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A few weeks back, the ever-eloquent and oft-droll Debra Rienstra stirred up quite a tempest here on The Twelve when she wrote “I Never Was an Evangelical and I Never Want to Be.”
It was her “and I never want to be” that seemed especially to irritate some readers. I’ve never wanted to be Methodist, Bulgarian, or a St. Louis Cardinals fan, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be fine people.
My own relationship with white, American evangelicalism began in the Jimmy Carter era, a time when mainstream America also was introduced to evangelicals via the peanut farmer from Plains. I attended an evangelical college. Before then, I truly have no recollection of ever hearing the word evangelical, even though I grew up in a staunch Christian home. At my college, it felt like you couldn’t go thirty minutes without hearing the word.
As a college student, I began to note some of the obvious differences. My friends were uncomfortable, or at least unfamiliar, when they worshipped at my home church. The pastor wore a robe. We offered written prayers and recited the Apostles’ Creed. I tended to think more in theological concepts (justification, creation, incarnation), while they were more likely to cite a passage from scripture “As it says in Matthew 18…” They were more comfortable and more fluent talking about their religious experiences. This was both admirable and at times grandstanding. They could often cite when and where they had been saved—some, several times! And there was the cultural stuff. Their leaders were still wearing powder blue leisure suits with white loafers.
In the decades that followed, I often kept company with evangelicals. I’ve appreciated many. Not surprisingly, the first and most obvious fault line between evangelicals and me was politics. Still, they had Sojourners, Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, et al. I learned from all of them, even as I also came to sense that at a deeper level we really weren’t that alike.
Anxiety: Motivated or Afraid?
In the last few years, I have concluded that it isn’t politics that separates us, or our cultural and ethnic roots, not even the way we appropriate scripture. It is anxiety. White, American, evangelicals seem self-consumed, self-referential, sometimes nearly narcissistic. They are fidgety.
There is always an unsettledness, a certain dissatisfaction. Some might call it motivation. Others see it as fear. Did I have my quiet time today? Have I witnessed to anyone recently? Am I growing in the Lord? Is Jesus truly the Lord of my life? Is that a book I should read? Is this TV show appropriate? What sins am I struggling with? Where is Satan attacking me? Have I sworn or lusted lately (the answer is always “yes”) and if so, what I am doing about it?
It is fatiguing.
A friend who grew up in a strongly evangelical culture reflected on his experiences. Oddly enough, for him it was the story of Job, and the message that God is God and that we are not, which brought relief.
As a kid, I felt a lot of pressure. The fate of my soul rested on my thoughts and actions. I had to accept Jesus into my heart as Lord and Savior. I did this, but I then had to be sure he stayed there. I had to live the right way, make the right choices. I was supposed to seek out God’s will for my life—my future, my spouse, my career. I tried with all that. But it felt like a lot of weight, especially because I was always worried whether my acceptance of Jesus was genuine, if my thoughts and actions were pure enough, if I had truly found God’s will for my life. So when I heard the message of Job, that God is God so I don’t have to be, it struck me, really for the first time, that I didn’t need to worry so much about all those things that consumed me. Rather than the message of Job making me feel small, I was relieved. I felt free.
Yet Another Declaration
Recently, I have noticed another symptom of this evangelical anxiety—a tendency to generate statements, have a position on, and reactions to everything. What is the evangelical position on…Ukraine…fertility treatments…net-neutrality…medical marijuana…the toy aisle in Target.
It stems from that same fidgetiness. But it can feel pompous and passé. As if there is “the” position on anything anymore. As if the world is waiting with bated breath for evangelicals to weigh in. As if American evangelicals need to know right from wrong, to make pronouncements, to draw straight lines, to inform their fellow believers. As if the 386th attempt to write the next Barmen Declaration will somehow catch fire. And rather than “the evangelical” statement on ________ (fill in the blank), wouldn’t “a Christian” statement be enough?
Somewhere, far below the waterline, American evangelicals and I have some significant differences on sanctification, sin, and human ability. And I am more than aware that my comments and critiques open me to the typical reproaches of reformed believers. Our trust in election or perseverance makes us take God’s love for granted. Reformed believers are blasé and complacent. As a reformed believer, I can honestly and always plead guilty.
Growing older, increasingly I find beauty and take comfort in the Heidelberg Catechism’s questions and answers 114 and 115—here, more or less as I recall them, or have paraphrased them.
Can anyone, even faithful believers in Christ, obey God’s commandments perfectly?
No. In this life, even the most faithful and mature make only a small beginning in obeying God. Nonetheless, with all serious of purpose, we do begin to strive to live according to God’s ways.
If no one can keep God’s commandments, why then does God give us such rigorous commands?
So that the longer we live, more and more, we come to realize our own weaknesses and flaws, but even more to appreciate deeply and rely completely on Christ’s abundant forgiveness and wholeness. Praying to God for the gracious empowering of the Holy Spirit, we never stop seeking to be renewed into the image of Jesus Christ, until after this life we are made whole.