How to Be Evangelical After World Vision: I Mean, Why?

In my first post on how to be evangelical after World Vision, I admittedly assumed something. 

Namely, that anyone would actually want to be evangelical after World Vision.

I mean, why?

Why would we even want to carry on this label, if the loudest voices driving the popular perception of “evangelical” are the conservative gatekeepers who have fully farewelled the centrist/nuanced, progressive, and emergence voices?

Why not just adopt the more generalized “progressive Christian” or perhaps simply identify with a denominational description (Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist, Mennonite, Presbyterian, etc.)?

Why not just go by “Christian” and be done with the silly labels entirely?

Two points here.

First, the evangelical label has to mean something to you. If a person whose views are out of step with conservative evangelicalism has never actually identified as evangelical at one point in their lives, then there is probably no reason to start now. In other words, the reason “why” would start with some kind of relational or experiential attachment to the label. I have grown up within the tent of evangelicalism; this is my people, my tribe, even the conservatives!; I have been nurtured by the core positive aspects of evangelical identity; therefore, I am compelled to and see value in retaining the label.

Second, labels are inevitable. There is no such thing as “just Christian” and there never will be, despite any objections to the contrary. Your interpretive and practical approach to living Christianly will, when described with actual words, be different from others who claim to live Christianly. Hence, labels. Labels are not the problem. It’s probably a much bigger problem to deny their existence.

Therefore, being evangelical after World Vision will have some significance for some people who identify as evangelical but are out of step with the conservative majority voice.

And let me add that the decision of many to jettison the category entirely in light of the World Vision controversy, after having held it for a time (and even a lifetime), is a totally valid decision, and one I respect completely. If anything, I’m hoping to offer something to those who want to hold onto it, who see value in it, while affirming those who don’t.

So I’m interested – how about you? Do you see any value in retaining the label? Or do you think it is permanently poisoned by the current politicized perception?

I’d love to hear from you as I put together a definition of “evangelical” for the next post.

[Image Source]

Sermon in Honor of MLK: “The Voice of Vocation” – With Audio [Brandon Wrencher]
Why Christians Should be INSATIABLE Trick-or-Treaters [Andrew Arndt]
Hard To Kill: More on the Mega-Multisite Church from Ruth Graham
Sermon in Honor of MLK: “The Voice of Vocation” – With Audio [Brandon Wrencher]
About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Find him on Twitter & Facebook!

  • http://ryanrobinson.ca/ Ryan Robinson

    I used to identify as evangelical. It doesn’t necessary have the same political connotations in Canada as in the U.S., although it does have similar connotations for theological positions (infallibility if not always inerrancy, penal substitution). I loosely agreed with those and called myself so. Went off to university, got involved in another evangelical group that had serious judgementalism problems, but was also involved in some other groups and churches that were incredibly loving people also bearing the label.

    Even though I didn’t consider dumping the label yet, that more-judgmental group did get me to question theological assumptions for the first time. Ultimately that led to me discovering Anabaptism. They believed in authority for Scripture without the bibliolatry that evangelicalism often went into, and they valued the cross but in much deeper ways that just having paid off God’s wrath so we could go to Heaven (some still accept PSA but I don’t know any who would call it the Gospel).

    Once I had that label to describe myself, I didn’t really have any attachment to “evangelical.” For the next 3 years or so, if somebody asked me if I was an evangelical, I would ask for a definition. By some, I was, but by others I wasn’t. Since World Vision I’m pretty sure I’ll just answer that question with “no.” I think it is beyond repair and it is a waste of time and energy.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    yeah, that’s totally valid. i feel drawn to reclaim/redeem/renew it in some way, though honestly, i’m stil not sure it’ll completely stick. we shall see! it’s also my goal (next post) to show that while con.evan.’s say “they went out from us because they were never of us” I want to say to about other.evan.’s “I have many sheep who are not of this sheep pen!” in other words, evangelical can be bigger than we ever thought it was.

