I'm an Evangelical (Gasp!)

I am a born and bred evangelical.  I was born in an evangelical Christian family, attended private evangelical Christian schools in elementary, middle and high school, graduated undergrad from the ‘Harvard of evangelicalism,’ Wheaton College, got an M.Div from the largest evangelical seminary, Fuller Theological, and have worked in two evangelical mega-churches.  So, I guess I’d have to say,
“I’m an evangelical.”

I consider it quite a daring move on my part to come out as an evangelical, given some recent polls,  published in UnChristian.  These indicate that among young people who aren’t church-goers, 49% think ‘evangelical’ is a dirty word...and only 3% think good thoughts when the word is mentioned.  In other words, there is an 16:1 ratio of bad connotations to good.

So odds are good that you think less of me now than you did before I opened my mouth.  So why would I admit the label?  Simply because evangelicals are my people.

The truth is, though, that I’m beginning to wonder if “my people” really want me anymore.  It seems that since being educated in some of our/their most prestigious evangelical schools, I somehow no longer belong.

As I was finishing up at Fuller seminary, I began a conversation with an evangelical Christian high school about filling an open position as a Bible teacher.  All was going so well I thought it was a done deal, until the head of the Bible department asked me about my view of the Bible.  My answer would have made my Fuller professors beam.  I talked about its divine authority and its contextual nature. Then I gave an example: “I don’t believe Scripture intends to teach us that creation happened in a literal 7-days, but rather that it demonstrates, by deliberate contrast with the then dominant creation myths, the true nature of God's good intention for creation, and most importantly, his love for humankind.”  Suffice it to say, ‘my people’ didn’t want me teaching their students.

More recent events, which are too raw to mention, have been even more painful.  And now, I find myself ready to identify as a recovering evangelical.

St. Augustine, a major source of Christian theology, has this jarring quote that rings true for me, and I suspect for many of my post-evangelical peers.  He said “The church is a hoar, but she is my mother.” Well, when it comes to my relationship with evangelicalism, that about sums it up.  I wouldn’t brag about her virtue, but I no less owe her an eternal debt.

Purpose Statement for Practical Theology PhD

Two rising streams within Western Christianity seem to be flowing in opposite directions. Missional ecclesiology and spiritual formation are significantly shaping the course of the Christian church but they are rarely understood as tributaries of the same great river, whose vitality depends upon their fusion. Thus, missional ventures without spiritual currents dry up and spiritual formation efforts stagnate when disconnected from the missio dei. My interest in a PhD in Practical Theology, with a concentration in Mission and Evangelism and a minor in Spirituality, is in drawing these divergent movements into conversation, through a robust academic research project and an applied ecclesiological framework characterized by missional and formational practices in vital symbiosis.

In my research, I will explore ecclesial practices of outreach and spirituality, seeking those that promise to give shape to a fundamentally missional and formational ecclesiology. Theologically, I intend to locate the church within the biblical redemption narrative, and historically I will mine for exemplar communities that have been at once contemplative and service-oriented, such as missionary orders.

My zeal and qualifications for this course of study stem from my academic background and ministry endeavors. While earning a Bachelor of Arts in Christian Education and Ministry from Wheaton College, I provided philosophical leadership to an evangelistic ministry on Europe’s hostel circuit. This degree, along with a Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary, has given me firm grounding in theological, historical, biblical and educational disciplines and granted me language skills in biblical Hebrew and Greek. Burning questions about the nature of the church led me to an in-depth study of Lesslie Newbigin’s missional ecclesiology, and to missional praxis in a local congregation through a course in Church Based Urban Research. My leadership in local churches since 2002 has granted me experience as a small groups minister, church educator and mission leader. Finally, I am actively engaged in the spiritual formation movement as a member of the Renovare International Institute of Christian Spiritual Formation and as a contributor to the development and implementation of Monvee, an innovative spiritual formation webtool.

The primary catalyst for my desire to pursue doctoral study is my mounting distress over the two-headed failure of the American church: typical congregations neither bless their communities nor produce Jesus-like people. These realities, not falling attendance rates, are together a true crisis in American Christianity. My experience in two mega-churches has led me to suspect that this idolized model is complicit in the scandal. I am compelled by a sense of personal calling to present a viable alternative. To this end, I currently serve as a board member with an emerging church plant in urban San Francisco and am in discussion with Anglican Bishop Todd Hunter, founder of Churches for the Sake of Others. Bishop Hunter has expressed interest in the prospect of my research partnership as he initiates a massive missional church planting effort.

I am convinced that Boston University School of Theology’s unique collection of initiatives and faculty members make it the ideal academic environment for this course of study. The Center for Practical Theology, Congregational Research and Development Project and Spiritual Formation and Church Life Project are hubs for precisely the kind of research and praxis that give birth to original work, such as I intend to produce. The surfeit of faculty expertise in missiology, ecclesiology and spiritual formation, approached as subjects for practical theology, is unparalleled. Dr. Stone’s exceptional work in post-Christendom evangelism and new church development provide a substantial foundation on which to build. The expansive expertise in missiology of Dr. Robert and Dr. Daneel would supply the rich insight of cross-cultural praxis that informed Newbigin’s corpus. The depth and originality of Dr. Wolfteich’s contributions in spiritual formation, particularly on its intersection with justice and social action, would provide an essential element to this integrative work.

