Wednesday, March 13, 2013

the embarrassing security blanket of my evangelical roots

Evangelicalism is the security blanket of the faith I have been rooted in since childhood. The language and practices of evangelicals used to be a comforting environment, but now seem to strangle me with shame as the evangelical community sits in tatters. Like the preadolescent of my past, I want to distance myself from this piece of my childhood, yet something won't let me cast it off completely. Instead I want to stuff it away into the closet of my faith, so no one will see me with it. Yesterday I had the chance to sit in on a conversation about the future of evangelicalism with Roger Olson and Rachel Held Evans, this story brought a lot of things to the surface of my memory from my own story of evangelicalism. It made me want to sift through that story, and process what brought me to this current place of discomfort, shame and loss. I have links to Olson and Evans blogs below, Roger Olson has an amazing overview of the history of evangelicalism, and Rachel is fantastic! Below is my own story though, my own attempt to sort through this mess, and there are no answers or solutions included. It's not really a rant, more a struggle to understand my discomfort with this term that was such a big part of my identity for so long. I apologize for any christian-eze words or references, that might make you feel left out of this conversation, to borrow from Evans"it's my native tongue".

I would say, that I was raised as an evangelical or at least one type of evangelical, even though some would say because of the denomination I was raised in, Presbyterian of the PCUSA variety, that I was not. To me though, the churches I was a part of and the family I was raised in, embodied the greek root of that word, bringers of the Good News, the Gospel. We were evangelical in that we shared that good news of Jesus and that was the primary focus for us. Roger Olson calls it an evangelical ethos, that has at it's core, Christ and his sacrifice on the cross as central to salvation, a personal relationship with Christ, Biblical authority, and activism as we seek to work out that faith and share Christ through service and restoring justice. I grew up with all of that, around me all the time. My dad held both a masters of divinity and a doctorate, he was a walking concordance.  He shared the Bible with me often, and taught me Calvin's TULIP principles along with the Mickey Mouse Club theme song when I was little (although perhaps both of those things would make me very un evangelical). Both of my parents modeled personal relationships with Christ to me daily, and they certainly embodied the service and generosity that should flow from that faith. Our church often joined with other churches, protestant, catholic, you name the denomination and my dad worked with them. We were very ecumenical. As a youth group we attended ecumenical youth gatherings that included alter calls and the plan of salvation. We went to Billy Graham crusades, and we listened to Christian music. I knew what the 700 Club was and sometimes watched it, we visited the Crystal Cathedral when we went to Disneyland. I was reading Tony Campolo, Brennan Manning, Andy Stanley and Francis Shaeffer in high school for fun.  I lead people through the sinners prayer, did those silent skits about salvation to Michael W. Smith songs, memorized the Romans Road and so much more. I was raised as an evangelical, even though my church ordained women, and we didn't speak in tongues. We may have been a frostier frozen chosen variety, but we were evangelicals, and some of those things, especially what my parents passed on to me, I am very proud of, some of them are embarrassing, but to be honest, they are all a part of who I am today.

It wasn't until I got to Bible college of all places that I started really becoming uncomfortable with that label, and started to feel smothered and embarrassed by it's blanket. Suddenly I was introduced to a different, more exclusive brand of evangelicalism. My baptism as an infant was called into question by one professor, and it was alluded to that perhaps without a "proper adult baptism" I might not have the holy spirit after all. To their credit, the particular Christian college I went to, tried to be non denominational, trained women for the same ministries as men, and when I brought up perseverance of the saints, they sent me not to their own essays, but to exegesis of the scripture. I started to see though that not all evangelicals seemed to be created equally. I also started to feel uncomfortable with these practices of evangelizing. For one class we had to head downtown and go through the romans road or the four spiritual laws with complete strangers. We were taught to look at every opportunity as a chance to share salvation with a stranger. Rachel Held Evans in her presentation yesterday mentioned that she still feels guilty when she sits on a plane and doesn't "witness" to the stranger next to her, and I identify with that a lot. I have a few more years on her though, and my guilt over that particular thing wanes more everyday. I often wondered what good it did to share the story of Jesus with someone then walk away, never to see them again. My differences with what seemed to be mainstream evangelicalism became clearer as I started working with other youth ministers too. I learned that because of my gender and denominational affiliation, I didn't necessarily fit into their evangelical clubs. I might be able to work a youth event with them, but I could never preach in front of their congregation. Luckily not all the men I worked with felt that way, but enough did that  it gave me a distaste for this breed of evangelism.

