What is an evangelical? Our friends at Merriam-Webster list several meanings for the word evangelical. One definition means “relating to, or being in agreement with the Christian gospel especially as it is presented in the four Gospels.” They also say that it can mean “emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual.” Even a classic dictionary like Webster understands that evangelical is centered around the gospel, the good news. The gospel is the foundation of what it means to be an evangelical.

Now ask a person on the street what first comes to mind when mentioning the word evangelical. I have a sneaking suspicion that it won’t match Webster’s definition. You will likely be given a host of other words that give evangelicals a much less favorable definition. Fundamentalists. Right-wing. Conservative. Judgmental. Ridiculous.

If we were to ask ourselves as Christians who falls under the banner of evangelical, we would have a long list. Fundamentalist. Emergent. Emerging. Traditionalist. Baptist. Methodist. Liberal. Conserative. The list could go on for days. Touchstone magazine posted a forum of six evangelicals discussing the definition of evangelical along with assessing the state of evangelicalism. David Wells, author and professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has questioned whether or not we should continue to retain the term with all of its baggage and stereotypes. Joe Carter commented on the growing trend of people dropping the term evangelical and declared his intentions to be the last evangelical standing if it comes down to it.

So consider this question…

Should we drop or hold onto the term evangelical? Is it worth retaining?

Much more than hearing your answer to this question, I look forward to hearing why you think it is or isn’t worth retaining. I have several things I want to say on this topic but I will save it for the comments section and possibly a future post. Game on.

7 Replies to “The Monday Muse: Evangelical

  1. What is our alternative? Fundamentalist? No thank you! I have heard Wells arguemnt before and really do not understand it. I think terms and titles always have weakeness. Take “conservative” and “liberal” those terms mean different things to different people depending on where your coming from. In some quarters of the church your “liberal” if you read the NIV while in others your “conservative” if you beleive it. Evangelical is a broad term which encompasses bleivers who suscribe to the essentials of Christian faith. “In the essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity”.

  2. Well…it is funny that you mention Fundamentalist. That term has departed from its original meaning. It used to refer to those Christians who held to the fundamental truths of the faith. Today it refers to right-wing, legalistic Christians or a certain sector of evangelicalism. Is a similar thing happening to the word evangelical?

    I also might ask whether people who don’t subscribe to the essentials of the faith still fall under evangelical? It seems that way to me. The movement and term is faulty because it does not have a center. Evangelicalism, technically speaking, does not have an official standard by which churches or denominations must weigh themselves against. This opens the door to diversity even in the essentials. And since evangelical is beginning to be used as the new “fundamentalist” term, should we abandon it?

    Does it really matter what people label us? Honestly, won’t non-Christians always label and oppose us no matter what we call ourselves? I think this is definitely true. Why? Five words…The Gospel of Jesus Christ. Would dropping the term evangelical and all its baggage be more helpful as we relate to the lost? My jury is still out on this decision.

  3. What baggage? That’s what I do not get. I am a relatively young guy who has his ear pretty clsoe to the culture and I dont’ hear people reacting to the term evangleical at all like they do to others such as “fundamentilist” or even “emergent”. You are right in that terms never do justice completely but that is never a reason to abandon them. Most people outside fo Christianity associate evangelical with Billy Graham who is the last national religious figure viewed positively OUTSIDE of the church. Within the church it is a different matter. You are right. Evengelical has become sort of a smorgus board. But I have ALWAYS heard evengelical defined by Christians leaders, seminaries, and publications as being those who suscribe to the essentials. Even in the main stream media it seems to be the one term they kinda sorta barely get. Being that its the only one that comes close why throw the baby out with the bath water?

  4. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with what you are saying. Baggage may be the wrong term to use in this instance. But I don’t think it is any big secret that the term evangelical has been associated with right-wing, conservative politics and at times fundamentalism by mainstream media. Since today’s media has a large impact on the culture, it is not a large step to say that the word evangelical has shifted a bit from its original meaning.

    I think what you are saying is right though. We don’t necessarily have to abandon a term just because it is being misused or misrepresented by some people. If that were the case, we would constantly be changing our identity because any term can (and likely will) be misrepresented. I too have heard most professors and Christian leaders define evangelical by the essentials of the gospel. Yet, I think there is a disconnect between how it has been defined by some and how it has played out in culture. I think the fact that some people felt compelled to come up with An Evangelical Manifesto is some evidence of this issue.

  5. Good discussion and observations Jeff. However, on to more important matters. I covet you just a tad every time I see that picture of you holding a guitar. One of the things I have always wnated to do but never got around to is play. 🙂

  6. Well…you haven’t heard me play. The picture looks nice, but I’m certainly nothing special. After vocalizing in a band for a few years, I figured I ought to take up and instrument so that I can make music on my own terms at my own leisure. And the fact that I married into a Taylor doesn’t hurt either. 🙂

  7. Jeff – Sorry I’m way late to the game on this one, but I wanted to comment. I think like all ‘terms’ there are going to be negative connotations around them outside of Christianity… I think that’s just the nature of the faith.

    But why do we use these terms anyways? I think we started saying “Evangelical Christian” because those of us within Christianity began to feel that some who claimed the Christian faith didn’t necessarily subscribe to what the faith stood for – the ‘essentials’ as mentioned above.

    It’s unfortunate that the faith has become so diluted that we need to apply a term to call out a sub-group within Christianity that really believe. Maybe that’s unavoidable – I don’t know. But I think if you get rid of the term Evangelical you’re going to be searching for another term that describes ‘Christians that really believe’, and so ultimately you end up in the same endless cycle. The root problem boils down to the fact we as a Church are not consistently preaching a full gospel, and as a result society doesn’t have an understanding of what being a Christian really means.

    Married into a Taylor… ha, I like that.

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