Proof: There Are No Evangelicals

Proof: There Are No Evangelicals September 26, 2012
Gabe Lyons, “I do not define myself as an evangelical.”

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the first of four “Civil Conversations” that Krista Tippett is hosting in advance of the election. The Civil Conversations Project is attempt to bring some nuance and sophistication to the too often shrill soundbytes that overwhelm us these days.

The first conversation was meant to bring some complexity to the way that we think of evangelicals, so Krista sat down with Gabe Lyons, the founder of Q Ideas, and Jim Daly, the successor to James Dobson at Focus on the Family. Basically, both of these guys play for the same team.

You can listen to the hour-long edited version, the two-hour long unedited version, or watch the video.

Here are some of my observations of their conversation:

They really were civil to one another, and to Krista. I imagine that just about any evangelical (other than Fred Phelps) would be in this setting, but these two guys did not disagree on a single thing in two hours.

It’s amazing how often they conflated the terms “evangelical” and “Christian.” I think their language betrays the fact that they either A) Don’t know any progressive Christians, or B) Don’t think progressive Christians are really Christian.

Jim used tons of Christian idioms, Gabe did not. That is, Jim talked repeatedly of God “laying things on his heart,” and how he “felt moved” to do things. Gabe, on the other hand, talked more like normal people talk. (Am I saying that evangelicals don’t talk like normal people? You be the judge.)

I think it’s creepy how Jim and the other people at Focus always refer to Dobson as “Dr. Dobson.” I mean, always. Weird.

Finally, this: To Krista’s initial question of Gabe, he responded, “I don’t define myself as an evangelical.” This is a guy who grew up going to Thomas Road Baptist Church under the pastorate of Jerry Falwell, attended Liberty University, started a conference and learning lab that is at the vanguard of young evangelical leadership. He proclaimed a defense of “traditional marriage” during the interview. Yet, when asked, he says that he does not define himself as an evangelical.

If Gabe Lyons is not an evangelical, then there are no evangelicals.

Or, to put it another way, if Gabe Lyons won’t cop to being an evangelical, then evangelicalism continues to have a PR problem.

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  • Tom Estes


    I would say that when a person says they do define themselves as something that that is not a denial of it. For instance, my church believes in Calvinism or as we say it, the doctrines of Grace, but I say all the time that we shouldn’t be defined by that, meaning it’s not the lens through which we see the world. We would also say that we’re doctrines of Grace, but it’s not all we are.

    I can’t speak for Gabe Lyons, but it doesn’t sound to me like he was denying that he was an evangelical, but rather that he is not only or merely an evangelical.

    • Tom Estes

      should be they do *not* define themselves.


  • Or, he should find a way to be more honest about what he is trying to say. I am a member of a United Methodist Church, but I always qualified that with how my beliefs differed from what you would find on their national website and sometimes the more subtle differences from what was on the local/home church’s website. Now, I rarely mention it and if I do, say it is only on paper, since I hold none of those beliefs. (Well, I do believe in peace with justice, but the UMC does not have the franchise on that).

    I’d say evangelicals have a PR problem if this guy wants to distance himself from the label.

  • Pax

    It’s amazing how often they conflated the terms “evangelical” and “Christian.” I think their language betrays the fact that they either A) Don’t know any progressive Christians, or B) Don’t think progressive Christians are really Christian.

    Yeah, he doesn’t even get that Christianity is actually divided into exactly two subgroups: evangelicals and progressive Christians.

  • Come on now, Pax, this is Patheos. There are also Catholics and Mormons.

    • I read that comment as sarcasm. Perhaps I was wrong to?

