A personal reflection of my path so far within evangelicism

People don’t sit still and neither do their beliefs. This, even while their creator, their God, both sits rock still, unmoving, unchanging and at the same time flits around like a hummingbird at the speed of light in his creation. We are like something between the two, but tremendously limited.

A systematic theology is more like a snapshot of someone’s current understanding, though it may reflect years of digestion and synthesis. In contrast, the autobiography is sometimes a better vehicle for understanding what a person believes and why. Being aware of the context of their lives brings many vague things into focus. Secularists like to do this to “demystify” faith. I say it is even more valid to use it to “humanize” that faith and bring it closer to the earth and those who dwell there.

David Miller recently posted this piece about his winding ecclesiastical journey from Reformed Presbyterianism, to Orthodoxy, to Anglicanism, and eventually back to the Reformed. Quite the ride. Hopefully his wife and kids weren’t rolling their eyes after switching church’s for the fourth time. Who knows. That’s probably none of my business. Still, I find Miller’s story interesting and I appreciate him outlining the journey and his reasons.

I am personally on a different journey and my reasons are yet again different. Since I find myself frequently having to explain myself to friends and family, I decided to take a stab at writing some of that story down here. This is not heavily footnoted or filled with scripture references. I could do that but it would take far longer to piece together and I don’t feel up to that tonight so it’s either write this shorter personal version or nothing at all at this hour. To other people on a similar journey (and I know a few of you personally out there!), this might help you to place where you are on the map or work through your own confusions.

The evangelical traditions I came from were very desperate to be cool. Usually they fell on their face. Sometimes they succeeded, at least for a few years. In the end though, despite the fact that it got some people in the doors following after something larger than themselves, I believe it ultimately served to obscure the gospel. Yet the gospel was still there. They have, at their core, remained faithful to biblical Trinitarian orthodoxy despite forgetting their history. Their awkwardness is my own awkwardness and so my journey never really leaves the realm of evangelicalism. However silly its people may be at times, Christ is there in their midst.

As liturgical churches in the United States lost their vibrancy and orthodoxy in the past century, the form has remained but everything else evaporated. This has led many Christians to be highly suspicious of the form. The contemporary evangelical Anglicans come back and say though, “Wait! The form is actually great. Just fill it with the spirit again. Bring Jesus back into the hearts of the people!” As those who for a while sped over the waves on a light jet boat but have since have been tossed on the ocean for decades with only a few scraps of driftwood to hold on to, a passing iron freighter looks like a dry and stable home. This big ship could be Roman Catholicism, or Orthodoxy, or whatever. It’s slow moving, but maybe that’s a good thing. Is it pointed toward the right destination? Jesus loves his church. He’s bringing all these boats in even if some of them seem to have their rudder stuck in a circle.

The Anglican way is to be faithful to the anglo-catholic liturgy that is 500+ years old – stick to your guns, and trust the holy spirit will do the rest. You don’t have to have a cool video montage. Just read lots of scripture out loud. Preaching is good – have good preaching – but that only goes so far so only have a moderate amount of that. Articulate the gospel but don’t make their head explode. We can give students that in a classroom setting elsewhere. God has promised to be with us everywhere, be he has especially promised to be present to us in a special way in the Eucharist, in the bread and wine. Take this part of the worship gathering seriously and make it the most important part. Again, God will do the rest. Don’t bother with greeters armed with walkie-talkies trying to scope out new families in the parking lot and have someone from the same demographic meet them at the door. We don’t need to busy ourselves with any of that stuff. Be faithful in worshiping the Triune God and other people will be drawn unto him. Don’t light candles during worship to be gimmicky. But it’s what our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers did and it’s beautiful and subtle. Those are good enough reasons to still light them.

I considered sticking with the evangelical Baptists of my youth, but the heavy yoke of semi-Pelagianism (often preached unwittingly, not intentionally) was more than I could bear. In addition, the lack of beauty in art and music made me further despair. I could always see Jesus but he seemed so very far away.

