The New Evangelicals?

Labels are a funny thing…

I recently saw an interview where one Millennial journalist interviewed a younger Millennial journalist, asking her if she identified as a conservative, and she responded, “I’m a Millennial, so I don’t like labels.” The unintentional irony in that statement is painfully hilarious, but I think in many ways it defines our generation. We’ve all seen labels be used to judge, exclude, and discriminate. All of us, Millennials or otherwise, have been mislabeled, stereotyped, unfairly judged, or felt looked down on because of a label we intentionally or unintentionally wore.

And yet we all crave a tribe, don’t we?

We want a place to belong, a community to call our own, to identify with, a place where we feel accepted, loved, heard, understood, and a sense of belonging.

As a person of faith, and more specifically as someone who worships and follows the teachings of Jesus, I often find myself in this tension, especially as faith and politics become (apparently) increasingly intertwined in the United States. When I hear statistics like “80% of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016,” (Washington Post) that tension becomes even more pronounced. I confess, I identify with the word evangelical on a primal level. The English term is transliterated from the Greek word euangelion, which refers to the original message of the gospel, the story that God through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus is stepping into the world to save and heal and transform it.

By definition, then:

“Evangelicals” should be folks primarily concerned with the gospel, obsessed with it, even.

That focus alone must be our identifier. In fact, evangelicalism as a modern movement arose in the mid-20th century as a third option, an alternate tribe for those who felt forced to choose between fundamentalist Christianity — which tended to endorse the orthodox doctrines of ancient Christian faith but were hyper-focused on extreme conservative social agendas — and mainline liberal churches, many of whom were questioning and often denying core traditional Christian beliefs, but were known to be more amicable, welcoming, and open-handed with social issues. The evangelical tribe formed from a desire among many Christians to be identified with neither of these groups, instead wanting to be identified with the gospel and the gospel alone. I find that sentiment really beautiful and attractive.

I’m married to the word evangelical on an ideological level, and I want to be identified as that kind of a person.

When my friends and family think of me, I hope they picture a person of faith, someone who really believes more than anything else that Jesus of Nazareth lived and died and rose again and saves and heals and can make beautiful things out of the messes of the world. If someone asked my friends what I believed about politics or economics or war or sports or vaccines or abortion or gay marriage or Israel/Palestine or the antichrist, I would probably tear up if that friend honestly responded, “you know, I’m not entirely sure what he thinks about that. I can probably make a guess, but all I really know for sure is that he loves Jesus and really believes that Jesus can and does save and heal broken people and situations.”

I want the way I live my life to make it obvious that all other topics next to the very core elements of my faith are peripheral to who I am.

Compare that sentiment to what most folks (according to pollsters Barna and Kinnaman) hear when they hear the word “evangelical”: on a good day you might get phrases like politically conservative, Republican voters, pro-life, anti-LGBTQ, and such like. Tragically, to many in our culture, the word evangelical is synonymous with even more negative words like homophobic, judgmental, narrow-minded, anti-science, bigoted, arrogant, and often worse. Obviously, those labels are unfair and broad-stroked, and it hurts to be stereotyped like that. There are hundreds of thousands of us who don’t belong to those stereotypes… but to be fair, I have to say that even in my experience as a Protestant middle-class white male (there I go again labeling myself), many of these descriptors are well-deserved.

When did evangelicals become the new fundamentalists?

Is it time for a “new evangelicalism” in America to rise? It seems to me that many of my generation, and to be honest, not a few GenX-ers and Baby Boomers, are coming to many of the same conclusions I am. We still deeply love and believe the core truths about Jesus and the gospel. But we are deeply troubled. Troubled that this tribe of ours that has been home for so long — this label meant to be so simple, so open-handed, singularly focused, and full of hope and grace — a banner that anybody who loved Jesus, regardless of race or political stripe or confessional creed or theological camp, could unite under — has become so convoluted and unrecognizable, distorted by “evangelical” pastors and leaders who seem more interested in being guest commentators on Fox News than preaching the Gospel.

No, your average evangelical is not a fundamentalist, isolating themselves from popular culture and hoping for a cultural return to the 1950s, but they are certainly not widely known for being centered on the gospel of Jesus alone.

When the word “evangelical” is more closely associated with the words “Republican,” “pro-life,” or “anti-gay” than they are with the word “Jesus,” we have a problem.

We don’t need more labels. We don’t need another camp/label/designation/ tribe by which to identify ourselves. Honestly, I don’t know what we would even call ourselves. What we need is a return to the gospel of Jesus. If you really believe in the message of Christ, then you believe that central to that very message is precisely that that message is central! Jesus was constantly being asked the heated and controversial political questions of his day, and every time his response exposed the petty and self-serving hearts of those asking the questions, pointing them instead to the centrality of the kingdom of God breaking in on earth. Jesus was unpredictable, unlabel-able, known instead for his radical love and acceptance of those on the margins, his fearlessness opposing the proud and tenderness in embracing the poor, his authority of character and audacity of compassion.

Would to God that evangelicals could carry the same reputation.