  • Jeff Stephens

    I have always been an evangelical, even if I didn’t realize it. My people tended to identify mostly with the denomination I grew up in, and I never really even knew what the term meant until maybe 10 years ago.. Lately I’ve been frustrated with the label, and I’m torn as to whether or not I want to be identified as evangelical. I think we have no one to blame but ourselves.

    I do think that the term has some redeeming qualities though. I’m loath to abandon anything that has positive aspects to its tradition. I think that we can redeem evangelicalism for the future by emphasizing the positive aspects of our past. I also think that the term has great potential if we can function as an ecumenical movement. Many churches and denominations identify as evangelical, which is great. With that common ground churches can work together. The problem today, then, is in its narrowing definition. That may be the greatest problem I have with evangelicalism today; what once seemed to be one of the most ecumenical movements in history is becoming more and more exclusionary.

  • Hannah

    I never felt enough like I belonged when I identified as an evangelical. I think I was just trying to be something I wasn’t because I was raised to believe anything else went to hell. So leaving evangelicalism was more letting myself be who I really am instead of always pretending to be something I wasn’t. Realizing there were valid expressions of Christianity outside evangelicalism (and that they weren’t going to hell) was a big perk. By the time World Vision happened, I was too far gone to ever go back, and I never belonged in that camp to begin with. But I applaud people who want to work from the inside, and hold their ground. If people believe they are evangelical but they also want to stand up and say (about things like abandoning sponsored kids) “that is not what evangelicalism is”, then I’m all for them insisting on their place at the table and making that stand. That’s a great thing, in my opinion. I’m not going to be able to reform evangelicalism (and it desparately needs reformed), cause I’m not one of them. It’s the people on the inside who will be able to reform it, and that’s a great thing to fight for.

  • http://exclusionandembrace.blogspot.com/ rob g

    I grew up in evangelical churches, and still attend what might be considered an evangelical Anglican church. But whatever positive aspects I got from years of involvement, I don’t see the value for me to hold on to that label when it means nothing positive to the majority of those outside of the church and, in fact, is associated with so many negative things that are the opposite of the Jesus who is proclaimed as the good news…. I’ve also experienced how easily it is to become an outsider when some parishioners found out that my views on same-sex marriage do not toe the line and considered this as important as believing in Jesus’ death and resurrection and all the really important stuff.

    Am looking forward to seeing what kind of definition you will offer. However, unless there is widespread acceptance of a decent definition, I don’t think there’s much point in holding on to the term.

  • Tim

    I had honestly been considering dropping the label/ not considering myself evangelical anymore long before this latest nail in the coffin. Evangelical has come to mean something it didn’t actually originally mean, and I don’t think we’re necessarily going to change that by either dropping or keeping the label. I’m choosing not to identify with it any longer because it is really just a subset of conservative Christianity whose views I almost entirely disagree with now.

  • http://www.thegrumpychristian.com The Grumpy Christian

    First, let me start with the presupposition that I am not confusing faith with politics – for when my politics define my faith, I no longer have faith; I have political affiliation. (Matthew 26:52; Mark 12:17)

    Second, and more to the point, the term “Evangelical” is indeed nothing more than a label, and labels age and become meaningless over time, or at the very least they become interpreted differently than originally meant. The “Fundamentalists” received their label ostensibly over their disagreement with late 19th century higher criticism of the Bible and the development of evolutionary science, aligning themselves theologically and doctrinally with RA Torrey’s treatise, “The Fundamentals” (hence the label). Thanks to Jerry Falwell’s (and others) well-meaning efforts, by the early 1980s mainstream culture and media redefined in the public’s mind that “Fundamentalists” were politically intolerant right wing Bible thumpers. Evangelicalism grew subsequent to the rise of Fundamentalism, and blossomed after World War II, with evangelical and mission movements – with Billy Graham most prominent in the mainstream public’s eye. Perversely, by the 1960s, those holding strong to fundamentalism disavowed Billy Graham’s ministry. And ironically, Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, was one of those evangelical missionaries.

