Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Progressive Theology and Evangelism


“In the name of our Loving, Liberating, and Life-giving God,” these are the words Bishop Curry normally uses in beginning a sermon. I suspect most Episcopal clergy hear this as a Black Preacher’s use of alliteration, one of their amazing skills in preaching. I also hear few other clergy ever use this. I like it, but for a specifically theological reason which I will come to later.

We Episcopalians understand rightly that Bishop Curry stands within the Progressive Theological community. What most white clergy do not understand is how he is distinctive from the general school of Progressivism taught in our seminaries. Our Bishop stands in the Black Progressive tradition. The one that Gardner Taylor preached. Taylor is in my opinion one of the best preachers of the last century and I would strongly recommend that all our clergy read some of his sermons. They are short, sharp, and clear articulation of scripture seen through the eyes of the Black experience in American.

Most of our Progressives stand within the emerging tradition that now dominates life and preaching in Episcopal Churches. I want to make clear that I identify with many of the issues that Episcopal Progressives have championed, and I respect their passion and commitment to justice and equality. I will be saying some critical things about their theological viewpoint in this blog, but I count many as friends and as brothers and sisters in Christ. My primary issue with Progressives is their departure from the classical Anglican position that the Church should hold together various theological viewpoints. To paraphrase Rowan Williams, “Anglicanism may be the only consensual alternative to Roman’s arbitrary unity.” Anglicanism is not a place on a map of Christianity, it is the whole map; an attempt to be the whole Church. Progresses in TEC have long abandoned toleration of other Anglicans in the U.S. who have as much claim to Anglican roots if not more so than Progressives.

What is wrong with TEC’s current version of Progressive theology? This view is often expressed with punchline phrases like “Love Wins!” or “Why can’t we just learn to love one another?” The strongly espoused values of this school are the need for the Christian community and especially TEC to become a fully diverse and inclusive Church, “a beloved community.” One would wish they could at least make this “a community of the beloved” which would open a greater possibility for evangelism, but I doubt they would understand the distinction.

I will pass over briefly the painful truth that the longer this view has dominated TEC the less diverse we have become except for gender diversity. Bishop Curry and other Black Episcopal clergy are a small remnant of a once larger and vibrant number of Black Episcopalians. Black clergy have told me on many occasions that young black leaders do not find the Episcopal Church attractive today. There are, thank God, several exceptions to this assessment, but in numbers this is certainly true.

When it comes to our Progressives and the Atonement, they stand in the “Moral Example” school. This contends that Jesus is the incarnation or example of God’s love, and we are to follow his example. This is often articulated around the theme of the Kingdom of God, or as Progressives prefer, “God’s reign.” Another expression Progressives like is that “The Church preaches Jesus, but Jesus himself preached about God’s Kingdom (reign). What is wrong with this? It certainly sounds nice and has a thread of truth in it.

What is wrong in this is primarily threefold. First, it is a serious reimaging, to use a favorite Progressive term, of the Jesus of Scripture and the Church. It simply ignores the many Christological passages of the New Testament.  It also ignores that books of the New Testament, especially Acts and Paul’s letters do not proclaim what Progressives assume is so obvious. Paul’s mission to the Gentiles most certainly does not follow the moral theory and none of the Gospels end with the statement that Jesus was the model of God’s love, and we are to follow that model. They end with the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection as the son of God and savior of the world. Progressives have a reductionist view of Jesus not consistent with the Apostolic tradition.

Second, it ignores the obvious answer to their plaintiff “why can’t we just learn to love one another?” If humans could figure this out on our own, we would not need a savior. The answer why from the classical Christian view is that humans are sinful, self-centered, and subject to temptation and even evil. As one famous theologian has said, “The Doctrine of Original Sin is the only provable Doctrine of the Church.” I call this kind of progressive theology the Rodney King school because its proposition is as naïve as a black man beaten senseless by angry police officers who made such a statement in the face of such systemic evil. Progressives are naïve about the human condition which afflicts them as well as everyone else.

