Chalk it up to being a millennial, but I do not enjoy being labeled. Of course “millennial” is a label. So is “evangelical,” and both describe me. I dislike them. I cringe when I hear the terms or am asked whether I would call myself either of these. I would not, except that they’re true so begrudgingly I do.
It’s the baggage I dislike, the misrepresentations of the values and theology I hold and the history out of which I come. I don’t like being associated with “them” – you know the ones. “They” are described with the same labels I am but are nothing like me. They are the embodiment of the worst things about being a millennial evangelical. They are lazy and entitled. They are tribal, nationalistic, and mono-cultural. They are arrogant, argumentative, and myopic. It’s no wonder I chafe at being labeled alongside them and many of my peers are discarding the labels altogether.
We often fail to realize that labels mean something, though. They represent a reality and a complex one at that. They communicate real history. They have a meaning, even if it has ben bastardized over time. They sum up theologies and value systems into a digestible bite. Labels are imperfect, yes. But as a rule they carry significant meaning.
(Aside: This is not a defense of labels as a whole. The term “label” is a neutral term referring to both helpful and harmful terms. I am speaking to the efforts of younger Christians, and a few older ones, to distance themselves from the label “evangelical.”)
What all that adds up to is this: If you choose to discard the label “evangelical” you must discard the meaning it carries as well. Those who have done so already will respond, “Exactly, that is precisely why I left, to do just that!”
To distance yourself from a label is to distance yourself from the baggage it carries, sure. But it is also to distance yourself from the history it carries, the values it carries, and the theology it represents. Evangelicalism has a complex past and present, loaded with richness and putridity. I understand the desire to remove one’s self from the latter, but not the former. To say “I am not an evangelical” while still retaining as much of the richness as possible is like a child disliking her name and saying “call me Rainbow.” Her name has not changed nor has her family. She is simply trying to distance herself from a reality she cannot change.
If we disapprove of what a label stands for we only have two options. Leave it behind entirely along with its circle of influence and imprint. Or seek to better represent it so that when people meet us their perception my change by a degree or two. If the label stands for good things at its core then it is worth doing the latter.
“Evangelical” means something good. It has come to mean many bad things too. It is tied to the gospel of Jesus, and it is perverted by people who have subverted it for their cultural purposes. Just because we do not like the latter doesn’t mean we should or can abandon the former. Rather we must represent the former so well that the latter ceases to be associated with the label. We must take up the identity, own the label (or at least accept it) because it is what we believe, and lead away from the baggage.