(RNS) – My unsolicited suggestion for younger evangelical Christians and those young in spirit: Period to lose the label “evangelical.”
As a veteran communications person and a article writer who has done copious research on evangelicals, I am convinced that “evangelical” no more means what it once did. And for the Jesus-following religious persons it’s supposed to describe, it’s carrying out even more harm than good.
That primary and intended meaning, of course, was “very good news”: the good thing of the gospel and the life-transforming ability of Jesus. Those who promoted and embraced the word were motivated in part by the desire to separate themselves from the scowling visage of the fundamentalists, who in no way resided up to the “fun” in their name.
Evangelicals were the theological conservatives who all smiled, engaged the customs, and were happy to share their faith.
However the label and reputation became marred over decades of culture-war politics and an often-hostile relationship with the rest of the culture over divisive social issues – issues on which today’s younger evangelicals often have a different take than their elders.
What was damaged is becoming irreparably broken during the period of Donald Trump’s plan and presidency, obscuring the living of an incredible number of nonstereotypical evangelicals who are not white, or not anti-gay, or not anti-environment, or not anti-social justice, rather than automatically Republican.
Today and probably for a long time to come, “evangelical” communicates a political fact greater than a religious identity: the actual fact that 81 percent of white colored evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, and that many of evangelicalism’s most prominent leaders have wholeheartedly embraced him and his presidency.
The point here is not to enhance the barrage of liberal criticism of Trump and his supporters. It really is, somewhat, to worry about the position of evangelicals, and Christians even more broadly, outside the 30-something-percent-of-the-public bubble where in fact the president can carry out no wrong.
Offered how things have eliminated in Washington and the historically high public disapproval ratings that have followed, this dynamic has not been an excellent advertisement for Jesus.
To most of the others of Americans, the general public face of evangelicals has turned into a snarl, not really a smile. And the prospect of getting together with them is the opposite of “very good news.”
These are the reasons why more evangelical persons and agencies are ditching the label these days, or at least shying from it.
In a Christianity Today survey taken after previous year’s election, a third of evangelical pastors said they sensed less comfortable identifying as evangelical around non-Christians than they did before the election.
One ex-evangelical, the article writer Amy Julia Becker, laments how the label has taken about an exclusively white colored and politically conservative meaning. She writes: “For persons like me who have identified our edition of Christianity as evangelical but who don’t wish our religious identity to signify political or racial identity: What should we carry out now?”
Becker decided to stop identifying due to evangelical, opting instead for “Christian.”
In a similar vein, the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship at Princeton University announced earlier this fall it was changing a name it had been using for more than 80 years. It’s right now the Princeton Christian Fellowship.
“We’re enthusiastic about being persons who are defined by our faith commitments rather than by any kind of political agenda,” explained the group’s director, Expenses Boyce.
Also losing the label are prominent academics and writers such as for example Scot McKnight and David Gushee. McKnight, a seminary professor and prolific author, wrote in Patheos that it’s time to “bury” the term, adding, “Allow political evangelicals have (it).” Gushee, a Christian ethics professor and theology center director, announced found in the planting season he was abandoning not merely the word however the religious community itself, in part as a result of its rejection of LGBT persons.
To be certain, some non-Trumpian evangelicals are vowing to retain the term and struggle for restoration of its original nonpolitical meaning.
Evangelical author and activist Ron Sider believes the word is still essential to distinguish theological conservatives just like himself from Christians with more liberal beliefs about God. “As time passes,” writes Sider, the president emeritus of Evangelicals for Community Action, “we are able to help the larger contemporary society come to a much better understanding of what an evangelical is normally.”
Maybe. And maybe persons like retired Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw will find lots of company in their commitment to retain the term “evangelical” and struggle for the reclamation of its religious meaning.
But offered the baggage it’s taken about, the term is probably not salvageable. Your time and effort to redeem it is probably not worthwhile the cost in time and energy.
Not to imply faith and evangelism are actually primarily a public relations gambit. But Christians focused on sharing the gospel have to communicate effectively. That means avoiding terms that fail to register with listeners or, worse yet, repel them. Old-college Christianity has plenty of problematic jargon of the sort.
Propositions like “God has a plan for your life” and “being salt and light” mean nothing at all to the growing amount of people not steeped found in church culture.
The term “evangelical” is even more problematic. The difficulty isn’t too little meaning but too much meaning of the bad variety – and therefore is inaccurate when it comes to the newer generation of evangelicals. Why should they need to carry that burden?
It’s not a concern of losing their faith. But for the sake to be properly understood, it’s time for a new label for the kind of faith practiced by younger evangelicals – a faith whose public expression bears little resemblance to the bad stereotypes now set in the public mind.
Or maybe zero label at all, other than simply “Christian.”
(Tom Krattenmaker is a good writer specializing in religion in public life and communications director at Yale Divinity College. He is the author of, among other literature, “The Evangelicals You Don’t Know: Introducing another Era of Christians.” The views expressed in this view piece do not always reflect those of Religious beliefs News Service.)