“Evangelical?” Just Call Me “Christian”

The meaning behind the term ‘Evangelical’ is notoriously hard to nail down. It probably means you’re a Protestant, and that you really like the Bible. Beyond, that, though, all bets are off.

If you want to see first-hand what I’m talking about, try opening 4 different browser screens. At the same time, pull up the Twitter feeds for the following 4 ‘Evangelical’ leaders: Greg Boyd, Franklin Graham, Jim Wallis and Tim Keller. Scroll down those screens for a few minutes and try to keep your head from exploding at the notion that all these thinkers could possibly represent the same tradition of Christianity.

Incidentally, I am aware that the above examples are all similarly-aged, White men, but their demographic similarities should only prove my point. If you really want your head to spin, try adding some people of color and women to the mix, people like Soong-Chan Rah, Mark Charles, Christena Cleveland, Sarah Bessey, and Thabiti Anyabwile.

So, what, then does it mean to call yourself, ‘Evangelical’ anymore? Does your zeal for preaching the Good News look like a burning passion for social issues and justice? Or does it look like doubling-down on the historic accuracy of the Bible, and decrying the downward, moral spiral of Western society? Does it mean we should be involved in #BlackLivesMatter protests, or that we should idealize “colorblindness” and distance ourselves from anything that could result in violent displays of moral outrage? Should abortion be the primary legislative issue we concern ourselves with? What about our worship styles? When we gather, should we look like Hillsong and Elevation, the Simple Way, the local AME church or the local Methodist church, or none of the above? Should we be progressively-minded about gender roles within the structures of our churches? Or maybe more traditionally-minded? What about within our families?

Considering the drastically different responses to the questions above (any many that are unmentioned) that could conceivably all fall under the label “Evangelical,” I find myself wondering if the label is helpful anymore? If I could be pro- or anti-women’s ordination, pro- or anti-six-day-creation, be pro- or anti-#BlackLivesMatter, and still call myself an “Evangelical Christian,” then what exactly does the term mean?

I must confess, I don’t really know. And so I’m going to stop using it.

“But wait!” I can hear you protesting, “Evangelicalism has such a rich history! Isn’t it arrogant to just toss out such a long-standing identifier for the tradition you were raised and formed in??”

I hear you. And I don’t disparage anyone wishing to continue themselves “Evangelical.” I am simply unwilling to continue to use a term for myself when I am not clear what it stands for, especially when we have a perfectly fine label that is not only more historically-rooted, but also just as culturally scandalous.

And of course I need to bring up the election that happened a few months ago in my country.

You know, the one where exit polls showed that over 80% of White Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.

I’m perfectly aware that there are all kinds of problems with how people self-identified with that term on those polls – but doesn’t that actually support my very argument here? If the word has become vague enough to question the meaningfulness of those polls, but at the same time somehow means something clear enough to warrant the self-categorization of over 80% of the people who voted for Trump on November 8th, then I’m not convinced there is anything there for me to hold onto. Rather, I’m more convinced that it has become so thoroughly co-opted by political pundits and pollsters that it has no bearing on my faith today.

Evangelicalism does indeed have a history of deep cultural engagement and rigorous questioning of tradition. I’m proud of that history, and actually thankful to have been raised in it. In fact, you might even say it’s my “Evangelical-ness” that’s causing me to question the efficacy of the term itself.

You may think I’m ceding an important term to “the world,” that we should instead fight to restore the meaning of the label. That may be a fight you feel compelled to wage, and so be it. But at some point, like bailing water out of ship that’s sinking too fast, it simply feels to me like wasted energy.

So for me, if you want to know my tradition, what I believe, and wear I stand, I proudly declare that I stand with Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen one. And we have a perfectly good term for that.

Just call me a “Christian.”

Joel is the Area Director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (USA) campus ministries in Southern Maine. He graduated from Huntington University (Indiana) in 2008, and continued his education at Ball State University (Indiana), completing an M.A. in University Administration in 2010. He is currently pursuing an M.A. in Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and has a strong interest in thoughtful, critical Christian engagement in the public square.

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