      • Martin Browne

        Me too, I don’t think you were

  • I think the problem with the whole ” Next Christians ” thing is…they wish they were but aren’t. It’s a very catchy title, I’m sure “it” alone sold a few books. But, lets get real, these guys are still deeply embedded in the institutional church. They might walk around the parking lots of their churches and call it exploring the margins. But, there is a lot going on…small, fluid…and not showing up on their radars. Gabe Lyons is just in denial, but he’s just as evangelical as Jim Daly. And your absolutely right, ” Progressive Christians ” are not considered christians. But, in my mind they are the next christians…they are not trapped by labels, or language. They identify themselves with Jesus…who by the way wasn’t a christian. He was murdered before he had a chance to opt out… we took the name and christendom evolved. Thank God the parasitic relationship is over, it finding fewer victims to feed on. Christendom is becoming extinct…what embryonic new shoots of growth that rise out of it’s decay will resemble the abundant life Jesus imagined.

    • Moulder

      I like what you said Ron. You’re spot on… Christendom will become extinct… From its ashes will rise something beautiful and totally inclusive…

  • Dave

    I find it ironic that Lyons distances himself from the label of Evangelical while Brian McLaren and Rob Bell (at least as far as I know) continue to consider view themselves as Evangelicals. This despite the fact that many of their fellow Evangelicals continue to dismiss them as heretics. Interesting that McLaren and Bell would choose to maintain connection and relationship (at least in identity) rather than reject those with whom they differ…

    • Curtis

      It is ironic. Remember, many mainline Lutherans still cling to calling themselves “Evangelical”, which was Luther’s preferred description of his movement, even though nobody considers Lutherans part of the modern Evangelical movement. I guess that word gets used in a lot of different ways.

      • That’s unfortunately pretty much how language really works.

  • Curtis

    One thing I found disingenuous was when Jim Daly stated that he was not opposed to full, legal civil union for gay couples. He just doesn’t want it called “marriage”.

    This may be a surprise to Daly, but civil union for couples, the world over, is called “marriage”. Is Daly suggesting that we must rename civil unions, world-wide, to satisfy his church? I just don’t get this line of reasoning.

    If Daly doesn’t want the blessings his church bestows on couples to be confused with civil marriage, then perhaps his church should change the name of their blessing to something other than “marriage”. Expecting the whole world to conform to his church’s definition of marriage just seems really out of touch. And more than a little dishonest. Because I don’t think he really means it.

    • This may be a surprise to Daly, but civil union for couples, the world over, is called “marriage”.

      Not for U.S. federal tax purposes…

      • Curtis

        I’m not sure what you mean. I check “Married filing jointly” on my 1040 form.

  • Two good friends of mine out here in Pennsylvania Amish Country are pastors who would easily identify themselves as small “e” emergent. Yet both have been reticent to label themselves as “Christian” and instead say simply that they are “followers of Jesus.”

    They both explain it like this: they hesitate (though this does not mean they outright refuse) to take on the identity of “Christian” because of the awful reputation Christianity has; they don’t want to be mis-identified; they don’t want to be a chip off the old stumbling block. This, of course, should come as no shock to anyone.

    So perhaps in a similar way this is Gabe’s issue (as you alluded to); an issue of self-branding. “Evangelical” is fast becoming a dirty word in progressive Christian circles (and here I use “progressive” very broadly), and even non-progressive ones. Gabe of all people is acutely aware of this considering he co-authored UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters.

    So I agree with you that the “evangelical” brand is having a serious PR problem. As such, maybe Gabe is trying to evade/escape the ill reputation now associated with “evangelical.” And maybe his words betrayed an as-yet undisclosed struggle of faith, his continuing outward presentation notwithstanding.

    • Chuck

      If “evangelical” now has an ill reputation, does that make an Evangelical church building a house of ill repute?

      Sorry, I just could not resist it.

  • What you don’t make everyone around you refer to you as “Dr. Jones”? Or does that just make them all think you’re an adventurous archaeologist?

    • Or a song by Aqua.

    • My kids’ friends are found of shouting “Doctah Jones! Doctah Jones!” when I come around.

  • Phil Miller

    The whole “Dr. Dobson” thing reminded me of what Randy Pausch said in the The Last Lecture:

    “After I got my Ph.D., my mother took great relish in introducing me as, ‘This is my son, he’s a doctor but not the kind that helps people.'”

