David Vanderveen answers, "What is an Evangelical?" | Sojourners

David Vanderveen answers, "What is an Evangelical?"

"The most important thing we evangelicals have to learn from Buechner is honesty. His books seem to show that it is possible to learn to tell the truth, to be frank with ourselves about our doubts and fears."
-- The late Professor Joe McClatchey, Wheaton College.

"Grace is something you can never get but only be given. The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you… The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."
-- Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking


Evangelical is probably one of the most misused words in the public square today. Most often it is equated with fundamentalism or dogmatism; and, of late, it seems to have picked up a decidedly Republican and Neo-Conservative flavor and aroma.

None of those things should have anything whatsoever to do with being an Evangelical Christian.

When I was an undergraduate student at Wheaton College in the late 1980s, I missed opportunities to take classes or at least audit them with either Frederick Buechner or Joe McClatchey.

To me, those two gentlemen are and were the most formative voices on what it means to be authentic Evangelical Christians.

Being an Evangelical Christian means accepting grace and being honest about your faith with others.

First, I think you have be honest with yourself and God; and, then, when you’re as true as you can be about both what you actually know and what you actually don’t -- that’s what’s worth sharing.

A few years back, I visited a Christian couple at Yale while they where working on their doctorates in psychology. The husband, David, was doing research around “EQ” or emotional quotients in people. One of the research projects he developed was about how we perceive ourselves.

It turns out that most people rank themselves in the top 80 percent of almost everything, which obviously can’t be true. The people who most accurately rank themselves are depressives.

Being authentic doesn’t always mean being an optimist. What the English call “happy-clappy” Christianity probably isn’t true.

C.S. Lewis said that grace is what separates Christianity from the other faith traditions. Grace, as I understand it, is simply making the exception the rule.

In the Judaic tradition, God attempted to establish justice by covenants governed by laws that failed as many times as they were tried. Christ came to fulfill that covenant, which every person -- or the proverbial “Adam” -- broke almost as fast as it could be established.

The good news of Christianity is that everything -- the entirety of creation -- is being redeemed and it’s all happening through Christ’s work. As followers of Christ we are called to co-labor with him. That is what evangelism is about.

Many Fundamentalists have been concerned lately with a movement towards Christ redeeming everything and not just the few lucky buggers who elbow their way into heaven’s supposedly Titanic-sized lifeboats. Somehow, they think that a God who would torture people forever in conscious torment is a story the world needs to hear. They seem to revel in revealing a God who makes the Nazi death camps seem humane.

They point to a future escape from this world where none of what happens here really endures. If that’s the truth of what God is, then I’m reverting to my Frisian pagan roots. Valhalla is a thousand times better than that.

The truth is that Jesus didn’t talk about burning non-believers in conscious torment forever. He did talk about burning the trash off of the religious leaders who were tormenting their followers on Earth with the weight of extra rules no one could fulfill.

Oppressive rules create a co-dependency and order whilst filling pews and coffers. It offers control to people that live to bend others to their will. It is not good news. It is not a better society.

I’m on the board of Growers First, which is a business-as-mission organization that works with rural poor coffee farmers. We take St Francis’ admonition seriously to “Preach the gospel; and, if necessary, use words.” We work to apply the Lord’s Prayer, in particular, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.”

Growers First is decidedly not a Christian organization although many of us are involved because our faith includes a responsibility to work with the poor.

During a lunch meeting with Phil Ryken, the new president of Wheaton College, last year, he responded to St. Francis’ credo saying that at some point someone has to use words to preach the gospel. I’m not sure I agree.

If you truly believe in God’s sovereignty, then you believe that he doesn’t need us. He lets us participate in his will. Forcing a need to convert people to our beliefs may not be aligned with God’s will to redeem them to himself.

As the Irish sage, Jack Heaslip, has taught me, it behooves us to develop a laziness for God’s will, a willingness to wait, listen and move as God calls us, as he opens the doors for us.

Our approach at Growers First has let us co-labor and helped us lead one of the largest pastor’s conferences in Mexico every year. We take discipleship seriously with those who are thirsty for it.

Rob Bell is a good friend and former Wheaton classmate. He has a great analogy about why we ought to follow Jesus, and how we should share it. Rob says that if you knew there was a vast buried treasure in your backyard, you wouldn’t need threats to go dig it up and embrace it. No one would be able to stop you from pursuing it, and once you found it, no one would be able to stop you from celebrating it.

That is the Gospel.

So being an Evangelical Christian is, for me, about finding grace and embracing it, celebrating it with others and then working to bring about God’s will on Earth as it is in Heaven.

uncleveenDavid Vanderveen is a husband by marriage, a father by birth, a surfer by vocation, and an energy drink entrepreneur. He is editor of Rob Bell's forthcoming book The Love Wins Companion: A Guide for Those Who Want to Go Deeper.