In college I fell in with the Pentecostals. Jesus was large and right there in the room! It was exciting and the words in my bible came alive and exploded off the page every time I opened it. I read through the Gospel of John three straight times in one week during that first winter away from home. I swear I saw miracles – not least of all the miracle in my own prideful and elitist heart as it was made softer without the work of human hands. But then I found, after several years with my new friends, that God made me to be a quiet thinker. I streeeeeetched myself to fit the bombastic culture but found I could only stretch so far. Eventually as I matured from a young 17-year-old to a father of several children and nearly 30 myself, I found I no longer felt at home in that community anymore. It had stayed the same but I had changed. It was a nice place to pass through but I couldn’t find it in my imagination to make a permanent home their for the next sixty years. Some people could, but I couldn’t.

But where could one go? I am not an individual consumer and autonomous chooser of paths. I am formed by my history, by my genes, by my geography, by my wife, by the holy spirit. If I am honest with myself, I will acknowledge that I am constrained by many things.

I considered following the road to Reformed Presbyterianism. The theology is well considered and it is on my mother’s side after all. But I became too disheartened by the frequency of nasty debates amongst its cannon lawyers and the general allergy to the more mystic work of Christ. I also found little room in their midst for those who valued certain activities of the Holy Spirit. It’s not that there aren’t charismatics in these churches, it’s just that they have to stay in the closet. Though several close friends followed that path, I found I could only appreciate them from a distance.

I considered Orthodoxy for a time then. It has many corrective measures liturgically and theologically to the weaknesses of my past formation. I felt particularly excited at the theology of Christus Victor and the deep appreciation for beauty and mystery. But the cultural gap was just too large. The different branches of the Orthodox church are just too tied to ethnic identities – Greek, Russian, Ethiopian, etc. There isn’t any natural room for a rural-born North American. It would be a shoe-horn if ever there was one. Maybe this will be less of the case in 100 years as it gains more traction as a grass-roots movement in the West, but that is not the case today. It felt too disingenuous to try to join the Orthodox church. It’s not who I am. Tough. An intellectual assent will only take you so far. It doesn’t help that I had some friends go Orthodox and then go completely off the rails (though others seem fine today). I eventually found myself only a distant acquaintance.

Though I had come to appreciate certain aspects of Roman Catholicism, I never seriously considered swimming the Tiber. God bless them, but it’s not a movement I can get behind. In the end, I have to agree that the Reformation was ultimately a good thing and that my ecclesiastical allegiance lies elsewhere.

The Anabaptists have their strengths as well I have some other friends who followed that path and are seeing fruit from it in their lives and their communities. I found I couldn’t get tremendously excited about it though either. When it comes down to it, the news that Jesus work alone has utterly negated my guilt is the thing I need to hear the most. It’s the only thing that truly quiets my soul. It’s the only thing that allows me to hear “God loves you” without disbelieving it. And a tradition that emphasizes that grace-heavy Jesus, Jesus, Jesus soteriology in preaching and song and in regular conversations on the street – that is what turns my crank. It’s a key ingredient in the kind of church I can imagine living in. And, again, God bless them, but that sort of “Grace turned up to 11” attitude, I have only found (despite their other problems), with the reformed, with the Calvinists and their ilk. It’s not that it wasn’t there in the other traditions, just that it wasn’t in a form that resonated with me. I had difficulty hearing it due to my own particular scars. It’s not their fault really, but I am nevertheless drawn elsewhere.

So what does that leave me with? A tradition that has a relatively robust theology of grace when talking about the work of Christ – essentially reformed (small ‘r’). A tradition that isn’t too culturally distant – one that is largely English speaking but is not Euro-centric or U.S.-centric and wide enough to include significant swaths of Africa (which I cannot forget since traveling there). A tradition that appreciates and appropriates old things – old music, old beautiful art and doesn’t fall pray to the zeitgiest or to chronological snobbery. A tradition that values contextual expression and flexibility, but values order and consistency more. A sacramental tradition. The Anglican church foots the bill.

So why haven’t so many more evangelicals come to this conclusion? How come I get so many strange looks when I talk about this? The answer is simple. The expression of the Anglican church in the United States, the Episcopal Church of America, was completely taken over by liberal theologians about fifty years ago. They are now but an object of derision amongst evangelicals with their leading bishops both publicly denying the bodily resurrection and demanding that their lesbian sexual practice be legitimized in the public square. It’s like a bad joke. It’s no wonder that nobody has wanted to touch what remained of their worship form with a 10-foot or even 100-foot pole.

