Why New Word Alive is the future
In a conversation recorded at the 2008 event in April, Hugh Palmer interviews Don Carson and Richard Cunningham on the purpose and future of New Word Alive.
HP to DC: I’m wondering why you were willing to come. I know one of the reasons is that Richard Cunningham rang you up and we all know how good he is at arm twisting, but I always had you down as someone good at resisting arm twisting and you’d be able to see off Richard in fight, so why did you say ‘yes’ and come over here?
DC: Well, the combination of his arm-twisting and your charm — how could I possibly resist?
HP: You can come again.
DC: I confess it was a little more complicated than that. In many parts of the English-speaking world, not just in the UK but in the US and to some extent Australia and elsewhere, a realignment is going on. The movement called evangelicalism is broadening and becoming less defined. More and more people adopt that label for themselves today who no evangelical of 50 years ago would have recognised as such. As this happens, we start getting more and more fragmentation of one sort and another. I have argued elsewhere that this is not a uniform fragmentation, but a fragmentation in ‘clumps’: there are recognisable ‘clumps’ or ‘tribes’ of people who coagulate around a certain ideology or emphasis, but for whom the gospel, even if it is well-articulated, is merely assumed, rather than the passion of their lives.
Owing to pressures — partly doctrinal, partly moral, partly organisational and denominational — it seems to me that New Word Alive is configuring things in ways that are fundamentally helpful. NWA focuses on the Scriptures and centres on the gospel, on the cross of Christ, without any apology. At the same time the organisation is broad enough to include believers across a wide spectrum, while focusing primary attention on the centre.
NWA needs to be a centre-bounded set, rather than an externally bounded set. In an externally bounded set you define things around the edge, saying to people that they are either in or out. By contrast, a centre-bounded set is one that constantly focuses on the central non-negotiables of what elementary Christianity is. Provided the centre is stable, faithful, constantly reiterated and publicly proclaimed, then, if some people flitter around the edges, I can live with that. If you start losing the centre, or merely relativising it, you don’t really have anything of value that is left. When I was invited to participate, it struck me that what NWA was trying to focus on and articulate was right. So, if I could lend some small support, then I was glad to do so.
HP: Richard, let me turn to you, as you were the one picking up the baton and insisting there had to be a New Word Alive. Is that kind of thinking why you got on the phone to Don?
RC: I don’t think I had such a grand scheme of things. But with the end of the old Word Alive, there was a concern that those who found Word Alive a natural spiritual home would be homeless. Also I was worried that conservative evangelicals might tend to fragment even more post Word Alive and raise even higher cultural boundaries. I wanted NWA, and all of us want NWA, to be a place where the Bible is central and we have a high view of Scripture, but where we are not culturally hidebound but are generous and warm spirited.
Interestingly, much of the warmest support after Spring Harvest ended the partnership was from Terry Virgo, Adrian Warnock and other New Frontiers people. They were just as troubled on these issues and concerned for evangelicalism as those from a traditional conservative background. I would love this to be a place where evangelicals from across the spectrum — who have the central things central — come and find safety, joy and lasting partnership. We need to keep the coalition culturally broad and generous but absolutely focused so the central elements are clear and strong.
HP: You are right, Richard, that tragically one of things we’re very good at is splitting, and we certainly need to avoid that if we can. But tell us about next year — we are doubling up to two weeks of New Word Alive. Why is that and are you confident we can fill it?
RC: The main reason for holding two weeks is that we did sell out very quickly this year and there were lots more people who wanted to be here. So next year there will be more space for more to come. In addition, there are better economies of scale doing two conferences back to back.
Ambassadors for NWA
Are we confident we will fill it? I’m optimistic but then I always am! But it won’t happen without you who have attended this first year becoming ambassadors. I don’t mean this to sound pompous but this is an historic event. And, in a sense, all of us who have come this year are co-founders of this new event. As we go back all over the country today we will have the opportunity to ask how we can get other people to be part of this bigger vision that Don has articulated. There is potential for New Word Alive to equip and resource the church significantly as the event grows — helping Christian families, youth groups, Sunday school teachers, pastors, church planters and students to be effective where God has placed them. If we can spread the word, book a caravan and fill it and get friends to do the same — we will not only fill two weeks but will have to look for a third!
HP: Let me put the final question to you, Don. You are an outsider but you come here often and know the scene well. Can you give an outsider’s observation on the future of British evangelicalism and the role New Word Alive could have within it?
DC: It’s astonishingly important now that the focus be on the gospel, on men and women, on the truth of God’s word, but without a hint of triumphalism. This entire movement could kill itself very quickly if any triumphalistic overtone takes hold.
Living under the cross
Christians living under the cross must live and work out of gratitude and thankfulness and adoration and contrition — with holy joy but with humility. If both orthodoxy and orthopraxy are maintained with a spirit of humility before the Lord, then I expect great things.
In North America we face similar sorts of temptations. We’ve put together something called The Gospel Coalition (http://www.thegospelcoalition.org) that is bringing pastors and churches together to serve as a central clearing-house for all kinds of theological and pastoral wisdom and insight.
In its own way, NWA could serve the church in the UK in a similar fashion. It could become a model for ministry. For example, it might provide seminars in crucial areas where local churches are often too small to give the kind of help that is really needed — and demonstrably out of the context of the centrality of the gospel. It will become a place where books are available, where you can talk to other Christians, where students can talk to older Christians.
Anticipating the last day
This ought to be a place in which we begin to perceive that the church of the living God is big, it’s strong, it crosses ages, it crosses denominations, it crosses races. And it anticipates the crowd on the last day around the throne singing glory to him who is on the throne and to the Lamb.
If NWA becomes a rallying point and an anticipation of the new heaven and new earth, then yes, yes, the result will be really wonderful.