The CACE seminar series is a special opportunity for Wheaton faculty to gather together for discussion and fellowship. As a scientist, I especially value the chance to read materials very different than my daily fare of scientific journal articles, to listen to special guests and my esteemed Wheaton colleagues, and to have the time to form my own thoughts.
This year’s seminar led us through thinking through about evangelical identity in an ideological age, both historically and in light of recent cultural movements and events. I am still ruminating over the readings and discussions -- a good sign for the enduring value of the series – and find myself thinking back to them as I read various news and commentary outlets. But one central question dominates my thoughts. In the midst of the turmoil, controversy, and thinking about what evangelicalism really is and is perceived to be, I wonder: what would these issues and discussions look like if the role of the local church were the primary focus of the somewhat nervous energy some evangelicals seem to have today?
The specific discussion point of our seminar that started my thoughts was about Evangelicalism versus evangelicalism, “big E” vs “little e”, if you will. Our discussions involved mentions of the roles of writers, in forms such as blogs or books, in forming and communicating evangelical identity. We considered the possibility that their largesse of publishing may make their work more of a brand-conscious expression of religiosity – big-E “Evangelicalism”, perhaps. What would the current state of evangelicalism be if those writers turned their energies to their local church, writing for their pew neighbor to read in the church newsletter or bulletin, and experiencing their neighbor asking questions or commenting upon their writing? Perhaps a local emphasis in their work would serve to both temper and redirect conversations. Our discussions about big-E “Evangelicalism” also involved discussion of the theoretically laudable enthusiasm for entrepreneurialism (sometimes at a worldwide scale) that seems to be a distinctive of many Christians who call themselves evangelical. What if these Entrepreneurial Evangelicals turned their attention almost solely to their local church and community, the parishioners and neighbors who might benefit from an uplift in economic circumstances via job opportunities and joining a local initiative? It could be that Jesus’s commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves could become more prominent in the public characterization of evangelicalism than political ideology. What if some pastors with national prominence redirected their efforts, so that their ministry was truly to the local church, geographically?
I was grateful to have the chance to think through tough issues, to listen, and to go forward with these thoughts in my mind. Personally, I was inspired to invest more intentionally in my own local church and to look more carefully for the quiet ways that my fellow church-goers are living out the gospel – and be inspired and encouraged by them.