Seemingly everyone is middle class. Ask someone who makes $75,000 a year and someone who makes double that amount, and both will tell you they’re “middle class.” And, it seems, even millionaires in the US claim to be middle class, as this 2007 survey indicates (I’d like to see what people would say now, in a post-recession economy). So who is right? What defines “middle class”?
Based upon data collected in surveys like the one above, “middle class” has come more to define a mentality than a dollar amount. If you feel middle class and act middle class, then you are, regardless of income, considered middle class—it has become a kind of sensibility. Does a similar notion also apply to evangelicals?
I think so.
I feel that, in some way, all Christians are evangelical, Catholic or Protestant, progressive or conservative, like it or not. We can’t escape the fact that evangelism is encoded within the DNA of the Christian faith, regardless of difference in denominational belief. Yet the definitions of the word that float through society don’t always accommodate this diversity.
As I see it, there are two easily identifiable definitions of the word “evangelical,” and one that is much harder to pin down: the first easily recognizable definition is used predominantly within the church community and the other is used predominantly outside of it. We will address the third one in a moment.
The first definition aligns rather closely with the one given in the OED, and stresses biblical inerrancy, salvation by faith alone, etc.
The second definition uses “evangelical” in a broad and often ambiguous way to describe basically any protestant who professes to be a Christian.
One can see this second definition come through in the recent flurry of activity surrounding Harold Camping’s rapture predictions. Multiple media outlets (here are just two examples: one, two) have referred either to Camping himself or/and to his media organization as “evangelical,” and I’ve heard it tossed around regularly in conversation that it’s those “evangelicals” who are at it again predicting the end of the world. And in some way, I can see where this assumption/association comes from: was it not the evangelicals who ate up the Left Behind series? Did not Camping’s followers harness evangelistic tactics to get their message out? Do they not conform to the OED’s definition? Are we not at least broadly discussing the same group of people?
Yet most evangelicals thought Camping was (and is) a loon. Even Tim LaHaye, the author of the Left Behind series and prominent avowed evangelical, denounced Camping’s predictions as ridiculous.
I think you can see the difficultly here. If the word currently holds two meanings, but neither is stringently adhered to, then the word only leads to confusion and mis-categorization. I, for one, have quite a lot of Christian friends who might deem themselves “evangelical” in some sense of the word, but certainly don’t want to find themselves roped into Camping’s gang… or even Tim LaHaye’s gang.
This is where we find a third definition lurking in the background of this discussion. I represent that third definition. I am inclined to think of myself as an evangelical by virtue of the fact that I place importance on both sharing and living the Gospel, I believe in the transforming power of my faith, and I make no effort to hide my faith from others—I am, if you will, more than publicly Christian. I have many friends who would say the same for themselves; however, none of us would ever want to draw an association between us and the oft-stereotyped “evangelical” that demands donations on TV or hearkens back to the days of the Moral Majority. We don’t own that definition, and consequently, we don’t really own the one given in the OED, either.
Thus for us the question of mis-association becomes more pronounced. Is it necessary to say that someone must believe in total depravity of the human soul or biblical inerrancy as prerequisites to sharing their faith with the world? This assumption seems silly and needlessly exclusive. To me, those theological appendages fall subordinate to the importance of the gospel narrative.
While I’m certainly no lexicographer, I believe we need to reshape the word “evangelical” around this more universally Christian foundation (the one found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), as it seems strange to use such a narrow definition of a term that can be applied to so many different Christians in as many different contexts. It only leads to confusion and ambiguity. If we fail to extend the definition to those outside the more fundamentalist box—or for that matter the Calvinist box or the biblical inerrantist box or the anti-gay box or the televangelist’s health and wealth box—of the Christian faith, then I believe we endanger ourselves in a media-saturated world where terms get tossed around without much thought to their association or meaning.
As a Christian attempting to strengthen interfaith relationships, I become attuned to categories and their oftentimes-harmful connotations. I also see how categories can come to define one’s identity. I believe that interfaith cooperation is a way of evangelizing. However, Greg and I have encountered those who seem skeptical of this—what we’re trying to do, some say, is more assimilation that evangelization. And while I don’t buy it, such a criticism does pose the questions: What does it look like to evangelize? Who is an evangelical? In some ways, finding answers to these two issues undergirds all that Greg and I do at FLP, and gets at our very identity as Christians.
Anyway, this has run on too long. You now have my opinion on the matter— I’d love to hear yours! Should “evangelical” have an inclusive definition that accommodates to some extent all Christians, or do you think it should describe a narrow sect of the Christian faith? What do you think are the implications of both? Weigh in below!
(Also check out this great blog by renowned Baylor theologian Roger E Olson, which Greg found after I had written much of this post. Dr. Olsen explores much these same issues—I highly recommend giving it a read.)