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The Urban Church as Teacher

Jul 15, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   BLOG, race, reconciliation, the church  //  No Comments

I am a product of the urban church. I am both a child of Redeemer Missionary Baptist Church; an African American Church and Park Avenue United Methodist Church; a Multi-ethnic Church both located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I am a child of urban culture. I grew up in the soil of urban life and the sub-cultures of both Hip Hop and the unique artistry of the legendary Prince. I have such a high regard for urban life and the urban church that it has felt strange for me to live outside of the city for the last four years in the Outer East Bay of Northern California.

Living outside of the city has afforded me the unique opportunity to see how suburban areas and bedroom communities are rapidly changing. Gentrification, continued growing metropolitan development, and the economic crisis in the US has led to the suburbs developing urban issues and challenges. Gentrification has displaced the urban poor to suburban and rural rental communities. Light rail as one element of metropolitan growth as helped to the dismantling of the social walls between the haves and the have not’s. The economic crisis has led to suburban people developing “urban problems.” Well educated, upper-middle class people are now finding themselves unemployed and upside down on their homes. Places that were built for the well-resourced are now dealing with the social challenges that were seen as just going on in the hood. It’s not all bad in the suburbs though (just as it’s not been all bad in the city). There is the beauty of the continued increase in multi-ethnic diversity in the suburbs as an example.

One thing is true though, what the suburbs and bedroom communities are becoming is not what churches that were planted there 10 to 20 years ago were anticipating. Church growth, program-based, and multi-site strategies alone cannot deal with the present and future mission field of the suburbs. Many suburban churches were built around the people coming to the church being resourced, highly educated, with relatively stable families, and a surrounding community that offered very little ethnic diversity. What a prime mission field for a large, program-based, multi worship experience, and multi-site vision. Now please know that I’m not putting these strategies down. They work very well in a certain mission field, but more and more that mission field will no longer exist. If suburban churches aren’t strong in areas of compassion, mercy, justice, racial reconciliation, and Christian community development they will begin to soon struggle if they are not struggling already. Now there will be a few mega churches that will be able to ride out a soon outdated wave of privileged homogeneity, but many others will find that wave harder and harder to surf.

This is why I believe this is the perfect time for suburban churches to learn from urban churches. This will take insight, humility, and a stronger Kingdom mindset. Many resourced suburban churches only tend to see cities and urban churches from the perspective of how they can help them instead of the help they can receive from them. The way in which urban churches understand suffering, have stood the test of time as spiritual anchors, understand what happens during the week may be more important than what happens in worship on the weekend, and have had to stare more visible demonic forces in the face, could be a tremendous blessing to suburban churches. Will suburban churches be willing to become urban students?

The urban church though will have to decide if she is willing to strive to become a better missional teacher to suburban churches. If the urban church strives to become a teacher in this way, she must admit the ways in which she has been held captive to the things of this world such as the race matrix. The more the urban church becomes a Kingdom force of truth, transformation, reconciliation, and justice the better teacher she will become. The urban church must fight off the temptation of becoming such a commuter church that she loses her identity as a community transforming church. I praise God for all that I’ve learned from the urban church. I continue to learn more and more. What about you?

Cities, Churches, and Challenges

Apr 20, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   reconciliation, the church  //  No Comments

It seems that you can go to just about any inner city in the United States of America and find the same interesting dynamic. Many if not all cities have communities that are considered the most challenged when it comes to crime, being economically under-resourced, having underperforming schools, and other unfortunate issues. These communities tend to be close to the downtown of the cities, which in many cases is at some point on the journey of gentrification. At the same time these communities tend to be filled with churches.

Some of the worst communities in our American cities have churches on every corner. Black Churches, Hispanic Churches, Asian Churches, Historic Mainline Churches, Catholic Churches, Multi-ethnic Churches, and Missional Churches. Baptist Churches, Missionary Baptist Churches, Pentecostal Churches,  Word of Faith Churches, Lutheran Churches, Methodist Churches, Free Methodist Churches, Evangelical Covenant Churches, and Non-denominational Churches. Church Planting Movement Churches, Campus Churches, House Churches, Storefront Churches, Community Churches, and Monastic Churches. If you want a lesson on the history, diversity, beauty, and challenges of the American Church come to the inner-cities of the United States and get your Church lessons. I proclaim that the suburbs are not the central context for understanding the history, present state, and future of the Church in the United States, it’s the city.

