Pilgrims (and Their Hosts)

from Feb 08, 2010 Category: Tabletalk Magazine

A wise traveler adapts to the customs and languages of the host country. When we lived abroad, people never asked us about our health. It is considered rude. The day we left England, however, we were peppered with questions by an American woman who was being polite. What was rude in England was polite in Dallas. Changing theological traditions is like traveling abroad. Upon arrival, the visitor is likely to find new language and culture, that is, a new theology, piety, and practice. This cross-cultural encounter creates opportunities and obligations for hosts and pilgrims alike.

There are about sixty-million evangelicals in North America. By contrast, the confessional Reformed communions number fewer than one million members. One effect of these disproportionate numbers is that the theology, piety, and practice of American evangelicals shape the expectations of many Christians. That ethos is the product of a series of religious revivals that began in the eighteenth century and continued through the nineteenth century. These two episodes were different in significant ways but they were similar in important ways too. They were both organized around various kinds of religious experience. They differed on how to arrive at that experience and even on what the experience means. Nevertheless, the common thread of religious experience, whether it be a sort of direct encounter with the risen Christ or a conversion experience at the anxious bench, ties them together. Since the early eighteenth century, all American evangelicals have been shaped by a desire to have an intense, personal religious experience.

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