What the Heck is an “Evangelical” and Should We Care?

If anyone in the general public is familiar with the word “evangelical,” at the minimum it will evoke some sort of Christiany association. But what is the difference between an “Evangelical Christian” and a *regular* Christian? How many people would be able to distinguish one from the other or even know what factors to consider? Is it a major Christian branch like Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican or Protestant? Is it a denomination like Methodist, Baptist or Presbyterian? Can most evangelicals even define it? Most importantly, should we care?

I grew up in a Restoration Movement Christian Church also identified as the “Disciples of Christ,” and one whose members and management would surely self define as “Evangelical.” Interestingly enough, it was only after my childhood ended that I discovered what denominational labels applied to my church of origin in southwestern Missouri. Glendale Christian Church always tried to present itself as a non-denominational or “independent” church, but it clearly associated with the denominational labels I used above (even though the average congregational member had no idea). That’s not necessarily a condemnation (that church is where Jesus found me after all), but it is to highlight the fact that many Christians don’t know what particular Christian labels and associations apply to them. And that begs the question: Does it matter?

For theology geeks and self-styled ecclesiological nerds (like me), it does matter… or at least we often pretend like it does. There are certainly some labels that evoke a strong reaction from me. “Calvinism” for example, makes me choke back my own vomit (a god who predetermines who goes to Hell before the dawn of time does not comport with Jesus’ message -or so it seems to me-), but there are a few other brandings that I do identify with and feel passionately about (Protestant, free-will, open theism, etc.). But what about Evangelical?

Is it a major Christian division? Not really, at least not like “Roman Catholic” or “Protestant.” Is it a denomination? No. What is it? If pressed, I might be able to muddle my way through it. As I recall, “a clear, singular, emotional conversion experience” is one of the components that Evangelicals try to enlist within the definition, never mind that many non-Christian religions claim the same thing. Of course there are several other features that committed and articulate Evangelicals would likely include, but I don’t have a running list or definition rattling around  in my head. Why not? Because I don’t care. Any definition that I have to work at memorizing indicates that it’s either not connected to my daily experience or so bland and inconsequential to my experience that I simply have no reason to memorize its precise nuances.

Furthermore, it seems that right or wrong, the word “evangelical” often gets Christians painted with a cultural brush that we don’t want: (up-tight, Right-Wing, Conservative, anti-intellectual, anti-gay, dogmatic, biblical inerrantists, literalists, capitalists and on and on). In fact, some Christians prefer these modifiers to be associated with the tag. I certainly don’t, and a historical survey of the term reveals that such unbiblical infusions are largely inappropriate. Nevertheless, sorting out these miscues and defending an accurate understanding of “evangelical” is completely uninteresting to me. In short, it is a largely irrelevant branding and misunderstood descriptor that I have left behind with surprising ease (at least in my consciousness).

In fact, I hadn’t ever devoted much thought to the topic until recently when a Christian author whom I respect, Rachel Held Evans, was invited by my alma mater (George Fox Evangelical Seminary) to co-host the latest installment in the seminary’s ever-popular “Ministry in Contemporary Culture Series.” She is co-hosting a discussion on the future of evangelicalism with another author, theologian and professor whom I have immense respect for, Roger Olson of Truett-Baylor Seminary.

In Rachel’s recent blog post, she asked for readers to comment on what “Evangelical” means and its future, etc. In fact here are the first two questions she posted:

1.     Do you identify yourself as an evangelical? Why or why not? How do you feel about religious labels in general?

2.     How would you define evangelicalism?

Having graduated from a Master’s program at a school that has the word “Evangelical” in its name, I thought I might have something of value to say in response to these questions (such is the usual hubris of people who go to seminary). But the more I thought about it, the more I had to admit that I feel no connection to the word “Evangelical” whatsoever. Frankly, I never understood why George Fox Seminary wanted to bear that label in the first place. Please don’t get me wrong, other than one particularly useless spiritual formation class called “spiritual leadership,” I would be hard-pressed to say anything negative about George Fox Seminary itself, but I don’t think the Evangelical label is helpful for its mission. Most people simply don’t understand the term and/or they have the completely wrong set of associations attached to it.

To highlight my point, I’d like to ask my fellow Christians of their impression of the Islamic designation and subculture of “Sufi.” How many of us readily understand the difference this makes for a Muslim believer? Do our eyes just glaze over, or do we ever transcend connecting it with Islam in general? Do we just presume “religious fundamentalist” or “mystic”? It might make a big difference to a Muslim who identifies with the label (or doesn’t), but the rest of us usually fail to understand the nuances within. I suspect the same can be said of certain Christians’ use of the label “Evangelical.” It might make a difference to them, but most people don’t understand it and don’t care, and rather than trying to educate or defend the tag, I would prefer to spend my time elsewhere. It simply makes no difference to me at all.

Please feel free to share your own thoughts and experiences with the term “evangelical.” Start with Rachel Evans’ questions above (in bold) if you would prefer.

Thanks for reading me,

-CL

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About C_Lambeth

I currently live in the Pacific Northwest. I graduated from Missouri State University with a Bachelor's of Science and from George Fox Seminary (now Portland Seminary) with a Master's of Divinity. In addition to knowing Christ and helping others know him, I am passionate about peace, the environment, Christian feminism, justice for all (not just the wealthy) and being a lifelong learner. Please feel free to comment on any of the posts here or to suggest new posts altogether. Thank you for reading me! -CL
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3 Responses to What the Heck is an “Evangelical” and Should We Care?

  1. C_Lambeth says:

    On his Formerly Fundie blog on Patheos, Benjamin L. Corey writes his goodbye to Evangelicalism.

    “Dear Evangelicalism: I Don’t Think This Relationship Is Going To Work” is a powerful post that will speak to many of our readers.

    Here’s one of his reasons, ”I’m tired of the way you treat women.”

    “Call me a heretic, but I think men and women are equal and that God gives individual gifting regardless of gender, and I know you don’t always share the same belief. I had hope you’d come around on this issue, but I’m realizing more and more that we just have irreconcilable differences when it comes to this, and that it’s a non-negotiable for me. I want to encourage women to use their skills, talents and abilities to be whoever God created them as individuals to be, and I just can’t be with someone who won’t support women embracing their full identity.”

    And there’s more.

    Read the entire post here:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/formerlyfundie/dear-evangelicalism/

  2. Lane says:

    In the area I live, I am familiar with the term Evangelical Atheist. Granted, that it generally needs the modifier of atheist, but these who promote their theistic views and seek “conversion” to a like minded philosophy is what i see as a root for this. Granted this is far below the level of Corbins analysis.

    • C_Lambeth says:

      Thanks, Lane! So it sounds like one of the key definitions you are using for “evangelical” is akin to “recruitment” or “persuasion” regardless of what a person is trying to “recruit” another person to. In that sense, an evangelical atheist would be a person who is trying to recruit others to join his or her (atheistic) cause. Is that a fair assessment of what you mean?

      If it is, I think that component is something I’d like to keep. I don’t think I’d necessarily use “recruit,” but certainly “persuade” or “make a strong case for.” I think it’s a lot of the political-judgmental baggage that I associate with Christian “evangelicalism” that I am ready to leave behind.

      Thanks for the comment.
      -CL

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