By Bob Turner
I’ve heard it. You’ve heard it. We’ve all heard it.
People don’t want to be part of an Evangelical church.
They are bothered by what they see online, and embarrassed at the behavior of some Evangelical leaders. They’ve had enough. They want out.
In response to this, people occasionally ask me a simple question: Are we an Evangelical church?
Though I hate to get into semantics, I usually respond with a discussion of word meanings: I guess it depends what you mean by Evangelical.
“Evangelical” comes from the Greek word for “gospel.” Evangelicals are the ambiguous group formerly known in popular culture as “born-again Christians.” They are one of three major Christian groups in North America, along with Catholics and Mainline Protestants. The National Association of Evangelicals define an evangelical as a person with : a personal conversion, an active faith, a high view of Scripture, and an emphasis on the crucifixion as a means to redemption. The Evangelical Theological Society requires members to adhere to two claims: the inerrancy of the entire Bible and the definition of God as a Trinity. Many Christians appreciate these two claims but do not use identical language. Some Christians hold that God is three persons (Mt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 6:11), but do not use the word Trinity. Likewise, some believers affirm that “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16), and insist on a high view of Scripture, but do not use the word “inerrancy” since it carries baggage from debates on faith and science or biblical historicity.
One reason I’m reluctant to say Churches of Christ are Evangelical is that we have never talked this way (many don’t even know how to pronounce the word). I never heard my devout, 100% Church of Christ parents call themselves Evangelicals, nor did I ever hear the word in any sermon of my childhood. Most Churches of Christ would be grieved if you told them you had visited a local Evangelical church and planned on implementing its theologies of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or the second coming.
But these theological reasons are probably not why people ask me if White Station is Evangelical. Instead, they are asking a cultural question about where White Station sees itself within the culture wars of the United States. They are asking if we are part of the politicized group that they see on Twitter. They are likely asking about the three major cultural divides that have recently affected Christianity: the popularity of Donald Trump among Evangelicals (estimates show that 75% of white Evangelicals voted for Trump in 2020), the tolerance of abuse in Evangelical churches and parachurch organizations (Mark Driscoll, Ravi Zacharias, Bill Hybels), and the perception that Evangelical churches resist racial justice.
One reason the term Evangelical has exploded during the past six years is the perception that Evangelicals won the White House for Donald Trump. This might be true, but who is an Evangelical? Ryan Burge at Eastern Illinois University suggests that over 25% of self-identified Evangelicals say they attend church seldom or never. Burge uses this and other evidence to argue that the word Evangelical is no longer a religious description; it is a political identification. It describes a person who says they believe in God, the Bible, American values, and freedom, but does not necessarily mean they attend an Evangelical church, or any church at all. Identifying as an Evangelical might not mean a person is a Christian; it might only mean they used to be one.
But back to the original question: Are we an Evangelical church?
First, I guess it depends which church you are at. I’m at White Station in Memphis, so I’ll answer for us.
Do we believe in personal salvation? Yes, we believe that we must make a response of faith to God to receive the benefits of Jesus’s atoning death (Jn. 1:29; 1 Jn. 2:2). But we also believe that salvation is not limited to the personal conversion experience and is used throughout Scripture as God’s salvation from harm and brokenness (Ps. 11:14, 21).
Do we hold a high view of Scripture? Yes, without question. But while we hold a high view of the trustworthiness of Scripture, we approach it humbly. We recognize that it does not answer all of our questions, and is not suited to settle our modern debates. The Bible never fails; but its interpreters do frequently.
As for the prickly culture wars, we have no interest in joining movements that elevate political agendas while hurting people. The earliest Christians actively fought hunger, illness, and the exposure of infants in their communities. Yet they did not bend a knee to the empire; in fact, they opposed it (Acts 17:6-7). They knew their true citizenship was in heaven (Phil. 3:20).
As a church, we do not align with a specific political agenda. We do not endorse candidates or take sides. We have no king other than Jesus. This is not because we do not care about political matters, as some relate to God’s agenda in the world. Instead it is due to a theme that is evident in ancient Israel, Constantine’s Christianity, the Crusades, and America during the Civil War. When politics and religion meet, the result is not pretty. The mixture of politics and religion always produces politics.
We are firmly committed to denouncing the abuse of power, whether by individuals or by groups. We value the image of God in all people. We have strict policies for the protection of youth in our ministries. We do not tolerate any abuse.
As a church, we try not to privilege the White experience over other experiences. We believe racial justice matters to God because race has been used as a tool to devalue others and divide the people of God. We are a multicultural church and desire to be an even more multicultural church.
In the end, what we say about ourselves doesn’t matter as much as how others experience us. I hope people who are burnt out on church would give a place like White Station a chance. They might be surprised at what they find.
They might find that what they experience in hospitality contradicts what they’ve read in the headlines.
They might find a commitment to service, reconciliation, and justice that surpasses any other volunteer group they belong to.
They might find people who welcome them when they are alone, comfort them when they hurt, and forgive them when they fail.
They might find that the world can be influenced through a group of imperfect, politically-diverse, multicultural, economically-stratified people that God has redeemed and called the church.
They might call that good news.