Reframing the Christian Life
Realities such as gun violence, racism, and the environmental crisis steal, kill, and destroy life on a daily basis. In the wake of the latest tragedy, we hear the refrain that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough to stop the evil tide that rolls in with both infuriating and deadening regularity. Complex issues require strategic multifaceted solutions. However, white North American Protestant evangelicals often reduce complexities down to individual “matters of the heart” and personal “sin problems,” while warning against “politicizing” issues, believing that their faith is apolitical. Structural evil is either denied or addressed solely through individual conversion or personal behaviour modification.
…this hyper-individualistic understanding of discipleship is not biblical and history has proven its ineffectiveness in leading to real, widespread, and lasting change.
However, this hyper-individualistic understanding of discipleship is not biblical and history has proven its ineffectiveness in leading to real, widespread, and lasting change. Reducing the implications of the gospel to merely personal concerns has rendered the white North American evangelical church’s witness unconvincing, work ineffectual, and solutions irrelevant when it comes to addressing the world’s most pressing problems.
In 2021, I wrote a series of essays for predominantly white churches that have been influenced by North American evangelicalism to help people understand the history behind such a narrow understanding of discipleship, the harm it causes, and how Christians might go about expanding their vision of the Christian life. The essays are accompanied by supplementary resources and discussion questions.
Some evangelicals think that devoting more time and energy to justice-related issues is a distraction from our primary call as Christians. Therefore, this series is called Losing Our Focus?
If you are part of an evangelically influenced church or organization and are struggling to make sense of how your faith intersects with the constellation of crises we are facing, I invite you to do some learning and to engage in some honest reflection to see if your response to the crises we face is clear or if it might be time to re-frame the way you understand the implications of your faith.
Access All Essays
The essays can be read as an individual or as a group. Each essay concludes with a few questions to prompt reflection and discussion.
I. Introduction & A Short History
Essay 1 offers an introduction to the five-part series and traces the history of evangelicalism – a Christian movement that has shaped how millions of Christians understand the Christian life. This essay is the most academic of the five. Although it may not be the most entertaining read, the history that is presented is important for us to understand as we seek to faithfully follow Jesus today. Don’t worry, after this week, there are more stories! Essay I is found on pages 3-36 (24 min. read).
Excerpt from The Great Reversal: Reconciling Evangelism and Social Concern (4 min. read) In this excerpt from his book The Great Reversal, evangelical sociologist David Moberg suggests that evangelicals have often tended to respond to social issues with suspicion. In this passage, Moberg describes a typical pattern of judgment, inaction, followed by eventual engagement.
White Evangelicals After Trump: What Now? (5 min. read) In this short essay, Diana Butler Bass points out that white evangelicals have become, “a new cultural villain, scapegoats responsible for our national ills.” However, Bass’s nuanced comments claim that white American evangelicalism can look to its past to find expressions of evangelicalism that were more liberating and egalitarian as it seeks to find a better way forward after Trump.
II. The Helpful
Many Christians around the world frame the Christian life in terms of having a personal relationship with God. Although this limited frame does not represent the totality of what it means to be Christian, it does centre certain vital aspects of the Christian life. Essay II acknowledges the helpfulness of this frame and celebrates the goodness of that which falls within it. Essay II is found on pages 27-38 (13 min. read).
III. The Limitations
This essay attempts to show that when the personal relationship frame is believed to be the only legitimate way to view the Christian life, it offers a limited picture of what it means to follow Jesus. Essay III is found on pages 39-66 (30 min. read).
Personal Sin & Social Sin (9 min. read)
This short essay by Lee Kosa explains the difference between personal and social sin. While many contemporary North American evangelicals understand and focus on personal sin, less are familiar with the biblical concept of social sin. Our understanding of the Christian life affects our understanding of sin and how we think Christians should respond to sin and its harmful consequences in the world.
A Biblical and Theological Account of Systemic Racism (23 min. talk)
Dr. Esau McCaulley is an assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. In this talk, he explains how the Bible describes sin as an individual heart problem and a corporate problem. He also explores how corporate sin manifests in corporate structures. See also his opinion piece in the N.Y. Times entitled: “Why Christians Must Fight Systemic Racism.”
Footprints (4 min. read)
This short reflection by Lee Kosa looks at how the popular poem “Footprints” shapes our Christian imagination and offers another poem that expands our vision of the Christian life.
IV. The Harm
When the personal relationship frame is treated as the best or the only legitimate way to view the Christian life, it not only offers a limited and rigid picture of what it means to follow Jesus, but it can foster arrogance and cause great harm. Essay IV is found on pages 67-81 (15 min. read).
The guest speaker for Session IV was a clinical counsellor and psychotherapist who specializes in working with trauma. An audio recording of their presentation on spiritual trauma is available upon request.
Allender Center at the Seattle School – Podcast
Dr. Dan Allender is a pioneer of a unique and innovative approach to trauma and abuse therapy. In this podcast Dr. Allender along with Rachael Clinton Chen discuss the particulars of spiritual abuse.
Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein
The Body keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk
Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter Levine
This final essay offers an invitation to expand our framework of the Christian life, not as a capitulation to culture or to a theological fad, but as a response to the additive and life-giving work of the Spirit in the world. Essay V is found on pages 82-91 (11 min. read).
Shame and Accountability
Dr. Brené Brown shares her thoughts in this podcast about why accountability is a prerequisite for change, and why we need to get our heads and hearts around the difference between being held accountable for things that are wrong and feeling shame and being shamed. Brown shares her personal stories of being held accountable when it comes to racism and holding herself accountable, as well as her strategies for pulling our “thinking brain” back online when we are experiencing the flight and fight energy fueled by shame. Although Brown’s comments relate to racism, they are also applicable when it comes to learning how to recognize and deal with feelings of shame that we experience when we perceive part of our identity is being critiqued.
Streams of Living Water: Essential Practices from the Six Great Traditions of Christian Faith by Richard J. Foster
Foster examines the “streams of living water” – the six dimensions of faith and practice that define Christian tradition. He lifts up the enduring character of each tradition (contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical, incarnational) and shows how a variety of practices, from individual study and retreat to disciplines of service and community, are all essential elements of growth and maturity. Foster examines the unique contributions of each of these traditions and offers as examples the inspiring stories of faithful people whose lives defined each of these “streams.”
A Spiritual Formation Workbook: Small Group Resources for Nurturing Christian Growth by James Bryan Smith, Lynda L. Graybeal
This workbook features guidelines for starting a study group based on Richard Foster’s book Streams of Living Water. Based upon the six major dimensions of the spiritual life found in the life of Christ and Christian tradition, this workbook program provides all the necessary ingredients to start and maintain a Spiritual Formation Group.