Why I am NOT an Evangelical

The attempt to provide an adequate definition for the word “evangelical” for the North American (aka USA) context may be impossible at best. Simply see the wide range for what constitutes “evangelical” in Toward an Evangelical Public Policy: Political Strategies for the Health of the Nation if you doubt me.

However, in my own experience, I have found at least one common element: the role of the conversion experience. Now, do not consider this an argument against a notion of conversion, response to a call, or simply a radical paradigm shift with a supernatural bent. Rather, this questions the conversion experience construed as the arbiter for Christian existence. But what does this mean “the arbiter for Christian existence”? It means that your identity and story is one of conversion, and simply conversion — to give an account of faith is to give an account of one’s conversion from unbeliever to believer.

Simply put, in the evangelical church, you must have a conversion story because it has been made the locus of Christian identity. The testimony has not only developed its own genre, away from simply testifying, but is recited as the badge of membership. Now, while the missional character of testifying is fine if properly understood, I would argue that there occurs a profound brokenness in the Christian life that employs the conversion experience as the meta-category.

Think of the Christian life this way. You’re at a theme park. You’ve arrived and entered through the gates — you’ve had your conversion experience because you’ve now moved within the specific boundary of Christianity. However, no matter how may times go on a ride, eat the food, or play a game, imagine trying to frame everything as if the primary category for experiencing the theme park is the decision to go through the gate, rather than the enjoyment of the twirling ride (the christoform life one is supposed to lead now).

Or think of the Christian life in another way: a significant relationship, you know, boyfriend, girlfriend, fiance, spouse, partner, whatever. How often does one talk about the beginning? Well, it isn’t unusual to do so, while it might be odd to do so a lot. However, “the arbiter for Christian existence” would be more than simply reflection on ‘getting together’, but that every decision of your relationship, or the everyday life the relationship, would be viewed through the decision to go beyond that first date.

This backward looking, as far as I see it right now, makes the Christian life flat. Some might call it a bare life. Much happens beyond the conversion, indeed, if one understands the Christian life as becoming more like Christ, then the true arbiter of Christian existence is Christ and those around you in the same pursuit. We should not let a broken sense of mission warp how we should understand our movement towards the divine telos. We cannot stay as babes on milk. The christoform life is not thin! The christoform life matures within divine plenitude.

Therefore, we should also not confuse the call to return to your first love with making the conversion experience the primary category for the Christian life. If anything, we are called to be like him, and if that occasionally requires a return or a first conversion, so be it.

If I am right that American evangelicals on the whole do have this conversion primacy implicit in their theology, I don’t want any of it. There is a reason why evangelical kids are growing up and out of the evangelical church that is so dependent on conversion stories as the locus of Christian life. You can only evangelize your already Christian flock so many times.


24 thoughts on “Why I am NOT an Evangelical

  1. Thanks for sharing this. The roller coaster analogy is similar to one I used a long time ago when talking about walking through the narrow gate. When Jesus talked about walking through the narrow gate, he seems to be talking about moving through it and then experiening the vast land which is the kingdom of God. The entering into the gate is only the beginning.

  2. Michael Westmoreland-White says:

    This is why I stopped using the term voluntarily. But I don’t give it up easily because I like the term’s original meaning–“gospel centered.” I have begun to take John Howard Yoder’s attitude: He’d use the term (sparingly) in it’s original meaning and if people categorized him as an Evangelical, he didn’t fight it, but he didn’t go out of his way to claim it, either.

    However, I wonder if the conversion story really is as central as once. I think fundamentalist obsession with rigid doctrinal guidelines has replaced the conversion story–to which only lip service is still given.

  3. I agree with Michael. I think, especially in Southern Baptist churches, there is a move away from the conversion experience and more of a reliance on calvinist doctrine. I have seen it first hand, visiting SBC churches where the contemporary music services fulfill the evangelical obsession with conversion experiences and then in Sunday school, drop TULIP on you like its hot.

  4. Stephen W. says:

    I definitely agree with your assessment of a big reason why younger Evangelicals feel excluded. At some point, we’ll all realize that US Evangelicalism is largely a generational (Baby Boomer) phenomenon, and that will explain so many things about its culture.

  5. For my wife, raised Roman Catholic, all this talk about conversion was incomprehensible upon her first exposure to evangelicalism. I have definitely moved that direction now as well.

