Living, as we do, in a post-Christian culture, in which all Christian/religious terminology seems to be a foreign language, we need to take a moment to think how to respond when someone becomes curious about whatever it is that makes us a curiosity to them—like, maybe, something we say or do. Labels can not only be confusing, but the tend to change meaning from time to time, . . . or lose their meaning altogether. Even the designation of Christian can convey very negative implications to many, if they have witnessed or experienced something disturbing by those who wear that label.

For-instance, early in the 20th century, when philosophical rationalism was in its heyday, and there was an assault on all the supernatural components of the Christian faith, and of the integrity of the Bible as some kind of an inspired document, it was primarily a group of theologians from Princeton who put together a defense of those elements of the Christian faith that were, indeed, supernatural and were critical components of the faith. They termed these components: the fundamentals, and hence the emergence of an honorable designation of those who embraced those orthodox Christian components as fundamentalists. But with the passage of time fundamentalism became identified more by a kind of anti-intellectualism, that probably became publicly ridiculed in the famous Scopes trial over evolution in East Tennessee, when William Jennings Bryan, the eloquent fundamentalist lawyer tried to defend an anti-evolution position, and lost miserably and became  the object of ridicule.

The same distortion of what was, originally, a very descriptive designation of those who were the adherents of the joyous news of Jesus Christ as evangelicals. The four primary documents of the New Testament are known as the evangels, i.e., the thrilling news of Jesus’ life and teachings. But in very recent times the term as been co-opted, or hijacked, or prostituted by those who take an alt-right conservative stance politically, so that the press regularly lumps them together as evangelicals (which they are anything but …).

Where those of questionable or offensive beliefs and behavior designate themselves as Christian, even that label becomes a stumbling-block. Add to that, that the obvious reality that identifying yourself by your denominational affiliation doesn’t register with most in this post-Christian era, when an increasing percentage of the populace are self-satisfied humanists.

At the same time, those with whom we rub shoulders still have lots of unanswered questions lurking in their sub-consciousness (and meta-consciousness) about the meaning of life, about relationships, about the unknown future of their lives—maybe about the possibility of life after death. They may also be curious about us, and our daily behavior, if, indeed, we are living out the teachings of Jesus. And they may sidle-up and ask us about what it is that makes us tick? That’s something we should be prepared for. And our first response should be to listen and to ask questions: Why do you ask? What gives your life meaning? Is there some authority that you look to for decisions and direction? Etc.

I can only share my own response, since I live with people from all over the map, from nature worshipers, to secularists, to those consumed with the present and with careers, and are essentially irreligious. When I get asked that question, I simply respond that “I am an incorrigible follower of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ,” . . . and leave it there. If they want to pick it up they can. The point of my response is to point them to the source, not to adopt some religious label. Hopefully, later, over coffee or beer they may pick up the discussion and we can go into it more deliberately with the focus on them. But I avoid labels.

Happy Thanksgiving.

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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  1. Albert B. Coltrane says:

    Excellent way to answer the question. It sets the lables aside ant that is a good thing.

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