Grappling with an Evangelical Identity.

When I was growing up, I can’t say I ever identified as an ‘evangelical.’ ‘Pentecostal,’ absolutely. But ‘evangelical’? It just wasn’t a familiar or even a relevant term to me. As a child, I didn’t quite understand how I fit in with the larger body of Christians around me; while I felt a strong identity to fellow Pentecostals, I had no idea how I connected with the Baptists down the street, the Lutherans across town, or the many Catholics in parishes all over the south suburbs of Chicago.

In college, too, denominations other than my Pentecostal tradition seemed a bit ‘foreign’ to me. Since I grew up in this denomination, I thought that any understanding outside this denomination was lesser-than (particularly regarding the Holy Spirit), that is until I discovered Anglicanism (I’ll write about this journey some other time). In Anglicanism, I found a tradition that delighted in being part of the Church universal, joined to all Christians past, present, and future. When I learned the Nicene Creed, I began to feel connected to the Church – its baggage, yes, but also its beauty. And while I’ve maintained my Pentecostal identity even in my transition to Anglicanism, exposure to both denominations has made me increasingly appreciative of the diverse body of Christ.

And that’s when I decided to go to an interdenominational seminary. I longed to know more about other traditions. I had many questions, such as: “What makes Presbyterians distinct?” or “Do we really need to sacrifice Catholic spiritual disciplines in our pursuit of Protestantism?” or “Can the Holy Spirit actually inspire the hearts of believers whose mouths haven’t been filled with tongues?” In my seminary classrooms, I began to gain answers to these deep heart questions, answers that led to my conclusion: I really am part of the Church universal.

In Protestantism (or at least in the circles of Protestantism I’m in), a popular categorization of this community is ‘evangelical.’ Honestly, I hadn’t heard this term until seminary. Like I mentioned before, the term was never on my radar. When I learned it, I essentially assumed I was one. After all, if I can be part of a cross-denominational categorization of Christians, shouldn’t I jump right in?

After all, in its purest definitional form, ‘evangelical‘ highlights Scriptural authority, salvation through proclaiming Jesus Christ alone as LORD, and answering Jesus’ Great Commission to share the Gospel to all who do not know him. Check, check, and check. I believe all three of these things. So, I gladly put on the warm and cozy coat of evangelicalism, wearing it proudly as a sign of my devotion to such beliefs.

But then the election hit. In the news, I heard the term ‘evangelical’ being thrown around, inseparably connected with allegiance to the President (then candidate). Suddenly, the term ‘evangelical’ carried indescribable heaviness for me. The evangelicals supporting the President did not represent me. While I absolutely value the sanctity of life (on all levels), I felt like my Christian faith – and my deeply held conviction that Scripture is the authoritative word of God – were completely incongruent with the President’s views – as well as evangelicals touting the belief that morality had now returned to the country with his becoming leader of the United States (more thoughts on that here). I took off the coat of evangelicalism and hung it up in my closet, not discarding it just yet, but not sporting it so proudly anymore.

In recent weeks of my hospital ministry, I’ve learned that the term ‘evangelical’ carries more weight than I even personally realized. To some, ‘evangelical’ means pushy. To others, it means intolerant and inconsiderate. Still to others, its roots are closely tied to fundamentalism. This label carries some serious baggage. How ironic that a term used to describe Gospel-sharing individuals has actually become a barrier to the actual sharing of Good News.

Thus, I’ve come to some conclusions in my life, in my everyday ministry:

(1) It’s not my role to defend evangelicals. No, my role as a Christ-follower is to embody His love and light to those around me. And I will refuse a title or a label that prevents others from seeing Christ more fully. I am a disciple of Christ alone. And if others cannot know I’m a Christian by my love, I have failed.

(2) While I love my brothers and sisters in Christ, we are a family, not a non-profit organization or a political action committee or a coalition. I will not be a politicized Christian who is known by my candidate endorsements or speculative eschatology.

(3) Evangelicalism can sometimes seem like such an exclusive subculture that even if an individual were to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, I honestly think it would be hard for them to distinguish between following Christ and learning the culture of ‘evangelical ways and decorum.’

(4) I will gladly take off the coat of ‘evangelicalism’ and will send it straight off to the thrift store if my doing so will help others see God’s love more fully in my life. After all, it’s summertime.

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