Third, the moral example theory without the other complimentary theories of the Atonement becomes merely moralism. Inclusiveness and diversity have become recruiting tools for TEC to attract “people like us” who value inclusiveness and diversity. It is in the end a worldview of college educated, middle class, and dominantly while people. Progressives do not want evangelism; they want TEC to recruit people “like us.”

What Progressivism needs is what Bishop Curry offers to it and to all of us. Remember the “liberating” part of his invocation? Bishop Curry stands in the Black Progressive school which is at its heart Liberation Theology. Why is it not obvious to most Progressives that the human heart to love needs liberation? Or that racism, classism, and all isms are extensions of human fallenness? That is what Christ offers! Remember that Christianity spread most quickly in the Roman world where 80% of the population were slaves, and where Roman women and non-Romans were treated as second class humans.

As a student of Liberation Theology in my younger days, I find much of Progressivism as preached today without power to change people. This realization came to me when an Episcopal Bishop argued on late night TV that “exodus makes no sense because in my theology (sic) God loves the Egyptians as much as God loves the Jews.” The testimony of the Bible is that God loves and acts on behalf of the oppressed. Or as Garner Taylor once expressed this while speaking at Yale, “The Bible teaches that God is out to win back what belongs to God! The oppressed, afflicted, broken, and discarded of this world are God’s.” Most Episcopalians should probably tremble at that biblical truth.

So, the Episcopal Church is declining not just because of changing demographics, but because most of our proclamation lacks the transformative and conversionary power of the Cross! What is preached in many Episcopal Churches today is a combination of therapy and progressive politics. It is not the loving, liberating, and life-giving Gospel.

This brings me back to what I believe about the Atonement. It is the power of the Cross to defeat the powers of sin and evil and to liberate us to lead a new life through the power of the Holy Spirit. More of this in my next blog.


Tuesday, November 9, 2021

The Theology of Evangelism


Because I believe in Evangelism, over the years, I have asked clergy and especially new seminary graduates this question. “I am sure you studied the various theories of the Atonement, which one makes the most sense to you?” I usually receive two answers.

The first and most common is an articulation that Jesus’ death on the cross brought the forgiveness of our sins and reconciled us to God. The second which I began hearing in the nineties and has grown in belief is not an answer to my question, but really a rebuttal. It is that the cleric or student learned that the Church has put too much emphasis on the cross and salvation and not enough on the Incarnation.

The first is, of course, based on some version of the substitutionary theory of the Atonement. Simply said it is that Jesus died for me and in my place, and I have received forgiveness of my sins. The second is, in case you have not guessed, code language that “I am a Progressive.”  I am going to deal extensively with the issues generated by Progressive theology and evangelism in my third post. In this blog I want to share why I ask this question.

My experience in doing evangelism is that we apply the doctrine of the Atonement. So, for most American Evangelicals, the application becomes “We are all sinners facing God’s judgement and hell. If we repent of our sins and accept Jesus’ death on the cross as payment for our sins, we will be forgiven and given the assurance of eternal life.”  My Baptist grandmother’s favorite hymn expresses this, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine, oh what a foretaste of glory divine.”

Classic Evangelical Churches such as First Baptist in Dallas present this message every Sunday and offer “an altar call, or invitation” to come forward to repent and receive Jesus. Some more contemporary Evangelical churches present this message along with modern music, drama, and a charismatic preacher in a softer and gentler tone. Some of these are the largest Churches in America. There the theological underpinning is the same. One important exception to this is found in Pentecostal Churches. Unfortunately, mainline clergy wrongly group these together with classical Evangelicals, but more on this in a later blog.

How do most Episcopal Clergy evangelize who articulate this theological position? Few do evangelism the way Evangelicals do because after all “we are not that kind of Church,” and we offer the rich worship, liturgy, and lectionary of historic Anglicanism. I believe that such clergy think that people who attend our churches, get baptized or were baptized as infants, and receive the Eucharist will get the message eventually. Some try one of the methods of evangelism that Episcopalians have found effective such as Alpha. These programs usually come pre-packaged and are effective evangelistic tools if the local church has enough energy and conviction to put them on. Evidently, few do. We should note that this focus largely ignores non-Christians and focuses on church members.

I have heard from many long-time Episcopalians that they are thankful that our Church does not have altar calls. When I hear this, I just quote the words of Cranmer, “Ye who do earnestly repent of your sins, are in love and charity with you neighbors, and intend to lead a new life following the commandments of God…” Then I point out that for Episcopalians, every communion service has an altar call. Putting this into practice, this is the way I invited people to communion at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas. At the offertory, I would say.

“Our service now continues with the Eucharist or Holy Communion. We invite to our altar rail to receive this bread and wine all those who wish a greater knowledge of God and a deeper relationship to Jesus Christ.”

Notice that I omitted reference to “other denominations” or even baptism because these only confuse non-Episcopalians and non-Christians. Following the example of Cranmer, I wanted the invitation to apply to visitor and member alike. I see receiving Communion as one of our most important evangelistic opportunities.

For me, there are also two definite moments when in the context of liturgy an invitation to accept Jesus as savior follows naturally. The first is Palm/Passion Sunday. The second is Good Friday. In the Churches that I served as Rector or Dean; we offered the three-hour watch at the cross on Good Friday containing the seven words attributed to Jesus during his crucifixion. I almost always had those who would respond to hearing these events of the passion presented response to an invitation to accept Jesus as savior. Who would not!

The word that I am driving at here is, of course, intentional. I learned that evangelism is the intentional effort to present Jesus as Savior and Lord in ways that people could accept him and follow within the fellowship of his Church to paraphrase TEC’s official definition of evangelism. Yes, we do have one.

It might surprise my readers to discover that while I appreciate what the substitutionary understanding of the Atonement is and what it especially does for souls troubled or burdened by their sins, this is not my primary understanding of the Atonement and why I did those services in Seattle.

But before we turn there, we need to return to the dominant theological position in TEC today, that of the “moral example.”  I will begin this in my next blog, by quoting my favorite Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry.





Tuesday, November 2, 2021

I Believe in Evangelism

This is the first of a series of blogs about Evangelism. Many in the Church use this term, but my experience is that few Episcopal leaders have ever done evangelism beyond sharing the faith one on one on a few occasions.  In the first blog, I am going to discuss why I believe in Evangelism and what I learned about doing evangelism.

In 1984, I became the Rector of St. Luke’s Church in Seattle. Then it was considered the “light house” church of charismatic renewal on the west coast. The previous Rector was the Rev. Dennis Bennett author of “9 O’clock in the Morning” and one of the most influential authors and teachers of the 20th Century. I say this with no hesitation because I learned how extensively his work touched thousands of Christians worldwide.  Sad to say, today younger Episcopal clergy do not even know who he was. As his successor, I learned to love him, and he was of tremendous help to me as I attempted to follow in his very large footprints.

As to his influence, once while I was teaching at the College of Preachers, I sat across from the then Presiding Bishop. When he learned that I was Rector of St. Luke’s, he said, “That little congregation has had more effect in the Episcopal Church than and other congregation I’ve known.”  To this he smiled and added, “And I am not sure I am really happy about that!” That was offset by an African Archbishop who told me that Dennis’ book was the single cause of a large evangelistic movement in his Church that had brought thousands to Christ.

I was astonished to be called to St. Luke’s. I was 38 years old. I had no national reputation, but it remains for me one of the greatest experiences of my nearly 50 years of ordained ministry.  What I did not know when I accepted the call was that St. Luke’s had a weekly Wednesday night “Evangelistic Service” and I would spend the next six years of my life leading it!

I had never done such a service before, but the staff were quick to bring me on board with it.  I should make it clear especially to Episcopal clergy that this was not a Eucharistic service, nor was it taken from the Prayer Book.  It was simple in form which I will describe in a moment. It was advertised on a local Christian radio station as a time when Christians could bring non-Christians and seekers to hear a clear presentation of the Christian life and receive prayer. In the six years, we never had less than 5 people accept the invitation to accept Christ at the end of the service and often we would have over 20.