  • Keith Johnston

    People could also label themselves as “recovering evangelical” or “evangelical survivor” or “self-medicated evangelical” or “post-heretical evangelical” or “repentent Bible-thumper”

  • Tony, I grew up an evangelical. I would never call myself with that term now. What does that make me?

    I say this simply to bring to light the fact that Gabe said he would not call him self an evangelical, even though the roots of of his beliefs stemmed out of that. That does not mean he still lives there now, does it?

    • No, it seems to me that his current beliefs and affiliations defines him, not his past.

  • Scott Gay

    I kinow that the title of this post is tongue in cheek. However, I respond because no one else mentioned the reason I believe Gabe Lyons said he isn’t an evangelical. It’s the same reason, in reverse that other authors call themselves evangelical- it is the power of the publishing company. The label with Doubleday, even Dobleday religion, equates with fundamentalist. If he was with Intervarsity Press, it would have another connotation, and he would use it. To me it equates with having a voice in certain circles, and nothing more. Some people actually know the history of the term and mean something by it. But not those that know on which side their bread is buttered and are tied to labels because of the butter and not the bread. And in Jesus’ circles the bread isn’t the money, and the grease isn’t part of the blessed.

  • joshuamtaylor

    YAWWWWN. Write about something useful.

  • Evelyn

    Those guys both look like they could be stand-ins for the movie Grease (1978).

  • T. Webb

    Didn’t Charles Spurgeon, over 100 years ago, say that the word “evangelical” had so many meanings, that it is meaningless? I don’t read Spurgeon, but I’ve heard that quote. Whether he said it or not, if it was true then, it is 10000x more true today.

  • Nick

    Tony, I think your main gripe with “evangelicals” is really focused on the “evangelical” movement in the United States. I can be happy to say that I’m working alongside a fledgling Italian evangelical church (quasi Baptist/Presbyterian), and it does not reek of the problems that you continually barrage the American churches about. Additionally, I made a similar observation at an average-sized (by US standards) Dutch church (quasi Pentecostal/Reformed — try that math).

    The American “evangelical” church as a whole deserves scrutiny because of its syncretism with politics, etc, because it doesn’t reflect the original meaning of having an evangelical worldview. However, please don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Just like emergents hate being labeled, many people raised under the evangelical church and getting back to its roots don’t want to be labeled by something that doesn’t define them at all.

    Are you frustrated by the original evangelical worldview, or by this syncretized “evangelicalism” you see everyday in the media? Taking a church at random, it’s likely that only a small (sadly) non-representational minority truly “get it”. We certainly need to get in touch with our early roots — whether progressive, evangelical, or X. I think when we do, we all will see that we’ve been short-sighted. (And yes, I feel that God put it on my heart to share that.) 🙂

  • Pingback: Progressive Christians Are Neither « Cool Lessons()

  • One reason they may not consider “progressive Christians” to be Christian is that “progressive Christians” are neither.

  • Krista Tippet is a genius when it comes to interviewing religious people. She is sometimes criticized for not being tough enough, but you the listener has to do that tough work. She could challenge Gabe and say, “well, actually I did read the Bible and there is some nasty stuff in there along with the good parts you are highlighting”, but she doesn’t because if she did, religious people would stop working with her.

    Instead, listen to her tag line just after 1 hour, about 1:02. “Say more about that.” She knows there is juice in the discussion about Mexicans. She says to Jim, “You’ve put your neck on the line on this issue.” Jim responds with, “You know where the soft spots are, don’t you.” Yes she does, and she knows how to get to them in a way that requires a response, but is not confrontational. It is exactly what is needed in the God discussion in America.

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  • Conservative Lady

    This was written with a hateful tone underlying the entire article. There is nothing weird or creepy about referring to a man with a PhD. as Doctor. And implying that evangelicals “don’t talk like normal people” is just hateful. The main difference I see between evangelicals and those who are not evangelical is that evangelicals don’t have to pepper their conversations with foul language and vitriol. I don’t feel like your article is an example of civil conversation.

  • Conservative Lady

    And I totally agree with Virgil who said “Progressive Christians” are neither….True words!

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