But then again C.S. Lewis was an Anglican and nearly everyone agrees he had his head on straighter than, well, just about anybody. Scholars like N.T. Wright have been putting out such excellent orthodox teaching over the past couple decades that even distant outsiders are starting to take notice. Influential seminary professors like Robert Webber (may he rest in peace) started digging around with their shovels and realized that the Anglican tradition has a thousand useful tools to help us on the giant task of reforming and (paradoxically sometimes) refreshing the evangelical church.

So I look back at all the traditions and I see a lot of useful tools for reforming and reenergizing, not just the western church in general, but especially in my own life, in my own family, with my own kids, with my own day-to-day prayer and faith and doubt, and even within the life of my friends and community. I look and I see lots of good, but within the Anglican tradition, I find the largest number of things I can pick up and use along with the fewest number of stumbling blocks. So that is why I’m here, walking down the road to Canterbury… or possibly Nairobi.

OK, “But what about them hurdles?” you may ask. Oh, they are there. I guess now is as good of time as ever to bring some of them out into the open. I’ve talked about some of the good, but what about the bad and the ugly?

The Bad:
Like all Christian traditions, contemporary conservative Anglicanism has it’s strengths and weaknesses. In the weakness department are, I think, a general difficulty and adverseness to being prophetic. That is my impression anyway and that of quite a few others. Anglicans can often be happy doing their own thing and not putting a lot of effort into reaching outwards. (It’s the same thing Roman Catholics in the west are not particularly good at in general, though there are exceptional pockets here and there.) They are not typically to be found preaching on street corners or making a lot of noise in the public square. They do send missionaries, but not near as many as the Baptists. There are evangelists within the church, but other groups like the Assemblies of God do a much better job of training and energizing these folks. When the evils of the current age or the corruptness of politicians needs addressing, you are more likely to find a hot Reformed Christian writing or talking loud and articulate about it. The Anglicans are soft-spoken and that can be a good thing, but not when it’s time to fight, and sometimes it IS time to fight.

The Ugly:
Ecclesiastical infighting amongst bishops with big egos is real and occasionally nasty. When Presbyterians fight, they set up courts and denounce each other as formally as possible with hundreds of confessional footnotes. When Charismatics fight, it is couched in highly spiritual language about one person or another “quenching the spirit”, with an ugly church split described as a “new move of God”. When evangelical Anglicans fight, it’s somewhere in the middle between these two things. So you get some of both kinds of “bleh”. The insults hurled at Nigerian leaders (who are flush with people, but dirt poor) by the last remaining Episcopalians (who are flush with cash and property but with dying congregations) will make you want to hurl. Don’t look it up. The Anglican Church in North America has been mostly successful in uniting and absorbing many of the conservative movements throughout the U.S. and Canada – but not entirely so. There have still been some messy fights and huffy resignations that seriously derailed the work of some local congregations and, at best, was a discouraging distraction. Though debates about sexual ethics, soteriology, and biblical orthodoxy are (thankfully) pretty well settled at this point, the limitations of women’s ordination looms ahead. Expect a few more nasty exoduses (one way or the other) over this one in the following decade. Sigh.

So there you go. My journey is something like Conservative Baptist –> 3rd Wave Charismatic –> Post-evangelical wilderness –> Anglicanized evangelical. Whether I have the opportunity to serve or worship in a formally Anglican church is maybe not so important. There is no such congregation in the vicinity – for the time being, I want to stay where I am at and serve the best I can. That could be for quite a while, especially since my wife and I are trying to stay put for a while to give the kids a lot of stability. I would rather see them formed by the observation of friendship and steadfastness in our lives than by the quest for increasingly exact and accurate theology or practice. None of these places I’ve passed through on my journey to understanding and worshipping Jesus has been a fixed point to be abandoned. They are all still living inside of me – my parents, the people that loved me, the ones that taught and chastised me, and the people that let me down too. I let my share of them down. But the Lord is faithful and I desire to keep my eyes on him as I walk.

Some impressions of the Anglican 1000 event in Seattle (2013)

Here are some of my thoughts about the Anglican 1000 church planting conference put on in Seattle by the ACNA this week.

