Not long ago, I asked Tim Keller to give a guest lecture in a university class I teach, in which nearly all the students come from secular backgrounds. Most have no contact with evangelical Christianity other than what they’ve seen in the news. After rehearsing some of the reputational damage evangelicalism had sustained, especially in the post-2016 cultural environment, one student asked, “Why not just get rid of the word evangelical and call yourselves something else?”
Keller deadpanned: “Because most of us are in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and like the word evangelical just fine. North Americans aren’t entitled to choose what we’re called.” I wondered if being called out for a kind of “America first” colonialism would disorient these students, but instead I saw nodding heads and expressions that seemed to say, “Fair enough.” What I saw as most important in that exchange was not the pros and cons of the word evangelical but the subtle and searching use of the word us.
I thought of that exchange as I read Struggling with Evangelicalism: Why I Want to Leave and What It Takes to Stay, a new book from Dan Stringer, an Evangelical Covenant Church pastor and an InterVarsity campus minister at the University of Hawaii. Stringer comes at the subject with wide-ranging connections to American parachurch evangelicalism (he’s a graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Seminary, for instance). His publisher bio describes him as “a third culture kid” who grew up “in five countries on three continents,” while the book jacket speaks of a “lifelong evangelical who happens to be a biracial Asian/White millennial.”
Owning our baggage
The book begins with Stringer establishing his evangelical bona fides—though not in the sense of Paul’s “of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews” self-depiction in Philippians 3:5. Stringer instead clarifies that he is not an exvangelical turning his back on the movement. Unlike those rattled, say, by the 2016 election or the sexual abuse scandals, Stringer admits to having been conflicted about evangelicalism from the start.
As someone who came to evangelicalism from a United Church of Christ background while living outside of a North American context, Stringer notes that, in some ways, he was never a natural fit. And yet despite that—or maybe because of it—he quickly immersed himself in evangelical culture, from McGee and Me! tapes to DC Talk and Audio Adrenaline albums.
Stinger refers to evangelicalism as his mother, describing his resemblance to the hatchling in the P. D. Eastman book Are You My Mother? “Not only was I searching for evangelicalism,” he writes, “I was searching for myself.” That search goes on, with an ambivalence that combines love for the movement with distress at what significant parts of it (at least in the United States) have become.
Readers shouldn’t expect a treatise directed toward those tempted to walk away from Jesus or advice on continuing to love Jesus while exiting the church. Instead, this book mainly addresses the kinds of questions my non-Christian students were asking—questions touching on the confusion increasingly felt by evangelical Christian students (and their parents) all over the country. Why would someone embrace a designation that can describe both John Perkins and Paula White, both Jim Wallis and Robert Jeffress, both Kenneth Copeland and Shane Claiborne, both TBN and TGC?
Stringer’s argument here is unique and compelling. He does not seek to wage a “war for the soul of evangelicalism,” deeming some as winners and exiling the rest. Nor does he seek to argue that “real” evangelicals are better than the hucksters and heretics who get so much media attention. Instead, Stringer argues that abandoning the word evangelical amounts to a denial of responsibility. This is because he understands evangelicalism as a kind of “common space.”
“Once we re-envision evangelicalism” this way, he writes, “we start noticing how its well-being impacts residents.” He likens the evangelical space to a neighborhood with increasing crime rates or a water system contaminated with poison, arguing that we can’t wave away charges of corruption by pointing back to some idealized version of ourselves. Refusing the evangelical label, he contends, is refusing to “own our baggage.”
Stringer defines the evangelical space doctrinally (through markers like the Bebbington quadrilateral) and sociologically (with reference to Kristin Du Mez’s writings on white evangelicalism as primarily cultural). But his definition also lumps in aspects seemingly so trivial that we often pass them by (knowing what a “hedge of protection” is, for example). While it’s true that evangelicalism often assumes a cultural identity rather than a theological identity, one wonders whether this “splitting”—especially by sociologists and historians—is all that accurate. After all, even when a shared theology is virtually absent (few are discussing justification by faith while waiting to be baptized by Benny Hinn at the Jordan River stop on the Holy Land tour), at least some theological continuity is assumed.
