What is an evangelical?

I usually sit down to write for this blog with a specific message to communicate, but today I have a few questions.

In a recent meeting with other interfaith organizers on campus, a progressive Christian minister – for whom I have great respect – questioned whether inviting an evangelical Christian speaker would be appropriate for our annual interfaith conference. “After all,” he pointed out, “when I think of evangelicals…”

You can probably complete the sentence.

My first thought was to defend the individual we had been discussing, an evangelical who has had a significant impact on me as an interfaith organizer. Without realizing it, I tried to explain that this particular individual was an exception: cooperative, respectful…

But as I’ve thought more about this encounter, some further questions have resurfaced regarding the way the world perceives evangelicals. Is a respectful evangelical really a misnomer? Or is it just blowhard public figures who have perpetuated this idea that evangelicals aren’t interested in being your friend (unless if you convert)? Running parallel with this same train of thought is a question of my own identity: do I want to identify as an evangelical?

It will always be true that I grew up an evangelical – albeit my church community could hardly be characterized as aggressive or charismatic. And I’ve continued to call myself an evangelical despite – like many in my generation – growing disenchanted with many habits of the evangelical church. I’ve also learned (largely thanks to Facebook) that the members of my childhood congregation represented the full spectrum of political and social opinions, though rarely did controversial topics come up in church activities. On the other hand, I’ve been through evangelism trainings, been told to keep a list of friends I want to convert, and been challenged to do cold-turkey evangelism.

So my experience with what it means to be an evangelical has included a broad range of people with varying political views, spiritual practices, and methods for communicating the gospel. And I continue to call myself an evangelical because of the way I view my faith, and because of how I interpret the gospel regarding the way I should live my life: that there is good news to be shared. This is a theme that has been at the core of many of the things I’ve written on this site and will continue to be so. Furthermore, I’ve been interested in involving other evangelicals in these dialogues with people from other religious and non-religious traditions because, among several reasons, I believe the idea that is at the core of evangelicalism – communicating the gospel – is best accomplished in these settings.

So when I find myself in a conversation where one’s compatibility with interfaith cooperation is questioned because they are an evangelical, how should I react? Should the image of evangelical Christians be defended by pointing out that there are – and presumably always have been – “nice” evangelicals? Or should we abandon the label altogether? Does the name “evangelical Christian” require some sort of makeover, how can that be accomplished, and who will lead it?

I’m not a sociologist or a theologian, and I can’t cite to you the way either scholar would define an evangelical Christian. But how many of the ¼ of Americans who call themselves evangelicals could?

This is something I hope to learn from my fellow contributors and readers of this blog: what do you consider to define an evangelical?

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One thought on “What is an evangelical?

  1. Sherry

    I myself was not raised in the Evangelical Church but have some discussions with Evangelicals concerning the Christian Faith. I find many Evangelicals I have conversed with are forceful and have one agenda in mind to convert non-Christians and have very little knowledge of mental illness. I read through “Released From Bondage: written by Dr. Neil Anderson as requested by an evangelical friend and was extremely offended by the book. In the book he appears to not recogonize the reality of mental illness but sees mental illness as spiritual bondage from Satan. I myself suffer from bi-polar disorder.

    I would like to encourage Evangelicals to look at a CAT Scan of the brain of someone with Schizophrenia , bi-polar disorder and other mental illnesses that affect the brain chemistry.

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