Jason Byassee on Finding a New Meaning in the Word Evangelical

Pastors from the Las Vegas area pray with then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a visit to the International Church of Las Vegas, and International Christian Academy, on Oct. 5, 2016, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Jason Byassee is the inaugural Butler Chair in Homiletics and Biblical Hermeneutics at Vancouver School of Theology. Previously, he was senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in the Western North Carolina Conference. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


Living in Canada, I expect on my trips home to the United States to overeat and have my relatives lampoon universal health care, gun control and other examples of Canadian-ness. For my part, I am always struck in recent years by the elongated election seasons in my native country: Compared to the mercifully brief campaigns of Canada’s parliamentary system, in the U.S. it is all campaigning, all the time.

I also notice that in that mania, “evangelical” has come to mean something bizarre: white, bigoted, angry, retrograde, idolatrously devoted to God and country, cozy with dictators and rude to historic friends.

So alien is the meaning of “evangelical” that Alan Jacobs and other luminaries wonder aloud whether the word is irretrievably lost. The faith that once inspired abolitionists and suffragists and civil rights martyrs has been reduced to web trolls and evangelicals, such as Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham, who support President Donald Trump.

But on a visit to several evangelical churches in the heart of Red America not long ago, I found hope to think “evangelical” can mean something else instead.

In St. Joseph, Missouri, in the far west of the Show-Me state, where even Democrats tout their gun-packing bona fides, I visited the Word of Life Church. Pastor Brian Zahnd was once a charismatic TV preacher, but he’s much more Mennonite now, learning from historic peace-loving communities that peacemaking is better than televangelism. On Twitter, Zahnd seeks to disentangle evangelicalism from President Trump. “I don’t believe in conservativism; I don’t believe in progressivism. I believe in Jesus,” he wrote in one post.

The Sunday I was there, I saw him preaching with great ’60’s rock songs as his texts. The sermon that day was on Cat Stephens’ “Ride the Peace Train.” This is no hippie lullaby, he said, it’s a non-violent revolution, prophesied by Isaiah and inaugurated by Jesus.

Now whatever that is, it’s not Trumpism.

On that same trip, I visited the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, outside of Kansas City. The biggest congregation in my Methodist denomination, with some 16,000 members, has recently built an enormous new sanctuary that sports the largest stained-glass window in North America. Captured there in brilliant color are Mother Teresa, Pope John XXIII and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Perhaps more unexpected in conservative Kansas is that Resurrection greets visitors with a sign on every door showing the image of a crossed-out gun. My Canadian neighbors would find it odd that such a sticker would even be necessary, but in these fast-growing exurbs where Rush is required listening, this gigachurch has taken a side: no guns in the sanctuary.

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Source: Religion News Service