I know. I still haven't found a permanent church home in "Springfield", Illinois where I've lived for the past 10 years.
The Contemporary Evangelical Church: Culturally but not Intellectually Welcoming
Mind you, I have plenty of evangelical churches to choose from in Springfield (Christian, Evangelical Free, Evangelical Covenant, Assembly of God, Baptist, Lutheran, etc.). And they aren't all tightwad conservative churches, either. Some are cutting-edge, Starbucks-biscotti, black-light, fog-machine, rock-n-roll churches. Culturally relevant and progressive, to be sure...except when it comes to certain intellectual matters and the epistemological nuances that my scientific awareness requires me to take seriously.
I commend contemporary evangelical churches for their willingness to re-evaluate 20th century assumptions about what the Bible really teaches (i.e., exegesis) and how it applies to our generation (i.e., hermeneutics). Unfortunately, for the most part, they seem rather immature in their methodology. Simply put, the church's fundamental problem is its sophomoric understanding of critical realism. Somehow, all truth claims, whether scientific or scriptural, are naively understood as speaking the same language and competing for identical territory.
I am a native evangelical, and those are the types churches that I've generally sought to join. (Mainline churches have different challenges, which I'm not attempting to address here.) My church experiences in Springfield have varied in several ways, and my identity as an evolutionary creationist (EC) is only one factor that has affected the success or failure of these episodes. Yet, I've come to realize that the way in which a church reacts to my identity as an EC provides an accurate indication of how well my family will fit in overall. Indeed, a church's suspicion of my Christian devotion and essential orthodoxy based solely on my EC views is a diagnostic marker for incompatibility in other areas as well.
Becoming Unwanted: Parting Ways with My Local Evangelical Church
That’s my hypothesis: EC is a sort of litmus test for assessing an evangelical church’s theological maturity about many things.
I formulated this hypothesis as a result of my most recent church experience. A few months ago my wife and I felt compelled to leave the evangelical church that we had called home and had been actively involved in for more than a year. I wrote about this experience on my personal blog in a series called "Becoming Unwanted". In the first post I described the background and setting for the overall situation. Originally my family was optimistic about our prospects at this church, but a change in leadership occurred that undermined nearly everything that we had come to value there. My second post provided a detailed account of my evaluation by the new leadership (elders) upon submission of my completed "Questionnaire for Prospective Sunday School Teachers". (I had wanted to help lead my son's highschool discipleship group.) The evaluation became a mutual trial of the elders' and my beliefs. The verdict they reached was that I would not be allowed to teach in the church; the verdict I reached was that my family needed a new church home.
I may have exhausted my options for fellowship in an evangelical church here in Springfield, but I think I've now developed a specific strategy and some guiding principles to help me evaluate my prospects at evangelical churches that I visit in the future. Perhaps you will find these tips helpful for your situation.
Church-hunting Tips for the EC
1. Apply the evolution "litmus test": Disclose your vocation and EC status to church leaders at the earliest opportunity (e.g., the first time you have the pastor over for dinner). After first assuring them of your belief in creation, ask point-blank if they have a major issue with your EC views. Don't expect them to be EC themselves; that's not the point of the test. You just want to assess their response. Can they handle the challenge, or do they suddenly regard you as an unbeliever and attempt to aggressively debate the point? Even if the pastor and elders pass the test, ask if there are others on staff or in leadership who are passionate defenders of young-earth creationism (YEC). If anyone of established influence in the church has such a passion for YEC, pursue church membership no further. Your presence will simply create division.
2. Apply the epistemology test: Ask the leadership about baptism and communion. These are perfect topics for assessing the nature of the church's critical realism. No need to bring up controversial issues like abortion, homosexuality, body-piercing or even women in the church. A discussion of modes and meanings of baptism and communion will immediately reveal if and how the leadership delineates between biblically sound practice and absolute truth. If they cannot concede that there is a difference between these (e.g., if they cannot accept as valid the fact that you regard your infant baptism as meaningful and sufficient for yourself), then move on.
3. Decide your level of engagement: Evaluate from the start if your goal is simply acceptance in the community of believers or if you also feel called to actively teach and promote serious consideration of science-theology issues. Some churches will marginally pass tests 1 & 2 and will accept your presence as long as you don't plan to teach and openly discuss your views. If that's acceptable, you can assure the pastor of this when you conduct tests 1 & 2. If you feel called to have greater influence, then make that clear from the start. In deciding between these two paths, be sure to consider other aspects of your personal situation, such as the impact on your spouse and children.
4. Honor the cause: Don't speak up or speak out about EC unless you're willing to live and demonstrate a genuine Christian life. If you want to be an ambassador for EC, then don't give the church any cause to dismiss your testimony. Commit to holy living, humble service (e.g., help in the nursery) and having a gracious demeanor.
5. Love the church: Find some way to cultivate and maintain your love for Christ's church. Given my situation, this is a difficult thing for me to do at the moment. Nevertheless, I'm intentionally reading and interacting with others to stir up this grace within me. As infuriating as your church tradition may be, it is your immediate family and part of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church, even Christ's bride. I recommend a soon-to-be released book by John Armstrong (I have read an advanced copy) called “Your Church is Too Small: Why unity in Christ's mission is vital to the future of the church”.
Submitted for Your Approval
In part three of my Becoming Unwanted story, I attempted to draw some tentative conclusions and to ask some difficult questions about what to do next. Like the Psalmist, I wrote that post with some degree of angst and unbridled emotion. My conclusions there were tentative; my assertions and hypothesis in the current essay are only slightly less tentative.
I welcome your participation in testing my thoughts. May we proclaim to one another the words of the apostle Paul: “
Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”