True evangelical faith does not lie dormant. It has become all things to all people.
— Menno Simons
Sometime in the 1980s I came to understand myself as an evangelical. I believe there is good news to the way of Jesus. And I believe it’s a way worth sharing.
I remember as a junior high student at Johnstown Christian School when other more evangelically minded friends asked me if I had “invited Jesus into my heart.” I didn’t really understand the question. I still might not.
My family had only been attending a Mennonite church for about 18 months. Evangelical language was new to me. I had attended Roman Catholic mass sporadically, been to Methodist worship a few times and happily been part of a Jesus-movement ’70s-style camp meeting where I was invited up front to help sing “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” This question wasn’t introduced in those contexts.
The question was confusing in its deeply personal nature. My understanding of the God of love, care and creation would be tamped down by the God of damnation. In reality, I think I always understood faith was something lived out and lived with other people.
Though I’d say I came to my evangelical-ishness through the valley of shadows, I’ve held on to the label. I believe there is good news to the Jesus story that’s worth extending and embodying. I’ve persisted that even through the years of the Moral Majority and megachurches and televangelists, I’m an evangelical.
I understand myself to be evangelical in the way Menno Simons described it. True evangelical faith is creative and bold. It’s active and responsive. It’s not a smiley thumbs-up Jesus. It’s not a white Jesus. It’s not megachurches with big projection screens. It’s not voting for a particular candidate. It’s on-the- ground work in places where the Good News of liberation through Spirit-filled anointing might be good news to the poor, freedom for the oppressed, vision for those who can’t see.
What it means to be evangelical is increasingly aligned to partisan practices. I understand my faith to be too large to submit to political parties. My commitment to Christ’s way is too encompassing to submit my conscience and convictions under any national flag or party agenda. I’ve come to understand that the evangelical movement in the U.S. context is tied toxically to whiteness, which is antithetical to the movement of the Spirit at Pentecost. If I’m going to be evangelical, I have to work to name and undo that unholy alliance.
Many of us in the U.S. have our own definition as Mennonites about what it might mean to be evangelical. It’s hard to resist the dominant cultural messages that bend us to other interpretations that fall short of the demanding discipleship Jesus proclaims.
True evangelical faith is liberative even to me as a white man. It’s allowing a new sense of the place where I belong and am beloved, while recognizing that this is extended to others equally or even more so.
I refuse to stop being evangelical. Menno quotes Isaiah 62:1 to explain his persistence in writing and teaching: “For Zion’s sake I will not be quiet.” These days, I refuse to let the dominant view of evangelical faith be the only way we are seen, heard and understood. True evangelical faith isn’t dormant. It is both word and deed. And for God’s sake, we cannot be quiet about it.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.