05 August 2004

"Younger Evangelicals" and Quaker possibilities

I'm continuing to read Robert Webber's fascinating book The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World, which I heard about while still on my Woodbrooke fellowship in England. I think this book would open a lot of British Friends' eyes if they had the ability to read past the title. The most interesting thing about the book is the creativity bubbling in the evangelical community as those whose adulthood began approximately with the new century either overcome or ignore or are blissfully unaware of the defensiveness of the 20th century evangelical movement, and of the modernist captivity generally.

For most of the twentieth century, evangelicals tried to evangelize by convincing people with a combination of historical reasoning and the assembly of biblical puzzle-pieces, a process designed to provide irrefutable evidence of Christianity's truth claims based on secular standards of credibility. The importance of faith's presence in the loop of reasoning was downplayed in favor of looking sternly believable by "objective" standards.

The replacement of objective apologetics with "embodied" apologetics (that is: our most important evangelistic "evidence" is the evidence of the reality of Christian community) is one of the core elements of the shift among postmodern evangelicals, according to Webber. Part of that reality is the hunger for direct (individual or communal) experience of God's love. Here's how Wheaton College student Joel Handy put it, according to Webber:
So many churches and Christians separate what they know to be true theologically from their deepest being. But, it it only by knowing Christ in us that we learn to take up the cross. By our union with Jesus we are healed, and we become a Church that heals in the promise of the resurrected Savior. I am so hungry for churches that teach new life, instead of unbreakable logic and propositional doctrine. I want a church that teaches me how to know Jesus, and not to just think rightly. I want to know how to reveal the healing power of our Savior, as well as His true Character in a world so desperate for something real.

What particularly amazes me as I read this and similar writings is the capacity of Friends to incarnate all this beautifully. Friends, perhaps especially unprogrammed Friends, who were ablaze with this stripped-down ecclesiology and passionate christology could turn the world upside down, because we would be staking all on the reality of the Holy Spirit.

When a small group of us at Reedwood Friends Church began an alternative worship service on Monday evenings, based on contemporary music, informality, brief reflections rather than sermons, great big gobs of silence, food and drink afterwards, etc., we still had the overhead of having to get the worship leaders together for planning and so on, and with all the best will in the world, there was still a tiny element of incongruity in the planning of spontaneity.

What if the musicians just got together when they wanted to, in order to try out new things, but then played at the worship meeting whatever they felt led to play or what worshippers felt led to ask for? What if there were no sermon at all, but the burden of the teaching ministry (a crucial ministry) were done at a separate time - before, after, a different day, or whatever? What if the tone of both the meeting for learning and the meeting for worship were so safe and free that people could praise, cry, laugh, pray by stream-of-consciousness language, pray the prayers of ancient mystics, confess doubts and mistakes, and if something couldn't be dealt with in one setting, it could tenderly be referred to the other?

Much of my inter-Quaker discussions in England were over the compatibility or incompatibility of passionate Christianity with British Quakerism, but I think an equally important topic for somewhere is the wonderful adequacy of the vessel offered by classic Quakerism for the expression of postmodern Christianity.

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