Country Pastor column: Reclaiming evangelicalism
By Rev. Annie Ladnier, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Spring Valley
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." (Acts 17: 22-23).
The word, "evangelical" may as well be a four-letter word these days. In recent years, the term
"evangelical" has become negatively associated in the minds of many Americans with regard to the intersectionality of politics, sexism, racism and nationalism. This is unfortunate for those of us who find evangelism at the core of our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus commands us to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit." (Matt. 28:19).
I am an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is in our very name to share the Good News of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world, yet I know many Lutherans who brush by that first part for fear of its baggage. Just a couple of weeks ago, dozens of prominent self-identifying, "evangelicals," met to discuss their own apprehensions of their unwanted affiliation with divisive politics. At issue, is our joint concern that a central part of our Christian identity and mission is being trumped by particular politicians and platforms, rather than by the actual Good News of salvation in and through Jesus Christ.
You see, when the breadth and depth of the power of that salvation gets reduced to who's right and who's wrong about abortion, gun rights, gay rights, women's rights, and the like, we greatly dismiss the power that our God has to absolutely transform our collective lives. When Christians are caught bickering about which one of us holds power, the 33 percent of the American population who does not believe in God stand only firmer in their conviction that this "faith thing" is a total sham. When our belief in the one who we claim can completely transform us from the world's powers into living, walking, breathing agents of God's love and grace in the world, winds up looking far from loving and graceful, how is it that we can actually claim that this faith has transformed us?
In Acts 17 Paul enters the Areopagus in Athens, a hub for philosophical and intellectual minds to wonder and debate together to expand their individual understandings. Paul enters the Athenians' common territory. He listens and holds conversation with them. At no point does he make it his point to name that the Athenians are wrong, and he is right. At no point does he provide his religious backing for a candidate. Instead, he acknowledges their desire to encounter the divine. He enters into their shared curiosity about something beyond themselves, and he tells the story of how God is at work to resurrect the whole world from all that buries it. He doesn't even use the name of Jesus or quote scripture in order to use it as some kind of ammunition against them.
He names our shared desire to discover the One that has the truest ability to care for creation, to redeem us from our own brokenness, to release us from the bonds of our own self-righteousness, to give us greater purpose, to pour waters of forgiveness over us, and to absolutely resuscitate us from the ways we attempt to suffocate one another. "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly," Jesus tells us. Is that the message that our world is hearing when they catch mention of us "christians" or us "evangelicals"? If not, how could it be? How are you sharing the actual Good News?