If evangelicals have a singular strength, it is a willingness to disagree over secondary issues while agreeing on the centrality of the gospel, inerrancy, and conversionism. This has given us enormous flexibility to cooperate on missions, charity, social justice, and political belligerency.1 The space for common effort that Eric Landry once described as the village green – a common space for neighbors to gather – has been one of the great boons to Christianity.
Evangelicals have learned to put the gospel first, to insist on inerrancy, to prioritize evangelism and discipleship. A better set of practical emphases is hard to come by, and we are right to see the salvation of the lost as God’s great mission and thus our most pressing task. We live "between the times"; there is a necessary urgency to proclaiming Christ’s death and resurrection while we await his return. We recognize that the priorities of the young church were essentially threefold: missionary work, the sanctification of believers in the church through mutual edification and the elders’ teaching, and ministries of compassion. It is to evangelicals’ great credit that these have been our emphases as well.
Indeed, because we esteem the twin causes of evangelism and discipleship, we have set them in the center of our movement – to our detriment.2 To our detriment, I say, because there can be only one center, and if it is anything but God himself, we will run amok. The gospel is the way to the center, but it is not the center. Having put it there, we have misplaced many other genuine goods that are a necessary part not only of human flourishing but of specifically Christian flourishing.
The solar system provides a useful metaphor here. The earth is essential to human existence. It is not, however, the center of our solar system, and it could not support human existence if it were. Just as the sun is the center of the solar system around which all other bodies revolve, Jesus Christ himself is the center of our faith around which all other aspects revolve. Some of those aspects may be nearer the center, spinning faster (that is, with greater urgency). Others may be like Jupiter: some way removed from the center, but of enormous importance to the health of the whole system. Still others may be like the moons of Pluto: far-out, with little impact on the rest of the system, but still part of it and not to be entirely ignored.
To be sure, all healthy evangelicals implicitly understand that the gospel is here to point us to Jesus, rather than being its own end. We struggle with this practically, though; we often make "ministry" the point around which all other aspects of the Christian life must revolve. We must therefore set Christ at the center of our faith much more explicitly, recognizing that the gospel is important but not primary. Jupiter cannot revolve around the earth, but it can and does circle the sun. Likewise, clear doctrines of vocation, a careful theology of the body, or a robust approach to the arts largely go missing or get confused when we try to make them "ministry" – but having thus reordered our world, we can rightly appreciate them.
Work glorifies God even if we never successfully lead a Bible study with our coworkers, and no less when the work is mechanical engineering than when it is pastoring. Friendship glorifies God when the relationship is full of love and encouragement, even when the time is spent playing games rather than discussing theology or praying. Beautiful art glorifies God even when the subject is nonreligious. A soccer game glorifies God when the players use their bodies to their best ability and show good sportsmanship, even when playing in a secular league. Each is free to glorify God in its own way, rather than being shoehorned into a means for various kinds of ministry.3
Evangelicalism is strong because we have recognized the importance of the gospel, discipleship, and charity. It will be stronger if we recognize the supremacy of Christ in all things, not just “ministry”.
I believe political belligerency is not merely a necessary evil but both essential and good. Which particular issues require political action is another question for another day.↩
Readers who are up on the blog world may note that much of what follows is equally applicable to the "gospel-centered" sub-movement that has sprung up in the last few years as to evangelicalism in general. I appreciate this movement immensely, but see the potential for it to relive many of evangelicalism’s struggles in microcosm.↩
That is not to say that a friendly game shouldn’t be used as an outreach tool, that explicitly religious subjects for art are a bad idea, that friendships should not include prayer and theology, or that people should not seek to lead their coworkers to Christ. It is simply to say that those are distinct goods that sometimes accompany each of those spheres – not the aim of those spheres.↩