A few thoughts on the EMA and Conservative Evangelical Subculture

I’ve just spent three days at the EMA – Evangelical Ministry Assembly, organised by the Proclamation Trust. I very much enjoyed my time – it was wonderful and refreshing to be out of regular ministry for a few days, and to take some time to receive some encouraging Biblical input.

However – I did have one or two thoughts about the conference. I’ve been to Proc Trust conferences before (including the EMA, a few years ago back in 2015) but this was the first time that I’ve actually felt uncomfortable. I have struggled about whether to make my feelings known – it’s very difficult for criticism to come over in the right spirit on the internet, plus I know how hard the people who run the EMA work, and how much it is appreciated. In a sense, any criticism here is going to be unfair.

So why am I writing? On the final day of the conference, there was a panel discussion talking about the situation regarding Jonathan Fletcher (more on that later). One of the things to come out of that discussion was Johnny Juckes saying they needed to listen to various different voices to identify blind spots – which convinced me that it was right for me to write something.

Here, then, as concisely as I can, are three reasons why I felt uncomfortable.

1. Class

It has become something of a cliche that conservative evangelicalism has a problem with class – although, to be fair, this is a problem which is shared by a lot of the UK church. The particular problem with conservative evangelicals, however, is that the leadership seems (to me, as an ‘outsider’ in these kind of circles) to be predominantly public school / Oxbridge educated. It really struck me this week how many of the people up front probably fitted that description. Of course it’s not possible to tell whether someone has been to a public school, but two of the speakers did make reference to studying at Cambridge.

Maybe I’ve spent too long in Clacton, or maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking about this kind of issue due to Brexit (the divide it has exposed in society e.g. David Goodhart’s book The Road to Somewhere). There is a divide in society which is definitely there in politics – Goodhart does a good job at showing how politics has benefitted one particular class (which he calls the ‘anywheres’) at the expense of another. But it’s a shame when a Christian conference or organisation seems to display something of that same division.

One of the passages quoted approvingly at the conference (on the second day – I can’t remember quite in which context) was this:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.

1 Corinthians 1:26-29

Paul here makes the point that most of the Corinthian believers were not wise, influential, or of noble birth by human standards when they came to Christ. In fact, Paul explicitly makes the point that God goes out of his way to choose the weak and lowly things of this world to shame the strong.

With this in mind – why is it that the EMA main stage seemed to be dominated by people who, superficially at least, could in the world’s eyes pass as wise, influential, and of noble birth?

This is not to say they shouldn’t have been there: I often think of the Countess of Huntingdon when I read those verses – she used to say she was saved by an ‘m’: Paul says not many, instead of not any! Clearly God has a purpose for people at all levels of society, privileged background or not. But it seems to me that there is something wrong when there is a majority from a more privileged background.

There were some things which (to my mind) were notable by their absence: people from the BAME community. People with regional accents. People who minister in small towns rather than university towns. People who minister in small ‘ordinary’ churches rather than big ones – more on that in a moment.

Now, let me be clear – I’m sure there is no intentional bias against anyone! But I think these things so often happen unintentionally because appointments are made, people are invited to speak, on the basis of relationships – and, often, the people you know are people who are similar to you with a similar background – i.e. known from Iwerne camps, or university missions, etc.

I’m not accusing the Proc Trust of doing anything wrong, per se, but maybe there are steps that could be taken to increase the diversity of those invited to lead.

2. Success

This ties in with the first point. Many of those invited to lead sessions were from large and ‘successful’ churches. I say successful in quotes because, of course, success in God’s eyes is different from success in the world’s eyes. A small church may be more successful in God’s eyes than a large church, so long as it is preaching the gospel faithfully.

I think this point came home to me when Vaughan Roberts was leading a session on preaching Hebrews. He was talking about the length of time that he takes to prepare a sermon – he said that he usually booked out Fridays, for example, but before that would spent a couple of 2-3 hour blocks of time working on it. By contrast, when I was a curate, I once took a day to prepare a sermon and my training incumbent at the time told me to enjoy that luxury while I could! He found it a real struggle to carve out sermon preparation time.

