The Common Good

Caryn Rivadeneira answers, "What is an Evangelical?"

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On my first day as an editor at Marriage Partnership magazine, I slipped into my office, pulled the pocket door closed and grabbed the phone.

While my dad, who had built a fine career in human resources, was used to my first-day-of-work calls -- asking about insurance and IRS forms -- he was not used to the question I lobbed at him that day.

"Dad," I whispered, glancing back toward the door, "am I an evangelical?"

When he asked why on earth I wanted to know, I told him that because now that I was editing a magazine whose audience was evangelical Christians, I figured I should be able to understand our readership -- and I at least know if I were one of them.

So my dad -- who'd been raised Lutheran, who was "born again" in his early 30s, and joined a Christian Reformed church shortly after -- offered his answer. He said if I were someone who accepted Jesus as her Savior, who had an actual conversion experience and who wanted to tell others the "Good News," then I was an evangelical.

Although all these things were true of me in some way, I still wondered. Although I had grown up in a Christian home, gone to church all my life, attended a Christian school and even a Christian college, the word "evangelical" wasn't part of our language. Or at least, I never remembered it being so.

Evangelicals had always seemed like the "other" Christians. They were the ones who didn't celebrate Advent or baptize babies. They were the ones who went colleges that required pledges not to drink, smoke or dance. They were the ones who frowned upon evolution or "free-thinking."

As a child of the 1970s and '80s, I saw evangelicals as politically and socially conservative -- ever skeptical of culture and worried about what we were reading and watching. They bobbed for apples at "Harvest" parties instead of trick-or-treating on Halloween. They were the ones telling Kevin Bacon he couldn't be footloose and fancy free -- or maybe those were "fundamentalists." Did it matter? Was there even a difference?

Either way, I couldn't believe that I could be one of them. Especially since few of the things I understood evangelicals to be were part of my Christian tradition. And even though I agreed with the definition my dad offered, I couldn't reconcile my impression of evangelicalism with who I was.

That is, until one day when a friend called me out. He called me a bigot, to be exact. He said my view of evangelicals was based 100-percent on stereotypes, on media and pop culture perceptions, and not on relationships or truth. This was, he said, the definition of bigotry.

I cringed when he said that, but his point was well taken. My view of evangelical Christianity had been bigoted -- especially since I had probably been one all along, whether I used the word or not.

Thirteen years later -- all this time editing or writing for an evangelical audience, making more and more evangelical friends along the way -- I've learned that evangelicalism is in many ways useless as a label.

Yes, being evangelical does mean Jesus died for the "complete remission of our sins," and that somewhere along a twisty-and-turny life journey, a person chooses to believe this and wants others to know the amazing grace Jesus offers.

But being evangelical doesn't -- or shouldn't -- mean anything about voting patterns, views on TV shows or reading material, feelings about dancing or drinking or women in the workplace. Being evangelical doesn't tell much about your views on science or progress or Halloween. Evangelicals come in all stripes and shapes and personalities and points of view.

Since giving our lives to Jesus and following him faithfully mean our lives will look quite different, being evangelical means that we'll disagree on issues and problems and solutions -- because we each have different experiences and roads we're traveling on.

God uses our different roads to make us think and feel different -- to be different -- to get more of God's work done. To love more people, to help more people, and, frankly, to evangelize more people..

Part of what makes God so good is that all kinds of people are called to and used for God's work, to spread the word about The Word -- the really Good News.

Today, I'm proud to call myself an evangelical Christian. I may not vote or think or shop the way some assume I will because I'm evangelical, but that's OK. I'll still want them to know Jesus loves them.

caryn-rivadeniera2011Caryn Rivadeneira is the author of Grumble Hallelujah: Learning to Love Your Life Even When It Lets You Down and a regular contributor to Christianity Today's Her.Meneutics blog. Visit Caryn at www.carynrivadeneira.com

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