Evangelical Christianity, or Evangelicalism, has increasingly become a moving target in the 21st century. Though we could trace the roots of it right back through the Reformation, it gained traction as a cohesive stream of thought in American revivalism and is commonly synonymous with conservative cultural movements such as “The Christian Right” and leaders like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and the late Jerry Falwell. For many, it instantly reeks of fundamentalism — a loaded word that conjures up certain terms: judgmental, narrow-minded, and anti-intellectual. In fact, it’s probably easier for us to recite what we think Evangelicals are against — abortion, evolution, gay marriage — than what they are for.
I find that to be a shame.
“Evangelical” means a lot of things to a lot people. From my observations, it can be used off-the-
cuff for a cultural ideology, a set of theological beliefs, and even a political agenda.
Let me explain, as a Christ-follower and sometimes begrudgingly self-proclaimed Evangelical,
what I believe it means at its core. The common thread that runs throughout the Evangelical
designation is that it is a certain way of handling Christianity. After hundreds of years of church
tradition passed down and around the globe, it’s often hard to know what to aim at, practically
speaking. And, from the beginning, Evangelicalism offered a succinct strategy, for lack of better
terms, about what was central to the Christian faith.
The word “Evangelical” comes from the Greek word used for “Gospel,” or, more
commonly, “Good News.” The good news, as it were, was that Jesus came to declare, live,
and die for God’s loving reign as the only King who truly had power. The good news was that
when all other kingdoms and ways of life came up bankrupt, there was a Creator who loved his
creation and desired to rule them with love, justice and peace. So Evangelicalism’s four elements,
which are about spreading and inviting others into the Jesus-as-true-King story, are rooted here.
The first is what we would call Christocentric. This is a way of life based on the life, teachings, and call of Jesus. The second is that it’s Biblical. If God is King, then the Bible is the story of what it means to live well in his kingdom. Evangelicals believe that the Bible is the story that defines our place in history. The third element is a focus on evangelism, or what some would term proselytizing. If Evangelicals believe that Jesus is King and that his way of life is the best possible way of life, then they are called to invite others into that same way of life. And the fourth, related to the third, is a focus on the “born again” nature of Evangelicals. In fact, “born again” is sometimes a substitute for “Evangelical.” Historically, all this really means is that an invitation into the Kingdom of God takes transformation. Jesus invites all to come as they are, but he invites them to walk further and further out of a bankrupt way of life into his life.
Evangelicals are, first and foremost, about being oriented to the love of Jesus and inviting others
into his love and life. I confess we aren’t always known for that, and you may even say we are
rarely known for that. But know that, when we call ourselves Evangelical, it’s because we
are passionate about the love of God for the world, not about judging everyone not like us.
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