terrorist in opposition to the almighty Empire during the reign of Rome’s most mighty Emperor Augustus. Should we then shy away from a political life where God has been? The story of the Exodus was about God intervening into the midst of human oppression, alienation, management out of fear and even tribal cleansing through infanticide. The Exodus God was not one who disclosed Himself in an evangelistic meeting relay inside an air-conditioned assembly hall, nor was he concerned with the inner psychology of the middle class yearning about boredom after lining up overnight for a PS3, nor was he interested in being discussed amongst the professional elite or the best suited theologians while their countrymen were engaged in the greedy business called globalization and free market trade. The Exodus God is one who cares for those who are oppressed by empires and He cares for the migrant workers who work overtime unjustly. Every form of theological discussion and worship finds its bearing when we are willing to engage into the mission(s) which our God has taken in history. The Jesus story and the Exodus in the form of praxis are our ultimate criteria for right beliefs, whether we call it evangelical or not.
Jonathan Chan helped bring people from East and North Asia to Lausanne Young Leaders Gathering 2006. He is now the Associate General Secretary for the Fellowship of Evangelical Students. He lives in Hong Kong, the city warned by the late Milton Friedman, and where China melts with the West, with his wife and two children.