The word “evangelical” can mean many things to many people. Should evangelicals be asking themselves whether the word is still relevant at the start of the twenty-first century? Recently, I was chatting with a pastor buddy and mentioned that our Baptist churches had a major schism in 1927 during the modernism movement, and evangelicalism was “born again.” I’m concerned another schism is on the horizon, maybe in 2027?
Ask a typical person on the street what they think of when they hear the word “evangelical,” and you will likely receive a negative answer. The common media portrayal has negative connotations. Others have reduced evangelicals to the right-wing republican arm of American politics; a Christian sector, a group that rants about what they are against….anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-abortion, anti-climate change, etc.
Ask a typical evangelical in a church in the Western world, and we might be surprised how supposed insiders describe what it means to be evangelical. In a British study (2016) of millennials, 32% of young adults who consider themselves evangelical would never use the word when describing themselves. Another 37% of self-defined evangelical millennials said they would only use the word occasionally to describe themselves. One respondent commented, “The word frightens off non-Christians…who assume the word has something to do with TV evangelists who ask for money.” Another simply said, “The term makes me cringe a bit, I think it’s quite cheesy.”
My personal concern is the need nowadays to have to define terms. I have become convinced we are not all talking precisely about the same thing when we mention common “evangelical” terms, beliefs, and values. Our passion must be for the “euangelion” alone – the good news that Jesus saves, only Jesus, and the message that says there is more than this, abundantly more.
The eighteenth and nineteenth century revivals saw a shaking of the dead orthodoxy of Protestant churches. These spiritual reformers, like Wesley, Whitefield and Finney, were labelled disparagingly as “enthusiasts.” Civil society and its church was disturbed by the extravagance the evangelicals displayed.
The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a decided theological swing to the left, resulting in civil society and the church embracing what many call the social gospel. Adherents such as Machen, Henry, Ockenga, and others, defined evangelical tenets, while practitioners such as Stott, Lloyd-Jones, Graham, Bright, and others, popularized the truth statements of evangelicalism. The result is a global movement from several tens of millions of adherents in the late nineteenth century to an estimated 630 million evangelicals in the early twenty-first century. In 1900 there were approximately 10 million evangelical Christians on the continent of Africa (10% of the total population), and by 2000 the number had exploded to 360 million, or 50% of the continent’s population. This is likely the single most significant cultural and spiritual shift among human beings at any time in history.
However, success has its problems. The brand. Our identity. What does it mean to describe yourself as evangelical in 2020? One adherent uses the word, “atonement,” but does he mean what you think he means? Another describes herself as a progressive evangelical. Are we talking about the same things when we use time-honoured “evangelical words?”
Many of us have heard of David Bebbington’s four point description of the qualities that define evangelicalism:
- Biblicism – a particular regard for the Bible,
- Crucicentrism – a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross,
- Conversionism – the belief that human beings need to be converted,
- Activism – the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort.
Are we all on the same page as evangelicals anymore? Should we ditch the word, “evangelical?” Does the word no longer easily and clearly define who we are? Is the term totally meaningless in 2020?
Personally, I love the word. The evangel. The Gospel. The Good News all captured in a single word: “evangelical.” Rather than ditching the word, I would prefer reclaiming it; stuffing it with such Biblical orthodoxy and orthopraxy that when people on the street hear the word “evangelical Christian,” what comes to mind is an image of “good news people” living transformed lives characterized by abundance and joy. The outpouring of our lives should be a passionate desire to share this Good News. Never forget, the Good News really is good news. Everyone likes to hear good news. Today we declare together that we are “enthusiasts”.
Are you ready to ditch the word, evangelical? If so, why?