    I attended a non-denominational Christian college long before computerization (yeah, I’m old). During registration we all filled out a demographic survey so the school could use the data for various reasons. One question stuck with me…. With what denomination was I affiliated? Rebel that I was, I checked “Other” and wrote “Christian” and later laughed when I saw in the tabulated report that I was in a small minority on the Christian school campus.

    My granddaughter was with me in the car this morning (I told you I’m old). She was checking out my satellite radio presets. Contemporary Christian music on #1; Gaither-Southern Gospel on #2; 50s on 5 on #3, 60s on 6 on #4 (my wife’s favorite), classic rock on #5. She asked me what kind of radio I listened to as a kid. I told her we only had AM radio. Subsequent conversation revealed to her that there were no CDs, no tapes, not even FM radio. “Was there Christian music on the radio then?” she asked. “No,” I said, “there was no money in it back then. Christian labels hadn’t sold out to mainstream music labels for a profit, Christian publishers to mainstream publishers for increased market share, and most Christian artists found contentment in seeing the gospel furthered, living off of love offerings and sales of albums out of the trunk of their car or a table in the back of the church.”

    So as much of the evangelical movement has joyfully (maybe even gleefully) assimilated the secular culture into the pews and pulpits of its churches (or the board rooms and executive suites of its para-church organizations), it is not surprising that the meaning of the term evangelical would become distorted. Congregants love to get their ears tickled with the latest #1 CCM hit as a worship song and sermons that skirt around the scriptures. Pastors, despite protestations to the contrary, love the larger audiences and bigger offerings – and discount the price that comes with not making the Gospel so offensive.

    Fundamentalists fought to bring the church back to its core doctrinal beliefs in response to the apostasy of its day. Evangelicalism fought to bring the church back to the Great Commission in light of a quickly degenerating world: two world wars, embedded economic depression, mass genocide and the threat the new-found ability to kill millions at the push of a button brought to human society. Secular culture opposed both.

    You and anyone else in or out of church can call me whatever you or they want. I really don’t care. The only label given to me that is important is that I am a “redeemed child of God.”

  • mochalite

    I was raised evangelical (GARBC) – saved at 7, baptized at 12. I loved church, learning and memorizing the Bible, singing in the choir, etc., and I regularly “rededicated my life to Christ” in altar call, but the evangelical part never quite made sense to me. “Witnessing” seemed like bothering people, and while I carried my Bible to school religiously (haha), I left it in my locker. I felt bad about never having “won anyone to Christ,” but that’s just the way it was. Missions seemed mostly about living in a hut in Africa. It also seemed that soul-winning as a lot more talk than action. After wandering off for a decade or so, as an adult, I was a longtime member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Again, I loved
    it, but had much the same feeling about the evangelical part. What does it really mean?

    Various things caused a move to a small and unusual congregation of the PCUSA, where I have been happy. The emphasis is on the continuity of life in Christ with worship and study leading to service. There’s a peace and calm, a lack of tension and judgment. I maintain a high view of Scripture and teach a great Bible geeks’ class. I love the Lord more happily now than ever. I don’t really know anymore if I’m evangelical or not, but since they always seem to be kicking people out anyway, it doesn’t bother me.

  • IconoclasticNan

    Agree Tim, I stopped using the label over ten years ago as I no longer hold to the defining principles. I would take Scriptural inerrancy to be core. We can never escape the necessity of subjective interpretation and emphasis. That’s just the way it is.

  • IconoclasticNan

    Agree with this too, Rob. I think that what the term conveys to people outside of church is very important. I think it has long been irrevocably smeared with extremely un-Christlike characteristics, That is reason enough to leave it behind.

  • sharon peters

    Other hard questions;

    Q; why did I want to join up to church in the first place?

