Monday, June 1, 2015

7 Reasons We Are in a Kairos Moment in Catholic-Evangelical Relations

"Kairos is the time of God's activity, a time where we sense God may be trying to get our attention, where we anticipate He may be up to something and it would be wise for us to pay attention in this suspended time and place." -- J. R. Briggs

The relationship between Catholic and evangelical Christians has been frosty throughout history, to say the least.  It has even been downright hostile at times, and there are parts of the world where it still continues to be dangerous.

Reverend John Armstrong is an evangelical minister and lifelong advocate for Christian unity.  He argues that something special is happening right now, and it has been intensifying over just the last few years.  The Holy Spirit is drawing Catholics and evangelicals into positive relationships in many and varied ways.  He asserts that we may be in the middle of a true kairos moment"Something is happening," he says.

The following points are loosely adapted from a talk he gave at a Catholic-evangelical dialogue session at the National Workshop on Christian Unity (NWCU) in Charlotte, NC, in April.  Additional comments have been added from other speakers as well as my own thoughts.

Are we in a kairos moment?  See for yourself!

Rev. John Armstrong speaking at CharlotteONE in April 2015.

1. Pro-Life Movement

Many Catholics and evangelicals first "met" each other in the protest line at abortion clinics and at the March for Life.  While they may have previously interacted in the workplace or elsewhere in the community, this was for many the first time they were getting to know each other as people of faith.

Their solidarity was not instantaneous.  A Catholic priest recounted to me an instance in Arkansas.  He helped form a pregnancy crisis center with other evangelical leaders in the early 2000s.  He and other Catholics supported the effort with funding and sweat equity.  However, when it was time to form a Board of Directors, the priest was snubbed out.  Potential candidates were given a statement of faith to sign, and he was not even afforded the opportunity.  The message was clear:  Catholics were welcome but only in a very cautious and limited way.

The walls only began to come down as Catholics and evangelicals continually stood shoulder to shoulder, professing their common belief in the sanctity of unborn life and enduring the repercussions together.  As Armstrong points out, "they were often in same jail cell together.  They started talking and discovered they have so much in common.  This was really the narrative."  Veterans of the pro-life movement developed an affinity for each other that might not have happened otherwise.

2.  Pro-Family Movement

Along with the pro-life movement, many Catholics and evangelicals have been finding common ground in their approach to the family.  This includes a wide array of aspects.  Armstrong offers the example of Natural Family Planning (NFP) as an unexpected point of convergence between the two groups.  He tells Catholics:  "You might be surprised how significantly NFP has influenced young evangelicals who are not convinced that many forms of birth control are the way they should go as people of faith." 

He admits that NFP has often been dismissed as a silly Catholic tradition among evangelicals who have traditionally had few qualms about artificial contraception.  Today, it is younger evangelicals who are exploring NFP with great sincerity.  "There are books coming out now by young evangelicals giving testimony to their views on NFP, and when you read one, you would think you are reading the testimony of a young Catholic," he says.

A phrase comes to mind that has been echoing in my consciousness since the NWCU:  At the grassroots level, people are "minding each other's traditions."  That insight was shared by Dr. Stephen Long of Marquette University, and it resonates here strongly.  In this case, evangelicals are learning about and carrying the torch for something they learned from Catholics--perhaps more fervently than many Catholics.

3.  Pope Francis

When the humble Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was being introduced to the world as Pope Francis in March 2013, there was a stirring in the evangelical Christian community.  Evangelical leaders who worked with Bergoglio in Argentia began circulating reports to their friends and colleagues.  Within 5 days of the pope's election, Armstrong started hearing from other evangelicals about him.  They were saying things such as:  "We know him.  We pray with him.  He's our friend."  They were not talking about isolated incidents or casual encounters.  On the contrary, Bergoglio has been cultivating, "friendship, trust and love" with evangelicals for many years.

Pope Francis has been reaching out to evangelical Christians in unique ways during his time as pope.  He has invited evangelical leaders to Rome, has spoken at evangelical churches and still prays with a small group of evangelical Christians on a regular basis, just like he did as Archbishop. 

Pope Francis even recorded an impromptu video address to Copeland Ministries on a smartphone with an appeal for Christian brother and sisterhood.  He asked Copeland Ministries to pray for him, and after the video address the assembled crowd was more than willing to oblige.  This and numerous other events have shown an unprecedented witness from the papacy towards the evangelical community.

"We could not have imagined this even two years ago," says Armstrong.

Left to right, top then bottom: Bishop Tony Palmer, Francis with Rev. James Robinson,
Kenneth Copeland with Francis, Francis' video address to Copeland Ministries.

4.  Public Recognition by Leaders

Pope Francis is certainly in a category all to himself.  That being said, Armstrong affirmed that there are efforts being made by other leaders from both sides--including Catholic bishops and evangelical pastors--to reach out to one another in public ways. 

These can be muddy waters, since the evangelical world is largely non-hierarchical.  "Who do you talk to?" asks Armstrong.  Who can speak for the evangelical world?  It is not as easy as it is in a hierarchical institution, but there are pastors and other leaders whose words carry weight with evangelical Christians.

The National Workshop on Christian Unity where Armstrong gave this talk is a perfect example.  For over 50 years, Catholic and mainline Protestant ecumenical workers have gathered together to roll up their sleeves and plot the course for unity.  The last couple of gatherings have started to feature non-denominational evangelical Christians.  Armstrong himself is on the national planning committee. 

