What does it mean to be evangelical?
A term that applies to between fifteen and forty million Americans should be rather obvious. Yet few words are so commonly used while being so poorly defined. To many people the word evangelical evokes images of the “Religious Right”, of people who read the Left Behind novels, go to megachurches, and vote for Republicans. While to other people—mainly Christians who ultra-conservative theologically— the label is used as a derogatory term for believers who take an insufficiently stringent view of scripture and accept other forms of “liberal” belief.
While the term has a limited range of application, referring to specific traits, churches, convictions, and practices within Christianity, its denotation is so plastic that it makes it almost impossible to succinctly define. It originates from the Greek word evangelion, meaning “the good news,” or, more commonly, the “gospel.” In the New Testament, the word is used in reference to the “good news” of the victory of God’s salvation. In American circles, though, the terms is expanded to generally apply in three different senses:
The first meaning of evangelical is in reference to all Christians who affirm a few key doctrines and practical emphases:
– conversion, or “the belief that lives need to be changed”;
– the Bible, or the “belief that all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages”;
– activism, or the dedication of all believers, including laypeople, to lives of service for God, especially as manifest in evangelism (spreading the good news) and mission (taking the gospel to other societies);
– crucicentrism, or the conviction that Christ’s death was the crucial matter in providing reconciliation between a holy God and sinful humans. (2)
The second sense in which the term is used is as the generic name for a group of movements and religious traditions. Within this context evangelical includes such disparate groups as Pentecostals, Baptists, Dutch Calvinists, Catholic charismatics, and non-denominational “mega-church” members.
The third sense of the term is as the self-ascribed label for a coalition that arose during the Second World War a reaction against the perceived anti-intellectual separatist, belligerent nature of the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s and 1930s. Originally dubbed “neo-evangelicalism”, this group included such leaders as Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry, such institutions as the Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College, and such publications as Christianity Today.
But how would the bloggers here at Evangel define the term? What is is that we all have in common that allows us to share the label?