    A; b/c somebody told me it would be a good idea b/c I get
    to be w/other Christians. I didn’t suspect there would be other things to
    consider like history and politics. 40 plus years ago I had an identity
    problem. I was trying to survive as a newly diagnosed mentally ill person in my
    20’s. I hadn’t a clue about who I was or how I fit into society. Mental illness
    labels can mean death socially.
    As a consumer in a tribe of consumers I was glad to know
    there were different flavors and colors to choose from in the Christian strip
    mall.
    These churches offered me a dramatic role as ‘a follower of
    Christ’ and a way of ‘passing as normal’.
    I expected that I would be adopted into ‘the family of god’;
    a place where we are all one in Christ and I have a voice that’s heard and I am
    valued for being myself.
    I tried so hard to identify w/ the so called “progressive
    christian church” or with an old school denominational Methodist, Episcopal,
    Baptist, Quaker, Presbyterian.
    I can’t say that I found a home or even a foothold in
    evangelicalism.
    I wonder what you mean when you say you were nurtured by
    ‘the core positive aspects of your evangelical identity’; and were ‘compelled
    to see value in retaining the ‘evangelical’ label’.
    It’s like you are tom sawyer to my huckleberry Finn.

    You say you lost your faith

    But that’s not where it’s at

    You had no faith to lose

    And you know it. Positively 4th Street by Bob Dylan

    Other hard questions;

    Is God moving in my life to remove the barriers of my dependence on institutions
    that I have allowed to define me till finally I am a caricature of myself?

    To be a disciple of Jesus, must I really hate father and mother, wife/husband,
    children, brothers and sisters & even my own life? (Lk 14:26)? Why must
    this be so?

    Have I entered the stages of mourning and grief in response to the death of a valued ideal or relationship to other evangelicals?

    How can I accept this death of my illusions.
    How can I evaluate feelings that something valuable to me
    has been lost or ruined?

    Can it help to understand the patterns of addiction in the background of my life?

    Why am I in Denial and hiding & trying desperately to rationalize the facts?

    Rationally I know the evangelical church is stuck in a false belief system that supports a pattern of abuse that excluded and targeted two groups of marginalized people. Personally I cannot judge or blame them. Emotionally I
    resent the evangelicals for causing this pain. I feel guilty for being angry.
    Why am I so angry?

    I have found that depression connected with
    mourning this loss may be relieved by seeking explanation of the patterns cults
    use to have power over followers.The support of the community of those who have experienced spiritual abuse may help too.

    You say;
    ‘labels are inevitable. There is no such thing
    as “just Christian” and there never will be, despite any objections to the
    contrary.’

    This may be what you
    think but I think it is not a rule. The world vision moment is just the tip of
    the iceberg. What is true is labels are not the problem.

  • http://www.brandonchase.net/ Brandon Chase

    Here’s where my heart is on this right now, Zach:

    I grew up in labels, and just took for granted that they were a part of what being a Christian was all about. They didn’t make sense, but in my apathy, I didn’t question or challenge them either. Later in life, when I was wrecked by Jesus and really became a follower, labels not only didn’t make sense, they seemed to oppose following well. So, I identify with the crowd that is outside of, or beyond these labels, evangelical included. Christ is all. Jesus is Lord, this is my theology. What this World Vision fiasco has birthed in my heart is actually a desire to see it all die. The Church as a whole has lost it’s “Vision” (Jesus). I feel like the Lord is killing labels, denominations, all of it – so that Resurrection can take place in His people. His destiny is ours – up a hill, with a Cross, into a tomb – raised to new Life – His indwelling, Supreme, Central Life. In the Light of which all other descriptions, denominators, qualifiers, etc will seem silly. Let it all fall into death, so that He can raise it to the fullness of all things being summed up in Him.

    Thanks for your post, and heart. Love you bro.

  • http://geekchicohio.blogspot.com Adam Heffelfinger

    Hey Zach,
    I already posted my own blog about my decision to drop this label, and some of my reasoning why and have chatted/joked with you on twitter, but I wanted to elaborate a little to you specifically.

