I was nearly done with seminary when I stopped identifying myself as “evangelical.” Before then, I had gone through various phases in my relationship with the term: never heard of evangelical, not evangelical, super evangelical, struggling evangelical, progressive evangelical, and finally, “I’m not letting them own the term evangelical.” From the time I became a Christian in college, I thought I had to define myself according to how I measured up to popular evangelical Christianity.
This led me into all sorts of theological maneuvering to try to keep myself within the evangelical tent. It was important to me to remain evangelical. An evangelical fellowship group was what really introduced me to Jesus in the first place, and taught me to worship, pray, and study the Bible, so I had some loyalty there even though things eventually went awry there. And I was strongly drawn to the meaning of evangelical, this idea of sharing good news. So I kept fighting to be part of that club, even as I dropped more and more of the things that qualified me for membership.
At some point, I had to own up to the fact that I didn’t qualify, and didn’t really want to. I no longer believed in most of the things that people who identified as evangelical held as cornerstones. Evangelicals were alarmed by what the perceived as my unorthodoxy; I was horrified by what I saw as narrowness and exclusion. Jesus was about all we had in common, and what we had to say about him rapidly diverged. It was that one common point, Jesus, that helped me realize that being an evangelical had absolutely nothing to do with the strength of my faith. “Evangelical” was, for me anyway, a culture, not a faith. It told me what I was supposed to like (Christian music, and maybe U2; Christian movies; Christian books) and dislike (everything else, especially “sold out” formerly Christian bands). It told me how I should vote, and what I should think about people who were different from me. None of that felt particularly like following Jesus to me.
So I let it go, that label, “evangelical.” We couldn’t own each other anymore, evangelicalism and I. We could only look at each other as other followers of Christ, whose strides happened to be very, very different. At least, that’s how I look at them.
This week, I’ve watched as numerous friends and acquaintances said goodbye, farewell, or I just need a break for a while to evangelicalism. The World Vision fiasco was, it seems, the straw that broke the camel’s back. My own exodus was long ago, and I’ve sort of gotten over being surprised when evangelical culture reacts in a way that I find to be awful. But I remember my own grief at leaving, and the uncertainty about what I would be once I let that label go. I had absolutely no idea how easily other categories – Reformed, minister, Christian, human – would take up that space in my life, or how that evangelical identity would continue to rise up in me in surprising and curious ways, causing me to write blog posts twelve years later.
Anyway, my thoughts and prayers are with those of you who are struggling to redefine your relationship with evangelicalism, or with the Church as a whole. We give each other so many reasons to walk away.