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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Evangelistic Postures

February 14th, 2023 | 9 min read

By Jake Meador

(Note: I’m going to be using the short hand from Mike and Skyler’s six-way fracturing article throughout this piece. So if you haven’t read it, start there.)

The core problem facing the preservation or formation of conservative Protestant coalitions right now is that trust has broken down within the movement. In theory, what ought to be happening is that a movement spanning from something like 2.3 to 3.7 on Mike and Skyler’s framework should be holding together, keeping each other accountable to the temptations to radicalize to the left or the right, and trying to find ways to better catechize and disciple those within our churches and to evangelize the many who are outside.

That spectrum, incidentally, almost matches perfectly with the Lincoln PCA churches across the last 20 years. My family’s home congregation would generally range from about 2.3 to about 3 on the spectrum while the other churches in town would range from high 2 to high 3. But for 20 years now it has worked quite well because the leadership of the respective churches love and trust each other, they see each other as friends, and they make a point of getting together in non-professional settings simply to get to know one another.

This has created an atmosphere in which our RUF guy can preach at every PCA church in the city and feel welcomed and supported by all of them, and where people can move between congregations with a minimal amount of drama relative to what you might see elsewhere. (I actually was baptized in one of the other churches before we moved to our current congregation a number of years ago.) So when I say that this is the coalition we need, I’m not just making crap up; I’m mostly proposing that what we need nationally is something like what I’ve seen bear such wonderful fruit here in Lincoln.

Anyway: Why doesn’t this happen? The biggest reason is a lack of trust between 2s and 3s. The 2s are mostly afraid of 4s and think the 3s are too nice to them. The 3s mostly fear 1s and think the 2s are too nice to them. Similarly, the 3s tend to see 4s as their main mission field and resent the ways 1s and 2s can make evangelizing that group more complicated. 2s tend to see 1s in a similar way, I think, and resent how 3s and 4s complicate that relationship. So here we are.

Given that foundation, I want to make an observation about one of the problems here as it pertains to my own tribe—the 3s. And I’ll preface this by saying that part of the reason I can write 2000 words about this problem is because I myself have struggled with it for many years and really only feel like I got my mind wrapped around the issue in the past year. So a large part of this post is something I wish I could’ve read eight or ten years ago or even three or four years ago.

There is a type of 3 in the PCA (and probably elsewhere as well) who behaves as if their entire purpose in life is to get the 4s to like them so that maybe someday the 4s will come back to church.

There’s something understandable here. 3s tend to recognize themselves in 4s and often can easily imagine themselves in that spot if x had played out differently in their past. So that familiarity creates a certain affection and desire to help. Additionally, if you’re an RUF guy or a church planter in a blue city, there are a couple further factors that lead to this sort of behavior. First, the overwhelming majority of people you’re seeking to reach are going to be at least a 4 and often a 5 or 6. So all of your outreach and evangelistic thinking is directed toward them. Second, because of the way media works today, many of the folks that campus ministers and church planters are trying to reach are people who are already fairly hostile to Christianity, often because of things they’ve read or seen from 1s.

All that being said: If you are a 3 who goes about your work in this way, let me be plain with you. You should stop. Here’s why:

First, by doing this you are putting missiology ahead of ecclesiology. This is a severe mistake for a variety of reasons. In the first place, it’s actually bad missiology: What you win them with is what you win them to. And if you win 4s and higher with the ecclesial version of the Amy Poehler meme—I’m not a normal evangelical, I’m a cool evangelical—then eventually you’re going to lose them when you have to have a hard conversation about sex and gender.

Second, putting missiology ahead of ecclesiology tacitly teaches you to view some of your Christian brothers and sisters as adversaries. Put crassly, you start to think something like, “I could do so much better helping people believe in Jesus if some of Jesus’s people just didn’t suck so much.”

Just to be clear: If we’re talking about actual sin issues, that’s different. One of the core values of the American church going forward will have to be a robust commitment to anti-corruption due to precisely these dynamics, amongst other reasons. But if the issue is simply that a conservative ruling elder from your sister church posts annoying stuff on social media sometimes, well, Jesus loves him too and he is your Christian brother. If your evangelistic posture is teaching you to sneer at him, then your evangelistic posture has to change, not least because Jesus actually says that one of the ways that the world will know his followers is by their love for one another. So, again, even on its own merits as an evangelistic posture, it fails.

Third, foregrounding missiology in this way can over time actually transform your theology in slow but troubling ways. In your preaching, public communication, and pastoral care you can start to behave as if your primary task is to convince the blue state progressives you’re trying to reach that deep down they actually believe what you believe, if only they understood their beliefs better. Here is Hauerwas:

Christians are often tempted, particularly in this time called modern, to say more than we know. We are so tempted because we fear we do not believe what we say we believe. So we try to assure ourselves that we believe what we say we believe by convincing those who do not believe what we believe that they really believe what we believe once what we believe is properly explained. As a result we end up saying more than we know because what we believe—or better, what we do—cannot be explained but only shown. The word we have been given for such a showing is “witness.”

Put another way, there is a way of doing apologetics and evangelism in these contexts that operates by demonstrating that progressive values, rightly understood, are all actually best fulfilled by Christian orthodoxy, rightly understood.