The truth is that many pastors are feeling the heat right now. From my own networks I know a lot of Anglican clergy are struggling under a heavy workload – I can think of one vicar in a nearby town who is a part-time chaplain, part-time minister of a parish with three churches. Additionally, the country is growing increasingly secular, and ministry can be a real slog with very little to show for it. Here in our parish we have seen little numerical growth – people have joined and come to Christ (praise God), but the number of people joining has largely been offset by the number who have died or moved away. Sometimes it feels like a matter of running full pelt just to stay where you are! I’m sure many ministers across the country feel like this.

So, what’s the problem? As in the first point I made, ultimately it comes down to diversity: what is being held up as a model? Is a church where the lead pastor has enough free time to spend many hours working on a sermon being held up as the ideal? Most of those given a platform in the EMA were from churches with large staff teams.

Where were the voices of ordinary pastors? Where were those who represented the majority of those in the audience? Do we want to send out the message that you’re only qualified to speak at a preacher’s conference if you have a ‘successful’ (in worldly terms) ministry?

Again – just to be clear – I don’t think this is at all intentional. Of course the Proc Trust want to invite people who are well-known, who are going to preach and speak well. And, of course, it is those who have ‘bigger’ ministries who can afford the time in the first place to prepare for a conference. And those who have ‘successful’ ministries shouldn’t be penalised for that reason! That would be just as big a mistake as choosing them for that reason.

However, I wonder if there is anything which could be done to make the conference better reflect the conviction that the key is Biblical faithfulness rather than popularity. (And, of course, this is a charge that could be levelled at many different Christian conferences – not just conservative evangelical ones!)

3. Theology

This is the area which I’ve been most hesitant to include. Nonetheless, I think it is important and linked to what has gone before. God has given us a whole church for a reason, and I think diversity is important in order to understand our own blind spots. This is why it’s important to listen to those in the church who are different from us. When that doesn’t happen, it can become a bit of a ‘bubble’ where we are unable to see flaws in our own thinking.

One of the ways I think evangelical churches (including, and perhaps especially, conservative evangelical churches) subtly distort the gospel is by portraying the Christian life like this: it’s all about avoiding sin.

It’s a bit like one of those car-racing video games – every time you see a pothole or an obstacle coming, you have to move so you don’t hit it. I think we often unconsciously visualise the Christian life in this way: we live our lives day-to-day, trying our hardest to avoid sinning, and asking God for forgiveness when we fail and the help not to sin again. I call this view ‘almost the gospel’ – it’s so close, and yet not quite there. You could probably live your whole Christian life with this view, and in fact I think many people do. I spent the majority of my Christian life up until 2-3 years ago with something like this view. It has become so deeply ingrained it’s simply the air we breathe: we don’t even notice we are doing it. Over the past few years I’ve gradually become aware of it, largely around what I’ve been thinking about with my other website Friend Zone.

And, interestingly, this is how it ties in with what happened with Jonathan Fletcher. On the final day of the conference, instead of the second session there was an announcement about what happened with Jonathan Fletcher (you can read the transcript online here). After that announcement, there was a panel discussion about safeguarding and how we should respond to these events.

One of the panel said in closing that we should be much more careful in the future – for example by a man not counselling a woman one-to-one. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that this would have had absolutely no bearing on the issues with Jonathan Fletcher (what happened with him was exclusively with other men), this sounds very much like the Billy Graham rule – which, strangely enough, had been mentioned from the front the day before by Hugh Palmer in his pen sketch of Billy Graham. I’ve written about the Billy Graham rule before, the summary being this: we are to love others, not to avoid them out of fear of sin.

There were a group of people in the New Testament who saw purity as a problem, and who saw the solution to that problem in putting up additional laws to ring-fence God’s laws. “We’ll make sure we never, ever cross God’s law by creating a new law which stops us even getting near breaking God’s law”. They were called the Pharisees, and you may recall Jesus didn’t have many kind words for them. Their fault was in thinking that you could create righteousness through observance of rules, when in fact all the additional rules created is a lack of love.