After the Church had a significant exodus from the city in the 1960′s, 1970′s, and 1980′s, it’s now become the cool, missional thing to return to the city. Evangelicals are now coming into the city the way they were venturing into the wilderness to build camps in the 1940′s it seems. I’m actually glad they’re coming in general, but will it change anything in a major way? We already have churches on every corner and multiple churches on the same block in cities everywhere. Do we really need more urban churches? I say yes if we embrace the following-

We need three things to occur among the urban church and those coming into the city to start churches in order to experience revolutionary Kingdom advancement and transformation.

1.) We need existing urban churches to stop doing ministry in isolation, which can create a culture of mini-empire building instead of Kingdom of God advancement.

Urban churches must collaborate because the social ills, sins, and challenges are too massive for any one church to deal with no matter how large it is. We need urban church coalitions and association which cross race, ethnicity, denomination, and doctrine in order to create the Kingdom army needed to defeat Satan’s and fallen man’s strategy of evil, arrogance, pride, and division.

2.) We need existing churches to embrace church planting over church splitting.

Church splitting comes about in part because of a lack of embracing the biblical mandate and framework for church planting and development. The urban church must develop a culture of raising up, releasing, and resourcing leaders as church planters and ministry developers.

3.) Suburban Churches, Church Planting Movements, and Urban Missions Organizations, must partner with existing urban churches to plant urban churches.

People coming into the city must honor the church that is already in the city and thru that recognize that Jesus Christ is already present in the city inviting others to join in on God’s strategy for urban revival.

We need the existing urban church to be missional and about the Kingdom of God, not empire building. We also need new urban church plants that honor the existing urban churches that came before them, treating them as revered elders. A united urban church army and movement can tackle the challenges facing cities across this nation.

 

Abortion Response Video

Apr 18, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   Uncategorized  //  No Comments

In this video I respond to Facebook critics that say I don’t have a strong enough stand against abortion.

 

Church Flight

Apr 14, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   reconciliation, the church, Uncategorized  //  4 Comments

My grandmother moved from Birmingham, Alabama to Minneapolis, Minnesota as a single mother with my mom and two other daughters and a son. She was a hard working woman, which is why when I saw the movie, The Help, I cried. Her family was one of the first families to move into what had previously been an all-White community. I can remember in the early 1970′s, when at about 5 years old, my father and mother began pursuing owning a house of their own. We moved into a community where we were one of the first non-White families. I witnessed what is called White-flight with my own eyes. I also witnessed some of the White Church flight. Many Black Churches over time were able to buy or lease church buildings formally occupied by White Churches.

I praise God for the White families that stayed or I never would have befriended Bobby Dorsey or John Saphire. I praise God for the White Churches that stayed or I never would have experienced Boy Scouts at Calvary Lutheran Church or Youth Ministry at Park Avenue Methodist Church. But even with those who stayed, the community was impacted drastically by those who left. Years later White flight would be followed by African- Americans and other ethnic groups that would leave the community once they were able to go to college and pursue a career. After the house I grew up in was broken into and set on fire, it made total sense to me that it was time for my parents to leave the community.

Sometimes I wonder what the community I grew up in would be like today if none of the churches would have left after my family members moved in? What if none of the churches that were there prior would have left? What if Black Churches would have been planted and thrived right next to White Churches? What if Multi-ethnic Churches would have developed in the 1970′s in my neighborhood as shining lights of the Kingdom of God? What if there had been no flight.

Today, many of the resourced church plants are strategically placed in the suburbs. Most church planting models are based on a suburban missional context. When Black Churches grow to a certain size, many begin looking for suburban land to fulfill ministry dreams. Yes, there are urban church planters and older churches that never left the city (PRAISE GOD!), but the city is still living in the after effect of Church flight.