When I started in ministry I employed many of the typical "evangelical" things, I am embarrassed to say. Looking back now, I can see though that it wasn't the skits and the formulas and the purity pledges that truly impacted the students I worked with.  The good news of Jesus Christ and his love and salvation didn't come through those things as powerfully as they came through my story and the stories my volunteers told of what Christ had done in our lives as we tried to follow him.  We shared our lives with students and we encouraged them to search the scriptures and those things helped shaped their faith. I am afraid the other things created the stumbling blocks that Paul warned us about, and I shudder to think, what they had to unlearn from those other methods, to be able to see Jesus himself more clearly. I even went to Africa and participated in school programs where we gave testimonies and led hundreds through the sinners prayer and possibly to Jesus. We went on state TV in Uganda and performed gospel skits. Now I look at the current state of evangelicalism and Uganda and am ashamed that I might have played a part in it, though I know there was more to that trip, than just those presentations. It seemed in a lot of the things I did in my early years of ministry, we weren't teaching students to think about scripture critically or really count the cost of following Jesus, we were more getting them signed up and following a pattern of behavior. Certainly not everything done in Uganda or in youth groups in those early days was a waste, God can work through anything, as we evangelicals say.  He worked through Balaam's ass after all, he could certainly work through me.

Later I got an even more bitter taste of evangelicalism as I camped in the heart of the Christian music industry. I saw these people that I had looked up to for so many years, that led thousands to Christ every night during mid concert alter calls, treat people like crap behind the stage. I saw artists that  were more humble in their presentation of the gospel, but seemed more authentic in their faith get raked over the coals for not being Christian enough. If your songs didn't all say Jesus at least once, your album might just be returned, especially in the Bible Belt.  The more stereotypically evangelical the crowd, the more haggling for cheaper shirts, or complaints about the Jesus-less track on the cd, there were. It got so bad that at one point I took a sharpie to a T-shirt and wrote, "Jesus had a nail in his hands, not a stick up his butt." I think those tours showed me the best and the worst of the people following this ethos of evangelicalism, and unfortunately the worst were louder.

Today I struggle with the word evangelical, because it invokes more of the bad memories than the good, and it seems to be synonymous today in the media with the very bad, the very bigoted, the very judgmental, the very opposite of Jesus. Those that seem to claim that they are evangelical the loudest also seem to preach a gospel of republicanism, discrimination of gender and sexual preference, materialism. Their message seems so far from the good news of Jesus.

 I wish I could recapture that word. I wish it could mean or be interpreted by society in context of that evangelical ethos that Olson talks about. I was so proud to be a Christian and be a Presbyterian (PCUSA), as we spread the good news in New Orleans and Mississippi after hurricane Katrina, when the Presbytery Disaster Relief was one of the few organizations working hard to restore them in the years following the storm. I was so proud to be evangelical, when it meant sharing my story of faith in Christ and his work in me, when I was washing the feet of a homeless guy with a group of Christians from all different walks of life. I was so proud to be a follower of Jesus when  teens came up to the merch table of my husband's band, with all their piercings and different hair colors and told us that they felt like they belonged when they saw us and listened to the band's music, and they could see that they had a place in the kingdom of God. I felt proud to be evangelical when my husband kept encouraging those same fans through emails and letters for a while, and kept sharing the good news with them for more than just a night. I felt proud to be evangelical, a carrier of the good news, when I saw students feeling safe enough to ask questions, so they could really understand who Jesus was, and what it meant to follow him. I felt really proud to be evangelical when my dad helped churches navigate the waters of the issue of homosexuality with love, respect and dignity for both sides, and he stood as a real example of Jesus love. There are so many things that make me proud of this tradition, yet those things seem to get lost in the tide of  infighting, division, discrimination, tradition, bad teaching, and media missteps of people like Pat Robertson, Mark Driscoll and the people of that infamous Westboro church.

Now at times, I pull my old baby blanket out of the hope chest in the closet, and I show it with pride to my kids. I tell them stories of our adventures together. Sometimes I wrap it around my shoulders.  I hope I will be able to do that with my evangelical roots someday too. I fear being linked to that title, I worry what others will think, what message it will send to them about me, or more importantly, the God I follow. I hope that someday I will be able to reclaim that blanket, and those good things, and the word evangelical will be synonymous with a person following Jesus, sharing the great news of his grace, and salvation for all people.

You can  read Roger Olson's portion of the discussion to learn more of the real history of the evangelical movement here: and check out Rachel's story and her wonderful blog here.

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