  6. rod,

    that’s a pretty blanket statement coming from only personal experiences. the VAST majority of sbc churches are still not calvinists

    concerning the original post,

    the conversion experience may be a justified hangup. but my experience has been that what defines evangelicalism is, well, an emphasis on the church’s task of evangelism, that is, proclaiming christ as Lord and the only way of salvation. so if you AREN’T an evangelical (as the title suggests), do you not believe that salvation comes only through faith in Christ alone? if you DO believe this, then, well, you’re probably an evangelical who doesn’t want to foreground a one-time conversion experience.

    i would suggest, respectfully, that this issue isn’t as all-or-nothing as you’re making it out to be. my big hangup is evangelicals and politics. although i don’t endorse the evangelical wholesale acceptance of the far right, i can’t very well say i’m not an evangelical, b/c at the end of the day i still believe that salvation is only through faith in Christ, and the church has the God-given task to proclaim this gospel message concerning Christ’s atonement to those who haven’t heard.

    so again, i don’t see how NOT advocating a single conversion experience is the test of evangelicalism. and i say that as one who believes in a conversion experience, i.e. a decision to follow Christ at which one is saved.

    still, i’m very open to good discussion about this topic

    • I’m not trying to make this an all or nothing issue; rather, I’m trying to get at the inner logic of American evangelicalism. To do so require the recognition that perhaps American evangelicalism has done something to the Christian tradition. For me that is to say, there is a fundamental category mistake in American evangelicalism — a broadening of one category that in the end flattens the Christian life. In doing this, evangelicalism takes a fairly normal claim, “proclaiming the lordship of Christ”, and screws it up.

  7. I think you’re not taking into account the thorough emphasis on discipleship and growth in Evangelical circles. Even with groups like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Campus Crusade for Christ, while the emphasis is on the initial conversion, they stress follow up in churches. The reaction among postliberals is to stress spiritual formation, but I think it will take time to assess whether that really catches on.

    I agree with you though. That is, I agree with Karl Barth over against Billy Graham. Whereas Billy Graham emphasizes faith and personal relationship with Jesus, for Karl Barth faith, obedience and repentance are all together and not on a timeline of events.

    • My point is that these “follow ups” are understood primarily through conversion. There is a sense of discipleship indeed, but this is a discipleship (nearly) always made through your first conversion. In short, the evangelical intelligibility of Christian life is through the conversion experience.

      Oh and Chris, Barth went farther than you summarized. Barth claimed that Billy Graham wasn’t preaching the Gospel.

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  9. In addition to its scriptural basis, I think the conversion experience fits nicely with the US evangelical worldview because conversions are goods. You can evaluate the efficacy of programs with them. You can point to them as the favor of God. They reaffirm your worldview more than challenge it, and they reinforce a particular metaphysic and notion of salvation. Honestly the practical theology of so many churches offered to folk boils down to, “He’s done so much for you, you owe him. You should be grateful.” Which is creepy given the business overtones- Jesus got you this great deal, salvation on lay away, now you really should pay him back as if there is no intrinsic value to his commands.

    Nope, just take the body and blood, and marvel at how good for you the commands are.

  10. Wow, where do you get that from Barth? I know he thought Billy Graham was heavy handed, especially after attending his evangelistic meeting, but I thought they were still friends, and that he wouldn’t go that far.

    • What I can find on quickly is this, translated quite roughly:

      “Billy Graham I heard. I have met him personally. In a personal conversation I came to him straight. When I heard him, I said: That was not good news, it was a pistol. There was an urgent appeal to the people: you must, you shall! It was a [legal] doings, and I could not admit that the really “Evangelism is”. It was preaching of the law, it was not frohmachende message. He has alarmed the people want. Threaten that always makes an impression. People want to be scared much more than pleased. The more you run them the hell makes, the more “they”. I must say this already – because there’s the name of Billy Graham in my questions. I say nothing against his personal integrity, [but it is not so] that in America, as I have heard, from the evangelism is a big deal? Whether one but the Gospel as a business item can “sell”? Surely we must leave to God the freedom to pursue his work. But if I am asked whether I think is good:], (even with the emergence at the end of the meetings to evangelize in this way [to what one can repeat a fourth, a sixth time!) And with the completion of a Decision map … – I hope you better evangelize!”

      From: 16 Gespräch mit Methodistenpredigern (16.5.1961). In Gespräche 1959-1962 (GA IV.25).

      And don’t forget, Barth could be heavy handed but still be friends. It was that way in Europe during that time.

  11. Thanks for looking that up. His commentary on Romans has much on what the gospel is and isn’t and I’ve really agonized over whether so much Evangelical preaching isn’t just emotional appeal. On the other side, God often uses us in spite of ourselves.

  12. Mbendder says:

    Mike, I think that you are equating evangelicalism with Protestantism in general— in other words, there would be a lot of Protestants that would agree to your statement, but would not consider themselves “evangelicals.” I have a Pentecostal background and therefore wouldn’t not consider myself an evangelical per se (although there are many parallels). I would categorize evangelicals more with Calvinistic/ neo- Calvinistic strains.

    Stephen W., I have often wondered if the crazy far right politics coming out of the evangelical circles has more to do with the generation itself as opposed to the theology.

