December 21, 2011 / Praxis
In this Advent reflection, Tom Ryan wonders whether we really want what Advent prepares us for.
November 9, 2006
Do I want to be an Evangelical? My answer is a Resounding Maybe! (Of course, That’s with Nine Qualifying Statements and Depends Somewhat on The Color of Your Terministic Screen)
Most people would consider me an evangelical. After growing up in mainline Protestant churches, I made my personal decision to become a Christian while attending an evangelical high school. I started attending a church so proud of its evangelicalness that it put it right in the name: Hope Evangelical Free Church. When the time came, I attended a seminary so proud of its evangelicalness that it also put it right in the name: Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. On top of that, I spent six years as an employee of the mission board of the Southern Baptist Convention, a small outfit based in Nashville, Tennessee that claims to be the largest evangelical denomination in the USA.
Despite my thoroughly evangelical resume, the term makes me queasy. Truth be told, I consider myself ecclesiastic, adapting elastically to different ecclesiologies. I enjoy engaging a variety of Christian traditions and am confident that I could grow spiritually and minister effectively in most churches that would not be considered evangelical. One day I just might.
Part of the problem is with the definition of evangelical. What is it? What does it mean? For better or worse it means different things in different places. When I lived in Chile I learned that evangelico meant Protestant. In Germany, Evangelische is the word used for the Lutheran (or Protestant) state church. So, any global discussion of being evangelical immediately runs into linguistic challenges. It is best to focus it on a particular context. For our purposes I’ll look at my home country, the United States of America.
But even in the USA, the term has problems evoking different images and meanings. This is where the color of your terministic screen, mentioned in the title of this article, comes into play. Kenneth Burke, an American rhetorical theorist, developed the idea that we all have a terministic screen. We see life through this screen. It functions like a filter through which things make sense to us. But there is a problem.
We all have our own screen. This causes confusion because when we understand something, frequently we assume that everyone else understands it in the same way. This is not true. And so it is with evangelical. The term means different things to different people. If you don’t believe me ask three people at church on Sunday what the word means then ask three at work on Monday. You’ll see what I’m saying.
So in recognition of the reality of the terministic screen, it behooves me to answer the posed question with a resounding maybe. Furthermore, that is only my answer if you grant me the time and space to add nine qualifying statements!
1) If it’s inclusive rather than exclusive.
For many evangelical means something like “true Christian,” something I cannot affirm. There is talk among Protestant evangelicals of evangelical Catholics and evangelical Orthodox. These conversations carry the same overtones. In other words, those that are most like us are safe (and saved). Thus the term tends to carry an exclusionary sense, determining who is right and what is good.
If the term were to be inclusive then it could be used simply to identify one’s cultural and denominational heritage in the larger body of Christ. In other words, someone is evangelical because they attend a church influenced by or birthed out of the original movement. This does not need to imply that they are right or wrong or better or worse. Being inclusive would carry the same implications as one’s national heritage. One is not better for being Canadian or German. Would it not seem quite strange to speak of Germans who have converted to Canadian citizenship but have remained in Germany to be a Canadian witness?
This is not say that there are not significant differences between Protestants and Catholics and Orthodox. There are between Canadian and Germans as well. However, it means that no one group has a monopoly on truth nor is any one group completely full of error.
2) If it’s about unity rather than conformity.
Conformity is the kissing cousin of exclusion. Frequently evangelical is not used to bring people together (unity) but to press them in a box (conformity). Too often I have read and heard someone question a particular doctrine and the inevitable critics say that to question such a belief means the questioner is not an evangelical.
Recently, a scholar I know met tremendous criticism because he questioned the concept of substitutionary atonement. His idea was that the metaphor is inadequate for expressing the fullness of scriptural truth on the teaching of salvation. Instead of engaging the discussion his critics condemned him for not being “evangelical.” They failed to acknowledge that the metaphor of substitutionary atonement was not developed until at least the twelfth century.
3) If it’s about transformation rather than interpretation.
Closely related to the issue of conformity is that of interpretation. A high view of Scripture is essential for being considered an evangelical. However many believe a high view of Scripture implies certain distinct sectarian interpretations. I have seen this done in Arminian as well as Calvinist circles. As hard as it is for some people to see, interpretation is something different than having a high view of Scripture.
This is not to deny the importance of doctrine and interpretation. It is just to say that there should be space for people to explore. This should be allowed without threat of the evangelical label being yanked away.
For me to continue to identify as an evangelical, evangelicalism needs to step back from its focus on getting every doctrine right and think more about helping others live well. That is the goal of transformation. Transformation is about radically changing the way others and we live. It makes the faith integral to everything we do. It is challenging; it is convicting; it is convincing.
4) If it’s about influence rather than enforcement.
Enforcement is the step after correct interpretation. Many under the umbrella of evangelicalism have enjoyed enforcing their views rather than seeking to influence others with them. This is most obvious in my current denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. As a missionary, the job security of many employees (including myself) was threatened if the line wasn’t towed on the latest doctrinal development.
Frequently, however, I hear people from other backgrounds criticize the recent developments of the Southern Baptist. Many times, I agree with the criticism. However, I cringe when I hear the critics endorse their version of enforcement. Even though evangelical groups differ on what views should be enforced, there is often a sense that their interpretation is probably worth enforcing.
Instead of enforcement, evangelicalism would be a lot more interesting if the movement simply sought to influence. A good idea that is enforced becomes oppression. A good idea that is explicated persuasively becomes liberation. Influence, not enforcement, is the key to future success.
