Another conversation has opened up online that I have been invited to be a part of by my friend Colin. It is something of a discussion group for those wishing to work through some of the struggles of being a contemporary evangelical. You are free to look on and comment. It begins with each of the contributing members introducing themselves, thinking particularly of their own back-story in regard to the perceived foibles of evangelicalism. I have posted my own introductory entry below.
It is odd telling such stories because they inevitably involve other people, especially when we are talking about generational generalizations. I also hesitate to tell such personal stories, but then again I don't see how we can discuss such matters without being personally honest. All that to say: I want the stories of my church upbringing to read more like a tribute to my parent's faithful dialogue with me through some messy evangelical decades than like an indictment of everyone who ever had an influence on me.
I say this with fear and trembling: I'm not entirely sure I would be a Christian today if not for spending thousands and thousands of dollars to get a theological education, thus discovering Christianity to more relevant, life-giving, complex, beautiful, intellectual, and communal than I had ever realized.
I'm not trying to make a statement with that, I'm just saying that's my story. I'm not trying to say the evangelical churches I grew up in never had any of that, I'm just saying I never caught much wind of it (and still don't very often). I'm not saying I have my own theological education to thank for my faith (as if it is mine in some way), I'm just saying that key professors and authors have been the part of the church which God has graciously used to keep me. (I think this does speak to a problem in evangelicalism, but we'll get to that later I'm sure.)
Reading Robert Webber's Younger Evangelicals a couple years ago I realized that being born in '75 put me between generations---and this explained to me why I've always felt tugged in two directions at once. It has never been incredibly difficult for me to join in on the postmodern critique of modernity; the Gen-X critique of Boomers; the emergent critique of the seeker-service; and so on. Whatever you want to call it, I feel it in my bones.
But it isn't so easy: I am just as suspicious of my critique as I am of the one I critique. I am postmodern enough to believe that it isn't so black and white as all that---as if modernity is all bad and postmodernity all good; as if my generation will be able to right the wrongs of evangelicalism past without in turn bringing new and even worse wrongs to evangelicalism future; as if we are the enlightened ones whose first step ought to be to shrug off the lies and errors of our fathers. Uh-uh. I'm with Elijah: My ancestors may have had some problems, but the harder I try to fix them the more I discover that I am no better than my ancestors. We've seen generation after generation err by over-reacting to the one before. Too many babies have been thrown out with the bathwater. The errors of today's evangelicalism are the over-reactions to the evangelicalism which preceded.
But lest this become a rant instead of an introduction, let me give a couple anecdotes from my life that illustrate why I look at it this way.
When I was a boy of 12 I was for the first time listening to rock music on my headphones---and it was so good. I was loving it. I had never really heard anything like it and new vistas of experience were opening on my horizon.
But all the time I listened I was full of this debilitating and deathly fear that I'd be found out for being so rebellious; I'd be in huge trouble for brushing the dark side---and this new world of music that had just opened up in front of me would be taken away by my parents forever.
Then one day it happened: I was listening to this music and my mom was trying to talk to me. I couldn't hear her, so naturally she spoke louder to get my attention. When I noticed, well, I thought my time had come: I was busted!
I don't recall exactly what happened next but I think I burst into tears. Turned out she was just telling me we had to go somewhere. That's all. She couldn't understand what I was so fearful of. What she and I both didn't realize, I think, was what a hold guilt and fear had on my young Christian heart. I felt guilty for pretty much everything and I was afraid of even more.
Now here's the crazy thing: The music was Micheal W. Smith! And my parents had not only overseen the purchase of the cassette but had given me the walkman! Why was I afraid? For the life of me I can't figure it out except to say that the fear (and guilt) that I felt crippling me growing up was part and parcel of the evangelical air I breathed.
I'm not going to try to say that guilt and fear don't have their place, but they are not the beating heart of the faith. Something went seriously wrong in my corner of the 2oth century evangelical world and many like me have not survived it. I am thankful that by the grace of God somehow the faith still has a hold of me, but at times it has been barely. Eventually the icy grip of guilt and fear squeezes the life out of it and you either run for cover or you find that there is something deeper to the faith.
I hope this doesn't sound like therapy, but one more anecdote: In grade 7 the San Francisco earthquake happened right before my eyes while I watched TV. Given my upbringing I was fairly certain the rapture was about to happen any moment. Unexpectedly, I became very afraid of being raptured. I did not want to go to heaven. I did not want to go to hell, either, don't get me wrong, but all I could think of when I thought of heaven was this eternal extension of my current experience. At the time I did not appreciate things like love and grace and peace and reconciliation and hope. Those things had certainly been taught in church but I didn't hear them.
I had sure heard about the "slippery slope" though. And it certainly kept me out of trouble. Something good might still be said about it. I had heard conviction of sin. And in some way it certainly led me to Jesus. Something good might still be said about that too. I had heard all about the end-times. It certainly made me aware of the urgency of life, and something good might still be said about it as well, but beneath them I had nothing but a gaping hole where Jesus (and Christian community) ought to have been thriving but instead were barely breathing for air. Here I was petrified of heaven because all I could picture was me sitting alone in a crowded church feeling completely out of the loop . . . for ever. I was beside myself. I really was. Few things are as frightening in my memory as that time of my life.
What got me through was my dad praying with me. Notice that? I had the evangelicalism of my ancestors partly to blame for the trouble I was in, but I also had my living breathing ancestor to thank for leading me in Christian communion to engage the Jesus somewhere behind it all.
20 years later I am still working through all of this (and it has been interesting now to laugh about those stories with my parents, and also together to ask quizzically: "What was going on there?") My church upbringing is something I have become very thankful for. But it is also something I want to build on. Hopefully little conversation groups like this one can be some good therapy---ahem, I mean edification!
I doubt that ours is a period of transition which will smooth out the church experience for our children. I shudder to think of the messes I am leaving for my kids to clean up. But I take solace in the grace of God and I make it my goal not simply to pass on a heritage of my own achieved perfection, but ultimately to pass on the ministry of reconciliation that (whether it has always been realised or preached or not) has been the beating heart of the evangelical church all along.