It was wonderfully refreshing to converse with men (and a women) of very similar theological and ecclesiastic stripe. This, being a religious conference featuring pastors and writers and thinkers, you would think there would be some debates about theology. There was virtually none. Nobody argued about soteriology. It was essentially reformed. Some may have leaned slightly another way, but it never came up once. There was zero discussion about sexual ethics. It was never even mentioned except in the context of pastoral care. This is a group that formed (among other things) along the lines of the traditional orthodox position on sex and marriage. In a world (both local and online) that is SO saturated in debates about gay marriage and such, it was strikingly quiet and peaceful to hang out with a group of people who wanted to talk about Jesus and how to contextualize the liturgy, etc. There were no fundamentalists beating the drum about the culture war – not even as a 5-minute aside. There were no progressives trying to start a “conversation” about marriage  equality. Good Lord, that was restful.

The other thing I discovered was that nearly everyone I talked to was charismatic. They spoke it tongues, prayed for divine healing, and raised their hands during worship. But they weren’t pentecostals. This sort of activity was not the essential core of the faith and wasn’t emphasized in the liturgy or required of disciples though, depending on the person, it may be encouraged to varying degrees. It was there just under the surface if you brought it up, but wasn’t always being mentioned. The broad range of the Anglican tradition allows for a range of expression, but strict cessacionism is outside of that – thank God.

One thing I was expecting to find was a lot of bi-vocational ministers. After all, nearly everyone I’ve talked to, both in Anglican circles and just evangelical circles in general have been saying that bi-vocational ministry was going to soon be the new normal. (For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, this means pastors and priests who have day jobs and receive only a small amount of their income from their church responsibilities.) But, what I found was nearly everyone, even all the young guys, working full-time for their churches. Some of them described working part time for the first year while they were starting a new congregation, but every person I talked to, once they past about the 50-60 mark, pursued paying a full-time rector. This took priority over paying rent for a nicer space to meet or any other thing. Nevertheless, I still had several people tell me that this IS changing – that in the future it will be more likely to find teams of part-timers with shared responsibilities. BUT, for now it seems that the old way of supporting the clergy is still largely in place. I think some of the hurdles related to formal ordination have made this take longer to catch on in the Anglican church. Other groups who have more relaxed rules about who can serve the eucharist are able to be more agile in this regard. But I guess it’s a price worth paying to keep the larger tradition intact. You can’t have it both ways. Sometimes you just have to make a call and stick with it. With Anglicanism, at the end of the day, to have a legit congregation, you need to have a full-blown priest who had hands laid on him by a bishop of apostolic succession. End of story. So work from that.

Several guys discussed new innovative ways to train and credential clergy. This was something I was particularly interested in and asked quite a few people for their opinion. Do you HAVE to have a Masters of Divinity to serve in any kind of formal capacity? Are other kinds of theological education potentially acceptable? The answer I got is that, yes, other things are being accepted. A Masters of Religion from institutions held in high regard (like Trinity School of Ministry or Regents) are probably going to be “good enough” for most bishops nowadays. Some people are even pursuing ordination through apprenticeship programs outside of the academy. Believe it or not, this is actually the old, old way of doing things. This is all encouraging to me as someone who might want to eventually serve in some kind of capacity as a priest or deacon, but who does not want to uproot his family to go to seminary and descend deep into debt (terrible idea). One guy in Chicago even had a network of fast multiplying congregations run by lay-ministers. This is apparently the African model used in parts of Nigeria and Rwanda where there are way more people than they have priests to handle anyway.


The men running the ACNA are very interested in contextualizing the gospel and reaching people for Christ, but they have no interest in being cool. One of the speakers recounted a story about how he was helping a young guy (from another denomination) who was trying to plant a cool alt church. He had a fo-hawk, skinny jeans, some tattoos, and some thick hipster glasses. It wasn’t working. Finally he realized that the guy wasn’t cool at all – he was a nerd. “Dude, you need to knock this off. Plant a nerdy church. You can actually do that. Don’t worry. It’s OK. There are lots of nerds out there and Jesus loves them too.” This reflect the theme of their worship philosophy as I see it. Worry about worshipping God well and not being seeker-sensitive. In the long run, this works because it lifts up Christ, not the people.

One of the few Bishops in the Northwest, Kevin Bond Allen, led the Eucharist service in the evening. It was a wonderful mix of Celtic prayers (some of them taken from the Northumbrian Prayer Book), psalms, and some contemporary worship songs with guitar and piano. I don’t know what else to say about the service except that I was rather emotionally moved, which is unusual.

