Asking Evangelical Questions
I wonder whether anyone who asks a question such as this, or anyone who responds to a question like this, isn’t already an evangelical?
Historically, to be evangelical was to be characterized not by a specific church tradition or denomination, but by a passion for sharing the story of the good news of the saving life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ as witnessed to by Scripture and marked with an emphasis on one’s personal response to God’s invitation to follow Christ. Thus, we have seen evangelical Catholics, evangelical Lutherans, evangelical Anabaptists, even evangelical Orthodox and everything in-between . . . Evangelicalism has been and continues to be extraordinarily diverse regarding belief, practice and even social structures, so it’s rather difficult to generalize about the movement.
So when asked, “Do I want to be evangelical?” I am tempted to follow-up by clarifying whether I’m being asked to be more like Jimmy Carter or George W. Bush, Jim Wallis or James Dobson, Anne Lamott or Phyllis Schlafly. It is this diversity of evangelical embodiment that contributes to my growing ambivalence about self-identifying as an evangelical.
Increasingly it seems that to identify as an evangelical is to identify with certain publishing houses, political parties, types of music, ethical positions, festivals, merchandise, schools, etc. Evangelical culture has become quite a powerhouse. As John Stott observed in an interview in the 50th Anniversary issue of Christianity Today, evangelicals were once “a despised and rejected minority.” Stott went on to say, “I’ve seen the evangelical movement grow in size, in maturity, certainly in scholarship, and therefore I think in influence and impact. We went from a ghetto to being on the ascendancy, which is a very dangerous place to be.”1 Evangelicals in America now have the power to elect Presidents and purposefully drive books to the top of bestseller lists; evangelicals are a force with whom to reckon.
There is much I appreciate about my evangelical heritage. I appreciate our passion for experiencing and following Christ and for sharing the story of our experiences with others. I appreciate our hope for transformation. I appreciate the fact that Evangelicalism is a transdenominational movement that can be understood, in part, as a form of missional-ecumenism; differing traditions linked together in the reconciling missio Dei.
I also have growing concerns about being evangelical. I’m concerned by the ways in which we tend to use power – especially economic and political – with seemly little theological reflection. I’m concerned with some of the ways we use and at times misuse Scripture as a weapon of exclusion, rather than as life-inviting Divine self-revelation. I’m concerned that our emphasis on “saving individual souls” is all too often front-and-center, especially from some of the most conservative and most outspoken evangelicals, while our Christ-centered hope for societal transformation, systems reform and creation care have appeared to be an afterthought. I’m very concerned that public opinion increasingly characterizes evangelicals as self-righteous, mean and negative, and that often such public opinion is justified. And I’m concerned that evangelicals have often acted as though everyone who names the name of Christ must ascribe to Evangelicalism.
The invitation to respond to this question was posed after my recent participation in the Younger Leaders Gathering sponsored by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization; I found myself drawn to the people while growing nervous about the organization. On the one hand the gathering was a stunning example of the best of evangelicalism, with representation from 112 nations all united around the idea of the mission of God. On the other hand, the gathering appeared to be led disproportionately by Caucasian, male, Protestant Westerners, holding what appeared – at times – to be an “us verses them” vision of mission.
So here I am . . . ambivalently evangelical. I cannot deny that I am an evangelical and I cannot deny that I cringe every time someone calls me one. So what’s a person to do? What am I to do?
I find myself going back to Scripture and to the faith-community with whom I share my life, together prayerfully exploring the hope of the Gospel as revealed in Jesus. Increasingly, it is my hope to embody this living gospel; to enter into relationship with the hope of mutual transformation through encounters mediated by the Holy Spirit. I can’t help but notice how Jesus proclaimed that God’s reign is now. How Jesus taught his followers to pray, “God’s will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” I can’t help but see that Jesus didn’t use conversion to describe his mission, rather he described his mission as giving life . . . flourishing, abundant life. I can’t help but notice how the Apostle Paul described the ministry of the church not as evangelism but as reconciliation. I can’t help but wonder whether we as evangelicals would do well to read the Great Commission through the prophet Micah, “O People, the Lord has already told you what is good, and this is what he requires: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”2
It never feels good to be given a label. And “evangelical” is a label. Yet I hope for the day when all people are recognized and celebrated first and foremost for their life in community uniquely reflecting the very Triune life of God. So I guess I would prefer to be seen as a person with a passion for living as a friend of God within a community of faith, seeking to so enter our world where life flourishes, where we seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. I want to be a redeemed human proclaiming through every part of my being-in-community the wondrously glorious reality that God is for us, and “us” in the broadest sense imaginable. I want to taste, see, and know the good news of God’s dream for all of creation as revealed in Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit; if that is evangelical then so be it.
1. John Stott, Christianity Today, October 2006, 97.
2. Micah 6:8, New Living Translation.