    • for the record, no, i’m not confusing evangelicalism with protestantism, mainly because the two are not mutually exclusive. “evangelical” is a bigger umbrella term than protestant – there are evangelical lutherans and evangelical methodists and such. now more and more catholics are using the label “evangelical catholic.” as for charismatics, quite a few (mainly AG) tend to show up at ets meetings, so i’m guessing they would be curious that you don’t see pentecostals as evangelicals.

      after having a semester-long class on barth, i would challenge anyone who quotes him to read his various units on election in the church dogmatics. he repeatedly articulates his belief that God elected humankind – all humanity – to salvation. thus the church and christian preaching are the edify the body, the ones who have been blessed to know God’s nearness (or “love” as barth put it) in the here and now, a nearness that all will experience at some point.

      in other words, barth is clearly a universalist. a reformed universalist, as weird as that sounds. so, quoting barth just doesn’t carry the weight for me that it did before reading CD.

      • fwiw, Barth denied being a universalist. More than a concern for figuring out who was saved or condemned, Barth was concerned to defend God’s freedom to choose. Universalism, then, limited God’s freedom and was to be rejected.
        Probably the simplest quote I can find is from his book, God here & Now:

        “The proclamation of the Church must make allowance for this freedom of grace. Apokatastasis Panton? No, for a grace which automatically would ultimately have to embrace each and every one would certainly not be free grace. It surely would not be God’s grace. But would it be God’s free grace if we could absolutely deny that it could do that?” (41/2)
        So he pushes the boundary, but seems to retreat or be limited by an orthodox position.

  13. Mbender says:

    I think some of the larger concerns are: what do you do with a person who has been “saved” all of their life? Is it a once in a life-time event? If so, must one always return to that single event? How far can one progress, if one is limited by the beginning (i.e. does the hermeneutical framework of the one-moment-in time historical event of salvation in any way limit the progression of the Christian life?) What shape does the Christian life take if it is constantly facing back? Is salvation the end goal (getting in the gates) or the beginning of a new life (riding the roller coasters)?

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  15. I suppose that’s who many Pentecostal churches have an altar call at their Sunday evening services, even when only the faithful are present. It is supposed to be an evangelistic service, but because a pretence at one. Conversion stories and testimonies are fine in evangelism, when you are speaking to people outside (to use your theme-park analogy), but make little sense when speaking to those already inside.

  16. Jerms says:

    Might the real question not be, “Ought ‘conversion’ as a term be applied to a single event?” Is not conversion itself an ongoing process, ever a move from unauthenticity or unChristoformity to authenticity or Christoformity?

    If that’s the case, then the error isn’t in the emphasis on conversion per se, but on situating a one-time event as the arbiter of Christoformity. That in itself may justify rejection of the term ‘Evangelical,’ if by that you mean those who situate that one-time event in such a way, but their error isn’t really the emphasis on conversion so much as it is a misundertanding of conversion.

  17. Thanks for sharing this.

    As a younger evangelical, and Ph.D student on the history of evangelicalism, I’d like to comment on your recent post.

    You are correct in saying that the conversion experience is implicit (and explicit) in evangelicalism. But this is not solely inherent to evangelicalism. If you separate yourself from evangelicalism on this ground, you must also separate yourself from many traditions, Catholic and Protestant. The problem is that conversion is so biblical a teaching. Jesus’ bizarre statement to Nicodemus, “You must be born again,” has troubled many a curious mind, Pharisees included.

    There is a wide spectrum of evangelicalism that your post did not really speak to. In Victorian society, evangelicalism was a call to social reform (Wilberforce). Later it would develop into what some deem fanaticism, but not until the 1850s. If you were an evangelical in the 40s, you were committed to the abolition of slavery, human rights of factory workers, etc. Many who refuse to identify with evangelicalism forget that.

    In a blogpost that I will post next week, I will explore Rob Bell’s statements on evangelicalism. You can find it here: http://www.restlesspilgrim.com

    Thank you for your blog, and by the way, I very much enjoy the pictures. Artists to artist, you are most talented!

    Twitter: PilgrimGeorge

    who does not have to cross his fingers when saying he believes in orthodoxy

    • I didn’t mean to imply that no one else has a sense of conversion, hence why I said “Now, do not consider this an argument against a notion of conversion, response to a call, or simply a radical paradigm shift with a supernatural bent. Rather, this questions the conversion experience construed as the arbiter for Christian existence.”

      The Catholics and Orthodox do have a sense of conversion but they also, crucially, have a sense of telos or theosis. This sets the Christian life on a track with a goal. The closest evangelicals have come to a teological notion is in a crass, inchoate form: “WWJD?” However, once baptized into the church, you do not need to be baptized again, rather you grow into a flourishing life instead of continually returning to one’s prior state of the seed (conversion) where one’s slate has been wiped clean. This is largely my complaint. The effects of this category mistake that sees Christian life through conversion to a salvific afterlife in light of a previous Christological justification, rather than first cruciformity/theosis/kenosis understood from the Trinitarian life, leads us down a broken path, if it leads us anywhere.

      Glad you liked the pictures.

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