Evangelical - Christianese Redefined Series

Evangelical (n) A (singular) member of the Protestant Christian Movement, EvangelicalismEvangelical theology focuses on a conversion experience which leads to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, a reverence for the Bible as the Word of God, and the spreading of the Gospel message both near and far.

When I was in junior high, I had a Trapper Keeper on which I painstakingly painted a Jesus fish. With puffy paint.

I wore a t-shirt regularly that said “Life’s Hard. Pray Harder.” It was one of half a dozen eternally relevant shirts that I had in my closet.

I also had one friend. Total. But let’s not get into that here.

I was an evangelical. What I understood about my faith then was that Jesus was the Ticket to Heaven and that my life’s main purpose was to pass him out to everyone I met.

And if I was too chicken to do this with words, the evangelicals had a solution for that. T-shirts and bracelets and Jesus fish jewelry. Witness-wear, we called it. Using these tools, I could deck myself out in my faith, wrap myself in it like layers against a cold world. I could make myself into a walking slogan, a walking target.

A point of clarification: this is not one of those angry blogs. It is easy to take cheap shots at evangelicals, at anyone really. I’m not really interested in that. What I am interested in is the word. Evangelical.

In its simplest form, it is meant to convey the theology of a particular group. It is a way of seeing the world and understanding the message of Jesus. There is more complexity than that, more history than that. But still, I imagine that the person who coined the term wanted people to hear it and think of Jesus. To think Good news. To think. Great joy. To think, With these people, I will be loved.

I imagine that most people don’t think this at all.

It is a word tangled up in politics, shadowy with connotations It’s loaded with names and faces. Presidents. Pastors. Scandals. Protests. It is the tract someone once jammed under your windshield wiper when you were at Cub Foods. It is a soup kitchen; it is a picket line. A WWJD bracelet. A radio station. A contradiction.

When I hear evangelical, I think of Sunday morning church and Wednesday night AWANA, and on the days in between, my Life Application Bible, with the inspirational stories in the left margins.

It is the warm feeling I get when I think of the youth group beach night. It is the cold feeling I get at the back of my neck when I know I should be telling someone about Jesus, about the Gospel, but I can’t muster the courage.

It is dark and light and it tastes like eight different kinds of casserole at the church potluck—too many different flavors and textures on your plate at once.

It is changing, morphing, becoming bigger, becoming smaller. There is a new generation of evangelicals now. The theology is the same; the implementation looks different. But still, I wonder if the word can ever come back from all this weight, all these connotations.

Evangelical. Will it ever communicate more than homophobic? Will it ever say more than George W. Bush?

Is there some depth of richness that can only be contained in this one word – evangelical –  or will another word eventually take its place? Does the word evangelize still mean what it once meant, or has it become mean something forceful, an uncaring intrusion?

For me, it is complex. It is what I love and what I hate. It is what I have always known.

10 thoughts on “Evangelical

  1. Excellent thoughts.

    Even though I am an “evangelical” the first thought I had when I saw your title was a negative one.

    I believe current events (particularly the media and politics) and legalism above all else in parts of the evangelical movement have helped to brand “evangelical” as a negative term.

  2. You forgot about 19 jello salads.
    And the new language/labels are friendlier…more visionary, compassionate. The new evangelical is interested in social, er, um, justice. Well, not the kind Glenn Beck decries, and I guess not the kind the liberal (ah the “other” label) church promotes. It is a kind of relational connectedness, a community immersion that reflects love from the heart for all people and the one person. And these evangelicals aren’t afraid of anyone, including, maybe especially, homosexuals. I know these people. They are young, aware, and will be as likely to have a beer with you as to give you their car (or at least a ride in it). And yes, the really great ones will even give you the good news about Jesus.

    1. That one with the bananas suspended in it? It’s pretty fantastic. Agreed that there are new “evangelicals” with a more grace-filled worldview. The question is, could they, WOULD they, ever use the term “evangelical” to refer to themselves in this world where that word has become so loaded?

      1. 90% of my friends who grew up evangelical don’t use the term any more. 🙂 I asked them once, when I was really contemplating the meaning of the term and whether it had ever applied to me. Their overwhelming answer was that they didn’t want to be defined by what that label means to most people now.

        Many of them were uncomfortable with the theology behind the term that you so gracefully explained. They felt it didn’t really have anything much to do with what the Bible said about how Christ-followers ought to relate to others.

        I probably find the folks who want to redefine this label admirable. They have a steep, uphill battle ahead.

        I think that rather than saving the brand, our focus probably ought to be on something (and someone?) else, something more biblical, something more about loving, about neighbors, about God. Something more substantial and important and necessary.

  3. We “new” (if even we’re old) evangelicals tend to shun labels of any kind. So you got yer “boomer-evangelicals” rebelling against our self-indulged culture. You got yer “millenial-evangelicals” pushing back against the tide of entitlement culture. And if we’re all touched by a tinge of cynicism, perhaps its healthy, since what we reject is the material, not the spiritual. What we embrace is at once the ethereal and the real. Here’s my label: “Lover of God, people, and bringing the two together.”

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