Recently I ran across this article in which the renowned author Tony Campolo stated that he no longer wished to be considered an Evangelical Christian. His main reason being that the word Evangelical has taken on too many negative connotations, especially among non-Christians, that continuing to use it would cause more harm than good.
This is a question that I’ve wrestled with myself over the past few years, especially as my faith journey has led me to embrace a number of beliefs that are in great tension with stereotypical Evangelical perspectives. The place that I’ve decided to settle is that despite the many differences, Evangelicals are still my family.
But, as we all know, family is a very messy thing. On my side of the family, my mother and her brother have not been on speaking terms for over a decade over a disagreement over my grandmothers will and the legal battle over it that is still yet to be resolved. Likewise, my wife struggled with an abusive mother and many times we weighed the implications of removing her from our lives, even if that meant distance from her father and sisters as well. Unfortunately cancer made that decision for us, and so my wife and her family were left mourning that sudden and devastating loss, both of a daughter, wife, and mother lost but also any opportunities for reconciliation.
Considering my Evangelical family, Tony is unfortunately not wrong when he said in the above article that, at least in general, “Evangelicals in the United States are anti-environment… If you say you’re an Evangelical you’re anti-gay, you’re anti-women, you’re pro-war…” The extent that Evangelicalism is tied to politics in America is very similar to when Constantine made Christianity the imperial religion of the Roman Empire, and for many people, including myself, that is very troubling. To distance myself from that rhetoric and theologically sanctioned prejudice would definitely make my life easier, and that has often been very tempting to embrace. Yet, at the same time, there still is a lot of beauty and hope within the Evangelical tradition, and to simply walk away may mean missing out on something transformative.
Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to hear Brian McLaren read from his new book The Great Spiritual Migration. During the question and answer portion, he recounted a story about a pastor he knows who was feeling the call of a different form of Christianity than was understood by his church. He wrestled with whether or not he should push his congregation towards that same transformation, but after sitting with it he realized that he didn’t have the desire to stay with the community for the next few years in order to facilitate that change. It’s hard enough to change on your own, but to walk with and guide an entire congregation through the same thing is a difficult calling, and not one to be embraced thoughtlessly. I am glad that pastor recognized his limits and didn’t stir up the pot only to leave. But yet I wonder, when will someone else come along to shepherd that community into change?
That is why I refuse to give up completely on my Evangelical family. While staying connected with my Evangelical brothers and sisters often brings me to deep sadness or fires me up with anger, to move away completely is to lose out on opportunities for dialogue. I respect Tony Campolo’s decision, as I trust that for him it is the only way to stay authentic to his journey. But for me, I cannot give up hope just yet. No matter how much I may disagree with my Evangelical brethren, they are still created in the same Imago Dei as myself, and to cut them out would be to cut out a piece of my own soul.