    I’m of the opinion of your last question in this post: I think the term has been permanently poisoned by the current politicized perception. I really do. And I find the labels’ public perception depth extra-insulting in that this is a faith whose whole raison d’être is beating death. But, then, the label isn’t our Savior. It’s just a label.

    I want to say I’m hugely thankful for your stance in these last few points. Suggesting the label is salvageable, discussing it, but not framing the discussion as “You SHOULD think so,” because we’re ALL tired of hearing what we SHOULD think, I think. (ha).

    Aside from my own lack of closeness to the term to begin with, a conversation I had with a friend on Facebook really settled in my mind my willingness to set this label aside. He asked me if I was REALLY willing to give up evangelical as the term was originally defined, and then provided me with a quoted definition of evangelical that I’ve since learned was pulled from Webster’s:

    “Emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual”

    As I looked at this definition, considering that my assent to it or dissent from it could frame much of how my faith experience was shaped going forward, I realized that as each clause is largely defined in popular evangelicalism, I had no problem leaving it behind.
    1. Emphasizing salvation by faith in the atonind death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion? I’m constantly moving away from a version of Christian faith that ignores James 2:14-26. The respond to an alter call, say the prayer, fire insurance kind of faith is dead to me.
    2. the authority of Scripture? Yes. Unless we mean the hyper-literal version of inerrancy that requires strict belief in Young Earth Creationism.
    3. the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual? actually, for awhile now I’ve been getting ever-more fidgety through long-winded sermons and have really been aching for some good old-fashioned liturgy.

    SO:
    Really, I’m okay letting this go. I’m very interested to read on as you explore redeeming it, but I just have too many close friends who have been too hurt for too long by this kind of evangelicalism, I’m much much more interested in living out a version of following Jesus that also allows me to look those people in the eye.

    Cheers,
    –Adam
    @geekchicohio

  • http://micahredding.com micah

    Hey Zach,

    I grew up in a church (the church of Christ) whose whole reason for being was an attempt to get away from the extraneous (including labels), and cut back to the core of what Christianity was about. Theological minimalism, if you will.

    Of course, they haven’t achieved that. But that pursuit, the desire to remove the arbitrary and cling to the essence, has stuck with me. I’m not saying it’s achievable, but I’ve always found that idealism compelling.

    I know that this is not what you’re trying to address here. But I do wonder what I’m missing. I feel like I’m way out of step with the world on this one, and I wish I could see over the wall. What is compelling about the proliferation of labels?

    That’s not flippant, it’s an honest question. I feel like I’m colorblind, and I wish someone could make me see.

    No pressure. :)

  • Sharideth

    For me, it’s pretty simple. I still identify as evangelical because the people who taught me love and profound grace still identify as evangelical. Also, I am loathe to give any ground to those who have sullied the title. I am also just stubborn enough to be mildly disgusted with some who claim the title “progressive” and have turned evangelical into a dirty word; painting all of us with the same brush.

  • http://flamingfundamentalist.blogspot.com/ Curt Day

    I use the Fundamentalist label both for myself and for my blog. Why? Because to me, Fundamentalism revolves around certain beliefs. 4 of those believes concern Jesus and one concerns the Scriptures. All of the other working definitions of Fundamentalists and Fundamentalism distract from those core beliefs. But not only do they distract, they make the terms pejoratives by reducing their meaning to undesirable personality characteristics and thus declare that Fundamentalists are a monolith who are far removed from the core beliefs of fundamentalism.

    By clinging to the term evangelicalism, we can either fit the stereotype or we can show that evangelicalism is about beliefs rather than personality traits. And, just as I approach Fundamentalism, we can disprove the stereotyping and thus point people to beliefs and concepts, which is what evangelicals should be doing if they are spreading the faith.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Jeff, totally. Check out my most recent post and let me know if that lines up with your thinking at all. Would love to hear your thoughts on it.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Rob, check out my most recent post and let me know if that sheds any good light :).

