What’s In a Name? From “Evangelicals” to “Christians” for the CSA

Editor’s Note: This week, the faith-based think tank formerly named Evangelicals for Social Action announced that it would “trade in the evangelical label and become Christians for Social Action instead.” CSA founder and president emeritus Ron Sider said of the change, “[ESA] was the right name—for a time. But the social environment is so different.”

Fuller Seminary president Mark Labberton agreed, saying, “This…makes a world of sense…Nikki Toyama-Szeto, the executive director, has led her team with wisdom, humility, and honor through a thicket of words and associations to the better light of a new name.”

We asked Toyama-Szeto, one of Missio Alliance’s Leading Voices, to share more about the backstory behind the change and how her identity as an Asian American female leader had an impact on the process. What follows is a fascinating look at a deliberate, intentional process of change and a refreshing model of Christian leadership.

You have been in the role of CSA’s executive director since 2017. How soon after your tenure began did this question arise regarding the organization’s name?

Changing the name of an organization, especially one with a heritage, is tricky.  But even before my arrival, the name had come up for discussion every five or ten years.  Jo Anne Lyon, one of our former board members, said that it has been part of the board level discussion for the past 30 years.

But what was different this time is that a great deal of reflection was occurring in different evangelical communities about the identity. In 2017, I was a part of three or four gatherings (including one hosted by Missio Alliance) around this question. In retrospect, one of the things that had changed in the previous 10 years was the influx of people who used to identify as “fundamentalists” coming into the evangelicals pond.

Walk us through the process of making this decision. How long did it take, how involved was it, and what were the major tensions you had to address and resolve in order to make this decision?

The process itself took about three years. It was one of the main (but not only) topics of debate and conversation among the board and the staff teams during that time. Initially, the board did a deep dive to understand the questions and tension then approved a process for making the decision.

There were many elements to our process:

  • Taking a deep dive into Scripture, theology, and church history
  • Looking at how the term “evangelical” was used commonly (as opposed to by the “experts”)
  • Understanding how our participants identified
  • Talking with other Christian leaders (some within and some outside institutional evangelicalism)
  • Researching other groups that were navigating this question
  • Considering financial implications

But the two things that were key and perhaps somewhat unique to our process were these elements:

  1. Learning from the global church: The global church has always been a helpful touchpoint for me. It helps me see my own American blinders that I impose on my Christian faith. So talking with leaders in different contexts to gather insights and interdependencies was really helpful.
  2. Leaning into spiritual discernment: Ultimately, the question became one of invitation. What is God’s invitation to us, now? What has God’s invitation over time (historically) been to ESA? And how does the current invitation relate to that history?

I think of leadership as an act of hospitality. I had to drive the process and step in to make decisions appropriately, but I also provided many on-ramps for people to participate. I wanted to make sure that opposing points of view had a space and felt heard and that we were listening to those on the margins.

You are one of the very few Asian American women leading key evangelical organizations. What impact did your identity and heritage play in the ways you considered and led this organizational change?

The process we went through really recognized the importance of the wisdom of many and respected how interdependent we all are. It’s the opposite of having a leader go up to a hilltop and return with a mandate from God. And that, I think, is one of the gifts that Asian American women leaders offer the church and the world. We understand the interconnectedness of organizations and people to each other. And while we exhibit a range of leadership models, we recognize that setting a table and creating a robust process is every bit as much a leadership decision as declaring a big vision and a big strategy and getting everyone to love it and move forward. Asian American women leaders offer the church and the world the gift of understanding the interconnectedness of organizations and people to each other. Click To Tweet

So I believe that my identity and heritage are absolutely expressed in the things that I have chosen to prioritize, to accent, and in how I show up and lead. My challenge was to lead this process in a way that was both effective and also authentic. And so if there is anything in this process that sounds like a great idea that you’ve never heard before, it’s probably because there are not many Asian American women writing leadership books.

