(This post is part of the Patheos “Why I Am Still An Evangelical” conversation.)
My four decades in the Evangelical world has been a pilgrim’s road trip. I came to faith in 1974 in the waning days of the Jesus Movement, and have since swum laps in a variety of different streams within Evangelicalism: fundamentalist, second- and third-wave Charismatic, conservative and progressive non-denominational congregations, house churches, Messianic Jewish congregations*, and local churches with a strong Evangelical flavor that were part of historic, mainline denominations.
I’ve been burned by a couple of these churches, and burned out by a few others. I know of at least two people who tell me they believe I’m on the verge of crossing the Tiber, and a half-handful of others, empowered by their Comment Section anonymity, who have suggested I might be a borderline heretic.
I don’t quite know how to respond to the why I am still an Evangelical without first clarifying via a couple of questions.
Second, what does the word still infer in this sentence?
I am an Evangelical per historian David Bebbington’s oft-quoted distinctives (found here):
- Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus.
- Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
- Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
- Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity
I am an Evangelical per the definition the Barna Group used here:
“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior…”Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria…plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended.
Evangelicalism as defined above is a highly individualistic expression of faith. These definitions don’t include any reference to baptism, communion, community, or of picking up one’s cross and following him daily; there is no frame of reference for the kingdom of God. I can affirm all these things while simultaneously noting that there is room for nuance in some of them. For example, I recognize that conversion doesn’t always look like a once lost, now found crisis, but may rightly look more like a child growing into mature faith through ongoing discipleship. The right practice of our faith, which might sound a little too much like James and not enough like the Romans Road, is divorced from simply having the right set of beliefs. Please note I’m not negating God’s amazing grace in any way. He has done the all the work of redeeming us, and our salvation is all gift. (Thank you, Lord!) But what I’m saying is that the kind of belief the Bible describes has nothing in common with the cognitive affirmation of the words of a creed – or, more commonly in Evangelicalism, a set of propositions about correct belief has been too often boiled down to “just pray this prayer”. Those words are important boundary markers and discipleship tools, but the words alone don’t make someone a follower of the risen Jesus.
Despite the seeming “just pray this prayer” simplicity of Evangelicalism, my own stumbling block has been in the add-ons – the unwritten expectations that a Real (Evangelical) Christian:
- Must have “prayed that prayer”, walked the aisle at a Billy Graham crusade, or have a some sort of suitable dramatic salvation story.
- Speaks in tongues. Or doesn’t.
- Has clear gender roles. No women pastors or elders.
- Boycotts Disney movies. Homeschools. Moves to another culture to share the gospel. Votes Republican.
- Holds to a specific flavor of theology. When I first came to Christ, the Real (Evangelical) Christians were dispensational fundamentalists. Now, some neo-Reformed trumpet their claim to the title.
Depending on the church, there have been lots of other add-ons, too, including not questioning the pastor’s authority, tithing 10% minimum of one’s gross income, mandatory attendance at various church events, or the institutionalized distrust of Christians from other churches or faith streams. These rules and expectations have often become erzatz versions of discipleship. Sadly, those and many more add-ons have marked too much of the Evangelicalism I’ve experienced over the last four decades.
Though I use the term “Evangelical” when I write or speak about our subculture, I’ll confess I dislike the label because it comes with SO MUCH bad baggage. Frankly, I am not sure it can ever be rehabilitated in broader culture. I’m still an Evangelical because I’ve learned and am still learning how to sift the dogmatic opinions of this group or that one from Jesus’ call to follow him. As a result, I’ve discovered it is possible to cherish a variety of non-Evangelical expressions of faith in the risen Christ. In the midst of the noise – and we Evangelicals are a noisy bunch – I can’t mute the sound of his voice, calling me to follow him.
Evangelicalism has been a spiritual launch pad for me and countless others. It is not a destination. Jesus is.
* My Messianic Jewish brothers and sisters might chafe at my inclusion of these congregations on a list of Evangelical churches. There is a wide variety of practice within the Messianic Jewish movement. Some congregations are like Evangelical churches with a bit of Jewish flavor, others are distinctly Jewish in liturgy and orientation. I’m including Messianic Judaism on my Evangelical pilgrim’s road trip listing with an asterisk because it was our Evangelical faith in the Jewish Jesus that first led my husband and I to the congregations (3) of which we’ve been a part. These congregations all had their roots in various Evangelical missions to the Jewish people, though two of the three congregations would currently and correctly describe their structure and function as a Jesus-centered Jewish synagogue situated within Judaism rather than as an Evangelical church.
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