Stringer is right that we evangelicals bear responsibility, at least to some degree, for the confused state of the word. After all, for a long time we have counted on defining it as broadly as possible for various strategic reasons. Sometimes, the goal is maintaining cultural influence. The Religious Right’s “moral majority” branding sought to portray the “real America” as an America of born-again believers and values-voting fellow travelers, thus implying that the nation’s “secular humanism” was the result of a tiny minority of coastal elites frustrating the will of the people.
At other times, the objective is furthering our evangelistic witness by showing that following Christ might be countercultural but not crazy. We might embrace our image as “Jesus Freak” outsiders, but we also love pointing to business leaders, Hollywood actors, and politicians who claim membership in our movement. (In some ways, this mentality—“Look how many of us there are!”—harkens back to the practice at some evangelistic crusades of “priming the pump.” During the altar call, trained volunteers would leave their seats and walk to the front, hoping to convince the hesitant that it was safe to join in.)
Confused understandings of evangelicalism also encourage us to point to large numbers of fellow evangelicals around the world, but without wondering how much commonality there really is between an Anglican in Sydney and a prosperity-gospel Pentecostal in Quito. We can hardly maintain this sort of “open borders” approach to evangelicalism as a means of demonstrating our bigness while protesting when people keep lumping us in with those we consider foreigners to Zion.
While Stringer is perceptive in discussing evangelicalism’s present baggage, he is less clear on how, precisely, we ought to own it. Suppose we recognize the harm done by toxic forms of evangelicalism—what then? The Roman Catholic Church could, if it wanted, excommunicate the bishops and priests who have sullied the church’s name. But evangelical movement can’t do that—unless by “excommunicate” we mean exerting our energies in the arenas of public relations and media to deny the evangelical label to those who use it in ways we believe harmful.
However we presume to set these boundaries, what makes us think those on the losing side would willingly hold themselves accountable to anything dictated by the victors? That would bring us right back to the course Stringer rightfully rejects as unproductive: shedding the word evangelical to avoid being tainted by a compromised brand—or, even worse, just giving up and providing cover for those who wish to use the gospel as a vehicle for political mobilization, financial grifting, or ethno-nationalist populism.
Moreover, Stringer argues persuasively that opting out of evangelicalism is itself an aspect of majority-culture privilege. After all, he notes, when Muslims and Mormons face scandal or stereotypes, they can’t just change their name to boost their favorability ratings. He rightly observes that a refusal to be named “evangelical” can easily fall back into the fundamentalist assumption that only we are true Christians. And from there, it’s only a short step to dissolving any boundaries between being a Christian and being “one of us.”
Stand and stay
“Make no mistake: there’s a big mess to clean up in American evangelicalism,” Stringer writes, “but it starts with admitting we live here.” As he explains it, that means being aware of both the strengths of our evangelical heritage (which he appreciates without resorting to PR-style spin) and our sins (which he describes without delving into cynicism). And while declining the exvangelical option himself, he models compassion and empathy for the leavers.
While most of Stringer’s suggestions for renewal are compelling, a couple seem better suited to the United Church of Christ than evangelicalism. This includes changing the lyrics of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” to be more gender inclusive. We have many examples of evangelical men mistreating and ignoring women; fixating on Charles Wesley feels like a case of misplaced priorities.
I wonder, too, if Stringer expects too much of evangelicalism, which is ultimately a generic descriptor, not a covenant body. After all, the church—not evangelicalism—is our mother. Maybe evangelicalism can be, at best, a very good teacher, sending us back home to Mother in the afternoon but never trying to replace her.
That said, Stringer’s book offers a hopeful charge to evangelicals (whatever they want to be called) to stand and to stay, to cultivate the evangelical shared space, and to leave it better than we found it. To that, I find myself, like my students, nodding and saying, “Fair enough.”
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.
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