In 2016 and 2017, when the term “evangelical” was flung from putrid trenches on television news networks and Twitter, I ducked. By “ducked,” I mean that dropped the word “evangelical” from my vocabulary in every social setting. Although my theological convictions were still solidly evangelical, as a white, female seminarian at Yale, the evangelical label itself had come to carry connotations that made me uncomfortable.
However, a dating app of questionable reputation—Tinder—helped me come to terms with my evangelical identity.
I worked for a startup a few summers ago and, as part of my job, researched how like-minded strangers connect over digital platforms. Thinking that I’d kill two birds with one stone, I downloaded every free dating app populated by straight men in New Haven, Connecticut. What could be better than first-person experience? Maybe I could teach myself app design and meet my husband.
I also saw my foray into the digital dating world as a healthy rebuff of the evangelical purity culture that marked my adolescent years. I figured this was my chance to learn how to date—connecting in a context where you don’t need to guess if the other person might be hoping for more than friendship.
Online, I met plenty of the nice Christian guys I used to write about in journals at church camp. I also met lots of other men, too—ones that fell far outside the parameters of someone I would ever want to date.
To screen my potential suitors, I filtered nothing spiritual out of my answers to get-to-know-you questions, which produced fascinating results. I thought words like “Jesus,” “Christian,” and “church” would drop like severed anchors in the shallow waters of a pick-up conversation, especially when combined with colorful and technical divinity school additions like “inaugurated eschatology” and “pastoral care.” But surprisingly, that almost never happened.
I met each would-be suitor at my go-to coffee shop on a Saturday afternoon and put enough quarters in the parking meter for a 45-minute conversation. On each “date,” the guy would ask me what I did for a living. I would tell him that I’m a divinity student. He would ask what that means, and then bam—that was it—suddenly the kingdom of God was on the table. Instead of being put off by my words, the men stayed and engaged. They asked questions—questions probing the heart and goodness of God. I prayed for them.
This didn’t happen one time—it happened dozens of times.
In one particularly memorable instance, I met with a young man from a country people don’t talk about much, with a professional background I have no experience in, and of a devout Muslim faith I wish I understood better. Our conversation, like so many others, quickly rotated from one with romantic potential to a platonic, person-to-person dialogue centered on the big questions of life. We traded stories and questions. He quizzed me, not in a fault-finding way but with an urgency for understanding my beliefs and core convictions. From creation to the church and everything in-between, I explained the meta-narratives of Scripture the best way I knew how.
There’s nothing quite like trying to explain the atonement to a brilliant inquisitor who has never heard Jesus’ story. I said the same things over and over again, always in a slightly different way, trying to help him understand. Then the conversation came to a head in a single moment.
“Wait,” he interrupted. “Jesus is alive?”
I nodded, and as I did, the sudden surge of excitement at the table gripped the whole coffee shop, which I’m pretty sure had been listening in on our conversation for at least the last 20 minutes or so. My conversation partner’s unguarded expression of joy and revelation rocked the room.
To me and our little New England coffee shop, he shouted in shock, disbelief, and proclamation: “Jesus is alive! Jesus is alive! They didn’t teach us that in school. Jesus is alive!”
I sat back, crumbled in the kind of internal prayer that has no words. I don’t remember what I said next, but I know that it matched the reverent, sacred tenor that marked our conversation when he exclaimed, “Jesus is alive! That changes everything.”
After our exchange, I walked out of the coffee shop numb with surprise and in prayer. In my earnest subversion of evangelical dating norms, I ended up embodying classic evangelicalism in as robust a form as I have ever practiced. That memorable gathering became the fulcrum point from which I started to think about my dismissal of the term “evangelical.”
In the age of Trump, the term means something specific. It is especially challenging to navigate in the academic settings I run in. Yale seeps with a particular kind of ambition. It’s thrilling and rich but also unaccommodating. Politicized white evangelicalism doesn’t accurately explain anything about me or my faith to my neighbors at Yale, but it’s the meaning of evangelicalism in 2018, and that troubles me.
Certain parts of the evangelical church have wrought a lot of harm in the world. As I look at their wake, my initial instinct is to leave it all behind. I don’t want anyone to look at me and miscalculate my ballot-casting preferences, nuanced theological convictions, loves, or enemies. And every time an evangelical leader makes a subtle jab at my so-called “liberal theological education,” or I’m passed over for a ministry opportunity on account of my second X chromosome, the urge to disassociate with the evangelical church grows.
I could easily join the chorus of defectors, many of whom I deeply respect. But unlike my friends and colleagues who have stepped away from evangelicalism, I sit around evangelical conference tables. I lead, I teach, and someday soon I will pastor.
Some argue that one can be evangelical in substance without the evangelical label. I’m choosing—even in this fraught political environment—to embrace the label and identity of evangelicalism. Why? Because I’m part of the historical evangelical church. The charge I carry as a follower of Jesus is not one I carry alone; it is shared with the Christian community of which I am part. And that community is struggling right now. For everything about evangelicalism that raises my body temperature and induces furious, bedroom-pacing prayer, its core convictions—in mind, heart, and practice—are mine.
On most days, when I remember and reflect on experiences like those I’ve had via Tinder, my musty, toiled frustration with evangelicalism rolls over. Above it, I feel hope, life, and forgiveness filling my chest, and it doesn’t matter what anybody tweets.
I know the good news, and I’m ready to share it.
Tori Rowe is a third-year MDiv student at Yale Divinity School and the pastoral systems fellow at Elm City Vineyard Church in New Haven, Connecticut. Connect with her on Twitter.
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