We live in a particular cultural moment when it is convenient to quickly label and then marginalize people. This is especially true for people we don’t understand, like, or with whom we don’t think we agree. Possibly it has always been this way. We tend to put people into tidy boxes most often when talking about politics, religion, or any of the current issues of our day. Think of the word feminist. What comes to mind? Is it positive or negative? Is it fair? Does it always mean the same thing to everyone? Let’s move on to politics. Allow me some sweeping generalizations. Whether red or blue, we assume certain things about someone, often wrongly, who self-identifies as a Republican or Democratic. When our friend tells us that he most often votes for Democrat candidates we usually think that he is pro-abortion, watches CNN or MSNBC, reads the New York Times, is for the legalization of recreational marijuana, and is a strong advocate of gun control. Conversely, if another acquaintance mentions she voted for Donald Trump we suppose that she is pro-life, watches Fox News, reads the Wall Street Journal, would never light up, and is a member of the NRA. It is easy to smugly sneer as we dismiss someone as liberal or conservative.
The point of this article is not to discuss political labeling, but rather to think about how to self-identify as believers in a post-Christian culture in such a way that will not confuse our non-Christian friends. Think about this conundrum for disciples of Jesus. How do you describe yourself to your neighbor who may have little or no understanding of Christian faith and some of the language that often defines us? What words do you use to describe your life in Christ that won’t confuse your secularist friends? What label could you apply to yourself that would not cause your co-worker to dismiss you as he or she makes false assumptions about who you are and what you believe?
Think of the word evangelical. It is a good word and I, for one, do not want to quickly jettison it. When, however, I have used this label to describe my brand of faith with my agnostic and non-believing friends, they tend to make assumptions about me that are frustratingly wrong. They immediately think they know how I vote and where I stand on the crucial issues of the day. Yes, the media does share some blame in stereotyping evangelicals, but it is more nuanced than just a media problem. At a recent BBQ Donna and I hosted at our home, we were the only Christians present out of 18 guests. While turning the tri-tip and chatting with a UCSB science professor, the subject of religion came up. At some point I casually identified myself as an evangelical Christian. To my dismay it became apparent that he assumed that I believed in a 5,000 to 6,000 year-old earth! I don’t. His very limited exposure to evangelicals, though, caused him to come to an inaccurate conclusion. We had some clarifying to do. And we did.
Almost any self-identifying label comes with problems, even when the label is a good one. Let’s think about a few: Born again is a good way to describe someone who has trusted in Jesus. After all, Jesus used this metaphor to define those who have faith and have had their lives changed by him. Born again wonderfully points to the central Christian teaching of regeneration in salvation. But so much confusion comes with this word in our culture. I vividly recall a conversation with someone who thought to be born again was to be Mormon! Others think to be born again is some strange sub-set of the larger Christian family reserved for the over zealous fringe rather than a descriptive phrase that defines all believers. How about fundamentalist? Hopefully every true disciple believes in the historic fundamental tenets of the faith. But the term fundamentalist conjures up visions of the Scopes Monkey trial (1925) that successfully and wrongly painted all believers as ignorant and anti-science. The 1960 movie Inherit the Wind forever solidified in popular culture the caricature of Bible-believing Christians as, well, dumb and unable to square science with a literal interpretation of the scriptures.
I often find myself in the challenging position of trying to describe SBCC to my secular friends, many of whom have never been to a church service of any variety in their entire lives. And frankly, most of them do not want to visit one of our services. Fear, preconceived notions, and lack of interest rule the day. I find myself telling them we sing a lot because we are really thankful! Then, when I tell them that I am employed as a pastor at SBCC their face contorts in obvious confusion wondering what in the world I actually do! How could this fun loving guy be one of them? Are not most who are in the religion business in it for the money? Doesn’t hypocrisy come with all religious leaders? Why don’t you wear a collar or religious clothing?
So what is the Christian to do with so many misconceptions on the part of our secular friends? I have one word for those reading this article. Patience. In 2018 Santa Barbara Christians must be patient in using language and describing what God has done in our lives. We will often be misunderstood. We must patiently persist by defining terms, gently dispelling stereotypes, and forcefully rectifying silly and inaccurate caricatures of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
We must patiently explain to our friends the grand story of the Bible. We must good-naturedly overturn myths and weird, inaccurate stereotypes of the church and Christian faith. We must tell them that the word evangelical, correctly understood, does not point to political persuasion but to the central truth of the good news that Jesus brought. We must invite them to our Sunday services and assure them we don’t handle snakes, we won’t convulse in the isles, and we won’t ask them for their money. We must tell them that we sing because we are happy. We listen to the Bible because we believe God has spoken and actually revealed something of himself and his intentions for our benefit. Church, we have work to do. And it will be so much fun! Work to speak to atheist Sally, agonistic Sam, new age Susan and completely disinterested scientific Simon about the life-changing message of Jesus. Patience.