I call myself an evangelical. What does that mean? “Evangel” means good news; an evangelist is someone who spreads good news; evangelicals, therefore, are those who believe in spreading the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So I like the term.
Yet it has come under scrutiny lately within the church because it seems to be losing its original meaning. Some are questioning whether it ought to be dropped as a description of those who follow Christ.
Most of that questioning stems from political developments. Evangelicals are now considered one of the “interest” groups in elections. Commentators examine their political clout and try to figure out how they will vote.
The problem, however, is the number and type of people who are lumped together under the name “evangelical.” They include those were who raised in the church but aren’t really faithful Christians. Many simply relate to the word evangelical because it’s part of their family tradition.
The word, then, has lost its real definition.
Let’s look at history for some guidance.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the US experienced what historians describe as the Second Great Awakening. This revival of Christian faith spawned groups of believers who were tired of the division of Christians into denominations. They sought to get back to how they perceived the first-century church operated.
One group decided simply to call themselves Christians, as distinct from Congregationalist, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc. Another took the name Disciples of Christ in an attempt to identify as Christians only, without any denominational tag.
They even said they would not become official denominations; they were merely movements of like-minded Christians. Well, no matter the original intent, they coalesced into identifiable denominations regardless; it was a natural development.
So the attempt to be just “Christian” without any further label wasn’t wholly successful.
Toward the end of that century, with the new higher criticism of Biblical authority threatening to undermine basic Biblical doctrines, those who rejected that criticism called themselves “fundamentalists” because they were declaring their allegiance to the fundamentals of the faith.
As theological liberals who denied Biblical teachings such as the virgin birth of Christ began taking over the seminaries, the fundamentalists set up their own Bible colleges and seminaries to counter that denigration of the true faith.
Unfortunately, too many of the fundamentalists became rather rigid in their practices while simultaneously withdrawing from meaningful interaction with the world, avoiding politics, education, etc., and thereby losing influence in the culture.
Those who agreed with the concept of maintaining the fundamentals but who didn’t wish to be viewed in the same light as those who claimed that label, migrated to a new term: evangelicals.
The shock of the cultural changes of the 1960s-1970s, spurred by events such as Supreme Court rulings relegating the Bible and prayer to the periphery of social life and opening the floodgates of abortion led these evangelicals to get involved in the political arena to hold back—and hopefully reverse—that cultural tide.
In my opinion, evangelicals have tried their best to carry out that endeavor without rancor and in the hope of drawing people to the Truth, not only about personal salvation, but also about how the Christian faith ought to impact all aspects of our society’s culture.
Evangelicals, in the last election, eventually attached themselves to Donald Trump. Some did so reluctantly, knowing his many flaws, but unable to countenance the alternative. Others did so with genuine fervor, seeing Trump as God’s anointed/political savior, not only minimizing his history of poor character but actually applauding his in-your-face persona.
I have to admit that’s when I started wondering whether the word evangelical had lost so much of its flavor that it needed to be retired.
Yet, despite the watering-down of the term, the original definition remains. An evangelical is someone who knows the truth of the Gospel message and is determined to see that truth disseminated so that the chasm between God and man, created by our own sins, can be bridged through repentance and faith in what Christ has done for us.
Therefore, I’m not retiring the word. I’ll continue to use it to describe who I am. The evangel of God is the good news; I’m to be an evangelist of that good news; I am an evangelical.