We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, August 3, 2012

Varieties of Evangelicalism

Evangelicalism is not a single, monolithic thing, which is part of the reason it can be so hard to define.  In the U.S., we generally think of it as being a conservative religious movement with strong tendencies toward biblical literalism, fundamentalism, uncritical patriotism, and right wing social values.  But even here there are many different expressions of evangelicalism, and once we leave the U.S. the picture is even more complicated.  A recent news posting on the Christian Monitor website, "In a France suspicious of religion, evangelicalism's message strikes a chord," provides a case in point.

France is one of the most aggressively secular states in the world.  Religion is widely looked on with varying degrees of indifference, suspicion, and even open hostility.  In this hostile environment, however, French evangelicalism is quietly growing in numbers along the fringes of French society.  Figures in the posting suggest that today there are about 600,000 evangelical Protestants in France.  In a nation of nearly 66 million according to Wikipedia (here), that is an unimpressive figure, but the important thing is that the numbers have been growing steadily, and some experts consider it the fastest growing religion in France today.

The article cites a variety of reasons for this growth: evangelical churches are informal and warm hearted.  Minority groups find them appealing.  In hard economic times, they provide a refuge for some people.  Furthermore, France is changing socially into a less hierarchical society,  and evangelicalism fits this change.  At the same time French-style evangelicalism is self-consciously not like American evangelicalism.  It is more liberal, ecumenical, and European in its approach.

There is a larger point here, which is that in many settings evangelical Protestantism is proving itself more adaptable and spiritually attractive than the historic Protestant churches.  Its churches take faith more seriously.  They also seem to find more joy in their faith.  Evangelicals are often more willing to share their faith and better able to do so.  In sum, one direction declining mainline churches would do well to explore (and some are exploring) is discovering and adapting a more warm hearted, joyful, and spiritually articulate evangelicalism to the life of our congregations.  We would do well to become more joyfully serious in our faith.