The Elephant Room as a Snapshot of Contemporary Evangelicalism
James MacDonald’s Elephant Room conference has stirred up celebration and consternation among evangelicals – and no wonder! MacDonald envisions a place where pastors and church leaders can bring private disagreements into the public eye, where leaders with varying theological viewpoints and ministry philosophies can come together and hash out their differences in light of the Scriptures. No easy feat.
I have decided to attend the upcoming Elephant Room conference on January 25, 2012, and then blog about the event. I will explain my reasons for accepting the invitation in a post tomorrow. But before considering the upcoming conference, I think it would be good to offer a few reflections about the first Elephant Room meeting. The conference took place on March 31, 2011, and featured eight conversations between seven pastors. (I collected some blog notes from each session here as well as various clips at the Elephant Room website and here.)
Debates and discussions have long had a place in the evangelical conversation, but the Elephant Room is different. Why? Because it captures so well the ethos of contemporary evangelicalism – for good and for ill. Here’s what I mean…
1. Evangelicals continue to affirm that the Scriptures are authoritative for church life and practice.
One of David Bebbington’s four characteristics of the evangelical movement is that we have a high regard for the authority of Scripture. This means that evangelicals seek to apply the authority of Scripture to all areas of church life and practice.
In the first Elephant Room, everyone at the table was united by the belief that when it comes to ministry practice, what the Bible says is most important. This is why, at the end of the day, evangelicals are unique in having these types of discussions. Many church leaders would shrug their shoulders at this event, having already dismissed the absolute authority of Scripture for all aspects of church life. Fundamentalists would avoid these conversations because their understanding of Scriptural authority would preclude them from associating with those who interpret the Scriptures in ways that lead to, in their view, aberrant ministry practices. The Elephant Room debates, however, make no sense apart from the underlying assumption that the Bible is the supreme authority for what we believe and what we practice.
You may be thinking, If evangelicals can and do have these discussions, what is unique about the Elephant Room? The simple answer is the face-to-face interaction. Whereas the leaders of different tribes within evangelicalism tend to talk at one another, it is rare to see leaders sitting down to talk and listen to one another. That brings us to the second snapshot.
2. Evangelicalism is not a tribe but a reservation where many tribes live.
A key assumption of the first Elephant Room is that tribalism is inevitable but not totally justifiable. In other words, it is normal for evangelicals to divide up into networks and tribes but unhealthy for our divisions to solidify to the point we no longer recognize other brothers and sisters who live on the same reservation (i.e., in agreement with the supreme authority of Scripture).
MacDonald uses the image of a family, a loud and opinionated group of people whose fierce arguments with one another are matched only by their fierce love and loyalty to one another. MacDonald believes that robust debate is healthy for brothers. Of course, the emphasis on brotherhood was the main reason why the upcoming Elephant Room became so controversial: MacDonald invited T. D. Jakes, a pastor who was raised as part of a denomination that denies the Trinity. I’ll address the Jakes issue tomorrow.
But for now, let me say in regard to the first Elephant Room that I appreciate James MacDonald’s willingness to host conversations with brothers who do things differently than he does. Contrary to what many think, the ability to sit down with believers from “outside your tribe” is not a sign of theological wobbliness but of steadfast conviction. It means you are firm enough in what you believe to be able to listen charitably to other points of view, even if you choose not to adopt those viewpoints.
3. Evangelical identity is contested, which leads to questions of association.
As a movement, evangelicalism is fragmenting. The notion of evangelical identity is contested and debated in books, blogs, and conferences. Many hope for a renewal of evangelicalism but disagree as to how to bring about that renewal.
- One approach to renewing evangelical identity is that we embrace the diversity of theological options as part of the definition of being evangelical. This is the direction that leaders like Roger Olson would take us.
- A second approach seeks to reclaim the center of evangelicalism (the gospel) by maintaining adherence to a core of theological convictions. The Gospel Coalition would be an example of “reclaiming the center.”
- A third approach is to take prominent evangelical pastors with different philosophies of ministry and bring them together for conversation about their different methodologies. I place the Elephant Room in this category (and perhaps Catalyst and the Willow Creek Leadership Summit).
The Elephant Room approach differs from the first because it does not revel in diversity as being good in and of itself. Instead, the whole tenor of the discussion is that diversity should not be celebrated but challenged in light of the Scriptures.
This approach differs from the second by significantly broadening the core of what theological convictions and ministry practices must be held in common. Whereas the second approach takes pastoral associations very seriously, the third approach is less concerned with confessional identity and chooses instead to bring together pastors on the basis of a common commitment to the authority of the Bible, regardless of their methodological decisions.
