Feb 25, 2013 10
I wandered into an evangelical church without even knowing what I was getting myself into. I only knew that this church had the same exact name as our last church but the people were a lot less uptight.
They were really hip.
They would go to movie theaters to watch their PG and G movies instead of taking the risk of being spotted at the movie theater. They never asked, “What if someone saw you at the movie theater and assumed you were going to see a rated R movie?”
I didn’t have to hide my NIV Bible.
The sermons cooled down the fire and brimstone.
Some people didn’t wear ties.
They still talked about sharing the Gospel. They just didn’t harbor the same “us vs. them” mentality against “the world.”
I had moved from a fundamentalist church to an evangelical church. I’ve been an evangelical since the age of fifteen.
If you ask ten people to define “evangelical,” you’ll get ten different answers. That’s what is both great and awful about being an evangelical Christian.
Why I Struggle with Evangelicalism
Evangelicalism is riddled with disagreements, irony, and contradictions.
We claim to put the authority of the Bible first, but call anyone “unbiblical” if the Bible steers him/her from the majority’s position on a topic.
We generally list the Bible as our most important guide, but we forget that the Bible tells us there is no foundation other than Christ Jesus and the words of scripture testify to him—the person.
We claim the heritage of a generally inclusive and broad group, but constantly fight over creating new standards and tests in order to wall off what it means to be an evangelical.
Commitment to the authority of scripture is measured by different groups according to what you believe about:
- The End times
- Women in Ministry
- Spiritual Gifts
The tone of these conversations can become so sharp that plenty of evangelicals have given up on this label.
The seed of evangelicalism’s destruction has been sown within it. It’s is the same reason why evangelicals continue to split and fracture. Our central challenge is we’ve made the Bible alone into our defining standard, but it’s impossible to make the Bible “alone” our central standard.
We have cultural assumptions, philosophical commitments, and guiding traditions, each playing havoc on our understanding of the Bible.
We encourage open-minded biblical exploration, but some groups actively patrol a biblical “no-fly” zone. Evangelical academics know that certain topics are off limits, even if they relied on the Bible to determine their positions on the historicity of Adam, the dating of biblical books, the existence of hell, gender roles, homosexuality, or the end times.
Evangelicals committed to the centrality of the Bible will always disagree on these topics and many more. And yet, some act scandalized that such diversity exists.
Why I Still Call Myself an Evangelical
For all of its challenges, the title evangelical still works for me but not because I want to preserve a particular understanding of the term. I’ll always understand evangelicals in the broadest sense that the term allows, but I’m not interested in a turf war over what the term means or doesn’t mean.
I always tell people that my evangelical status depends on who you ask.
My evangelical identity serves as my roots that define where I came from and how I respond to new challenges. Without my roots, I have no way of perceiving my own bias or working toward the things that I affirm.
I am frequently concerned to hear evangelicals say, “I just want to call myself a Christian.” While I affirm the desire to join together with other Christians and focus on a common bond in Christ, there is a problem with thinking of ourselves as “only Christian.” We can never be that. We will always have our baggage, our memories, and our assumptions steering us in different directions.
The influence of evangelicalism is hard to shake. You’re most likely either shaped by it or reacting against it. As much as I try to learn about the history of evangelicalism in order to understand myself better, there’s always the possibility that I’m either holding fast to long held assumptions or fighting against a part of my evangelical past.
For all of evangelicalism’s problems, I’m sticking with it.
Prayer and Holiness
An emphasis of personal piety, as in prayer and holy living, has been central to the evangelical movement throughout its early years in the 1700’s and even stretches back to influential groups in the 1600’s. While we can still distort and individualize personal piety, especially in a context where we chronicle our daily lives with status updates and instagrams, this emphasis on personal holiness and prayer have served us well. So long as these practices are part of the church, God will be able to guide his people.
Sharing the Gospel
While evangelicals have, at times, lost sight of how exactly we should share the Gospel and we often disagree about what is exactly at stake, I never want to lose sight of the fact that Jesus sent us to share his good news. As jaded as I’ve become about the ways certain evangelicals push the Gospel, that failure does not corrupt the freedom and hope that it holds for everyone.
Reading the Bible
As much as the Bible stirs up trouble among evangelicals as we try to reconcile our competing beliefs, I can’t escape the correlation of Bible reading with greater peace, connection with God, and love for others. When I lose sight of God and others, fretting about myself selfishly, there’s a good chance that I’ve been away from the Bible for a few days. The impact of scripture on my life is noticeable.
There are plenty of other things about evangelicalism that I could affirm here as well. And while I wish I could say that I’ll always call myself an evangelical, the fact that I’m an evangelical makes it certain that I cannot do that. As an evangelical, I have to follow the Bible and the lead of the Holy Spirit wherever they may take me.
I may find that the only way to live as a faithful evangelical will be to affirm doctrines that are outside of the evangelical fold—although I would personally dispute such boundaries. That is why I love and hate being an evangelical.