Pursuing major organizational changes such as this comes with its own challenges. What were the key leadership lessons that you have learned along the way, and what can church leaders take away from those lessons?

One aspect of leadership is the ability to hold opposing ideas in tension, and either continue to move forward or know when to stop. A key question for us was not just, “Should we change the name?” but also, “When?” Many leaders look to God for direction and ask, “What should I do?” Then once they hear a word from God, they are off and running. But I would encourage leaders to also emphasize the second question of “when?” Sometimes God reveals his heart, his intentions, and his purposes, but we are an impatient people. And there may be things that God is doing to prepare us if we wait. Sometimes God reveals his heart, his intentions, and his purposes, but we are an impatient people. And there may be things that God is doing to prepare us if we wait. Click To Tweet

On the other hand, sometimes leaders decide and clarify. In this case, my role was to be decisive and clear about a process but open-handed about the actual decision. I wanted to make sure the right people were included at the right times, equip different people to weigh in on decisions, seek out opposing points of view, and guard against bias confirmation. As I write about it, my approach sounds heady and technical—but it was also deeply pastoral. For all our logic and rational thinking, we make decisions from our hearts, our gut.

Ron Sider, CSA’s president emeritus, referenced the “shameful history of white evangelical racism” as being a key factor in the name change. Have you seen and sensed a shift in the larger evangelical movement in understanding this history, even if it hasn’t been enough to warrant keeping “evangelical” in the organization’s name? Are you hopeful or discouraged by the dynamics in evangelicalism with regard to race-related issues?

I want to acknowledge a dynamic that felt hard to hold. I’m a woman of color, leading a historically-white, evangelical organization. And one of my tensions is that I have to take responsibility for the actions of my organization, through the years, that pre-dated me. At the same time, I understand personally the blindspots and transgressions of large white evangelical organizations. So I have to both hold and accept responsibility and work towards repentance while at the same time identifying with those who have been hurt by the same institutions.

Being an Asian American leader affects every aspect of how I lead. Leadership is also about bringing your authentic self, to the leadership task at hand. To be honest, my history as a Japanese American has been helpful. I can tell you about my own family’s experience in the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. But also, I’m deeply saddened by the transgressions of the Japanese army in the sexual exploitation of Korean women and the terrible atrocities of Nanking. All of these stories live in my body.

The summer we formally started this process was the same summer that white supremacists marched in Charlottesville. I don’t think that kicked off our process, but it definitely informed our process. Listening to communities of color was deeply humbling, concerning, and insightful. I don’t think white Christians understand how racialized the term “evangelical” has become. I don’t think white Christians understand how racialized the term “evangelical” has become. Click To Tweet

Obviously, we are in an election year, and the campaign season is in full swing even amidst our continuing pandemic. How much did the coming national election figure into your decision about the timing of this name change? Is there a greater message you are hoping to send to the evangelical community with regard to political allegiances and identities?

The election itself was not a factor in the timing. We launched when we finished the process, and when we could afford to change the name (both in time and in cost).  Throughout this process and our announcement, one of the things that has had a deep impact on me is that there’s such a fracturing in our society and also within Christian communities. We’ve divided ourselves or made judgments about each other. So I wanted our process to reflect that unity is an important value.

With that goal in mind, I had a good conversation with Walter Kim of the National Association of Evangelicals, both wanting to convey our desire for continued partnership and express care for the evangelical community. I wanted to affirm that we are all working toward the same kingdom of God; it is just that different ones of us are called to work with different groups, or in different ways, or under different banners. I hope that the Christian community can model a unity that is deeper than agreement—this is one of the fundamental principles of CSA’s program.

How can we disagree, yet still be united as Christians? This is going to be a crucial issue for the church to work out in the years ahead.

For more on the topic of wresting with the term “evangelicalism,” we invite you to visit our Kingdom Evangelicals site, where you can download our free ebook and see related videos from respected voices such as N.T. Wright, Ruth Padilla DeBorst, Tom Lin, Rich Villodas, Dennis Edwards, and many more.