The good news is there seems to be a missional return to the cities. The are urban church planting movements coming to the city. There are those graduating from Christian universities sensing a call to join the movement to return to the city. What I say to those coming to the city and recently arriving in the city-

Honor those pastors, churches, missional organizations, and families that never left.

The Gospel According to Captain America: Winter Soldier

Apr 8, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, spiritual growth, the church  //  No Comments

“Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.”

-Ephesians 6:10-13 (NASB)

WARNING! Though I really don’t believe I need to give a spoiler alert for this blog post in connection to the movie, Captain America: Winter Soldier, if you are still concerned, go see it first and then read this.

SHIELD HAS BEEN COMPROMISED

TRUST NO ONE

How do you respond when an institution, community, or a person you’ve believed in and maybe even fought for is compromised by evil forces? Herein lies a spiritual lesson that we can take from the movie, Captain America: Winter Soldier. Captain America has been loyal to the United States, its government, and S.H.I.E.L.D., a larger agency committed to the safety of the world. I will leave it at that if you haven’t seen the movie and go deeper with the spiritual lesson.

We live in a broken and upside down world. Institutions and communities have been compromised by this evil and sinful world. Humankind is fallen and Satan is real. For the most part that is not a hard sell for Christians. This is why it’s important to see this issue from the perspective of Captain America. The government system is the vehicle thru which Captain America was given new life. It’s what helped develop his mission and purpose. So for the Christian to understand the gospel according to Captain America we have to come to grips with how Christianity as an institution and community has been compromised. The true gospel found in Christ Jesus is Christianity at its best. But the institutions and the communities thru which Christianity is to be expressed has been compromised.

When a pastor confesses a moral failure we see the compromise. This leads to the question who can you trust when it comes to pastors. When the church preaches a gospel that sounds more like capitalism and deep individualism than Kingdom, we see the compromise. This leads to the question who can you trust when it comes to the church. When the church is broken and compromised what do you do? What do you do when you Christian Brother or Sister has been compromised? This is what we can learn from Captain America: Winter Soldier.

Captain America, in the midst of a compromised system never lost sight of his true mission and purpose. This brought justice to a compromised system and defeat to the real enemy. As Christians we must find our true mission and purpose even when some of  our institutions, communities, and leaders have been compromised. When we are able to do this, we truly spread the Gospel and take back territories and lives from the real enemy.

Deadline for Healthcare?

Mar 31, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, politics, the church  //  1 Comment

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Matthew 25:35-40 (NIV)

Politically, today is a deadline for the Affordable Care Act. This blog post is not about giving an opinion about what has become known as Obamacare. This post is not about a deadline, it’s about a biblical mandate. As Jesus provides three pictures of the Kingdom of God in Matthew chapter 25, He ends by showing us what Kingdom Compassion and Justice looks like. We don’t have to wonder what God calls us to do when it comes to the poor, the immigrant, the incarcerated, and the sick. I want to move beyond a political deadline, to a biblical mandate.

When I was a child, I remember my mother taking me to see Dr. Brown. He was an African-American doctor and many Black parents took their children to see him because they had migrated from the segregated South, where Black doctors were the only option. For many in the North for years this was the only option as well. I also remember my mother taking me to a clinic that was inside a Catholic Church. This “clinic in the church” tore down the dividing lines of race in the way healthcare services were provided.

When I was a teenager, there was a United Methodist Church in my neighborhood where I was involved in the youth group. Eventually, this church would create a community development and leadership foundation that would house a free health clinic, legal clinic, thrift store, and youth science program. Later in my adult years, I would serve as an Associate Pastor of that church and Executive Director of that foundation.

In 2003, I would be apart of a group that would plant a church in North Minneapolis and also start a community development corporation. After I left the church to serve as a Regional Superintendent within a denomination, the church would decide to cut ties with the cdc. Thank God though, that cdc is still going. Before I moved from Minnesota to California with my family, my wife and I would take our daughters to an African American Baptist Church to get flu shots.

