I have long defined myself as an evangelical Christian. It seemed to be the best way to say certain things about what I believed, both positively and negatively. This word carries some pretty deep significance historically. And it still carries some really positive meaning for me emotionally in terms of my own training, background and spiritual life. Clearly, in certain circumstances, it still does have some significance for me. But I have decided, at least in the larger world outside of my professional life at Wheaton and in some churches, that I will no longer call myself an evangelical. Why?
1. There is no inherent necessity for using the word as a term of self-description. If it means "gospel-cenered" then I can say that more plainly without using the word itself. If it means that I have a high view of the Bible then my words and actions will show that soon enough.
2. I am further convinced that most non-evangelicals do not have a clue about what I mean when I use this word. For this reason alone I keep asking myself, "Why use it?" This came home to me yesterday in teaching a class of Protestant and Catholic adults at Harper College. As I sought to explain three recent unofficial documents called Evangelicals and Catholics Together my explanation elicited the observation that my class did not understand the term evangelical in the way I was using it. They thought of people like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, etc. They thought of Left Behind and Republican politics. Simply put, they thought of very conservative people who are generally opposed to much of the America they value.
3. Face it, the general understanding of the term evangelical, especially due to its use in the last few elections, makes it a dubious term for self-identification unless you want to be known as an advocate of the Christian Right, which I do not. So I would rather drop the term and explain myself differently. I can use terms like "follower of Christ," "serious Christian," "confessional Christian," or just plain "Christian," though that clearly needs some definition too.
4. Historically, the term evangelical comes from the Reformation. Lutherans were the original evangelicals in the 16th century, at least they were the first group called evangelicals. To this day Lutherans are referred to as evangelicals, thus the use of the term with the denomination called the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a mainline denomination of several million members. Since only a few church insiders know these historical facts I see no inherent value in using the term in a post-Christian context where these origins are unknown to almost everyone.
5. Evangelical, at least as used in my own Wheaton College context, comes from the Protestant awakenings. The evangelicals were the party in the Anglican Church that sought renewal by the Holy Spirit. The term then stuck to all such people committed to awakening by Word and Spirit. Most know next to nothing about these historical awakenings, even inside Protestant churches. I believe another modifier would work better, if a modifier is to be used at all. I have increasingly learned from Catholics that such modifiers are not nearly as important to them as they are to us Protestants. (They do refer to people as "liberal" Catholics and "conservative" Catholics, etc.) I think the reason for this need in our Protestant ranks lies in our fractured identity. We are really not sure who we are at times. We keep splitting over this and that sectarian issue so we need something, like super glue, that holds us together.
6. Many evangelicals are, in actuality, fundamentalists. Thus the term evangelical becomes the new expression for old attitudes and legalisms. The term plainly includes people ranging from the far right to the far left. Finding new ways to explain my beliefs, first to myself, to the church at large, and then to the world, is desirable.
In the end I am not sure at all that I need an adjective like evangelical to explain myself. I would rather let my life incarnate the love of God and the true good news of the gospel and not use labels at all. Labels are generally shorthand ways for cutting off meaningful discussion and learning. You find a label for me and that ends discusison at crucial points. Once you label me you do not need to listen any further or ask questions. As I read the story of Jesus in the Gospels I believe he resisted labels. This left people shaking their heads, wondering what kind of Jew he really was. I think I will try this approach for awhile and see what happens.