Love can only come from God, we need to look to him and the power of the Holy Spirit – not to human rules. The real irony is, rules actually lead to the kind of thing which happened with Jonathan Fletcher: if you divorce God’s rules from his goodness, you’ll never obey him joyfully. This is a lesson I particularly learned from Sinclair Ferguson’s book The Whole Christ. Jesus came to give us life to the full, and living life in his ways is the best kind of life it’s possible to live. How does David describe the Law of the Lord? “Sweeter than honey” (Psalm 19:10). David is not exaggerating. I have come to believe that what he says is absolutely true – the law of the Lord is sweeter than any of the filthy, polluting effects of sin – however attractive Satan may make it appear to us.

If we see God’s laws as morally righteous but not intrinsically good for us, then our obedience to them will only be half-hearted. Maybe we will even try to get as close to breaking them as possible without actually breaking them. We must come to obey from our hearts, knowing that God is supremely a good law-giver, with our best interests at heart. The Lord knows what is best, because he is the Lord, our maker: “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go” (Isaiah 48:17).

All this is not to say that human guidelines have no place – but rather that they should be just that, guidelines. Making a rule of anything beyond the rules God has actually given us is missing the point. This is exactly the point that Jesus is making in the Sermon on the Mount. God asks a deeper obedience of us than rules – adding extra rules to God’s rules will not increase our obedience!

And – ultimately – we should obey God from love, rather than from fear. One seminar at the conference was how to grow as a young preacher. I was left at the end of that session feeling a bit negative, thinking about my sin, idolatry, and all the things that can go wrong! Whereas my experience has been over the last five years that despite my hopeless inadequacy and sinfulness in every way, yet God has been immensely faithful. I have seen some wonderful answers to prayer in my own life and God working through me in ways I couldn’t imagine before. Yes, we need to be concerned for our own sin, but we need to have a greater picture of the God who is capable of transforming us and using us despite our failings.

Let me finish by quoting a couple of things from books I’ve read recently which I think are relevant. The first is from C.S. Lewis’ sermon The Weight of Glory, which I blogged about on Friend Zone recently:

If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.

Although Lewis preached this sermon in 1941, almost 80 years on I think it has continuing relevance for the church today. We in the early 21st century needs to hear these words: the Christian life is about love, as Lewis observed, not simply self-denial. Although I doubt that many Christians today would say that unselfishness was the highest virtue, I think we often live as if that were the case. Our lives betray our beliefs.

The second quote is from Francis Schaeffer, whose writings I have recently discovered to be a treasure-trove. This is from his book True Spirituality, which I blogged about on Friend Zone recently (again; I’m sorry for promoting things I’ve written! I’ve just been thinking about this issue a lot lately.)

The Christian’s call is to believe right doctrine; true doctrine: the doctrine of the Scripture. But it is not just a matter of stating right doctrine, though that is so important. Neither is it merely to be that which can be explained by natural talent, or character, or energy … Preaching the Gospel without the Holy Spirit is to miss the entire point of the command of Jesus Christ for our era… Whatever is not an exhibition that God exists misses the whole point of the Christian’s life now on this earth. According to the Bible, we are to be living a supernatural life now, in this present existence in a way we shall never be able to do again through all eternity. We are called upon to live a supernatural life now, by faith.

Again, I think Schaeffer could be speaking to the church today. The church is not supposed to be doing “that which can be explained by natural talent, or character, or energy” (does that hark back a little to what I said about success?) – but rather to be an exhibition of God’s existence. In other words, the church shouldn’t look just like the world in accomplishing things through its own strength. The church should be unlike the world in accomplishing things which it could only accomplish through God’s power working in us.

Of course, I don’t doubt that all those involved with the Proc Trust / EMA believe this. But we know as Christians that our beliefs don’t always match up with our actions. (And, to be fair – exactly the same criticism could be made of many churches and church traditions. This is absolutely not a problem confined to the conservative evangelical world.)

Although more could be said, I think I have gone on long enough. You can refer to the links I’ve put to my further thoughts on this matter! I will close with Paul’s words to the Corinthians, after he talks about pleading with God to take away his ‘thorn in the flesh’:

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:8-10

These verses have become very precious to me over the last few years. I pray that the Lord may teach me, a weak sinner, and all of those who belong to him in his church how to depend on him more deeply at all times, to know deeply that apart from Christ we can do nothing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *