Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Name-Calling, or Who is an Evangelical

It is an old story. Who is in and who is out? This time, again, it is about who should be called evangelical. The ramifications beyond the theological? When reports are made about what evangelicals believe, who and what they support politically, their own demograhics, then some understanding of the spectrum of that term is helpful. Here comes George Barna who for many years has been only using the term evangelical to mean those who meet certain (nine points) of criteria. When he contrasts those who meet his criteria with those who answer yes to a survey question about being evangelical, there are wide differences. As you might expect, the number of evangelicals in the U.S. using his terminology are much less than what the polls often report. You can get the details here at http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdateNarrowPreview&BarnaUpdateID=263.

Barna's interest is in showing how complacent and "truly non-evangelical" the American church and society has become. [Note to self: Check out and see if Chris Hedges has read and commented on Barna's work in his new book American Fascists; it would seem to perhaps both contradict the fear and also, perhaps, to narrow down who Hedges is really afraid of, and to post here on my thinking that Hedges is over-exagerrating, based on what I have read of his work and my own life among the suburbanites]. Barna has been interested in an even slimmer piece of the evangelical pie than those that meet his criteria. See my earlier post on his book "Revolution." http://progressivechurchplanting.blogspot.com/2006/08/are-you-revolutionary.html The focus is on a small portion of the "true evangelicals" as he calls them, those that are finding beyond-the-church ways to live missionally, or to live deeper evangelically, off the radar of the media. But some of these "revolutionary" folks might also be what the emergent/organic folk throw in as "post-evangelical." That confuses the demographic picture even more. And many of the post-evangelicals would likely be more liberal than the Barna criteria would allow.

What does it mean to me? Well there is always that tendency to fence people out by definition, and on Barna's behalf, he does qualify everything with the axiom that only God knows people's hearts and their dedication no matter what criteria they say they meet, or what they tell pollsters. Sociologically, it is good to raise the issues he is raising. I am not sure the media will respond or know how to draw such distinctions as between "evangelicals" and "born-again Christians" and other Christians.

I know I am comfortable with applying the term evangelical Christian to myself, even though I know Barna would have a fit. I know liberal evangelical is back in the current milieu in large part because of Gary Dorrien's work on American liberal theology (see other posts here), and those he writes about. To me evangelical means 1.) being gospel-centered (which also to me itself means being inclusive, progressive, non-creedal or "non-criterial") and 2.) committed to creating a world more in the image of the gospel (which to me means planting communities that reflect that gospel). My liberalism (and UUism) grows out of my being Christian.

But, in case there was ever any doubt, my "evangelical" identity departs from Barna's. I include him, though he wouldn't me, and that makes all the difference.

4 comments:

Bill Baar said...

Do you think God puts much stock into these Labels?

Elizabeth said...

I bet God doesn't put much stock in many labels or categories that humans have to use to make sense of our world. But I think we have to use them if we want to be able to understand each other better. With out "labels" - categories - we wouldn't be able to talk about what makes us different and/or unique.

Ron said...

As you might expect, I agree with both of the above statements :). It will be interesting to see if others can develop meaningful labels for the demographic purposes beyond "evangelical" and "mainline."

Looking over the post again I am not too sure I would stick with that definition of evangelical; it is so broad because it is so intertwined with my own understanding of the gospel and being a Christian. But there is something there about being biblical-based or oriented for the majority of my spiritual inspiration which is a marker that is different from others I admire who get their inspiration primarily in other areas that are also important to me, such as sacramental, but being honest to my superprotestant self the scripture is where I connect with the "good news" and it helps me to recognize it elsewhere.

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