A theologian friend of mine starts his definition of “church” with this simple requirement: a group of believers can’t qualify as a church until they raise their hand and say “we are the church.” You have to be willingly identified with that organization that Jesus was talking about when he described how he was going to be working in the world. Until then, you’re a Bible study, or a fan club, or a fellowship circle, or a cadre of messianic activists, or whatever it is you’re calling yourself. But whatever else it takes to be church (and it does take more, even for congregationalists), it doesn’t start until you raise your hand and say you’re doing that church thing.
It seems to me that there’s a parallel starting point for being evangelical. It’s clear enough that a lot of the cleverest people are too clever to call themselves evangelical, and that the best way to avoid the label is to feign absolute confusion about what it might possibly signify. No doubt it’s dull to spend time working out a definition, a sociological description, or a standard. But when I see the word, I see the good news in it, the evangel. And I want to raise my hand and identify myself with that movement which has the guts to name itself after that good word.
I know lots of other groups in history have also pledged allegiance to the word evangel or gospel. But nobody thinks we’re talking about the “evangelical counsels” of monasticism, or the “evangelische kirche” of the Reformation, or the anti-Tractarian wing of Victorian Anglicanism (though that’s getting closer). I suppose it must be necessary to draw the boundary lines and tell a few people that whatever they are, they’re not evangelical in the sense under consideration here. That would mean spelling out the details of what it takes to be committed to the gospel: “fidelity to the doctrinal content of Scripture” (J.I. Packer’s phrase) is, again, a starting point. Good fences make good neighbors, and all that. But when I look around, I see a lot of work to be done in there at the center, where a generation of young evangelicals are picking up a cynical tone about whether they should accept a label that identifies them with the gospel.
That’s why I raise my hand and say, here’s an evangelical. I don’t relish fighting for labels, especially labels that I’m not in charge of the quality control for. And it’s more important to join a local church than to affiliate with a movement. But why let a good word go down? Especially when aggressively dis-associating from it sends equally uncontrollable signals to the kids.