Labels are a necessary evil. On the one hand, we need them. I am very thankful when a bottle is labeled “poison” for example. That label can save lives. Yet, labels are more often harmful when applied to people. Labels reduce people to abstract ideas and make it easier for us to dismiss or misuse others.
However, it is impossible to function without labels, because the act of language itself is a form of labeling and reducing reality into words, sounds, and symbols.
I present these disclaimers because I would like to explain the labels that I have currently placed upon myself. The label post-Evangelical, missional, neo-Lutheran pastor and theologian is an attempt to describe where I currently find myself in my theological and professional journey. Allow me to unpack each label.
The term evangelical comes from the greek word euangelion and simply means good news or gospel. All Christians proclaim the euangelion of Jesus Christ. That’s what it means to be a Christian. My label refers to a specific sect of Christians that formed in the late twentieth century. These Evangelicals were a post-Fundamentalist movement that is best known by such leaders as Billy Graham and Chuck Swindoll. They parted ways with the International Missions Conference in the late 60s because of the debate over God’s Mission in the world. The mainline churches went one direction, believing that God is at work in the world’s processes to bring about peace on Earth. They formed the World Council of Churches (WCC) and were dismissed as “liberals” by the Evangelicals. The Evangelicals formed their own tribe around the idea that God sent Jesus, the Spirit, and the Church to the world to save it from damnation before God destroys everything.
I was raised in Evangelicalism as it was emerging from and trying to become a kinder, gentler version of Fundamentalism. We embraced the New International Version of the Bible and flourished with relevant Bible teaching, contemporary worship, and vast mega-churches. I love my Evangelical background and especially appreciate the deep knowledge of scripture that it embedded within me.
I am a post-evangelical, however. Notice that I am not an anti-Evangelical. I am grateful for my Evangelical heritage and it is still my core DNA. Yet, I began to see some inconsistencies with the “good news” we proclaimed through the four-spiritual-laws, God-will-send-you-to-Hell-if-you-don’t-choose-and-believe-correct-doctrine version of the Gospel. I have moved beyond historical Evangelicalism in the same way that the world is moving beyond modernity. These are post-modern, post-Evangelical times for me.
The more accurate label for me would be emergent/missional. In the late 90s I started reading authors like Dallas Willard, Leonard Sweet, Stanley Grenz, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell, to name a few. More and more Evangelical theologians were critiquing Evangelicalism through a modern/post-modern lens and found it lacking in some core areas. A new way of understanding the life of the Triune God was emerging in Evangelicalism, and it made some people nervous. A similar movement was happening at the same time among the Ecumenical churches. Authors like Bosch, Newbigin, Roxburgh, Van Gelder, Simpson, and Keifert began to question the mainline churches and also found a new, missional, imagination of the Triune God’s activity in the world.
When I entered the PhD program at Luther Seminary in 2011 I found myself at the convergence of these two streams. I was riding the post-Evangelical, emergent stream and found resonance with the post-Liberal/Ecumenical, missional voices that dominated my department of Congregational Mission and Leadership. It was a divine appointment, in my opinion.
My father introduced me to a Lutheran pastor in our neighborhood in 2008. He was reading the same emergent/missional authors that I was and we found a kindred spirit in one another. I had vowed to never be a pastor again after a failed church plant in Las Vegas, and he patiently loved me back to health. Part of my healing came through his invitation for me to consult with his church in the area of spiritual formation. I came on staff at Grace Lutheran Church in 2010, completely ignorant of Lutheranism and the ELCA. I quickly found theological breathing room and a resonance that I had never felt before as I investigated Lutheran theology. I transferred my ordination into the ELCA (a two-year process) and was officially rostered and installed at Grace in 2012.
I am a neo-Lutheran. I have no Lutheran heritage, therefore I feel like a stranger in a strange land most of the time. I have much to learn, but I believe that the core Lutheran theology of grace, the theology of the cross, and the paradoxical nature of God offers a true euangelion to the world.
God has called me to, and I am passionate about, the local church. It is the incarnation of God as we are gathered around the crucified and risen body of Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our neighborhoods, both locally and globally. My primary giftedness is teaching, innovation, and visual art. I hope to be a catalytic leader to help the church lean into God’s preferred and promised future.
Everyone is a theologian, because everyone thinks about and acts upon some idea of God and reality. I completed a Ph.D. in Congregational Mission and Leadership so that I could be equipped to think and act deeply about who God is and what God is doing in, with, under, against, and for the local church and the world and to help others grow in this same process.
I hope that this brief description of my journey will help explain why I currently label myself a post-Evangelical, missional, neo-Lutheran pastor and theologian. Some would say that I am simply confused, deceived, lost, and have strayed from the path. I have been openly accused of these things on more than one occasion. It may be true, and I must always be open to that reality. However, I believe that I am simply being consistent with my tagline “following the cloud.” Our job, as Jesus’ disciples, is to continually discern where the Spirit is leading and then have the courage to follow.