My point here is that the Christian Church must stay in the biblical business of providing healthcare to the sick. We must work beyond the divisions and dysfunction of government to care for the sick and the poor. I’m not saying that government shouldn’t play a critical role. My focus though is to remind the church of one of it’s mandates. I’m all for church growth, but I’m concerned that in her efforts to be more attractional, the church isn’t as missional as it needs to be. Every large and substantially  resourced church ought to have a free health clinic, providing care to those without healthcare coverage. Why not? It’s a biblical mandate. The church ought to be the alternative for pregnant women who would otherwise have an abortion. Why not? It’s a biblical mandate.

At World Impact (www.worldimpact.org), where I serve now as President and CEO, we have mobile clinics is cities like Los Angeles and Wichita providing healthcare. In partnership, we are involved in providing healthcare in the Philadelphia area. But also, through our urban church planting efforts, we hope to create networks and movements of urban churches working together to demonstrate Kingdom compassion and justice. Today is no deadline for the church, but let it be a reminder of one important element of the true good news of Christ.

In Order To Abolish Abortion

Mar 24, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, politics, reconciliation, theology  //  6 Comments

A few months ago I was taken to task by a few folks for not being more proactive in using my influence in raising the deep tragedies around the issue of abortion. Some of these dear folks, who I have deep respect for, would take me to task right now for using the word abortion instead of stating it as, the senseless murder of thousands of innocent children daily within the womb. Some even believe that to label yourself as “Pro-life” is too soft and that “abolitionist” is a better term to use. This is actually connected to my being taken to task for talking about working to reduce abortion in the US instead of working to abolish abortion all together. Well, because of all this, I decided to share some reflections which give clarity to my position on this very divisive, yet important issue. I don’t expect readers to agree with me and I might be taken to task yet again for even sharing these reflections.

I will begin by stating that I would still consider myself pro-life for theological and ideological reasons. Let me begin with theology. Jeremiah 1 and the Ten Commandments as laid out in Exodus are part of my biblical foundation for being pro-life. I believe that life doesn’t begin when humans conceive it, but when God begins the designing process, which is beyond simply the works of human beings. Many people would like to stay within a framework of life and death ultimately being in our hands. Freewill gives some influence over life and death for humans, but ultimately life, death, and eternal life are all in the almighty Hands of God. Some pro-life Christians use as their biblical foundation, Scriptures focused on pagan cultures sacrificing children to a false god in the Old Testament. By doing this they are connecting murder and idolatry as the foundation for abortion. I stay away from this because we are dealing with what happens with children in the womb, not outside of it.

Because I see abortion as murder, I see it as oppressive and sinful. This belief is why I don’t choose to lift up abortion as a stand alone issue. If we want to reduce or abolish abortion, I believe we must connect it to other acts of oppression. Some have told me they want to abolish abortion the same way we abolished slavery. Well, they don’t realize that slavery has not been totally abolished on this planet, which proves raising single issues is a strategy that is very limited in dealing with sin and injustice. There are slave systems which are still not abolished in this sinful world. And, if we want to abolish sinful and oppressive acts, why just limit it to abortion? Why not abolish oppressive government systems, murder, poverty, and human trafficking as well? I would agree that we should work towards that end.

What makes the issue of abortion complex is that it intersects the oppression of children in the womb and that of women. In some cases it brings in racial oppression and the oppression of the poor as well. If we want to reduce or abolish abortion, I believe we must connect it to the oppression of women, the poor, and people of color. It is problematic to cry out for innocent children in the womb, but not cry out against domestic abuse, date rape, human trafficking, and other forms of the oppression of women. There is also a connection between abortion and the urban poor. There is a connection between abortion and race. It has been stated on many occasions that the founder of Planned Parenthood had a racist agenda in wanting to use abortion as a way to control the number of Black babies born or to be more true to the agenda, not born. The one who desires to reduce or abolish abortion must have a more holistic agenda of Kingdom compassion, mercy, and justice.

I am very passionate about babies in the womb of mothers who ought to have a chance at living out God’s destiny for their lives. I’m also passionate about the empowerment of the poor, the empowerment of women, racial reconciliation, and the rescuing of children out of sex slavery. It would be fair to take me to task for not being dominated by one singular issue.

 

Does The Black Church Still Exist?