5) If it’s about empowerment rather than imperialism.
Imperialism is the result of an enforcement orientation. America is an empire. The term we use to make ourselves feel better is superpower, but it is an empire. Consciously and sub-consciously there is an imperialistic attitude in American evangelicalism. Constantly I hear “us/them” discussions. There are comparisons of America with biblical Israel. Even though this idea has been resolutely deconstructed in academic circles, it still holds much of the popular evangelical imagination.
In place of imperialism, American evangelicals need to promote a concept of empowerment. Instead of a top-down approach we should adopt a bottom-up one. Just like Christ washed the feet of the disciples, so should we seek to serve rather than be served. Instead of being paternalistic we need to establish partnerships. Everyone knows this. No one would disagree with me. However, our imperialistic assumptions are so subtle that they trip us up like the curb we never saw. If there is anything we need to war against, it is our own imperialistic attitudes.
6) If it’s about a way of life rather than a set of propositions.
Following Christ is a way of life. It is something that consumes and shapes everything we do. It relates to work, family, church and anything else we find time to do. Evangelicalism is all too often about a certain belief set. One must adhere to this belief set in order to belong to the group. These belief sets are often restrictive. But that is not the chief problem. The chief problem is that it causes us to settle for something less than a way of life.
Once I talked to an evangelical who had quit going to church and had taken up some non-Christian behaviors. He said he believed everything and was quite perplexed when I told him that belief that does not result in doing actually is not belief. Propositional sets often keep us from seeing the greater and higher purposes that the Christian life has for us.
7) If it’s spiritual rather than political.
In America, evangelicalism is being increasingly known as a political movement. Many of us may argue that this is incorrectly applying the label, but it is a popular level reality. In Germany, most churchgoers had strongly negative views toward American evangelicalism due to its perceived political orientation. This is not without warrant.
Some evangelicals recently criticized Rick Warren for inviting Barak Obama, a Christian and a Democrat, to a conference at Saddleback on HIV/AIDS. He was criticized because Obama is not “pro-life.” It is interesting that the critics did not see HIV/AIDS as a “life” issue.
Evangelicalism needs to distance itself from these political overtones. As my mentor George Hunter argues one can be a Christian, an Evangelical and a Democrat. Evangelicalism needs to remain a spiritual move of God.
8) If it’s holistic rather than reductionistic.
I agree with the four aspects of evangelicalism mentioned by Bebbington (see footnote #2). The problem is not so much what is there but what is not.
Evangelicals are biblically based. That is important. But where is the Holy Spirit? Not mentioned. Evangelicals are concerned with conversion. That is good. But what about those who convert and then live an unchanged life? That is not so good. Evangelicals are activists. That is crucial. But has social engagement become equated with political involvement? They are not the same. Evangelicals are focused on Christ’s atonement. That is essential. But what about his life that serves as a model for all to follow? There is so much more.
Evangelicalism needs to be holistic. It needs to emphasize much more than four aspects of the Christian faith. We do not need a lowest common denominator to rally around. We need to rally around the greatest common denominator. We do not need to reduce but to expand out vision of what is worthy of our full devotion. Conspicuously missing from most discussions on evangelicalism is what Christ said was greatest, namely love.
9) If it’s about love above all else.
Love is hard to find in this world. But it is somewhat odd that a group, who promotes the centrality of Christ and His Word, does not give it primacy in all discussions, especially when you consider how Christ explained and demonstrated the transcendent quality of love in the Word. Evangelical is just a label, but loving God and neighbor is a way of life. If being evangelical means following Christ by loving God and others then yes, I would love to be an evangelical. If being evangelical means anything less then I’ll politely decline the invitation. Thanks. But I’m busy this lifetime.
Nevertheless, following the lead of Peter Kuzmic, I can say, “Ich bin ein Lausanner.” I am a Lausanner. Lausanne is promising but incomplete. Nevertheless, I am excited enough to embrace and improve the movement. Maybe they’ll kick me out because they’ll catch me hugging a tree or drinking a beer, but as long as they’ll have me I’ll be there. If that makes me an evangelical, well, now I know the color of your terministic screen.
 Burke illustrates this by talking about some photographs he saw of the same object. These photos differed from one another in that they were taken with different color filters. A photograph could be perceived as something “factual.” However, in this case the photographs revealed significant differences in texture and form of the object depending on the color filter. He also illustrated this by talking about person who had a dream. If (s)he were to go to different psychologists with different training backgrounds e.g. Freudian, Jungian or Alderrian, (s)he would receive different interpretations because the dream would pass through different psychoanalytic systems or different color filters. All of this to say that we may see something and perceive it a certain way and take that as fact. However, someone else may see it and perceive it differently than us and believe that their perception is fact.
 For our purposes, I will use the Bebbington Quadrilateral to define evangelical: 1) biblically based (biblicism), 2) deeply concerned with personal conversion (conversionism), 3) calling others to action (activism), and 4) maintaining a consistent emphasis on Christ’s atonement on the cross (crucicentrism). Keller and Yeh’s essays also use the Bebbington Quadrilateral. See David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989).
 For a brief look at historical developments of metaphors for Christ’s work see Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology: An Invitation to the Study of God(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), pp. 112-115.
 See (http://www.abcnews.go.com/Nightline/story?id=2691952&page=1).
 Check out George Hunter III, Christian, Evangelical, And…Democrat?(Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006).
Mark Russell is Praxis Editor for The Other Journal. He has a PhD from Asbury Seminary and is the author of The Missional Entrepreneur and editor of Our Souls at Work.