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    I don’t think inerrancy is the core, though some certainly claim that it is. Check out my most recent post for more!

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Yeah, that’s the other side of the coin. The “farewellers” have become definitive for the entire movement, when they don’t reflect the bigness of the spectrum/tent. Tried to work that out in the most recent post a bit more. :)

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Curt, I’d like to hear your thoughts on my follow up post.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    I don’t think there’s anything inherently good about the “proliferation” of labels, but I do think they are inevitable. The Church of Christ project (like many “back to basics” movements before it) is a good example of that inevitability. That said, we are a diverse people – we always will. And we’ve got to seek after maximum unity in that diversity, and protect that diversity.

  • RustbeltRick

    Why would you stop identifying with a set of theological assumptions that are profoundly dear to you just because the cultural warriors are acting out? If a few fans of your local football team are burning couches, do you have to renounce your own fandom? No. I’m happy if you call me a liberal evangelical if you must parse labels, but to give up “evangelical” altogether seems sad, like the churlish children ruined it for everyone else.

  • http://flamingfundamentalist.blogspot.com/ Curt Day

    Thank you. I appreciate it. Will get to it as soon as I can.

  • http://exclusionandembrace.blogspot.com/ rob g

    Hi Zach,

    I read the post on the codes. Generally like the new three-point code, especially its openness and humility toward others.

    I am doubtful that it would be possible to get a world for whom evangelical = HHH (hell and hatred of homosexuals) to transition to evangelical = O/S, P/SF, E/M. Aside from shifting from simple word-bites to complex and nuanced terms, I suspect the HHH is just too imprinted in the minds and hearts of many.

    I wonder if the difficulty of this kind of shift might be analogous (in a weird kind of way) to millions of chocolate lovers suddenly realizing that their beloved treat is usually the product of child labour and slavery, and giving up chocolate, permanently and en masse…

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Thanks bro! Sorry I missed it the first time around. So after working out my 3 points in the most recent post, I think where I’m landing is, the label may die, but I don’t want the ethos to die. I’m willing to continue claiming the label in my life and work, both because it connects me to conservatives I still love, and it provokes progressives (in a good way). As for the world at large, my use of evangelical is really a way to start a conversation. The popular hatred around that word (which I readily acknowledge) does, I think, open the door for getting to the “root” of it all. The local alternative magazine here in Burlington did a piece on our church plant one time and said, “they are evangelical in the best sense – they are passionate about following Jesus, especially as he’s presented in the Gospels.” I was like, YES.

  • http://geekchicohio.blogspot.com Adam Heffelfinger

    That’s awesome. I’m sure much of it is simply a result of who I spend the most time around (I was thinking recently that I pretty regularly work shifts at my job where I’m the ONLY straight, cis (that is, not transgender), white male on the clock at a given time).
    I framed it in one of my blog posts, and in conversations with some of my dechurched coworkers, that pretty much the biggest litmus test in my family finding a church is that I need to be able to look these folks in the eye as I tell them where I’m going.
    More and more I find that the label puts up walls, and my particular relationship to my faith (evangelical-then-atheist-then-progressive-to-the-extreme-Christian) is one where it’s been a decade or more since I’ve felt much serious affinity for it, so I have no qualms about leaving it behind, I already did once, after all.
    If someone (an alt-weekly, for example) were to apply it to me in the positive, I’d take no offense. I agree with you that there’s a worthwhile root, there. But much of the more compelling things I’ve experienced in my faith since returning to it–spending time with Peter Rollins in Episcopal churches, learning missional living in the Church of England in Sheffield, UK–happened in places where it wasn’t a label that was on the door. So I’m comfortable sticking to places where it’s not.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    oh yeah – and i do think this is mostly shop talk. i’d rather die than put ‘evangelical’ on a church sign :).


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