Wednesday: Surveying the Landscape

Evangelicalism is my family – it always has been. Along the way I’ve been part of a couple of Brethren churches, I’ve spent seventeen years leading a non-denominational, evangelical international church in Switzerland, and I pastored a Northern Irish Baptist Church for four years. These days, Sundays see me in a range of evangelical pulpits and I’ve been doing teaching at Belfast Bible College (interdenominational) and the Irish Baptist College.

A few weeks ago, on my way home from preaching in a small Baptist Church in County Tyrone I stopped for lunch with some friends in Fermanagh. As we sat outside (summer had lingered) by the shore of Lough Erne we got chatting about some aspects of the Church in Northern Ireland.

It prompted me to jot down some thoughts that have become part of this article.

  1. Evangelicalism allows for variety. As I said, it’s been my family. Not everyone in the family looks the same or sounds the same. Which means that there are areas where one’s views can diverge quite a bit without evangelical credentials being called into question (or too many questions!). Are spiritual gifts still operating today? Who should we baptise (and how much water should be used)? Can women be church leaders? Should we be involved in politics? How are the end times likely to pan out?

  2. Denominations are not (are no longer?) unbreakable boundary markers between evangelicals. Baptists and Presbyterians can happily worship together at New Horizon. Denominational loyalty is not always the determining factor in choosing a church. It may be for some of the more conservative groups, but it’s not unusual to find people who choose which church to join based on different criteria. Is the preaching solidly biblical? Is the worship contemporary (whatever that is supposed to mean!)?

  3. Further evidence of this is the willingness of pastors and ministers to meet together, across denominational boundaries, whether it’s for fellowship or to plan a series of joint events. I heard of five churches in one community that have had a couple of joint services in the past year or two. Other churches operate a pulpit swap from time to time.

  4. Another aspect of cross-denominationalism is the nature and work of parachurch ministries and missions. While some missions may have a greater proportion of their support (in terms of mission workers, finances and interested churches) from one denomination than another, unless the ministry or mission is an arm of its denomination, many of the groups work with a range of church affiliations.

  5. Similarly, the mix is seen in some of the large conferences that dot the calendar, not least in the summer. At events like New Horizon both speakers and attendees come from a range of denominational backgrounds.

  6. However – and here is where the tone changes – there is still something of a tendency for like-minded subgroups to flock together. Particular theological positions or emphases, or particular practices serve as rallying points for their ‘tribe’. Charismatic gifts or worship. Different understandings of what it means to preach ‘biblically’. In terms of the summer conference scene, there is unlikely to be a huge amount of overlap between the clientele of New Wine and Keswick at Portstewart (even if they didn’t tend to land on the same week).

  7. So we find gatherings of groups that tend to be more conservative and reformed, whether it’s the Baptists and Presbyterians who gather at Portstewart or the Proclamation Trust style Anglicans at the Northern Irish Ministry Assembly, and others, perhaps more charismatic and with a more open view on women in leadership who tend to gather at other events.

  8. And then there are the new churches, whether they are part of a grouping (Acts 29, Vineyard) or independent.

  9. Despite the diversity in the family, the pulpit exchanges, the joint services and the fact that it would not be terribly eyebrow-raising for a Baptist to pray at the Presbyterian commissioning service for someone heading off to translate the Bible with Wycliffe Bible Translators, it’s still easy to live in a silo. The old joke about the group (insert your denomination of choice) who have their own room in heaven because they think they’re the only ones there might still have some mileage; except you’d need to insert your theological flavour of choice!

  10. One problem with silos is that they can become echo chambers where the silo-dwellers have their identity reinforced by like-minded people.

  11. The other side of that particular coin is that you don’t really get to listen to anyone from outside your silo. Your own thinking is never challenged by a different voice and the folk in your silo might always be just a little suspicious (or more) of the folk in the others. Even though you subscribe to sola scriptura, are you going to say that you’ve perfectly understood every jot and tittle with no need for modification?

There’s more I could say. For example, I’m not sure that all our churches have realised how secular the culture has become outside our walls while we enjoy celebrating together inside. What about the churches whose people love Jesus and are zealous to see the gospel advance, but who’ve been unable to adapt their methods as the culture has changed at warp speed?

Maybe my prayer should be, ‘Lord, heal our blind spots.’ I wonder if that means we need to emerge more from our silos. I’d never want to underestimate the value of gathering with like-minded people: but what if we were to keep the silo doors open enough to be challenged by, to learn from one another, and to allow our faith to become more complete?

The other night, I was in a church service where we sang this:

Lord of the church, we long for our uniting,          
True to one calling, by one vision stirred;
One cross proclaiming and one creed reciting,     
One in the truth of Jesus and his word.

How could we want less?

Alan Wilson has led churches in Switzerland and Northern Ireland, and currently combines an itinerant preaching ministry with teaching at the Irish Baptist College and Belfast Bible College.

Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.

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One Response to Wednesday: Surveying the Landscape

  1. Puran Agrawal says:

    A Response to Surveying the Landscape
    I thank Rev Alan Wilson for his very comprehensive and thought-provoking survey of the Christian churches in Northern Ireland. As I agree with almost everything he says there, allow me to add a few “foot-notes” to the vews expressed.
    1. He is right to point out that “Denominations are not (are no longer?) unbreakable boundary markers between evangelical.” But I want to point out one exception: most evangelicals in Northern Ireland would still be reluctant to attend a joint worship with catholics. Some methodist protestants I know who found it difficult to join in worship in a Church of Ireland building! I was told by a close friend, who was until recently a Presbeterian minister, that a large number of the members of that church would not be willing to join in worship with catholics.
    2. It is understandable, in my view, that “like-minded subgroups” flock togther. What is regretable, hoiwever, is that such people are totally closed to the views different from theirs be it re the gifts of the Holy Spirit, infant baptism, ordination of women., etc., when they encounter them. What I mean is that there is no attempt at all to try to understand why such different views exist. The reason for this, I am convinced, is that they attend churches and Christian study groups where attempts to understand diverse points of views are not encouraged. This is what Rev Wilson apyly describes as “silo-phenomenon” where one only hears like-minded views and antipathy to different views is increasing reinforced.
    3. Rev Wilson is right to remind us that the greatest challenge to the Christain faith today, at least in Western countries, is secularism: witness the recent legislation re gay marriage and the proposed legislation re trans-gender. Not only ordinary Christians but also Christian leaders, I have a sneaking suspicion, are not at all prepared to meet this challenge. Rev Norman Hamilton in a PS about a year or so ago urged us to formulate distinctive Christain responses to the contemporary issues debated in the public arena. I see no sign of that happening to-date.
    Let me also end with the prayer, “Lord of the church, we long for uniting………One in the truth of Jesus and his word”. But ‘united vision’ need not necessarily mean one united monolithic church with the same power structure. We can remain and worship in separate Christian denominations and still offer a united vision and stand on the most important contemporary issues, as the mainstream Northern Ireland churches did during the 30 years of “trouble”. In order to do so, however, the leaders and others interested and capable members need to spend time and efforts in formulating united Christian stands on important issues and get to know each other in worship, prayer and exhange of views.
    Puran Agrawal

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