Likewise, the Lusanne movement has been a voice for the unity among evangelical Christians since 1974, evolving in large part out of the ministry of Billy Graham.  In recent years, it has begun to recognize Catholic and Orthodox churches more openly.  Representatives from those churches have participated in the movement, including the significant Cape Town Congress held in 2010.

5.  Marketplace Ministries

"Our people already know each other in the workplace," Armstrong asserts.  "Catholics and evangelicals are the ones who get into Bible studies together and talk about marketplace ministry.  They talk about what it means to bring their Christian values into the workplace.  They are the ones having the serious conversations about not just making money but prospering people and creating [Christian] culture through business.

"The proliferation of marketplace ministries in the last 5-8 years has been a phenomenon that Catholics may not have not tracked the way that some evangelicals have.  It is a great form of mission."

6.  Catholics Immersed in Evangelical Experience

The last two points I am adding from my own experience.  The first one is not recent, but I believe it figures prominently into what is happening today.  For the past few decades, Catholics have learned about the evangelical Christian world and its language.  When I was going to college 20 years ago, it was common for evangelical Christians to encourage Catholics to put down their rote prayer books and instead talk to Jesus as a personal friend.  American Catholicism had gotten stale for many people, and most were poorly catechized in the first place.  For them, Catholicism had degenerated into empty "rules and routines" that had gotten divorced from their meaning.  The freedom to be expressive in prayer and worship in evangelical worship was a breath of fresh air.  It was attracting Catholics in large numbers, many of whom converted.

In addition, evangelicals witnessed to many Catholics (including me) what it is like to have a private and personal relationship with Scripture outside of Mass.  The Catholic Church as an institution has always had a vibrant, living relationship with the Bible.  Scripture has always been intimately woven into all the theology and doctrine as well as the official prayers of the Church, including the Mass. The Catholic Church is inseparable from the Bible.  However, over the centuries that has not filtered down to individual people very well (illiteracy and ecclesial control over Biblical interpretation figured prominently in previous centuries).  That has changed dramatically in recent years. Individual Catholic are developing a relationship with Scripture in both academic study and personal devotions.  The influence of evangelicals to model and encourage this cannot be understated. 

Catholic converts helped fill the pews in evangelical churches in recent years.  Perhaps they also brought a worldview that may have unexpectedly paved the way for the next point . . .

7.  Surge of Interest by Evangelicals in Catholic Tradition

It is fascinating to watch the pendulum swing.  What was unthinkable 20 years ago is now becoming commonplace.  Just like many Catholics fell into a lull in the relationship with their tradition only to be reignited in their faith through evangelical Christianity, so too now many evangelicals are finding nourishment by exploring parts of the Catholic tradition that they previously have kept at a clear distance. 

The freedom to pray to Jesus in a spontaneous, ordinary conversational style can be freeing to someone who has always recited prayers out of a book.  However, after a while of praying spontaneously, people can find themselves running out of things to say or losing direction.  Structured prayer can bring a focus and a discipline.  It is like a workout--it can be great to go to the gym and randomly use different exercise machines.  That can invigorate the body and be a great spark to health.  However, it is also significant to have a structured program to develop strength and endurance in a focused way.  You can benefit from the wisdom of exercise experts, making sure each muscle group gets proper attention.  This sometimes means doing exercises you may not feel like doing.  A structured program can push you farther and deeper than you might have gone if left to your own initiative.  Fitness experts say that both "free days" and structure are important for health.

Long offered another example: The strongly evangelical Wheaton College recently opened up a center for Patristic Studies.  The Patristics are the early church thinkers, hermits, martyrs and saints who wrote in the first few centuries after Christ.  They lived long before the Protestant Reformation, so virtually all Christians today can claim that they are descendants of their wisdom, too.  That being said, until recently most evangelicals were reluctant to embrace or even engage with them at all.  That resistance has softened considerably as evangelicals are robustly exploring this tradition and finding a place within it for themselves.

Today, many evangelicals know far more about the Patristics, the monastic traditions, liturgy and Catholic Social Teaching than many Catholics.  Not only are they keeping alive precious traditions, but they are breathing new life into them with an evangelical fervor.  We are indeed "minding each other's traditions."

Wildflower bloom in Colorado.

A Bloom Seasons in the Making

The proliferation of Catholic and evangelical relations has been as least "several decades in the making," as Armstrong attests, and he would know having been at the forefront of the movement since the early 1980s.  While it may seem like all this activity has just spontaneously appeared, the reality is that the seeds have been planted long ago.  What we are seeing now is a bloom.  It is our call to pay attention and be receptive to the harvest that the Holy Spirit brings us.

"It all comes full circle back to that friendship, trust and love," says Armstrong, referring to the example Bergoglio showed all those years in Buenos Aires before becoming pope.  The flowering in his relationships with evangelicals did not just happen overnight.  People Francis built those relationships in the same way that any of us can build them--through conversation, friendship, mutual prayer and genuine care and concern.

"In this kairos moment, we need to do everything we can to know each other, to love each other, to pray for each other, and to take this not only into our ecumenical relationships, but to take it right down to the level of the parish, to our people."

Indeed, the energy and enthusiasm at that Catholic-evangelical dialogue at the NWCU was the strongest of any I experienced there.  There is a freshness as Catholics and evangelicals have truly discovered each other and are taking their relationship seriously.  This is not to downplay energy elsewhere--some denominations have been in dialogue for decades, and there is a well cultivated maturity to those discussions that comes with the passage of time--but the vibrancy of the Catholic-evangelical dialogue is a telling sign that yes, something is happening.

Artistic depiction of a kairos moment.

This post is the second installment in a series about the National Workshop on Christian Unity.  See the first part, called The Untanglers.

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