Mar 18, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   race, the church, Uncategorized  //  No Comments

What is it that I’m really asking here? This is important for me to clarify because I know that the Black Church still exists. What I’m really wrestling with is if the Black Church that I’m a product of still exists. Does the Black Church that brought an evangelism, theology, and justice movement to enslaved Africans who were presented a Christ representing the Slave Master instead of the Reconciler still exist?

Does the Black Church that launched the Civil Rights and Azusa Street Revival Movements still exist? The reason I wrestle with these questions is for two reasons. One, I believe the Black Church that I’m a product of is still needed. I see this version of the Black Church shrinking. I learned how to preach and lead worship in the Black Church. I learned how to serve and respect Elders in the Black Church. I learned both liberation and reconciliation theology in the Black Church and from Black Itinerant Preachers like Tom Skinner and John Perkins. Pastors such as, Edward Berry, Gerald Joiner, Robert Owens, Don Davenport, Stan Long, J. Alfred Smith Sr., Keith Johnson, Brenda Salter-McNeil, Debbie Blue, and William Smith have all been mentors and pastors to me over the years. Please know that men and women of diverse ethnicities have played a significant role in my development as a pastor, evangelist, and evangelical leader, but I would not be where I am today if not for the way in which God used the Black Church in my life. When I ask does the Black Church exist, I am asking about the church that raises up Sons and Daughters of the faith as expository preachers, community leaders, and prophets of compassion and justice.

A significant segment of the Black Church followed the playbook of a significant segment of the White Church and when it grew large enough, left the city for the suburbs. Just like many of the Black families that remain in urban communities are under-resourced, many of the Black Churches that remain in the city are under-resourced. This creates a culture of survival, competition, and empire verses a missional and reproducing culture of equipping and empowerment. I’m not against large churches at all, but can we grow churches without abandoning the city full of boys and girls in need of mentoring, development, and a Christ-centered compass for living?

The second reason I wrestle with this question about the Black Church is because I believe the Black Church is the first visible sign of an evangelistic, missional, and reconciling church in the United States. The Black Church is a forced church historically because its people were rejected by the White Church. Even with this fact, when the Civil Rights and Azusa Street Revival Movements were launched, open arms of reconciliation were presented to the White Church. The Black Church must not forget its missional, justice, and reconciliation roots. Today, a significant segment of the Black Church has traded in mission, justice, and reconciliation for individualism, Christian-covered capitalism, and deeply-rooted and one-sided political ideology. Though we have more Black Churches probably now than any time in history, Black people overall are still by percentage not doing as well as other ethnicities in areas of net worth, home ownership, college graduation rates, mass incarceration, and family stability. This is why we must simultaneously love, honor, and raise questions around the Black Church of today. We need the resurgence of the missional, reconciling,  and community transforming Black Church.

It’s really not that this type of Black Church doesn’t exist as all. Pastors such as Curtis Flemming in Oakland, D. Darrell Griffin in Chicago, Arrvel Wilson in Dallas, and Gerald Joiner in Louisville are examples of its existence. The fact is we need more. We need a resurgence of a Black Church that is a missional church, a reproducing church, and a reconciling church. What does this look like? More Black Churches that are revitalizing inner-city  communities. More Black Churches that are raising up, resourcing, and releasing urban leaders. More Black Churches that plant multi-ethnic Churches. More Black Churches that promote Kingdom Compassion and Justice. I love the Black Church too much to ask for anything less.

Why The Color of Jesus and Noah Matters

Mar 4, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   post-black thought, race, reconciliation, spiritual growth, theology  //  1 Comment

With the films Son of God and Noah coming to theaters, I will once again share my thoughts while also grieving over the continued portrayal of Jesus the Christ as European. The Noah movie, featuring Russell Crow as Noah, has me extending my thoughts to the broad portrayal of biblical characters as White. Some have responded to some of my Facebook posts as if this is strictly a Hollywood problem. American Christianity as dominated by the Anglo Evangelical and Mainline Church has participated in a significant way in lifting up the White Jesus. Others argue that the recent Jesus is Latin. That may be progress to some, but still is far from the Christ of Scripture.

