I occupy a strange place between cultures. Not the international cultures of my childhood spent as a missionary kid living around the world, but between two sub-cultures here in modern America. I am a rare breed of evangelical that doesn’t live in a bubble of Christian culture. Quite the opposite. I live and work in higher education, and — mark it — secular higher ed.
An evangelical acquaintance once asked me delicately, “Is there a reason you and your husband don’t work at a Christian university?”
I could hear the gears in his head as he tried to reconcile what he saw before him: two highly educated, devout Christians working in the "liberal bastion" of a secular college. Why on earth would we do such a thing to ourselves?
The truth is, Dwayne and I live and thrive in the place we’ve carved out outside the bubble of American evangelicalism. It’s not that we don’t love the evangelical church, or don’t attend an evangelical congregation.
It’s just that we don’t identify with all aspects of the American version of evangelicalism.
He and I both came to know Jesus outside the States. We are both missionary kids. In addition, Dwayne is Canadian. As a result, we have an outsider’s perspective. For us, living in America and being evangelical poses an interesting paradox.
In so many ways, living and working with people who have vastly different life experiences than our own feels normal. After all, that’s how we grew up — in the company of friends whose worldviews are shaped by the submerged iceberg of cultures not our own. These differences don’t threaten our beliefs. Ironically, holding the space for the lived experiences of our friends creates an environment that also affirms our lived experiences, and more importantly, our faith.
Our friends know we’re Christians. We don’t hide anything about our faith. We just don’t require or ask that our friends believe the way we do. We also, and this is perhaps the most controversial part, don’t have any agenda for our friends to become Christians too.
Let the voices of the critics rain down. I can hear them now. In fact, I've heard them before. Take for example one commenter who wrote on my blog, “How can you call yourself a Christian if you don’t want to share the gospel with your friends?”
Well, this is a pointed question and one with merit, since the root word of “evangelical” comes from “evangelize” which means to “convert or seek to convert to Christianity.”
This is where I would ask the average American evangelical to consider that perhaps their understanding of evangelism may be rooted in a particular type of Christian culture that is shaped by the American experience.
Perhaps, for Christians around the world and even in different stages of faith, evangelism doesn’t necessarily mean walking the streets with tracts, or knocking on a stranger’s door, or even befriending someone with a preconceived timetable for their conversion.
Let’s start here: I believe that Jesus is the son of God and that if you invite him into your life, he’s going to change and transform you in radical ways. I believe you will experience life and life abundantly. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be following him.
But this does not mean that I believe I know in what ways Jesus is going to change your life. Nor does it mean that I have a timeline for you to know Jesus. Like those homeschool science experiments with milk and dish soap and food coloring, I know that when I touch the dish soap to the colors, they will scatter across the milk in gorgeous designs. But I don’t believe that every design will swirl out in the same way. Further more, if your design curls differently than mine, I don’t believe that means you have a lesser faith.
Bottom line: I will be your friend whether or not you ever come to know Jesus. I liked you before and I’ll like you after. But I will, at all times, be honest about who I am and my own relationship with Jesus.
I can not tell you how many wonderful, meaningful conversations I’ve had about Jesus with people who would never set foot in a church, let alone say his name beyond an expletive.
It turns out when you genuinely care, when you don’t have an agenda, and when you’re not trying to secretly move someone toward conversion, they love to hear about Jesus.
In his work, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, Dr. James Fowler talks about a stage of faith in our journey that allows us to exist in relationships with opposing world-views. This stage, known as individuate-reflective faith, is characterized by angst and questioning, by the recognition that there are many other legitimate belief systems than our own.
This kind of relativism has the potential to fracture our faith all together, but the beauty of this stage is that if we are faithful to the dissonance, it can deliver us to a more nuanced and deeply rooted faith. These differences and even contradictions to our belief system won’t threaten us as they used to. Instead, we will take personal responsibility for our faith and feelings. We will be able to coexist in a reality riddled with relativity. While this may make us aware of conflicts in our own beliefs, it also makes us aware of the complexity and richness of following Jesus.
Because I’ve written a couple of books on young adult identity development, I am frequently asked in interviews, “Why is it young adults are walking away from faith?” or “Why are they leaving church?”
I don’t know the answer to this. There are scholars out there who have studied it in depth. But I would caution the evangelical church against offering young adults a kind of faith, a kind of Jesus, that can not stand in the face of relativity, contradiction, and dissonance. Young adults today face social and economic challenges that call everything about their lives into question, especially their faith.
We need to offer them the truth: that following Jesus does not mean you listen to certain kinds of music, watch certain kinds of movies, go to certain kinds of schools, vote for certain kinds of political parties, or evangelize with certain agendas in mind.
It’s possible that following Jesus means shedding the trappings of our culture, and not just secular culture, but American evangelical culture.
Christin Taylor is a missionary kid raised in the evangelical Church and working at Gettysburg College, where she teaches writing. Her most recent book was released this fall through Wesleyan Publishing House and her latest articles have appeared in the New York Times column Motherlode. Read more of her writing at www.chrsitintaylor.com.