Monday, April 21, 2014

On Still Being an Evangelical, Even When I Don't Want to Be

What comes to mind when you hear the word "evangelical?"

Christian. Conservative. Good morals. Family values. Those are all fairly positive things. But let's be honest, we could make a less-positive list:

Judgmental. Hypocritical. Narrow minded. Anti-gay. Pro-gun. Anti-culture. Angry Bible-tumping doctrine police.

When World Vision made a public spectacle a few weeks ago of their indecisiveness about hiring openly gay employees, it put the nail in the coffin for many who were on the fence about the evangelical way. Thousands of people dropped sponsorships of children in favour of taking a political stance, causing people already frustrated with the culture wars to take a long, hard look at whether or not they wanted to play any part in this subculture. Evangelicals became known as anti-gay, willing to stop serving children in poverty for political agenda, and wishy-washy about important public decisions.

Not long after that decision, I made a passing comment to some youth ministry friends about being evangelical, to which they asked, "would you still identify yourself with that term?" Evangelical. After thinking about it briefly, I affirmed that I would, but not because of what the word means now. I'm an evangelical for its origins and roots, what it was meant to be, and has strayed from being.

The origins of the word "evangelical" come from the Greek word euangelion, meaning "gospel" or "good news." The original intent for the evangelical movement was an emphasis on the good news of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and the spreading of this good news through word and action. The first evangelicals loved the Bible, were devoted to being in small groups committed to holy living, and focused on individuals coming to know Jesus. They were never the best at engaging with culture--they were primarily a reform movement calling individuals to piety and holiness, being distinct from the surrounding world--or fostering a deep sense of community, as the emphasis was on individual salvation. Nevertheless, the heart behind the movement was one of being good news and sharing good news.

Evangelicals should be good news people. We're to be ambassadors for Christ, salt and light in a flavourless and dark world, a body of believers called to be humble and gentle, patient and loving, unified and peaceful, caring for the poor and marginalized in society, and known for our deep and unconditional love for others.

A people of humility and grace, love and peace, gentleness and patience--this is good news in a world of polarization, isolation, consumerism, and fear. 

Is this how the current evangelical subculture is known?

With slow-to-change structures and institutions, cheesy Christian literature and filmmaking, the cult of celebrity with megachurches and glitzy preachers, evangelism and apologetic scare tactics, too much emphasis on programs and "fun" in youth ministry instead of simply following Jesus, and often being lumped into the same category as George W. Busy, televangelists, or those bearded guys from "Duck Dynasty" (at best) or the Westboro Baptist Church (at worst), evangelicals aren't an easy tribe for leaders and pastors who want to see change, healthy engagement with culture and art, a radical humility and openness to dialogue, less programming and more discipleship, and being known for following Jesus instead of a political or subcultural agenda.

I'll admit, I'm often tired of the whole thing, and want to throw in the towel and become a high school English teacher or a professional movie-watcher. (That's a legit vocation, right?). I'm weary of trying to explain how I'm different than the other evangelicals and disagree with many aspects of the subculture, even though I still love them and I'm in the tribe. It feels like trying to defend and explain one's crazy relative to a friend who's come for dinner--the grandparent who frequently says inappropriate sexist or racist remarks at the table, the uncle who drinks too much, the sibling who spouts off political ideologies with a fervor that shuts down any conversation. Oh my gosh, you whisper apologetically to your friend, that's just my crazy family. They're awkward and inappropriate. That's not really me, you know. But I guess I love 'em. They're family, after all.

I suppose I'm an evangelical for now because they're my family. They're one tribe in God's church, His body and bride. I still think we can be good news people. I still think the Gospel of the kingdom of heaven is for everyone, the Bible is true and good and wise, and following Jesus can be a radical culture-shaping movement of love (without the politicking). Even though I don't want to spend my life trying to "fix" evangelicalism--an impossible task for any individual--I do want to spend it being good news for others, living as a signpost for the kingdom of heaven on earth. I recently found comfort in Sarah Bessey's words on her blog post to those who stay:  

Thank you for ministering within imperfect structures. Thank you for laying down your life to teach Sunday school and chaperone youth lock-ins, for carpooling the seniors and vacuuming the vestry. Thank you for stocking the church library and making phone calls, for doing the mundane daily work that creates a community. Thank you for meeting with college girls for coffee. Thank you for showing up when we get married and when we have our babies and when we are sick and when we are grieving. When we die, thank you for holding our families close.

Thank you for staying put in slow-to-change structures and movements. Thank you for being faithful. Thank you for taking a long and a high view of time, for waiting it out. You have the thankless job of elder boards and deacon elections, church constitutions and consensus building within community. This is not the work for the faint of heart.
You aren’t better than the ones who go, but you aren’t foolish or blind or unconcerned or uneducated or unthinking. I know this. You have weighed your choices, more than anyone will know. You chose this, you choose this, and you will keep choosing this.

Jesus isn’t an evangelical. But he lives and moves and has his being among the evangelicals, too. 

I want to be a good news person and invite others to do likewise. For now, that's enough to remain connected to the evangelical tribe.

What do you think? Share in the comments.

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