Monday, May 23, 2005

Go into all nations and...preach the political gospel?

Is it too early to say this Administration has gone out on a limb it is now sawing off?
Evangelical leaders are re-examining whether American evangelicalism has suffered from its portrayal as a conservative political movement rather than as a broad religious philosophy rooted in a literal reading of the Bible.

Although evangelical leaders have been among the most prominent spokesmen for conservative causes, “evangelical” and “religious right” are not the same thing. Studies indicate that as many as 40 percent of Americans who call themselves evangelicals are politically moderate or identify with the Democratic Party.

But two recent declarations by evangelical and conservative religious thinkers suggest that evangelicals have become too closely identified with conservative political activism, at the expense of attracting new followers. The declarations are likely to be hot topics of conversation when the Southern Baptist Convention holds its annual meeting next month in Nashville, Tenn.

“Because evangelicals have been portrayed as being very, very limited in their range of societal concerns, there is an element of challenge in the evangelical community to say, ‘Let’s not get caught up in narrow partisan concerns,’” said Mark L. Sargent, provost of Gordon College, a nondenominational Christian institution in Wenham, Mass. “Many evangelicals say they feel very alienated with the partisan rhetoric in the nation.”
That's for the political activists in the audience. Those of us interested in matters ecclesiological (and being constantly told to "act more like the Baptists" by our "church growth experts") find this a bit more interesting:

[Thom S.] Rainer, dean of the Billy Graham School at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., argues that while the “conservative resurgence” of the last quarter-century has effectively transformed the convention into a theologically purer body, it has failed to attract new followers.

“The Southern Baptist Convention is less evangelistic today than it was in the years preceding the conservative resurgence,” writes Rainer, who found that the denomination’s number of annual baptisms has remained virtually unchanged since the 1950s. “We must conclude that the evangelistic growth of the denomination is stagnant, and that the onset of the conservative resurgence has done nothing to improve this trend.”
The growth, or not, of churches is a hot topic in America today. The dividing line is essentially over the "liberality" or "conservatism" of doctrine. That debate has recently boiled over into "liberal" and "conservative" politics. This may be an indication that the confusion of the terms was not entirely appropriate, which may be a warning to churches on both sides of both issues (doctrine and politics).

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