Team Spin Takes Yale Divinity School, Part Two

While Aimee was off not doing stairs and trying to become a female Bond villain, on Tuesday the rest of Team Spin was refreshing the parts ot the theological world which other, more transformational, evangelical organizations cannot reach. 

Day Two of the Yale seminar was somewhat more sedate than Day One.  It involved five discussions: Michal Beth Dinkler, professor at YDS,  spoke about her experiences as a youth leader in a megachurch; Charlie Dunn, Seth Jones, and Michael Walker spoke about life at Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, which has just left the PCUSA for ECO; John Hare, professor at YDS, spoke about moral authority and the church growth movement; Steven Harris, a YDS student, former Capitol Hill Baptist intern and African American pastor, spoke on congregation, community, and growth; and Jennifer Powell McNutt, professor at Wheaton, led the final discussion of the day on ministry and academy.

Two things were particularly noteworthy.  First, Steven Harris’s adamant refusal, in the face of some pressure from the floor, to make the gospel into social activism.  He was simply (and rightly) unwilling to be the African American pastor some in the group wanted him to be.  He argued for the social work he has to do in his community as ‘an integral implication’ of the gospel and not as being the gospel itself.   That concept struck me as helpful, pointing to the necessary connection between gospel and action without collapsing the former into the latter.

Most intriguing, however, was John Hare’s paper.  He started by offering a dramatic thesis: when we no longer know how to justify the higher demands of our faith, we will subside into the lowest common denominators of our culture.’   Hare saw this in the rise of three basic secular values in the church: success, happiness, and prestige.  These are highly problematic as they lead to emphasis on size, emotionalism/entertainment, and the implicit competition of growth by redistribution (aka sheep stealing).

I need to reflect much longer on this analysis but it immediately made sense of something unexpected I noted on day one and which became apparent at various points in the week: the strange affinity between the evangelical megachurchism and liberal ecclesiology of some of those at the seminar.   Numerical size and therapeutic impact were central to both.   I had never noticed that affinity before but it was clearly there and needs explanation.  Hare’s approach seems to me at this point as plausible as any: the abandonment of scriptural authority in liberal circles and the tendency to identify what works with what is true in evangelical church methods are both vulnerable to his thesis.  Neither can justify the higher demands of the faith.  Both therefore tend to end up as replications of the wider culture in a Christian idiom.

A fascinating day of five excellent presentations.  One more report to follow.