Though there is a part of me that hopes these two films will point people ultimately to the authentic Christ of the Scriptures, I still grieve that we as Christians are okay with a false Jesus used as the on-ramp hopefully to the real One. Isn’t this really saying that we okay with a lie being the road to truth? You would think my fellow Evangelical Brothers and Sisters would have a real problem with that one. Some believe that at the end of the day the color of Jesus doesn’t matter; it only matters that He is the Son of God. Okay, let’s sit with that one for a moment. This creates a problem when living within a theology of knowing Jesus the Christ as both the Son of God and Son of Man. I deal with this issue on a deeper level in my books, Jump: Into a Life of Further and Higher and The Post-Black and Post-White Church. In short, Matthew 1 and John 1 provide us the biblical foundation for understanding Christ as both human and divine. The way in which Jesus comes to earth socially, ethnically, and politically all play a role in understanding who He is as the Lamb that was slain. Understanding His Jewish and multi-ethnic identity and what that meant to both the political and religious power structures has major meaning in the biblical narrative and how He gets to the cross. It also sets up the reconciliation and multicultural Christ-centered movements we see in the Book of Acts and the writings of Paul. The Great Commission is not just stated by Jesus, it’s embodied by the multi-ethnic Christ. This is all powerful stuff. The White Jesus represents something else all together.

The White Jesus unfortunately points us to colonization, American slavery, and a privileged religion that wrestles with how to missionally relate to people groups the Jewish and multi-ethnic Jesus gravitated to naturally (John 4). The White Jesus keeps the Christian Church captive to the social matrix of race. When people say, it doesn’t matter what color Jesus was, my reply is, “then why does the Bible take the time to tells us in detail his multi-ethnic family line in Matthew 1?” I also say, those who made Christ White in the first place seemed to really care what color He was or really cared about what color He needed to become. Watch the movie 12 Years a Slave and then meditate on the significance of a European Jesus verses the Jesus of Scripture.

With a White Christ comes a whole army of White biblical characters from Adam and Eve, to Noah, to David, to Esther, and Paul. The authentic ethnic and multicultural presentation of biblical characters gives the church greater missional credibility to reach an increasing multi-ethnic and multicultural reality.

Reformed Theology, Hip Hop, and Race

Dec 9, 2013   //   by efremsmith   //   hip hop, race, reconciliation, theology  //  1 Comment

Recently thru Facebook, I saw a video posted of a panel of reformed theologians answering a question about the validity of Christian Rap as a ministry tool. I thought it both interesting and strange that an all Anglo male group of theologians would even take on this topic. As I listened to their answers it was obvious that they should stay away from the topic from here forward. I would make one exception. I would love to have a healthy and respectful public conversation with any of the reformed theologians on that panel as one who has written on Hip Hop, the Church, and theology. If not me, I would encourage these reformed theologians to have a public conversation with folks like Dr. Daniel Hodge of North Park University in Chicago or Pastor Phil Jackson also of Chicago. I could name many others more qualified to provided a rich and biblical approach to Hip Hop  and specifically the element of rap as a tool for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Some say this issue has already been dealt with and I’m late to the party. Well, I have a feeling this won’t be the last time Anglo, evangelical, suburban, and male theologians speak as if they know more about God, urban culture, and people of color than urban people and people of color with ministry experience and theological credentials.

There is something else I want to briefly mention here as well. I am amazed by all of the recent conversations that Anglo male reformed theologians and pastors are having lately on issues of Hip Hop, race, and justice. On one hand I would say this is very wonderful. I’m glad to see Pastors such as Dr. John Piper and Dr. Tim Keller leading these conversations. At the same time, I’m very disappointed that rarely do these conversations include evangelical people of color and women who have been writing, speaking, and leading ministry models around these topic for years. Where is John Perkins, Brenda Salter-McNeil, Soon Chan Rah, Greg Yee, Dave Gibbons, Larry Acosta, Ed Delgado, Debbie Blue, Cecilia Williams, Robyn Afrik, and Eugene Cho? Until the conversations become more diverse and represent the broader community of evangelicals, reformed theology will lose ground in an ever-increasing multi-ethnic and evangelical Christian movement.