Monday with Michael Spencer
How to Talk (and Not to Talk) to Evangelicals on a Journey
Dear Well-Meaning Non-Evangelical Friend,
Please sit down, have a cup of tea or coffee…and listen.
I see that you’ve responded to some of us who are pilgrims in the evangelical community and who are on a journey within and perhaps beyond evangelicalism. You’ve offered up some “help” in the form of advice, comments, explanations and so forth.
If possible, I’d like to encourage you to consider a few matters that could prove useful to our shared ultimate goal of knowing the Trinitarian God and following Jesus.
1. It’s possible you may be able to claim a few of us for your particular church by arguing with us over the specifics of doctrine. There are some among us who are in the mood to be convinced. But you are making a mistake, in my view, in regard to most of us with this approach. Your assumption that we need to be battered with the clubs of better logic and more knowledge is not the pleasant experience you apparently remember it to be. Let us have a process that operates under our terms and with our perception of the leadership of the Holy Spirit. If this is an episode of Bounty Hunter, tell us.
2. If you are delighted to have laid down all your doubts and questions at the feed of the LCMS, the RCC or EO, that’s wonderful. Again, don’t assume that’s our journey or will be. There are many ways for persons like ourselves to appropriate and experience your tradition without joining. There is considerable evidence that a continual trail of “joining,” is not what many of us are looking for at all, as we have seen that in more than a few of our number, with less than impressive results.
3. Many of us share a suspicion that the submission of mind and curiosity to a specific authority or tradition may not be as easy for us as it has been for you. It is not a characteristic we all share when it comes to human traditions and institutions. Many of us can safely say we will never pray to Mary, believe in purgatory or practice closed communion. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t still on this journey. Louder announcements of circular authority claims have a similar problem. Your (or our) decisions to accept claims of a “pure Gospel” or an “infallible authority” don’t qualify as “pure” or “infallible” for many of us.
4. Our heroes in this journey are not always converts. They are often evangelicals who remained evangelicals or pilgrims who kept moving and never settled. We may find a “half-way house” in Anglicanism or the ELCA and stay there. We are not as interested in being the trophies of a tradition as we are in seeing some aspect of Christ that we can only see through something your tradition has preserved for us.
5. We are not fools when it comes to the Eucharist (or baptism.) We’re not looking at the obvious and refusing to see. Explain us as you wish, but we see what we see (and vice versa) for reasons that are a mixture of influence, environment, authority, education, exposure and consideration. There is nothing quite so frustrating as to be read, for the 500th time for many of us, the plain statements of scripture that have divided Christians for centuries, and to do so as if we’ve just never actually paid attention to what Jesus says in John 6. It’s a habit that should never appear in a discussion among friends. Take it for granted that we have examined the scriptures many, many times and will continue to do so.
6. Answer our questions as real questions, not as invitations to evangelize us.
7. Should we be wrong about your tradition in some statement we make, correct us with grace and a recognition that we are understandably at a disadvantage.
8. What was the answer to your journey is not going to be the answer to our own. If you send us a collection of convert essays to create conversion envy, or if you take a small move on our part as a sign that we are ready to sign up, you’ve misjudged.
9. What we value as good in our tradition- evangelism, missions, church-planting, preaching, singing, etc.- we are not likely to abandon for your version of the same thing without some lamentation and complaint. Whatever we take from you, realize that those of us who value where we’ve been and what God has done in our life in the past respect what formed us.
10. I learned long ago that two people may fight one another, but attack one of them and both will turn on you. We may be severe on our own evangelical tradition, but don’t assume that means we are ready to join you in your criticism of the same. That may be unfair, but it’s very human.
Thanks for listening,