Struggling with Evangelicalism, Dan Stringer, Foreword by Richard J. Mouw. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.
Summary: Traces both the author’s personal struggles with evangelicalism and a four step process of healthy struggle involving awareness, appreciation, repentance, and renewal.
If anyone can claim bona fide evangelical roots, Dan Stringer can. He is the biracial son of missionary parents, living in five different countries on three continents during his youth. He embraced the worship music and lingo of evangelical youth ministry in the 1990’s. His undergraduate degree is from Wheaton and one of his graduate degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination and serves as a team leader for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. There is much he appreciated in this background, and as the years went on, much with which he struggled–political partisanship, racism (why do only whites use this label, typically?), a history of colonialism in his own state of Hawai’i, the ways women have been treated, and the celebrity leader culture.
For Dan, help began as he was able to distinguish between evangelicalism as a “brand” that suffers a poor reputation, and evangelicalism as a space that includes over a half a billion people globally, involving collective responsibility for its care, access from a broad range of people, and opportunity for relationship across divisions, even for those who don’t fit the brand.
As Dan continued to wrestle with ways to address his struggles and wrote and interacted with others, he arrived at a four step process that he unpacks in his book. The steps are:
- Awareness. Many who have been part of evangelicalism don’t understand how we got here, so understanding our history and what distinguishes evangelicals from other Christians (and even appreciating that evangelicals are just one part of the larger Christian family) is important. Following a rubric developed by Kristen Kobes Du Mez he discusses evangelicalism as a theological category, a cultural movement with its own particular “style,” a White religious brand (many Black, Latino, and Asian Christians in the U.S. share theological beliefs with evangelicals but don’t share the “brand”), and a diverse global movement. He also discusses what distinguishes the brand from the space. Awareness also includes faith stream awareness, which has to do with how our particular group’s tradition has been formed through its history and location, allowing us better to appraise our strengths, weaknesses, and resources for renewal.
- Appreciation drills down on strengths. Stringer defends the decision to focus on appreciation before repentance. Strengths remind us how we got here, the ways God has been faithful, and reasons to hope that what is broken can be redeemed. It’s not an occasion for triumphalism, but a basis for hope and reminder that there is goodness, as well as brokenness in who we are. We remember things like our love for scripture, our experience of God’s presence, our commitment to the whole mission of God, the fellowship of believers, our focus on Christ, and our freedom in him. We remember grace that has brought us this far as both saints and sinners. And it points us in directions where we may strengthen our strengths.
- Repentance. Stringer invites us into communal repentance, adding to our sinner’s prayer a sinners’ prayer (where one places the apostrophe is important). The baptism of Jesus by John was a baptism of repentance and yet Jesus had no sins personally to repent of. This was an act of communal repentance. When we repent communally, we listen to others to understand the damage we’ve caused and don’t use a “not all of us” defense, but rather use collective terms to acknowledge our identification with these wrongs, we cry out for God’s deliverance, and begin to take steps befitting our repentance.
- Renewal. This section begins by bluntly facing the question of whether evangelicalism is worth renewing. There is not a time before racism in American evangelical history. There are abuses of power and patriarchy to which we would not return. He acknowledges that, for some, it is not their task to renew evangelicalism, whether because of the severity of their wounds or the fact that they have been pushed out. Stringer says that one need not cease to be a follower of Jesus, a Christian, should they decide to leave evangelicalism. Christianity is larger than evangelicalism. But he also offers reasons to seek renewal: to reduce harm and toxicity, to offer and model hope that persists through faith and doubt, to reflect God’s heart rather than the values of worldly empires, and finally to once again offer a credible and compelling witness in the world.
This last speaks powerfully to me. I’ve seen people delivered from addictions and broken relationships and communal hatreds when they encountered Jesus. The gospel of Jesus has been at the heart of movements to abolish slavery and community development ministry. It is at the heart of our love for scriptural preaching and the conviction that a word from God is powerful to transform. These have been strengths and, sadly, we have forgotten them or lost confidence in the work of God evident in them, substituting worldly power, worldly agendas, worldly wealth, and worldly wisdom for the foolishness of the powerful gospel.
I also am grateful for the space Dan Stringer makes for people still wrestling with whether to stay or leave. At one point, he includes a letter to “exvangelicals” (look up #exvangelical on Twitter if you want to learn more). It’s not a letter of criticism or exhortation to return, but one of repentance, that simply acknowledges the wrong done and that we (not they) may listen better. He offers appreciation without triumphalism, repentance without defensiveness, and a hope for renewal without grandiosity. His process offers a way through anger, turmoil, grief, and cynicism toward health, whether it is healthy engagement in a collective responsibility to leave things better than we found them, or how to live constructively as one decides what one’s place inside or outside this movement will be. For me, it has articulated “what it takes to stay.”
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.