A Sunday school song I used to sing in my childhood:
One door and only one,
And yet its sides are two,
I’m on the inside,
On which side are you?
Looking back, I have to wonder the intent behind having children recite this verse over and over. After all, it’s not a song of praise or worship. It doesn’t embody any distinctly Christian theology (aside from a nondescript allusion to Jesus as the “door”, which probably went over the heads of most children). The only purpose it seems to serve is to to establish and reinforce an ingroup and outgroup mentality.
An ingroup is a social group to which a person identifies as a member, whereas an outgroup is one in which they do not identify. I would say that the clear motive behind a song like this is indoctrinating an ingroup mentality, not a statement of faith or a belief in exclusivity as some might argue. After all, this song is taught to children of all ages and levels of understanding, by those raised in the church and by first time visitors alike. Far from evangelism, what it taught children even from before the time they made any personal confession of faith (let alone understood the concept), was to divide the world into two groups: those on the inside, and those on the outside.
Ingroup/outgroup psychology is prevalent in a lot of religions, but it’s noticeably pronounced in the world of Evangelicalism, particularly on the outgroup side. It has been said that developing a belief in assurance of salvation was the defining moment that distinguished Evangelicals from their Puritan and Protestant forbears. In fact, some Evangelicals practically make a secondary conversion out of this today. I can recall going to Baptist youth camps as a teenager, where the attendees were mostly from church groups like me. The fire and brimstone sermons and altar calls were directed not just to the lost, but also to the faithful, where preachers encouraged the teens to go forward to talk to a counsellor either to pray a standard “sinner’s prayer” to be saved, or receive assurance that they already were saved. The college hosting the camp would record and report on the number of decisions made, first those who had accepted Jesus as their lord and savior, and second those who had received assurance of their salvation. In retrospect, it seems almost absurd to me how people who sincerely believed Christianity, attended church regularly, tried to be like Christ, and had made a public confession of faith were made to feel as if they were missing something in their life. After all, they generally weren’t struggling with any doubt about the truth of their religion, it was the sincerity of their faith that probably caused them to respond; instead what they questioned was their salvation.
You see, to Evangelicals one’s salvation isn’t just an act that occurs when one converts or believes, their salvation is a status if not a status symbol. Indeed, questioning another’s salvation (or even just being perceived as doing that, such as by calling out an obvious heresy in their theology) can be seen as a supreme insult in Evangelical circles. They tend to divide the world into the “saved” and the “unsaved”, but not from any reading of Scripture. The word “saved” appears numerous times in the Bible, of course, but always as a verb, never as a noun or adjective the way Evangelicals use it. The word “unsaved” never appears at all. There are certainly many Biblical words that they could choose to refer to non-Christians, such as “lost” or “unbelieving”, but this distinct term persists so prominently in the Evangelical lexicon largely because it serves their outgroup mindset. “Lost”, for instance, is a difficult word to apply in a predominately Christian society where most of the prospective converts are simply members of other denominations, not other religions. It’s also hard to use “unbelieving” when they’re trying to seed insecurity among fellow believers.
It’s troubling on many levels how Evangelicals express their soteriology through terms entirely absent from the Christian Scriptures. In comparison, Islam has the term “kaffir” to refer to non-Muslims, which is used repeatedly in the Qur’an by prophet Muhammad. Often misunderstood in the West to mean “infidel”, this term more closely resembles a derogatory slur. Outgroup hostility is undeniably written into the doctrine of Islam, but this need not be the same in Christianity. In contrast, while Muslims freely use “kaffir” derisively to people’s faces, Evangelicals are more guarded with how they use “unsaved.” You don’t really see them telling prospective converts that they’re “unsaved”, it seems to be a word limited to insider conversation. In that sense, it can be borderline cultic, a secret doctrine reserved for the initiated. And like in an Islamic state that becomes 100% homogenized, wherein the Muslims simply target other sects of Islam for outgroup hostility, similarly Evangelicals in ideological isolation may start to focus on their own co-religionists as the outgroup.
Considering how these same Evangelicals try to be Biblical in almost every other area, it would seem easy for them to avoid the potential problems of this word by simply not using it. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. Just challenging the Evangelical ingroup/outgroup complex can be seen as an attack on the essence of Christianity itself, effectively putting oneself in the outgroup. Even if you aren’t of the outgroup mindset, suggesting that it’s wrong to Christians who are may ironically be perceived as outgroup hostility towards them. They may not only be unable to relate to a Christianity without it, it may be so ingrained in their nature that they cannot imagine anybody else not thinking the same way too. Evangelicalism seems to have become an obsession with classifying people into “saved” or “unsaved” groups, graduating beyond mere assurance of salvation to assurance of damnation (other people’s, that is).
Of course, there are many ways to end up on the outgroup list. Seemingly inconsequential disagreements, like not believing a six-day, literalist interpretation of Genesis or not thinking the U.S. Constitution has any basis to ban same-sex marriage or marijuana (even if one personally doesn’t approve of either) can cause you to lose your salvation status among your friends. Historically, it could have been for supporting integration in the Bible belt. Once you’ve been “outgrouped” by Evangelicals, it can be hard if not impossible to recover your standing among them. Different rules of engagement are employed when they interact with the “unsaved.” They may hold beliefs that further alienate the outgroup, such as believing that God doesn’t hear the prayers of the unsaved, or that the unsaved can’t really understand the Bible. The outgroup mindset has an unfair advantage (in their mind, anyway) in that they can shut you out because they believe you’re going to hell, but if you don’t really believe people are damned for petty political differences, then you can’t even honestly fake it in return, not even to level the playing field (even though they may mistakenly think the field is level anyway because they assume everybody would naturally think that). Outgroup psychology trumps the universal languages of logic and reason, an outsiders ideas and views are rejected simply because they’re an outsider, like the Republican party’s irrational opposition to the “Muslim, Kenyan, socialist” Obama.
When the outgroup hostility isn’t even based in reality, but on imaginary criteria there’s little that can be done about it. But if you’re an Evangelical reading this who feels threatened that I criticized a cherished children’s song or knocked the legs out from under your core theology, don’t write me off because you consider me an outsider. You can think whatever you want about the fate of my soul (which you conveniently never have to prove), but I can still appeal to your desire to live a Biblical faith. Just stop using the word “unsaved”. That’s all I ask. Limit yourself to the terms actually used by Jesus and his followers in the Bible, and you may find your theology naturally changes because of it. You may then ask yourself whether certain songs or words are used for a theological purpose, or whether it simply serves the outgroup mentality. Just like me, you may find your outgroup mentality eroded when the words that reinforced it are no longer available to you. You may risk becoming less Evangelical, but you may gain becoming more Christian.