Evangelical theology has served us well over the last 50 years. In a sea of shifting sands (cultural, spiritual and ethical), evangelicalism has been a robust defender of the faith and has served to strengthen the church. It has shaped who I am as a Christian, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
In fact, in the late 1980s and early ’90s when, under the energetic and visionary leadership of Clive Calver, the Evangelical Alliance was growing rapidly, many Baptists began to use the terms “Baptist” and “evangelical” interchangeably. I know I did, and the words “conservative evangelical” became a shorthand way of defining where I stood theologically.
But in more recent years, evangelicalism has sometimes appeared to be static or harsh, judgmental and unforgiving. Evangelicals like Steve Chalke, who explored whether other interpretations of the atonement might be helpful to the church’s mission, were attacked, and I use that word deliberately. And many ordinary Christians I know, in good evangelical Baptist churches, have lamented the fact that it seems hard to question accepted evangelical theology without being given the kiss of death and labeled “unsound.”
Recent statistical data from Peter Brierley, former head of Christian Research, makes it clear that the percentage of the United Kingdom population attending churches is falling dramatically.
If for no other reason, we have to face up to the fact that the church is increasingly irrelevant in people’s lives. The temptation will be to adopt a remnant mentality and prepare to slowly die out in our defense of the status quo. But a braver approach might ask “Why, if we really are good news, do so few fail to recognize us as such?”
“Aha,” I hear voices ready to accuse. “Here we go. Water down the gospel so it becomes more palatable to people!”
Actually, that doesn’t even begin to come close to the issues at stake here. I am not arguing for changed Christian convictions simply to attract more people. I am pleading that we have the humility to look at how we live, how we gather, and how we express our Christian faith in a world riddled with injustice, where power is used and abused in a way that has little in common with the way Jesus encouraged his followers to live.
When I stood in Bakkerstrasse in Amsterdam in the summer of 2009 to witness the unveiling of a simple plaque to mark the beginnings of Baptist life and witness in 1609, I was reminded afresh that the early Baptists were radical believers, not conservative believers. They gave their lives in the cause of religious liberty that they might worship God in freedom, and they demanded that others be accorded that same freedom.
They were strengthened in their convictions through their interactions with the Anabaptists, a radical group of believers who took us back to first principles about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus and not an upholder of religious power structures that comprised the Kingdom of Christendom.
In reflecting afresh on our Baptist heritage, I am reminded that if our churchmanship or our theology ever shuts out the prophetic, disturbing, uncomfortable voices of our age, then we imprison ourselves behind our understanding of the truth rather than be liberated by that same truth.
We who have a high regard for Scripture and revelation are grievously at fault if by saying “we know” we shut out the possibility that “there is even more to know.”
And we are blind if we fail to see that those whom Jesus welcomed – to the disbelief of the good religious people of the day – were sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, pork-eating Gentiles, those with taboo diseases, children of no status, women considered of no worth, fishermen with no learning.
When did we stop being a community where people such as these would know they would find a welcome? Why are the hurting, isolated, persecuted, uncomfortable, lonely, confused people of today’s world not flocking to find Jesus through our churches?
Let me be fair. Many are coming to our churches and coming to faith in Jesus, and many more are helped when we take to the streets and go out into our community.
Among our Baptist family are a growing number of edgy prophets, men and women who witness on and to the margins, who make no judgments but welcome people in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ. These people inspire me.
On the final morning of our recent Baptist Assembly in Plymouth, as we reflected together on the challenge of mission in today’s world, I asked a simple question: “What kind of church do we need to become in order that we are good news for those who do not easily see us as good news; people like our cohabiting neighbors, our Muslim or Hindu friends, or the gay man or woman who feels unwelcome?”
This is fundamentally a simple question. After all, we do want to be good news people, don’t we? We want people to come into a saving encounter with Jesus Christ, don’t we?
But it is also a disturbing question. After all, if we are to become good news to people who, right now, do not look to us for that good news, something needs to change, doesn’t it? The question is what?
People will assume I have an agenda here but I really don’t. But I do nurture some hopes for the conversations that might ensue.
My hope is to encourage Baptists who might describe themselves as conservative evangelicals to rediscover what it means to be radical believers.
My hope is to encourage men and women within our Baptist community to take their high regard for Scripture and revelation as a gift from God, and being confident in that gift, dig even deeper than before in the confidence that there is always more to discover.
My hope is that Christians of all persuasions will increasingly develop a Christ-like tenderness toward those who need good news and who silently plead with us to take another look at the reasons why the church does not seem to be good news to them.
I don’t have all the answers. But as someone trying to rediscover what it means to be a radical believer, I must at least have the courage to ask the questions.
David Kerrigan is general director of BMS World Mission. This column first appeared on his blog, Thinking Mission, and is used by permission. BMS World Mission was founded in 1792 in Britain as the Baptist Missionary Society.