Waking up to our evangelical roots

For those who embrace it, evangelicalism represents a religious, social, and even political movement that is at the core of our collective moral well-being. For opponents, it is tantamount to a four-letter word.

Historically, “evangelical” has been synonymous with “protestant.” In Europe, evangelical churches are distinguished from reform churches that follow in the footsteps of the likes of John Calvin, and subsequently Jonathan Edwards. Today, the term is associated with belief in the inerrancy of scripture, the centrality of a personal conversion experience, and faith in the blood atonement of the crucifixion.

Evangelicalism was once a movement more than it was an institution. In response to many of the doctrines of the Anglican Church in the 18th century, the First Great Awakening gave rise to the Methodist Church. American spiritual leaders such as John Wesley felt compelled to guide our fledgling nation back toward a Christ-centered faith, having become discouraged by the proliferation of alternative practices such as deism, which was embraced by – among others – a number of the founding fathers.

While the early evangelical movement did emphasize all of the values noted above, there was also a call for what was considered a rather radical approach to social justice. This included empowering women in church leadership, the abolition of slavery, and a tireless commitment to the poor within one’s community. Rather than the movement serving as a platform for public policy, it was a reassertion of the core values of the Christian faith which, in turn, were to guide our daily lives as individuals, and as a body of faith.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, two great religious revivals took place that gave birth to yet another surge in commitment to the American Christian experience. The first meeting was at Credence Clearwater Church in Kentucky in 1900, followed a year later by a much larger revival in Cane Ridge, Kentucky.

This was the spark that ignited the movement known as the Second Great Awakening, and it was from this ferment of spiritual fervor that our denomination first came to be. Again, the focus of this re-imagining of the evangelical Christian role in America was one of justice, hammering away at issues such as racial and gender equality.

I had the opportunity last year to worship at the small church in Cane Ridge where this revival that included upwards of 20,000 people took place. I was with a group of young adult church leaders, and each day a different group led worship in their own cultural tradition. The evening service at Cane Ridge was led by our African-American brothers and sisters.

Some of us who were not as familiar at the time with the history of the Cane Ridge revival made our way up to the balcony of the cramped log cabin structure. But before worship began, the leaders asked all of us to join them in the front.

“No one sits in the balcony tonight,” they explained. It was only later that I understood why.

For nearly two hours, we sang, laughed and cried together as we worshipped God. Together, we gave thanks for the blessing of community, and for the gesture of our religious ancestors who called the African-American congregants down from the balcony during that revival to worship as a united body in Christ.

There are those in the young adult community who believe the Church is positioned for a Third Great Awakening. There are also some who feel our connection to Cane Ridge and the early evangelical movement is over-emphasized. For me, one who is relatively new to Disciples, it offers a connection to a religious ancestry which helps me transcend the present climate of religious partisanship and dogmatic bickering.

It also serves as a charge for those current and future church leaders. Christianity’s great moments in modern history have come not when we focus on establishing boundaries of social decency, but when we challenge, and even cross over, boundaries of ignorance, inequity and oppression.

We are an evangelical church, but only insomuch as we live out the radical justice to which we are called by Christ. It is in serving that we are awakened to our purpose as Christians, and it is through daily acts of justice-centered obedience that the world will ultimately catch the spark of faith which we so urgently wish to share with them.

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