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Monday, September 16, 2013

The Things at the Heart of Evangelicalism

My doctoral Project focuses on the use of catechetical methods in the local Baptist congregation to renew discipleship efforts among the more spiritually mature believers. I have been living and breathing catechesis, catechisms, and discipleship theories for months, and consequently I’m growing more and more convinced that Baptists need to re-appropriate some of the ancient practices of forming believers into the image of Christ.

My work has kept me aware of new books and programs on discipleship, especially those that seek to integrate the ancient forms of catechesis into evangelical churches. Since 2011, Christianity Today has published articles as a part of its “Global Gospel Project.” The Project seeks to “create a common ground catechism for today’s church.”[1] The editors and authors of the series “present and prepare teachings that reach across evangelical traditions and across the world.”[2]

The Project is about those theological foundations at the heart of all evangelical traditions. The focus is always on “beliefs and doctrines that unite evangelicals.”[3] The theological identities of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are addressed, as is the theological understandings of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. The Project is an attempt to begin conversation among evangelical traditions that unites on those essential Christian beliefs common to us all. It an attempt, for better or worse, to describe an evangelical orthodoxy though conversation.

The editors of the Project understand it to be a type of catechism, an ecclesial concept that has great meaning and tradition for some evangelical traditions, but not for others. Shellnutt says, “While catechisms—doctrinal teachings in question-and-answer form—have educated Christians throughout church history, they've never looked quite like this.”[4] She’s right: if what Christianity Today is producing is not a question-and-answer framework of discipleship instruction, then it’s not, strictly speaking, a catechism.

What the “Global Gospel Project” resembles is a form of catechesis. The articles produced by Christianity Today generate a conversation that includes more than one perspective on the theological issue at hand. This act of dialogue is an act of discipleship that invites the learner into a stretching and challenging encounter with the Church and with more experienced mentors, in this case those mentors being the authors themselves.

I’m excited to see how the “Global Gospel Project” develops in coming months. The editors of Christianity Today have caught on to a need in our churches that is exactly what I have become passionate about: the need to establish more rigorous and doctrinally-specific discipleship actions. Their Project is an expression of this need, and I find the way in which the articles are written helpful and fair to both sides of a theological issue.

I do have some reservations about the Project, though. First, the publication of the NIV Vital Faith Bible as a companion to the Project is disappointing. With the great flood of issue-based and demographically marketed Bibles out there, publishing another edited version of the Scriptures is not something that should take the time or money of the Project’s leaders. I understand that the goal is to demonstrate that “all of doctrine rises naturally though Scripture,” but that the association of a particular theological system of evangelical orthodoxy with a specific version of the Scriptures over-standardizes the Project.[5] Until this point the Project has been about articles and interpretations that are associated with a magazine and are therefore removed from spatial and spiritual proximity to the Bible. As a pastor I cannot emphasize how difficult it is to separate the Scriptures from what Ryrie, Scolfield, or the other study Bible editors have added to them.

Related to this concern is the very foundation of a proper catechesis (or catechism, if we must call the Project thus), which lies in the participation of a new or immature believer in a community of faith that includes spiritual mentors to further the development of the disciple. Study Bibles render concrete and solitary those things that the Project (in its current form) would have us experience in dialogue within our evangelical faith community. A catechesis that is not a rigid, question-and-answer set of doctrinal statements must develop in conversation with real partners who have experienced the truth of God in their lives and can help others learn and grow. So far the Project has provided great conversation starters on theological topics, and I pray it will continue to do so. We must remember, though, that community is at the heart of all our theological considerations.

Finally, there is a clear and bright limit to the orthodoxy the Project can hope to establish among evangelicals. The catechesis of the ancient church established a Christian orthodoxy among converts, but today such unity (uniformity?) seems impossible. Even as we are able to talk about the doctrine of God or sin or even the interpretations and use of the Lord’s Prayer, we will inevitably run headlong into those points of disagreement that have led to the mosaic of belief that is evangelicalism. Issues on the Trinity, baptism, communion, and church polity would naturally appear in a catechism or a proper catechesis, but these topics would be difficult to properly and adequately address in the Project’s format.

This may be a good thing. Perhaps the articles in the Project will inspire local congregations to reaffirm their own specific beliefs about important doctrinal issues and their tradition’s stance on them. Perhaps the Project will develop enough momentum in evangelical congregations to begin a distinct emphasis on catechesis. That is certainly what is needed, and I pray that the Project will spark just such a fire.

[1] Shellnutt, Kate, “The Global Gospel Project: A Big-Picture, Common-Ground Catechism.” Christianity Today (, 8/14/2013.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Kevin Emmert quoted in Shellnutt’s article.

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