The difficulty here is that this ends up leaving idols unchallenged and untoppled because all you’ve done is suggested that what they really want deep down is Christianity and now they can have those values so central to their sense of self and be Christian because the best way to be inclusive, to care for the marginalized, to pursue mental and spiritual health, to promote justice, and so on is to be a Christian. But what if the practices of Christian discipleship at times don’t look like our idea of mental health or full inclusion or justice? This approach doesn’t really have an answer to that problem.

Fourth, when your missiology is so narrowly tuned to the needs of blue state 4s on up, your understanding of pastoral care will also be transformed. Again, Hauerwas has the measure of all this:

The pastor is supposed to be a truth teller who helps the baptized grow up and survive as Christians. Pastoral care is supposed to be the work of the whole church. Both as an academic discipline and as a practice, pastoral care has become obsessed with the personal wounds of people in advanced industrial societies who have discovered that their lives lack meaning.  “What did you expect?” I want to ask these people. “Quit taking yourselves so seriously. Enjoy having your narcissism defeated by being drawn into the church’s eschatological mission to witness to Christ’s cross and resurrection.” That’s care worthy of the name Christian.

Your role as a pastor is to preach the Gospel. Yes, you should aspire to do so in ways sensible to your audience, sensitive to the questions, doubts, and objections they will raise, and so on. But your job is not to assuage the personal wounds of people in advanced industrial societies.

One of the more formative experiences I had as a young Christian was witnessing a young woman’s conversion while I was a student at L’Abri. She was an artist, endlessly creative, possessing an abundant spirit and a deep love for beauty with a fairly magnetic personality. After her conversion, she was more despondent and dark then I had seen her throughout the entirety of the student term.

After several days, someone asked her why her conversion seemed to have had that effect on her. “I have to give up my idealism,” or something like that was her response. She had always been something of a utopian, thinking that humanity possessed resources within its great soul to perfect the world. There was something of Whitman, or maybe Emerson, about her. And in her conversion she had to confront sin and in confronting sin she lost that utopianism. The despair was not permanent. I’ve seen her several times in the years since and she is a faithful Christian serving in her church, walking with God, still creating, still possessing that radiance, and also now married and with children. And yet it would not be false to say that her conversion had a death-like quality about it in one sense.

What she experienced and received at L’Abri was authentic pastoral care. But it wasn’t care that necessarily helped her feel better as she received it. The care, for a time, was more like a sword.

None of this is to say that 3s should stop caring about evangelizing to 4s or to progressives more generally. They absolutely must continue in that work. Indeed, many of the motivations and reasons behind their desire to do this work are admirable and look something like the heart of Christ. My concern is that when we foreground missiology and background ecclesiology, we end up discipling ourselves to hate certain of our Christian brothers and sisters and we are actually doing bad evangelization and outreach on top of it. So we get a schismatic spirit and we’re lousy evangelists anyway.

So what is the alternative to what I am describing? Well, in one sense that’s not hard to answer. We have plenty of examples of Christians who have sought to have constructive, generative encounters with pluralistic modernity while remaining robustly orthodox themselves and not adopting a contemptuous attitude toward their Christian brothers and sisters. John Stott, Francis Schaeffer, Herman Bavinck, J. I. Packer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and Tim Keller are all examples that spring instantly to mind. Add Bavinck’s nephew, J. H. Bavinck, to that list while you’re at it. In a slightly different way, I think you can see a similar quality in the work of writers like C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Robert Farrar Capon, and Madeleine L’Engle. What unifies all of these people is what Stott called “double listening.” They listened to the Word of God, and then they listened to the conversations in the world. And through prayer, meditation, reflection, and friendship they found ways of bringing the truth of God’s Word to bear in God’s world in ways sensible and intelligible to their neighbors, all while for the most part avoiding the vices I am describing above.

In another sense, that’s a complicated answer, of course, because we can’t just walk into the public square and start reading John Stott books and claim that we’re being effective. We need to learn how to translate and develop the work of our predecessors for the sake of our contemporary neighbors. Fortunately, I think Collin Hansen’s new book and the work of the Keller Center more generally will be highly instructive and helpful with precisely this problem.

My hope is that as people read Collin’s book, they’ll get a better understanding of what has made Tim who he is. To use an analogy, Tim is Jacques Pepin: He started working in the kitchen at 13, he’s spent decades working with the best chefs in the world, perfecting his technique, and developing a deep and broad knowledge of ingredients, food chemistry, and cooking equipment. And now he shares that information with others in what looks like an effortless, seamless style because of just how deeply he has internalized the subjects he is discussing.

Many of Tim’s admirers, on the other hand, are the guy who watched a couple Pepin videos on YouTube and decided they can do what Pepin does. The problem is Pepin makes everything look easy not because it is easy but because he has decades of intensive formation behind him that has all been so deeply internalized that it just flows out spontaneously.

There are no shortcuts to that kind of formation. It won’t work to just mimic what you see him doing and hope things turn out the same for you. You need to put in the same kind of work he did, not so you can be a clone, but so that you can do the same sort of work he did within your own context and calling. That is the need of the moment, I think: We need leaders committed to prayer, Scripture, sober reflection, and deep reading who offer up all of those things to God for him to use as he would. Such an approach will leave no room for public posturing, scorn toward Christian brothers, or a kind of desperate and ingratiating posture.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).