THE BLOG
11/19/2013 06:00 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Being Evangelical

I cried -- a lot -- at my daughter's baptism. The moment so moved me because it marked a moment at which Emily publicly owned her Christian faith. Her mom and I did not baptize Emily as an infant because our Baptist background teaches that baptism marks a person's confession of faith. Even though we are all members of a United Church of Christ congregation, where infant baptism is the norm, we wanted to wait for Emily to embrace faith on her own. Although Emily was entering adolescence, her baptism was unlike confirmation: Emily did not seek baptism as part of a group or a class. There was no appointed age. Instead, through conversations with our pastor and with her parents, Emily determined she wanted to acknowledge her faith in public through baptism and become a member of the church.

Finding Evangelicals

Now that I teach in a United Church of Christ seminary and serve a Lutheran congregation, I find that many people have a hard time relating to or understanding evangelicals. I may no longer share all of my former Southern Baptist theology, and certainly little of the social outlook that now dominates Southern Baptist life, but that basic evangelical piety still shapes my spiritual life and outlook. I often find myself asked to explain what "being evangelical" is like. It's as if other people regard evangelicals as alien life forms -- a suspicion that makes sense after watching the bizarre behavior some evangelicals display in the media.

My reaction to Emily's baptism reveals a great deal about what it means to live as an evangelical. Here in the United States the term evangelical broadly includes lots of folks. Denominationally, we identify many Baptists, Pentecostal and charismatic Christians, and nondenominational Christians as evangelicals. Most evangelicals baptize professing believers, whatever their age, not infants. However, evangelical piety defies sectarian boundaries. The evangelical experience transcends race and ethnicity as well. Most evangelicals hold conservative theological and social views. Indeed, fundamentalism carries one stream of evangelicalism. However, many people who do not subscribe to conservative views (at least, not all the time) consider themselves evangelical. Evangelicals are diverse in many, many ways.

Being Evangelical

So what does it mean to "be evangelical?"

Emily's baptism testifies to the primary dimension of evangelical identity: a personal experience of faith. We use lots of language to describe it: being born again, being saved, conversion, and so forth. But the root of evangelical identity involves a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. The famous Billy Graham has always referred to it as "making a decision" for Christ. I'm not sure that's good theology. Theologically speaking, faith is a gift we receive from God, not something we just decide to do. In fact, many people testify that they cannot recall ever making a decision for faith but instead have experienced faith their whole lives. But I know what Billy Graham is talking about. At her baptism, Emily was telling the world that she takes on this experience as her own.

A second dimension of being evangelical relates closely to the first: evangelicals experience a warm, personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. As one old revivalist hymn puts it, "He walks with me, and he talks with me." If you ask a lot of evangelicals, you'll find them referring to this experience in different ways. Some live with a quiet assurance that Christ is present in their lives, and that this divine presence gives them strength to live more faithfully than they otherwise would. For others, this relationship is more intimate. These people feel that they relate to Jesus almost as they would to a friend or a neighbor. Still others, especially Pentecostals and charismatics, don't talk about Jesus so much as they do the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In really strong cases of charismatic spirituality, they'll describe themselves as "filled with the Spirit," almost the opposite of demon possession.

My own experience of this relational faith is usually a mild, but -- there's that word again -- warm sense of Christ's presence. If I'm driving on a particularly beautiful day, I might catch myself reaching up to touch the roof of the car in gratitude. (I might do the same thing on an ugly, rainy day if I'm so moved.) It's very rare for me to experience distinctly mystical encounters. On perhaps five or so occasions in my entire life, I've felt a definite sense that I experienced insight into God's will in specific ways. Just a couple of times that feeling came with words - I didn't "hear" anything, but I felt like I had entered truth in a new level. Most of the time, though, it's a sense of fullness, companionship, and love. Obviously, other people have other experiences.

The danger that accompanies such a warm, personal faith experience is that it is easy to deceive ourselves. It's also easy to deceive communities. We often project onto God our own prejudices and desires, and there are no rules to help us know the difference between divine affirmation and self-serving fantasy. Most evangelicals live with this tension without acting nutty -- but we all know how badly things can go.

Third, most evangelicals have what I would call a "devotional" relationship to the Bible. By "devotional" I mean that we read the Bible with the expectation that it will address our lives in life-giving ways. This expectation applies to naïve biblicists, who believe that every word of the Bible is the very word God dictated. It also applies to those of us who are comfortable with a more scholarly disposition. We know the Bible didn't just drop down from heaven, but we still expect to hear God speaking through it. Even when I'm working on the Bible for scholarly writing, there's always that part of me that's listening for what God has to say.

Several dangers accompany devotional approaches to the Bible, and they're too complicated for a substantial discussion. One common problem is that evangelicals tend to apply the Bible too personally. The Bible isn't just about "me." For example, we're inclined read the Abraham and Sarah stories as case studies in living faithfully -- but what if they just don't work well for that purpose? Evangelicals so personalize our faith that we often miss how Scripture speaks to communities or to society. Everyone who reads the Bible comes to it with assumptions about what it might or might not mean. Like everyone else, evangelicals have lots to learn from other readers. Evangelicals struggle in coming to terms with the Bible's ethically offensive or violent dimensions, leading us to play complicated intellectual games in order to "explain away" the problems. Finally, this direct, devotional encounter with Scripture has led too many evangelicals to fear genuine scholarship that might complicate their relationship to the Bible.

Other people would lengthen this list, but I'm already over my word limit. To my mind, a sense of personal commitment, a warm, personal encounter with Jesus Christ, and a devotional openness to the Bible provide an adequate introduction to being evangelical. Then again, if you want to understand what being evangelical means, just ask an evangelical.