Emerging out of the wild ride of a presidential election America went on, I published an article chronicling my journey with the GOP party and now my subsequent exit from it. One of my old friend’s from college and seminary wrote me a comment and, in my natural form, I decided writing another blog to answer his inquiry would be better then commenting.
Jonathan Erdman is my pal from another life. He also is a blogger and writes here at “Beginner’s Pen” which I highly recommend checking out what he is up too. I haven’t seen Jon (in person) for years but we correspond often through social media. Describing himself as a “leftist”, he is a staunch critic of many of the systems and structures in our country and was a supporter of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. He has studied the Bible personally and academically and still enjoys conversation centering around Jesus and the “emerging church”. I’ll quote his comment below and as one can see, he does not like using the term “Christian” or “Evangelical” to define himself as the associations of those words contain troubling meanings for him.
Responding to his general question, I wanted to discuss why the term “Evangelical Christian” does have meaning to me and why I still call myself an Evangelical.
Jon: “…my main question is about your experience as an open-minded, authentic believer who still considers himself evangelical. I and many others simply had to leave. For one thing, I didn’t feel like there was any evangelical faith community that was even remotely close to my values (see above on “the least of these” and shunning wealth and the things of this world). That was years ago, though. I also felt that rather than beating my head against the wall to get evangelicals to pay attention to their own Bibles, my energies would be better spent leaving the church. (Leaving the religious establishment was also Jesus’ tactic.) I felt and still feel a great sense of urgency: if not me, whom? If not now, when? That sort of thing.
My question is about you, though. I’m curious about your experience as someone who still identifies as an evangelical. Are you a part of a vibrant faith community that energizes you to practice your values?
Also, don’t you think it is probably not such a good thing to claim the name of ‘evangelical’? With evangelicals being the major voting block for Trump, don’t you fear being associated with a synonym for fascist politics? I don’t even identify as a ‘Christian’ anymore because I feel the term is too loaded. Thanks largely to born-again evangelicals the term ‘Christian’ is now synonymous with all of the things that I believe to be reprehensible and evil in the world.” (End Jon quote)
Indeed, there seems to be a movement away from people who are following Jesus and believe in a personal connection to Christ in calling themselves “Evangelical”. I interacted a few days ago with another friend of mine who is a pastor in the PCA (Presbyterian Church of America). His denomination considers themselves both Presbyterian (founders include John Calvin and John Knox) and Evangelical although he says he is aware of a movement within the PCA to get rid of the “Evangelical” label altogether. This pastor stated that he himself stopped using the term “Evangelical” to describe himself about 6 years ago. He prefers “Presbyterian” or “historic orthodox Christian” to describe his faith. “I take seriously the creeds and confessions of the church and believe what Christians have always believed and worry that most ‘Evangelicals’ don’t believe these things any more,” says the PCA pastor.
I also wrote about former Christianity Today editor, Katelyn Beaty, who powerfully opined in the Washington Post that she could no longer defend Evangelicals (although she has for years). These voices are not alone. From my own personal friend circles to successful bloggers like Rachel Held Evans, something is in the water as they say. Evans has long left behind the Evangelical faith that she grew up with and recently wrote a piece directed to her readers who still may consider themselves in that camp. “Life After Evangelicalism” saw Evans pulling no punches: “The community that introduced you to Jesus—that baptized you and named you a beloved child of God—has aligned itself with values you don’t recognize, powers that oppress. It’s an enormous blow, and it’ll knock the wind right out of you.”
Shane Claiborne writes: ‘Evangelicals inconsistent willingness to embrace an ethic of life that’s solidly rooted in the values of Jesus is why so many post-Evangelicals have left home. So now, after the election, we have a decision to make: are we going to build a new house together? The toxicity within Evangelicalism leaves us few options…As the house falls, we are clinging to the Gospel that many ‘evangelicals’ have abandoned.’
Back to my friend Jon’s question. Yes, I still consider myself an Evangelical although I may be hanging by threads at this point. Ultimately, this is a game of semantics, not necessarily theological conviction. Many try and shun ‘labels’ but I do think that labels help us get a sense of where someone is in their general perspective.
Here is the thing: I’m not going to argue with Jon’s questions (or points) or Beaty’s or Evans or anyone else’s. Why won’t I argue? Because they are largely right.
In the past, I felt a strong need to defend my Christian niche and the churches I attended would many times assist with that. There would be apologetics classes where we get together, learn the worldview points of some opposing ideology, study a response, and prepare for cultural battle. Us against them. In the 1980s and 1990s (maybe even further back then that), the church’s giant boogeyman was “secular humanism”. This ideology was, pretty much, a conglomerate of elite thinkers, politicians, and Hollywood types to destroy faith in God and dismantle conservative politics. (For a good critique that challenges this way of thinking, check out Daniel Taylor’s very good “The Myth of Certainty” which was first recommended to me by Dr. Skip Forbes in college).
The time for being defensive is over and the epoch of listening better should begin. Evangelicalism (as a label) is synonymous with American conservative politics. When people hear the term ‘Evangelical’ they think of someone who is a ‘born-again believer’ but they also lump a person in with the religious right political movement. So Evangelicalism, as a definition, becomes the tribe of Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition, the Moral Majority and the more conservative wing of the Republican Party.
