Updated: Aug 7
Currently seventy-five million Americans (down from eighty-four million in 2007) are said to self-identify as “evangelicals.” But what does evangelical actually mean?
“Once upon a time, evangelicalism was a countercultural, upstart movement” writes Gregory Alan Thornbury of Union University. But the movement has been bastardized and weakened. I have seen firsthand that whereas evangelicalism used to be sandwiched in between left-wing liberalism and right-wing fundamentalism, today’s evangelicals are typically caught in the matrix of what is aptly dubbed as “the evangelical industrial complex.” In other words, the business side of ministry.
To say it unequivocally and starkly, we no longer have a movement because we have traded it for institutionalism. Bureaucratic mindsets. Tribal loyalties. Tragically, most pastors have devolved into “company men” and let go of their role as biblical shepherds.
The new norm is for church elders and nonprofit ministry boards, either wittingly or unwittingly, to serve mammon, not God. A board chair said to me shamelessly, “Sometimes you have to put money above God.”
The problem keeps getting worse because sociologically the faithful word evangelical is increasingly understood by the public – not as having to do with Christians following Jesus – but rather as pertaining to partisan politics. You probably know already that when citizens in America hear the word evangelical, many often think of Donald Trump supporters, fans of George W. Bush and of participants who were involved in Jerry Falwell senior’s Moral Majority. Rarely does the public express any real understanding of what evangelicalism is supposed to be about.
So let me backup and clarify that the word evangelical is distinguished from the word evangelistic. To be evangelistic is to act as an evangelist sharing the gospel. The word evangelist is found in Acts 21:8, Ephesians 4:11, and II Timothy 4:5, and in each of these occurrences, it means to be a person spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. By contrast, the word evangelical is a sociological term, and yet it does derive from the biblical word euangelion (eu = good; angelion = message) translated in English as “gospel.” At its best, the word evangelical refers to someone who believes that the gospel is for personal salvation and also for the good welfare of society. By way of example, John Wesley of the 18th century is a famous evangelical who preached the gospel of grace and simultaneously fought against slavery.
The demise of evangelicalism is very recent history. My esteemed professor, Carl F.H. Henry, for whom I served as T.A. (teaching assistant), is credited with being the brain of the evangelical movement that sparked in the twentieth century. In 1956, Dr. Henry served as founding editor of Christianity Today. About a decade prior to that, his book,The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Eerdmans, 1947), served as a blueprint for the evangelical movement in America. Dr. Henry strongly believed that real Christianity at once compels believers to make disciples evangelistically and yet also to do good for the sake of rendering justice in the world.
However, to get the history straight, it is necessary to know that “the father” of evangelicalism in twentieth-century America was Billy Graham. World-class historian, George Marsden, went so far as to define the word evangelical as “anyone who likes Billy Graham.” Today the vast majority of people under the age of forty have never even heard of Billy Graham.
Back to the opening question found in the title of this piece: Should we stop calling ourselves evangelicals? To answer, I offer three comments:
1. Because the word evangelical is not a biblical word, I don’t think we need it as believers. Nor do I recommend adopting the term “exvangelical” or assuming any label that conveys the idea of rejecting the noble core of evangelicalism.
2. Because the word evangelical is so misunderstood, it may be expedient to forego having to explain it. But since some of our institutions are branded “evangelical” such as my alma mater, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and the Evangelical Theological Society, and Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and the recently founded new “NAE” of sorts called American Association of Evangelicals (AAE), it would, at minimum, be very inconvenient (and also quite expensive from a marketing perspective) to drop the word. It would also be costly to distance ourselves historically from faithful evangelicals of the past because there is such great value in seeing and celebrating how the gospel torch, so to speak, historically was passed down to us. Whoever among God’s people retains the word evangelical does so, in my opinion, understandably.
3. As for me, I find the rot in evangelical institutions to be so disturbing that I think it best to shelve the word evangelical at least for a few decades until this crumbling phase gives way to a new chapter in church history.
What do you think? Should we call ourselves “evangelicals”? It would be nice for the members of the Body of Christ to be able to find each other by way of a shared label. But no label will suffice as an end-all-solution to help believers distinguish themselves because labels can be used as disguises. There will always be charlatans presenting themselves dishonestly as wolves in sheep's clothing or hirelings donned as shepherds. Fallen angels can dress up as angels of light.
In Scripture, the real followers who risked their lives for Jesus were first labeled as “Christians” in the Syrian city of Antioch (Acts 11:26). To me, it is an honor to stand with them. So even though I think of myself most consciously in my prayers as “a living stone in the spiritual house of God” (I Peter 2:5), in public I still state, “I am a Christian.”No matter the historical baggage attached to the word Christian, I prefer that name because, by grace, I am of Christ. I am a Christ-ian. A Christian.
How about you?