Recently, I’ve come across a number of Christians dropping into conversation the comment, “I’m not at church, but I really like Rob Bell’s podcasts”. I’m beginning to dread this comment, because I believe (perhaps mistakenly) that nobody actually wants to have a community with their ipod – and this inevitably leads to their question to me: “Do you know of anyone that’s like Rob Bell in Australia?” And, while I continue to meet diverse and new congregations in Australia, here I am genuinely stuck. There is no church in Australia that that I can recommend that has a young, contemporary Liberal congregation. Of course, there’s the Uniting Church, which is in various states of vibrancy and decay, in my perception… (excluding our friends at Wesley in the City/Ryde who are completely evangelical and flourishing!!) … and while there are some liberal issues being thrown around some churches in Sydney, are they actually Liberals??? Could they actually take the nomadic Rob Bell tribe and turn them into a functioning Christian congregation? Well I don’t know. So I usually suggest “there’s a good church in America that Rob Bell pastors, called Mars Hill Bible Church”.
In the textbooks I recently read on Church history, the Liberal versus Evangelical divide was perhaps the greatest Christian chasm of the twentieth century. In the U.S., it was essentially a Reformation, and I’m pretty sure the Roman Catholics work with both sides while Liberals and Evangelicals refuse point blank to talk. Thus the importance of the word ‘Evangelical’ is primarily in reaction to the ‘Liberals’ – and came from many conferences, discussions and ultimately, was a reactionary movement.
Obviously in Sydney, the Evangelicals decided to oust the Liberals. I say obviously because there can be no other explanation for the fact that in all my searching, congregations of truly Liberal Christian movements dating from the time of the big split are almost invisible. There are few people who will declare themselves progressive Christians, few who wonder if the Virgin Birth was a historical fact, and there are almost no Christians who claim that the Bible is primarily a metaphor. And maybe this is good for the Australian Church as a whole! I would consider myself ‘evangelical’, due to my Anglican schooling, and Pentecostal hermeneutics – it’s hard not to be this way after twenty five years of church!! But every so often, and particularly before elections, I wish that there were some great Liberal men and women around, just to even things out.
While the word ‘Evangelical’ in Australia is used much more frequently compared to the word “Liberal”, it doesn’t seem to help us distinguish between doctrinal issues. Terms such as ‘mainline’ or ‘open-minded’ and the many ways we distinguished Christians in the 1980s just don’t seem to work anymore either. Sometimes we are trying to indicate that we believe in an accurate and literal reading of Scripture, sometimes a fuller experience of the Spirit, and sometimes we’re trying to show that we’ve found a church that has come to a certain conclusion, revelation or bridged some kind of impasse – but the common distinguishing features that used to signify so much are simply out of date. This is not only true of ‘Evangelical’ and the varieties of descriptors that go along with that term, but also the word ‘Pentecostal’. So many times in conversation we’ve heard, “.. because I’m Pentecostal, I… ” (and following this are a range of behaviours, everything from dancing around with flags and singing in tongues to NOT dancing around with flags, and speaking in tongues during only the minute-long prayer request time in Sunday’s service)”.
I’ve come to realise that both sides of many debates have changed their stance and are actually often closer to each other than they realise, with the middle ground being the fact they don’t talk any more. This is definitely true of the discussions of the Spirit and worship I’ve been having recently with ‘Pentecostals’ and ‘Evangelicals’.
It made me wonder – where are we heading? And how can conversation be facilitated in a way that we can get rid of the OLD chasms, and the battles left over from years ago, the distinctions that our parents’ parents found important? Is there a way to really facilitate honest discussion between sides of various debates in ways that allow the conversation to be updated and for the lines to be redrawn?
And I wonder when we lose one side of the debate, can we actually understand the debate at all? Can we import debates other nations are having and jump on the bandwagon without defining whether the discussion is even necessary? Does someone actually have to stand there and play “devil’s advocate” so we understand the conversation?
Just questions at the moment, but I’ve finally allowed myself to voice them…