For a term that is powerfully supposed to center around a person’s extraordinary encounter with Jesus Christ are all of these extracurricular ideas a healthy thing for the Evangelical movement? Is a long, expansive list (including venturing into political ideas and allegiance to a specific party) going to characterize a movement that is supposed to be built on the person of Jesus and Scripture?
With all the negative association, I still consider myself an Evangelical. Christianity is all about redemption and even labels themselves can be redeemed. Evangelicalism is the branch of Christian faith that introduced me to Christ.
When I was 14 years old, I began attending a Grace Brethren Church close to where I lived in Kent. An invitation from one of my various best friends had been forthcoming for a couple of years. I finally took him up on the invitation around February of 1994.
Everyone I met at this church of roughly 200 or so were friendly and welcoming to me. Grace Brethren is pretty similar to a conservative Baptist Church although they dunk 3 times for baptism (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and have a special threefold communion service (a meal together, the bread/ cup and also foot washing). The memories I have of that church and the people that were a part of that community will always be held in high esteem in my heart.
Having not grown up going to church, I didn’t connect with many sermons at first when I started going. One Sunday, I was browsing through the church library and there were all these pamphlets on the wall. A simple blue one with a white border caught my eye. Written on it was ‘Steps to Peace with God’ by Billy Graham. Did I have peace with God? I read the tract alone in my room that night. That was when I decided I wanted to follow Jesus and be a Christian.
A feeling of peace did come that night right after I prayed the infamous sinner’s prayer. I wouldn’t characterize it as mystical and there were certainly no voices or visions or anything like that. I felt an overwhelming sense of peace that I still have not felt to this day again, My life changed and this really involved a lot of my thinking, desires, and ways of seeing the world. Some changes happened quickly and some more gradually. I was baptized the next year at 15 (yes, dunked three times).
Evangelicalism, as far as it represents a connection to the divine through Jesus, is a beautiful thing (this is not exclusive to Evangelicalism but runs across many different denominations and expressions of the Christian faith). A mistake that Evangelicalism has made is viewing an encounter with Jesus as a one time thing, a specific time of muttering one prayer and not a vessel as to where Jesus can be encountered again and again and again- every day.
Perspectives change, grow and evolve. People deconstruct systems of belief, exploring what the underpinnings are. What are the assumptions or if we are good postmoderns, the metanarratives?
Evangelicalism, in general, needs deconstruction. Not of the divine person of Christ but of the human made structure and system that we all have created. I ask all of us who call ourselves Evangelicals these questions (or really any Christian):
-What does Jesus think of our society that is consumed by materialism?
-What does Jesus think when people lose their homes, the banks that started the housing crisis get bailed out by public money and the CEOs of said companies retire with a $100 million dollar golden parachute?
-What does Jesus think of the poor among us in our consumeristic society? How about the people in Flint, MI who don’t have clean drinking water?
-What does Jesus think of the Syrian refugee escaping a war torn hell where a mad dictator drops barrel bombs on civilian populations? Refugees that risk their lives and the lives of their children crossing dangerous seas in makeshift boats?
-What does Jesus think of a culture that dehumanizes people from unborn to elderly? A culture that objectifies women? A culture that guns down unarmed minorities in the streets?
-What does Jesus think of a massive church system that harbors and hides perpetuators of child sexual abuse?
-What does Jesus think about our lack of stewardship to our environment and subsequent harming of our planet?
-What does Jesus think when our LGBTQ neighbors are ostracized, bullied and excluded rather than being shown genuine grace and love?
-What does Jesus think of a country perpetually locked in war and violence and that uses both as massive leverage for the accumulation of resources to further the upper scale lifestyles of many of its citizens.
-What does Jesus think of a culture that only recognizes a person’s value or intelligence by their net worth and often times tragically, by their race or ethnicity?
What does Jesus think and the famous question ‘what would Jesus do?’ I’m confident He would say: ‘Come and Repent!’
Repentance is what I first learned from the Billy Graham tract. I was a sinner (we all are) and I know that people sometimes recoil at this descriptor thinking that a person who thinks this way lacks self-esteem or walks around feeling guilty. Being a sinner means (hamartia is the Greek word in the New Testament) missing the mark. Coming to terms, honestly, about wrongs we have done and how we have hurt others. Thinking deeply and meditating on how I as a citizen of a nation have participated in grievous wrongs. How we have fallen short of God’s ultimate principle, ‘Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself’.
Being a person who misses the mark implies that I need Someone to save me and also that I should put aside pride and arrogance. I need my wife, my kids in the future, my pastor, fellow congregants or the person on the street to help me see when I am wrong. And I am wrong a lot. Being a sinner should humble us.
‘Evangel’ which evangelical comes from means ‘good news’. The message of Christianity is Christ died, taking justice for us and His message can free us from the sin that so easily entangles. If we follow Christ, we adhere to values from another Kingdom. When the kingdoms of the world contradict the values of the Kingdom of Christ, we stick with Christ.
I still want to believe that Evangelicalism represents at its core this most sacred of connections. That we will throw off a blinding nationalism for the sermon on the mount. That we would pursue reconciliation and peace with others as God pursues these values with us. Amen.