Last Wednesday morning (27th June) I caught the 6:15am Easyjet flight from Belfast International to London Stansted, in order to attend the first two days of the Evangelical Ministry Assembly in St. Helen's Bishopsgate. The conference is organised by the Proclamation Trust to encourage focussed, God-centred, expository ministry.
Coming from Northern Ireland, it was something of a culture shock to enter St.Helen's amidst around 800-1000 other ministers and speakers. Most of the people my own age were well spoken individuals with universally monosyllabic names like Ben, Ed, Dan and Giles. They greeted me (and one another) with a well-intoned 'Hi, how are you?' (pronounced 'Hai, how aw yoo?) and a robust confidence which reminded me strongly of my two years spent in Grammar School education. The wardrobe choices varied with age. Some middle aged folks wore blazers, open necked shirts, and slacks, emitting the cool aplomb of university academics; the older men wore short sleeve shirts and chinos; the young men tended either to wear Ralph Lauren type shirts with chinos and cashmere jumpers draped across their shoulders or cords, shirts, and walking tops (either waterproof-type jackets or fleeces). Unwittingly I had fallen into the last stylistic category, but just couldn't master the 'Hai, how aw yoo?'. I did, however, manage to avoid embarrassing myself by the use of 'How's it goin'?' or 'What about ya?'.
The conference began with rousing singing, accompanied only by the organ. The sound of men's voices singing in unison never fails to move me, and the volume from 1000 voices was tremendous. The simplicity of format also impressed me, with prayer, singing and Bible reading being the only items preceding the messages.
The first session featured Dr. Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Manhattan, on the subject of 'What is an evangelical?' His message was enormously helpful, with dashes of humour, incisive cultural analysis, and practical challenge. His main thesis was that the status of evangelicals has changed in recent years, from being a group largely ignored by the world's media, to one which is now facing open hostility. In addition to this hostility there is a growing sense of fragmentation within evangelicalism, chiefly (although not solely) characterised by an emerging movement which holds a different emphasis than old evangelicalism. Such groupings place emphasis on synthesis of views rather than singularity. They do not view Truth as the basis for community, but community as the basis for Truth. They commonly deny penal substition, as well as the inerrancy of Scripture.
In the light of such hostility and fragmentation there is a growing sense of need to define what an evangelical is. There are others, however, who oppose the concept of definition. Their objections are threefold:
(a) The word 'evangelicalism' has had it
(b) Boundaries shouldn't be drawn among Christians
(c) Evangelicalism is a meaningless category outside of tradition.
Keller contends that definition is vital. To abandon the use of the term 'evangelical' would merely invite the use of another term which could similarly be evacuated of its meaning. Boundaries are inevitable - even by advising against boundaries one is separating oneself from those who find boundaries desirable - and thus a boundary has been unwittingly drawn.
Keller's definition of an evangelical is threefold:
1. A belief in the final authority and clarity of Scripture
2. Sheer grace alone by faith alone in the substitutionary atonement of Christ alone
3. A view of repentance which sees it as normative and not episodic; an understanding that all of life is repentance.
Whilst such a definition may seem inevitable, or a little pedestrian, Keller was able to show how vital these issues are in our contemporary context.
The session was very helpful and I'm looking forward to the MP3 becoming available so that I might pick up more of the nuances of what Keller had to say. I came away from the first session feeling encouraged and challenged by what had been shared, and perhaps a little foolish that many of Keller's observations had not struck me personally before. His style was rigorous and intellectually engaging without being stuffy or prententious.
The next session featured Vaughan Roberts speaking on Daniel, which I'll try to outline here in the next few days.