Q & R: Why are you evangelical?

Here’s the Q:

I appreciate your person and work, but why are you still an evangelical, emergent or not?

Here’s the R:

That’s a fascinating question, and one I can’t do full justice to beyond making a few comments:

1. I tried to answer this question in a chapter of A Generous Orthodoxy.
2. I grew up in a fundamentalist-evangelical background. That’s simply a fact of my biography. For good (I learned to read and love the Bible from an early age, I understood Christian faith in terms of personal commitment not just status or heritage, I was given a bias towards faith-inspired action) and for not-so-good (there was a lot of guilt, us-versus-them thinking, fear of being rejected, and simplistic reading of the Bible), I am who I am because of my evangelical heritage.
3. I’ve evaluated some dimensions of my inherited evangelicalism and found them wanting, but other dimensions mean more to me than ever; I think every evangelical would say the same thing. We’re all in the process of inheriting and adapting our inheritance so that what we pass on to future generations is a continually-enriched treasure.
4. Why would I “leave” evangelicalism and formally disavow it? A. Because I think I’m better than other evangelicals? That’s simply not true. I’m a limited, frail, in-need-of-much-grace child of God like everyone else, evangelical or not. B. Because I don’t like evangelicals or think they’re important? That’s simply not true. I love evangelicals, just as I love Roman Catholics, Mainline Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, etc. I love them and think they’re important. C. Because evangelicals don’t want me around? It’s true that some don’t want me around – and on their behalf, in light of 1 Cor. 13:5 (love is not rude), I have often considered leaving. But others do want me around, and if I were to leave, I would be hurting them. So I haven’t felt I should break solidarity with the ones who appreciate my work, even though that would please those who don’t. Doing so would put the former in an even worse position, while putting the latter in an even stronger position. D. As an act of protest? I’ve considered this too, because there is much to protest. But by doing so, I would really be protesting the outrageous statements and strident behavior of a few popular evangelical leaders. By allowing them to represent all of evangelicalism, I would be empowering them. By staying, I hope I am saying, “Those voices don’t define evangelicalism. They certainly represent a powerful and vocal part of it, but there are other quieter and less strident evangelical voices who are no less evangelical, and this part of the heritage shouldn’t be discounted.”
5. Every group to some degree defines itself in opposition to others. Because of my commitment to Christ, I don’t want to define myself as anyone’s enemy. That means that whatever group I would be identified with, I would be in some tension with it … I would be in it, but not against its enemies. I can do that within evangelicalism as much as anywhere else.
6. So my approach has been to remain in solidarity with evangelicals because that’s my heritage, but I haven’t allowed that heritage to turn me into a partisan – for my heritage and against everyone else. Instead, from within my heritage, I’ve tried to build relationships of equal solidarity with others, including others who have been considered enemies by most of my fellow evangelicals. This has felt to me like a good and right thing to do as a follower of Christ, even when it has put me into some difficulty.
7. Even though this has been my approach, I don’t judge others who have made other choices – to disassociate as an act of protest, to disassociate to maintain their mental/emotional/spiritual health, etc. I periodically have to reevaluate my decision, so my evangelical affiliation remains a matter of personal choice and conscience, and I may answer this question differently in five or ten years.
8. Every group evolves. Some contract, some expand, some grow, some retrench … and evangelicalism seems to be in a contraction/boundary-maintenance phase now in many quarters. That may result in my being rejected and excluded by evangelicalism at some point, although evangelicalism has been (un)structured in such a way that it’s hard to figure out who has the authority to do so. But the opposite may occur as well: the more fundamentalist wing of evangelicalism my separate itself as an act of protest, judging the rest of us too impure/liberal/etc. If that happens, the evangelicalism of twenty years from now could be very different.
9. Here’s my hope: that a convergence continues to strengthen among progressive Roman Catholics, progressive Evangelicals, missional Mainline Protestants, and forward-thinking sectors of the African-American, Asian, Latino, and other churches. In that grass-roots, bottom-up convergence – which Phyllis Tickle describes so well in The Great Emergence – I think a new Christian identity takes shape that includes and transcends our current labels. That, of course, is what I envision in A New Kind of Christianity, something bigger than but inclusive of whatever kind of evangelical I am.
10. In the end, my identity is “in Christ” – and that’s not the same thing as “in evangelicalism” or even “in Christianity.” By rooting my identity “in Christ,” I believe I am in solidarity with all people, especially the last, the least, the lost, the outcast, the outsider, the scapegoat, and the marginalized. So it doesn’t matter much to me what labels people apply to me. Through the mystery and miracle of incarnation that we celebrate in Advent, I believe we see God in solidarity with all humanity (and all creation). And through that incarnation, I too am bound up in solidarity with all people, whatever labels are applied to or withheld from them.

Well, those few comments expanded a bit beyond what I anticipated, but I hope this makes some sense and is a helpful response to your question.