I think an evangelical is someone who believes Jesus is the Son of God, that the Word of God is true, and that we all need redemption from this fallen word. There's other theology I could throw in, but it's pretty boiler-plate. And I believe it all, wholeheartedly.
However, I would rarely, if ever, label myself as an evangelical. Or to put a finer point on it, I might admit it if you held a gun to my head and forced me to sing the books of the New Testament ... which just might give me away as an evangelical.
My discomfort with the word “evangelical” goes way back. To when I was five, to be exact. That’s when my parents helped start a church 20 minutes outside of our small town in North Carolina that was an “Evangelical Bible Church.” It meant that none of the friends on my street went there. And as I got older, it meant that I never went to the cool churches in town that had sleepovers and listened to rock music.
At my church, we had junior high Bible studies encouraging us to pray for our future husbands. That my Bible Study leader had done this and ended up with a husband with hair on his back didn’t inspire my bitter adolescent self.
My discomfort continued when I graduated from Wheaton College and entered the work world. My colleagues would ask where I had gone to school, and inevitably say, “Oh, is that the weird place where you can’t drink or dance? And don’t they have a wax figure of Billy Graham?” And I would mutter something about how actually, it was the Harvard of Christian Colleges … and we were allowed to square dance.
The labeling continued. When I applied for a job at CNN in the 90s, and told the interviewer that I had interned with an evangelical magazine called Christianity Today, his response was, “If it’s Christian, it isn’t journalism.”
Over the years that expanded to, “If it’s evangelical, it’s Republican, or Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, the tea party, wrapped in a patriotic flag, white people, derivative, cheesy music, big money, big hair.” Fill in the rest of the blanks.
Are those labels a distortion of what it means to be an evangelical? Of course they are. Yet they are how evangelicals are perceived, rightly or wrongly (I personally think it’s a mixture of both), in our society.
I understand the desire to reclaim the word “evangelical” and redefine it for the new millennium. Yet I don’t feel motivated to reclaim this particular label for myself. I’d honestly rather be criticized for trying to follow Jesus than for things that don’t represent who I am or what I believe. I don’t follow Jesus particularly well, but I follow him sincerely.
Years ago, my one evangelical producer friends, Jan, was walking by a group of young hipsters we worked with, and they were making fun of those “crazy Jesus freaks.” She just smiled and said, “Oh, I’m a Jesus Freak!” And walked on while their mouths hit the floor.
I’ve always loved that.
Linda Midgett is an Emmy Award-winning television producer and documentary filmmaker. She currently works for Investigation Discovery and is married with two children, though she did not pray for her husband in junior high. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.