Here is what we would do: 

First, we began with a welcome and a music group would lead the congregation in some simple Christian choruses.

Second, we would read a passage of scripture.

Third, I or one of our other clergy would give a 20-minute teaching on the scripture and on what it means to receive Christ and be empowered by the Holy Spirit. (We avoided church jargon and complex theology these are not helpful to non-Christians.)

Fourth, a lay member of the congregation would give a 10 minute “testimony” of how they had come to Christ. We were adamant about the 10 minutes and instructed our folks to present three things.

1st. What my life was like before I encounter Christ. 2nd. What happened when I encountered him. 3rd. How my life has changed since receiving him.

Finally, I would extend an invitation to those who would like to receive Christ and experience the Holy Spirit’s presence to come forward to our altar rail where team of lay leaders would pray from them. They were also invited to come forward for healing prayers if they needed them. 

I would say that through this experience and being invited to speak in other churches, that I have led more people to a commitment to Christ than almost any other living Episcopal priest. I do know a small group who have done more, and I am delighted to have ministered with Carrie Headington, the Evangelism Officer of the Diocese of Dallas who continues this work.

Compare this with the typical “attempt” of evangelism in TEC. This is believing that if people attend our services, they will eventually figure this out. Or some places make some attempt to present this in baptismal or confirmation instruction although quite frankly most of the time we are explaining to people why they should be Episcopalians – the emphasis being on church membership. 

One thing we learned when I led church planting in the Diocese of Texas was that when a new plant started with public services about half the congregation would be new to the church. Consequently, the clergy needed to start off by preaching a series on the basics of the Christian life and bypass the Lectionary.  The truth is that the Lectionary jumps around too much to give a comprehensive view of this to new people.  It worked in helping the Diocese become the fastest growing Diocese in the Episcopal Church for 7 years in BOTH percentages and actual numbers.  I have heard many clergy say that TEC just doesn’t do evangelism. I try to share with them that the Anglican Communion does, and we did! In a future blog, I will discuss why I think we are so bad at the task of evangelism.  In this one, I want people to know that we have done it.  And I learned to do it. Furthermore, evangelistic teaching and preaching is like any other skill.  It can be learned if there is a motivation to do so.  I was motivated by my own Christ encounter, and I found mentors and teachers who helped me along the way.

During my time at St. Luke’s, the congregation became the largest it had ever been. This was because of two things. First, we learned that an increasing number of people coming to us had no church experience or community, so we learned we had to not only proclaim Christ but also form them in Christ. Second, we had a strong lay led small group ministry that was part of this formation.  New Christians need follow up, formation, and often pastoral care. Small groups are a tremendous resource for this.

I cannot tell you the absolute joy that comes from leading people to Christ. New Christians are excited by their newfound life in Christ. They are not jaded about how church should be done. They are eager to learn. Most significantly, their friends are often not Christians either and they are excited about sharing their new faith with them.

Why don’t more Episcopal Churches do evangelistic ministry? I will explore this in future blogs, but I can start with this simple and painful truth; our seminaries do not value evangelism and do not teach students the foundations of evangelism and the practical things that work. As one of our former Deans remarked, “It’s hard to graft an evangelistic vine on a universalist tree!”

Lastly, we had a tremendous advantage in doing evangelism in the 80s at St. Luke’s. Seattle was the least Christian and churched city in America. Of course, today most of our society has moved toward secularism with Christian churches declining. Hence, most American cities today are more like Seattle in those days. Strangely, the larger the number of non-Christians, the poorer TEC’s ability to reach them.

Episcopal leaders today talk much about diversity and inclusion. Bishop Payne often observed that evangelism was the most inclusive and diverse ministry of the Church.  He got that idea from the pages of the New Testament. The story is still there to read!

In my next blog, I will share what I believe is lacking in the Church’s ability to do the work of evangelism.