I am eager to serve the church and academy as a professor, author and congregational practitioner, believing that these roles would apply my best gifts to the highest cause: equipping churches and their leaders to facilitate transformation in individuals, congregations and their local communities. Specifically, I aspire to teach and lead in a local congregation, advise denominational leaders and teach academic courses in Ecclesiology, Practical Theology, Missional Theology, New Church Development and Revitalization, The Emerging Church, Mission in the West, Spiritual Formation and the Theology of Lesslie Newbigin.

How to Live in the Kingdom of God

The Kingdom (or Reign) of God is the realm in which God’s will is actualized. Thus heaven is a part of the Kingdom of God, angels are citizens in the Kingdom, animal life and all creation (generally speaking) are within the Kingdom of God. It is only people and evil spirits who, through their resistance to God’s will, find themselves outside of the Kingdom of God.

People come to inhabit the Kingdom of God when their wills become aligned with God’s. Thus, the Kingdom of God is available to any who are willing to surrender their will to God’s. When a person makes their will, their mind and their body available to God as tools in the hands of his will, then they are living in the Kingdom of God.

A Theology of Spiritual Formation: Fruits of the Renovare Institute

The theological grounding for spiritual formation in Christ is found in answering two fundamental questions with the same answer: What was God’s hope for the creation of humans and why did Jesus live, die and resurrect?

God’s loving desire from the beginning has been that he might extend the fellowship enjoys in the Trinitarian community and enter an interactive love relationship with humans.  It seems that divine love is constantly finding and creating new objects of love.  God intended that in this relationship these created beings would come willingly to God in full surrender and obedience such that God would be able to entrust to them free use of his power for good.  And this is still God’s good intention for humankind and in order for it to be realized, people—broken and spoiled by the fall—will need to be formed into the character of Christ...one who, by virtue of his humble submission to God’s will was given “all authority in heaven and on earth.”  

What is a human?

Biblically speaking, the human person is a created being with immeasurable worth, conferred freedom, a spiritual nature, a bodily presence and relationships to the surrounding persons and objects.

            The human person has several primary interrelated dimensions.  At the center of the individual is the will, often referred to variously as the “spirit” or “heart” in the Bible.  This is the “executive center” of the self.  It is here that decisions are made and the relation of this dimension of the person to God is of primary importance, for as Scripture says “the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

            Though the will is the epicenter of the individual, from out of which the whole life of the person reverberates, the will does not have direct access to the world.  Rather, the will is only able to make decisions about those things which the mind brings to its attention.  (This is why the mind is the necessary beginning point for spiritual transformation.)

            The mind is that aspect of the person which includes its consciousness.  In the mind are thoughts and feelings.  The mind is the operating system of the individual, receiving its source data from the body, from the senses of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.   The character of the mind determines how the external world will be perceived and interpreted and thus presented to the will.

            The mind is the residence of beliefs and ideas about reality and goodness.  It is through these beliefs that the external world is interpreted to the individual.  The mind is domain of the primary and inalienable freedom of the will.  For while others may infringe upon the social or physical bodily freedom of the self,  “the ultimate freedom we have as human beings is the power to select what we will allow or require our minds to dwell upon.” (Renovation, 95.)

            What the mind dwells upon has irrevocable influence on what the will chooses to do.  This is both good news and bad news.  For it means that however pure a heart be, an undisciplined mind will, though sheer persistence, deform it; conversely, however misshapen a heart may be, if it but exercises its authority over the mind, it will inevitably be restored.

            The body is the part of the person that is material, and thus empowers the individual to interact with the material world.  The body enables a person’s spirit to impact the physical world of others, and thus impact their minds(thoughts and feelings) and thereby, their hearts.  Of course, the mind can also act independently of the body, through sheer concentration on an idea or object that is not materially present, say through remembrance, imagination or memorization.  (In a similar way, the mind can pray, through the power of God thus influencing both the material world as well as the unseen world.)

            The body, like the mind, is characterized by habits.  It is not a machine acting always and only in conformity to the conscious intentions of the mind, but operates largely on instincts and routines which may be either righteous or carnal, in alignment with the will or outside of it.  Thus the body, too, must be formed into likeness with Christ, being trained for a thoughtless readiness to do and speak good.    

            A description of the person is not complete without reference to the space between the person and what surrounds it.  The self is essentially an interconnected entity.  In other words, a person is defined not only by what it is, but by how it relates to what else is.  Thus, the social dimension of the self is the way in which it interacts with other persons (and animals and created objects).

            The soul is that which integrates all the other dimensions of the self into a whole.  Hence, scripture sometimes counts people by their souls, for a soul is a person in its entirety.  A healthy soul is healthy person, one whose will is surrendered to God and is directing the mind to dwell on “whatever is lovely...”, whose body habitually enacts the good intentions of the will and who’s social interactions are a benefit to others.

This description was written as part of an assignment with the Renovare Institute and is hugely indebted to the work of Dallas Willard, especially The Renovation of the Heart.