Afterwards, some of us went out for drinks at an Irish Pub and discussed (among other things): whether Christian universities are actually Christian anymore, what it’s like to pastor a church deep in the Yukon, adapting the Alpha Course for the military, and how different Seattle is from Texas. We also traded pictures of our children and argued over whether the Scotch Ale was better than the Hefewiezen.

I had to get home and back to the office so I left after the second day. I think they are just wrapping up today (Friday) and then traveling to Boston to do it all over again soon. For me, it was fortunate that they decided to put on several small regional gatherings this year instead of one large national one. It certainly made my participation possible. It’s one thing to read books and blogs and correspond by email. It’s another to meet face to face and I was really blessed by the openness, friendliness, and practicality of everyone I met. I’ll be posting my notes and thoughts on some of the discussions here later once I’ve thought through them a bit more.

Anglican 1000

I just spent the last two days talking to and eating and drinking with leaders and church planters from the Anglican Church in North America. The event was in Seattle and I just got back from six straight hours of driving. I hope to write a few things up about it later this week, but I haven’t processed it all yet. It was, in short, a wonderful and encouraging time. Special thanks to my wife for watching all the kids for most of three days so I could attend. Whew!

Update: I have posted some of my impressions here.


Removing the “quasi” from quasi-religious

Hip hop artist Coolio was on the radio a lot in my younger days. One of his songs starts out:

This is some of the lingua-fringa of da funk business,
And people come from miles around
with an almost religious devotion to get on down…

Their dedication to dance at the club and to pick up chicks is “almost” religious. It’s analogous to it at least, right?

A few years earlier, when I was too young to listen to the radio, Madonna could be heard singing:

When you call my name it’s like a little prayer,
I’m down on my knees, I wanna take you there.

Conversing with her lover is like talking to God.

More recently, Bruno Mars blurs the lines even further by using a metaphor instead of a simile (like Madonna) or quantitative comparison (like Coolio). On “Locked out of Heaven” he croons:

Never had much faith in love or miracles, Never wanna put my heart on the line.
But swimming in your world is something spiritual
I’m born again every time you spend the night

OK. So blurring the line between romantic love and divine love has a rich and long history. But I think this works its way into other quarters as well, like the devotion to Mammon over and against devotion to the creator.


Have you seen those ads from Charles Schwab with the middle-aged man pretending to be a hot stock trader from the comfort of his living room? More than a few people have pointed out that the stock ticker is like an oracle for those who worship at its altar. Our politicians speak constantly of “development” and “growth” being the instruments of our salvation. The “invisible hand of the market” is spoken of as there were very little to distinguish it from the providence of God.

The same goes for those who are devoted to some exciting consumer product and spend hours pouring over prophecies about its next iteration and some even traveling thousands of miles on a pilgrimage to catch a glimpse of it’s face. Look at these two photographs below – the first of several people fawning over an iPhone prototype on a pedestal and the other of a woman burning incense to the Buddha. Do they honestly look like activities of different natures?

MacWorld Expo Contiunes In San Francisco


What is going on here? I think all these kinds of devotions are the same. It is not that stuff directly involving God is “religious” and all this other stuff isn’t. With regards to how we direct our minds and use our bodies and time and energy, they are completely the same. They are essentially their own religions.

James K.A. Smith says as much here:

[George] Lindebeck recognized the French Revolution as a “quasi-religious phenomenon”. But why only QUASI-religious? In fact, it offers an “idiom for dealing with whatever is most important” and functions as a “ritual reiteration of certain definitions of what is ultimately good and true”. I’m suggesting that we drop the “quasi” and recognize such formative “secular” rituals as properly “religious.”

I use the term secular loosely since one of the implications of this analysis is that there is no secular. If humans are essentially liturgical animals, and cultural institutions are liturgical institutions, then there are no secular (a-religious or nonreligious) institutions.

-Desiring the Kingdom, footnotes on p.88

To eat or not to eat is not a viable question in life. “WHAT are you going to eat?” is. In the same way, to worship or not to worship is not the right question. The right question is: “WHAT are you worshipping?” What are you ascribing value to?