There’s not one verse in the Bible where God says to the church: “and you shall call yourselves, “evangelicals”. Not one. There’s not even a verse for “Christian”. That ancient label was something given to followers of Jesus by their neighbors. (Acts 11.26)
This should at least give us pause as we consider what it means to be “evangelical” today, and what it might mean for tomorrow. Karl Barth famously commented the word should never be used in a denominational sense. (He had his reasons.)
We’re speaking of several things at once when we say “evangelical”. Today, especially in the United States, we need to consider not just what the label stands for theologically, but what it has come to signal politically, socially, and culturally. This “way of life” has also produced its own theology to underwrite this cultural project.
We also need to admit the label is not confined to the United States. Evangelicals exist the world over, even while its associations in United States get exported, too. It’s not as straight forward a phenomena as we might think. Thinking about “evangelical” is so much more than the brands or battles that have come to define the label right now.
Evangelical Brands & Battles
It’s no secret that much of the way we think about and express the Church in America is wrapped up in capitalism. And I’ll confess. I have little desire or energy to do that sort of thing with “evangelical”. And before you write me off as a Marxist, please just ask yourself why “church brands” are even a thing? Logos, slogans, etc. This isn’t just denominational distinctives. I’m talking about churches who present themselves to a community as a brand, with shirts, color palates, logos, etc. I’m simply trying to point out that rebranding as “evangelical” like this is very much an option, it’s a manufactured brand we have convinced ourselves is somehow “spiritual.”
Another way is for a sociologist to look at data, while churches look at dogma, and never talk. And so “evangelical” is either only the stuff of raw data and history, or it’s the only the stuff of pure, true belief. Here, we get lost in translation, and we forget what evangelical is and what it should be, that endless battle of data and dogma, need not be so polarizing. The evangelical cultural project can be mapped sociologically, even as evangelical theology exists a critical distance from those being surveyed. But to say one is a true evangelical and the other is not, on either side, is a sort of dualism that results in constant combat and contestation of the label. For me, I am at least content to say either evangelical Christianity is lived, or it is nothing.
There’s another play in the playbook though. One that seems a bit more grounded in doctrinal issues, but masks political ideology too. At the end of the day, this play is little more than an attempt at gatekeeping, or circling the wagons. What I mean is, there’s a way to fight over the evangelical label as a sort of fundamentalist proxy war. You know, the sort of toddler game with shouts of “No WE are evangelical” is met with “No WE are.” And we pull in our political culture war associations. We try to associate and demonize. This is defining “evangelical” by infighting. And it’s the worst.
What Do You Call That?
The residents of Antioch in the book of Acts could see this new way of life taking root in their city. It was a public way of living together that demanded a description, even if it was somewhat derogatory, a way of “othering” this strange sect. But let me suggest that what “Christian” did for the residents of Antioch was serve as a sociological descriptor. It helped name and “other” a community publicly expressing a theology of the risen Jesus. That was then.
Today, “evangelical” functions as a sociological category: it describes a way of life, be it voting, spending, attending, worshiping, etc. As a category or a label, it will always be contested, subject to change, and subject to new associations. Before 2016, associating an evangelical with Trump would have just meant they liked The Apprentice. Today, Trump and evangelical means something else entirely. But it also signals a vitality by which we embrace and express theology.
Theory of (Evangelical) Relativity
Me? I would only describe myself as an “evangelical” to a stranger in a coffee shop if I had an hour to tell my story. Because I’d want to understand what they think when they hear that word. The likelihood that they’d associate it with racism, abuse, conservatism or even fascism is perhaps more likely than things like Scriptures, baptism, or Jesus. Even worse, they might hear “evangelical” and think racism in Jesus’ name. And let me be clear, some of these associations are true in the sense they describe a way of living in America.
“Evangelical” long ago invaded the American cultural lexicon, such that it no longer can stand either just as a sociological data point or on the other hand as a symbol of some artificially pure theological confession. Historian David Bebbington’s classic quadrilateral definition, of Biblicism, Crucicentrism, Conversionism, and Activism deserves a shout out. “Evangelical” has always been contested theologically and appropriated by socio-cultural ways of life. It’s living, and somewhat relative.
This relativity is one reason why I’m not totally sold on ditching it, namely because it’s always changing. Always up for reconfiguration. But for others, “evangelical” has become a home for a sort of nostalgic traditionalism which actually snuffs out the very vitality which I believe the label can communicate at its best.
“Evangelical” At Its Best
I think the people who can admit a degree of relativity for the label are in the best position to imagine something fresh for the future. Again, less about using this label as a self-justifying power grab as the stewards of all truth, and more as describing way of embodying Christian faith marked by vitality, curiosity, and expectancy. This is just how I’m thinking about the label these days, and so consider this a sort of “in-process-project” where I’m admitting the ways January 6th for example might be considered “evangelical” with another eye on paths that point to a better future.
A new way towards “evangelical” is to think of vitality. Of not just conserving the doctrine and dogma of Protestantism (historically, that’s the stream this label has floated down), but emphasizing and reconfiguring this dogma in fresh expressions with a measure of vitality, of fervor, and life. Perhaps the greatest way we could signal this vitality today is through repentance over the many demonic uses of the label itself.
A new way towards “evangelical” is to think of curiosity. Nothing could be more stifling of theological insight than ideology. Pure ideology declares what is possible from the start. It stifles exploration and flattens plurality of experience into a singularity. Ideology downplays contact with other human beings, claiming a sort of omniscient clarity, that is really no more than blinders. Curiosity on the other hand provokes in us an awareness of our limitations, and an invitation to fresh theological understanding. Evangelical curiosity leads us to engage rather than distort or deflect from differences which might invite fresh theological insights for the church.
A new way towards “evangelical” is to think of expectancy. David Bentley Hart challenged me recently when he said “doctrine is the language of disillusionment.” He wasn’t hating on dogma. What I think he meant was that the apocalyptic fervor of the early church waned as the apostolic generation gave way to the establishment generation, and church history became not just a possibility but a reality. Doctrine is a placeholder pointing to apocalypse, the revelation of Jesus, which should make us expectant in all sorts of ways today.
What Could It Be?
Faith and hope are temporary expressions for the church, but love remains. It’s that expectancy and expression of love which our world, like the residents of Antioch, will need to give an account for. The question is, what have we given to them packaged in the label “evangelical”? It’s at this level where you can rebrand as “evangelical” but lack the love of the gospel, and it won’t matter.
I think we can only imagine “evangelical” at its best when we’re honest about its worst. Honest about faith in power, hope in a majority, and love for ourselves not others. Here, it’s less about applying versions of “No-True-Scotsman” arguments to who is in and who is out.
As always, the world sees the church, and must account for it, in its own language, in our shared moment. “Evangelical” is doing this work right now, for better or worse. But the word originally means “gospel people”, and that gospel is all followers of Jesus are trying to live in, and live out of, not ideally but imperfectly. Revisiting “evangelical” is more about realizing, or recapturing a theological vision of vitality in the church for Christian faith, hope, and love.
We don’t need a battle, we don’t need a brand, but we do need to face the future as gospel people. Call that project “evangelical”, or not. That’s fine. But I know how I’d use it, even as I know how it’s been misused, and maybe that’s worth a conversation instead of contempt.