What makes the Elephant Room interesting is that James MacDonald and other participants are official members of an organization that takes the “reclaim the center” confessional approach, even though the Elephant Room intends to influence a much wider swath of evangelicals. (This becomes even more clear when we consider the invitations for Elephant Room 2.) What does this mean? Put simply, options 1-3 are not necessarily incompatible options for renewal (though it’s rare to find people who agree with both 1 and 2). Participation in any of the three does not necessarily preclude participation in the others.
4. Evangelicals continue to unite around big personalities.
The proto-evangelicals of the Reformation and the Great Awakenings were attracted to big personalities. Just think of Luther, Whitefield, Wesley, and Spurgeon. The development of contemporary evangelicalism took place around key leaders like Billy Graham. Today, the Elephant Room reinforces the evangelical fascination with “big personality” preachers and teachers.
It’s interesting to note that one of the commonalities that united the pastors who participated in the first Elephant Room was that they all lead beyond their local churches. Each of them wields influence in movements that transcend their church contexts. Perhaps much of the camaraderie of the Elephant Room is based not in theological likemindedness but in a sort of “brotherhood of the trenches” – the ability to relate to one another and show the scars of being in leadership.
Have you ever noticed how former presidents (generally) refrain from attacking their successors and how presidents with radically different political views can be on such good terms once they are out of office? There is a bond among former presidents, perhaps because each of them knows firsthand the stress of being president. I wonder if the pastors who participate in the Elephant Room have a similar bond. They know what it is like to be shot at from all sides. (As an example, watch the reaction when Perry Noble mentions “internet bloggers,” and you see how quickly everyone is on the same page!)
The downside to this emphasis on big personalities was that the debates often steered toward entertaining conversation rather than substantive discussion. For example, David Platt laid out a view of money and possessions that James MacDonald affirmed. But then the conversation quickly turned to the soundbite issue of “giving kids goldfish crackers in church.” No longer was the conversation about the substance of Platt’s view but a caricature of his position. (My frustration with that segment led to this blog post.)
The same thing took place with the discussion on culture in the church. Driscoll and Noble were set opposite one another when it was clear that both are more alike than different on the issue of culture. And so the soundbite issue of using “Highway to Hell” in worship – an issue that illustrates the difference between ministry philosophies – took over the conversation.
5. Evangelicalism’s lack of ecclesiology leads to a divorce between theology and methodology.
When I watched the Elephant Room with church leaders, I was sharpened by the terrific conversations that followed. The videos were a springboard into discussions that pushed us to consider, in light of the Scriptures, why we do things the way we do them. What is the ministry philosophy that undergirds our methods?
The Elephant Room also made it harder to easily dismiss pastors who do not belong to our particular tribe. While no one changed their mind regarding ministry philosophy, everyone went away with new insight into the motivation behind the other approaches, even if they ultimately disagreed with those pastors’ choices. The Elephant Room took away some of our easy targets.
Watching the Elephant Room with laypeople was another experience entirely. Whereas church leaders took these debates as a springboard for robust conversation about ministry practice, church laypeople tended to relativize the discussion and see all methods as essentially equal, just different. I noticed that among laypeople, the Elephant Room discussions wound up legitimizing all the ministry philosophies represented, to the point that it didn’t matter what the choices were as long as the pastor’s heart was in the right place.
Frankly, I was surprised by this reaction to the Elephant Room, since the whole tenor of the discussion seemed to be these differences matter! So, I think the Elephant Room exposes a glaring weakness of evangelicalism in general, that our lack of ecclesiology leaves the door open for a total divorce between theology and ministry methodology. Instead of tracing the different methodologies back to the theology that gives rise to such distinctions, the Elephant Room makes it seem as if the theological core is sound and that the big issues relate to practice.
But if theology influences everything a church does, then there must be a stronger connection between theology and practice, between ecclesiology and ministry. It’s not that David Platt and Perry Noble disagree on practice alone; their theological convictions are what lead to differences in practice.
Too many times, when we disagree with a pastor’s actions, we judge his motives. We assume that brothers operating by a different philosophy of ministry must be motivated by numbers, by glory-seeking, or by theological ignorance. And while it is true that all of our hearts contain a mixture of conflicting motives – some pure and others sinful – we should assume the worst about ourselves and the best about our brothers. This is the strength of the Elephant Room. Listening to people from outside our own tribe should give us pause before launching into critique.
At the same time, assuming sincerity of heart and love for Jesus on the part of other church leaders does not mean that different ministry philosophies and methodologies are equally valid. At the end of the day, our faithfulness and service to the Lord will not be examined in light of our devotion to dynamic preacher personalities but by the actions we take in light of God’s revealed Word. Ideas have consequences. Ministry philosophy matters. People get hurt by bad theology and unwise practices.
So yes, theological humility reminds us that we do not have all the answers. But theological conviction reminds us that there is right and wrong, there are choices that are either wise or unwise, and that the Scriptures must guide how we think through these issues.
Tomorrow, I’ll offer a few reasons why I will be attending and blogging about the upcoming Elephant Room conference.