Saturday, July 26, 2008
Many people have responded to this with a shift in terminology. They see that calling themselves evangelical and even Christian has a negative association that they want to distance themselves from and so they come up with new terms like "follower of Jesus" or even "follower in the way of Jesus" (that's FITWOJ for short, very catchy indeed). Others have left evangelicalism for the orthodox church, the mainline church, the catholic church, the emergent church, and so on. I never felt I could do that. As much as I struggled with it, I felt that this embarrassing family was, like it or not, my own family. It was my home, and I felt inauthentic anywhere else. Yet I did not feel at home in my dysfunctional evangelical family either, kind of like how many of us feel at our own biological families over the holidays when we cringe at the awful things uncle Larry says.
I have tried putting a good face on evangelicalism by my own witness, trying to broaden people's view of what it means to be evangelical, showing them that it can be thoughtful and compassionate. The basic line I took - and I think it is one an awful lot of people take - is that yes there are a few wackos out there that give us all a bad name, angry hurtful people with a pulpit and a TV camera, but the vast majority of us are really pretty loving people. "On the whole evangelicalism is good," I would argue, "it's just a few bad apples". I don't think I can get off that easy now. I think there are many things that are fundamentally wrong with my own evangelical faith, places where we have strayed from the Gospel and become idolatrous in adopting values of our country and culture that are diametrically opposed to the Gospel and what Jesus stood for. I could string out a laundry list of these, and I'm sure you could too. I don't want to defend that or even white wash it.
So I am post-evangelical. Not 'post' in the sense of being 'anti' evangelical or 'past' evangelical. I still very much affirm all the core beliefs of evangelicalism - I am an evangelical. But I think our faith needs to reform itself back into a faith that authentically arises directly out of the Gospel. A big part of that recovery of an authentic evangelicalism has been in looking at my own church heritage and history. Like most evangelicals my understanding of the last 2000 years of church history used to look something like this:
Book of Acts . . . . . . . . . Luther . . . . . . . . . now.
What I found though as I studied history is that my own evangelical faith has a rich tradition beginning with German pietism, continuing into Methodism and the First and Second Great Awakenings, and then into Pentecostalism - not only of stressing the importance of being transformed through a vibrant relationship with God, but also of a deep commitment to social justice and the poor. For hundreds of years loving Jesus and caring for the poor were inseparable. That's not to say that these 'golden years' of evangelicalism were without their own problems of course. I don't want to idealize the past. But I have found that understanding more about where we have come from can help us to figure out where we should be going now, and what authentically following Jesus might look like in our time.
For me being post-evangelical (or if you prefer new-evangelical) means that I affirm that I am an evangelical, and at the same time that my own evangelical faith has in many ways taken a major wrong turn and seriously needs to deeply seek out what radically loving and following Jesus might look like.
I remember when I first visited Germany we were at the Gedaechniskirche in the center of Berlin. This is a church that has been deliberately left as it was after the war - a huge gaping hole ripped into it by a bomb - as a remembrance of Germany's role in WWII. I remember speaking to the pastor of that church and him asking me to forgive him and his people for what they had done. I was taken aback at first since this pastor could not have been more than 4-years-old when it all happened. Yet there he was, taking responsibility for the deeds of his own people, and repenting in the midst of that war-torn cathedral. I hope I can be a bit like him now, because I am an evangelical, and I need to ask your forgiveness.